TRIBES OF THE ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS

TRIBES OF THE ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS

The native Andamanese and Nicobarese—the tribal people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie in the Bay of Bengal closer to Southeast Asia than India but are Indian territory—have been described as “arguably the most enigmatic people on our planet.” They are largely hunters and gathers that have many things in common with pygmies in Africa and Negritos in Southeast Asia and Oceania. The are short in stature have peppercorn hair, little body hair, dark skin and large buttocks—all features found among pygmies in Africa. They speak a language in the family of those spoken in Papua New Guinea and Polynesia. [Source: Raghubir Singh, National Geographic, July 1975; Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Most of the tribal people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are less than five-feet tall and wear only bark g-strings. Women are even shorter with "pert breasts," and "clad only in "tasseled belts of bark." They get almost all the food they need from the rain forest and never evolved agriculture. They are believed to have arrived on the Andaman Islands by dugout canoe.

Some of the Andamanese tribes have no concept of time, age or counting. One tribe never learned how to make fire until the concept was introduced by Europeans. When Europeans first arrived the only tools they possessed other than bows and arrows were digging sticks, stone scrapers and woven baskets. They apparently almost never started a fire from scratch; they kept an ember glowing all the time instead. After Europeans arrived they made arrowheads fashioned from metal they scavenged. Broken pieces of glass that washed ashore were used as razors.

Book: The Land of Naked People: Encounter with Stone Age Islanders by Madhusree Mukerjee (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003)

Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Andaman and Nicobar Islands (1,000 kilometers east of the Indian mainland) are a group of 572 islands (36 of them inhabited) spread over 3,100 square miles in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea that lie between India and Southeast Asia and Indonesia. They arc for 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar to 240 kilometers from Sumatra in Indonesia. Some of the islands are heavily forested and have beautiful beaches. Some islands are no more than islets and rocky outcrops.

The Andaman and Nicobar are home to 350,000 people and are ruled directly by New Delhi. Most of the inhabitants are settlers from mainland India. Only a few indigenous tribe members remain. Democracy, economic growth and press freedom are largely absent here. The islanders elect only one official, a parliament member, and otherwise are ruled by bureaucrats from New Delhi. Some of the islands were devastated by the December 2004 tsunami. Some have also been heavily logged.

Largely untouched by modern civilization and produced by volcanos millions of years ago, the islands are the home of five groups of Negrito aborigines, who are one of the last groups of people on earth to be exposed to the modern world. Of the two main groups on the island, one maintains minimum contact, and the other is still hostile to efforts to "civilize them." Some islands have a large number of rubber plantations.

Laws prohibit foreigners and mainland Indians from visiting most of 35 inhabited islands. The Nicobars are closed to foreigners and only certain islands in the Andaman chain are open to outsiders. The laws are intended primarily to protect indigenous islanders for the influence of outsiders.

Andaman Islands is comprised of 348 islands, which cover 7,464 square kilometers and are covered by tropical rain forests. The northen and central islands are hilly, while the southern ones are surrounded by offshore coral reefs and crisscrossed by tidal creeks. The islands are struck by both the southwestern and northwestern monsoon and thus receive rain ten months out of the year. The dry season runs from February to the end of March. The islands receive 275 to 455 centimeters of rain a year.

The Andamans were the only part of India to be occupied by Japan in World War II. Before that the British established a Devil's-Island-style penal colony intended for political prisoners and criminals serving life sentences. In 2004, they were struck by the massive tsunami. Today visitors come the islands for their crescent shaped beaches, magnificent coral reefs, ocean-swimming elephants, mangrove forests and palm-lined rocky shores. One of the most popular tourist destinations is Wandoor National Marine Park, a marine park that stretches over 15 major island and several islets of the Labyrinth chain. It embraces white sand beaches, lush vegetation, coral reefs, mangrove swamps and marine water ways. Jolly Buou Island is fringed by isolated beaches and superb coral reefs. Glass bottom boats, which offer rides, magnify the coral about five times its normal size. Cinque Island offers good scuba diving and hiking.

Boeing 737's fly to Port Blair on the Andaman Islands from Calcutta and Madras. It is possible to take long walks on the islands. The beaches are narrow but the water is shallow next to the shore. Tourist sights include the historic Cellular Jail, the Anthropological Museum, the Chantham Saw Mill (where elephants are used), Bird Island, Mt. Harriet, Ross Island, Sippighta Farm, and Wandoor Beach, and the jungle headquarters of a former Scottish communist near Fort Blair. Some of the hotels have facilities for snorkeling surfing, scuba diving, sailing and deep sea fishing.

Nicobar Islands is a group of islands with a land area of 2,022 square kilometers. They extends for 262 kilometers. The principal islands are Car Nicobar (north); Kamorta, Chowra, and Nancowroe (center); and great and Little Nicobar (south). About 40,000 people live on the islands. Car Nicobar is the only island with a large city. The islands are flat and have fertile soil and receives 230 to 330 centimeters of rain a year, There are dense forest and coconut, betel nut trees, panadus, mangoes and csuarina. The islands lie a major falt lines and are occasionally rocked by large earthquakes. Cat Nicobar is off limits to foreigners.

Andaman and Nicobar Tribes

The term Andamanese was first used in 1908 to describe 13 distinct tribal group, each with a different dialect and geographical location. Today only four of these tribes remain: 1) the Ongees of Little Andaman Island (97 members in 2005); 2) the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island (32 members); 3) the Jarawas of the Middle Andamans (250 members); and the 4) Great Andamanese of Strait Island (50 members, down from 10,000 in 1789). There are also two tribes on the Nicobar Islands: 1) the Nicobarese (15,000 members) and 2) the Shompen (200 members).

The Great Andamanese have largely been assimilated. They have forgotten their own dialect and have abandoned hunting with bows and arrows. The used to eat roots, seafood, turtles and turtle eggs. Now they fish, hunt pigs with spears and mostly eat rice, pulses and bread—food usually associated with India. The tribe is linked with the Indian government: an Indian police officer, a wireless operator and a doctor’s assistant live on the island.

The Jarawas are isolated by topography and hostile to outsiders. Armed with bows and arrows, they fade into the jungle when strangers appear. They are almost naked. Men wear chest guards made of folded bark. Women dress in girdles made of leaves.

The Onge have traditionally been a rain forest people that hunted wild boar with poison arrows, collected jackfruit in the forest and gathered the honey of giant rock bees. They have been assimilated to some degree. Their village has a health center, schools, a police camp, electricity and a television set that receives one channel (a of the mid 2000s). Onge means "the perfect man" in the tribe's language.

Sentinelese

The Sentinelese are regarded by anthropologists as the world’s only Paleolithic tribe without regular contact without the outside world. They are isolated by topography and hostile to outsiders. They are said to shoot poison arrows at intruders approaching their island. They live on 20-square-mile North Sentinel Island, and were the last group of Andamanese to have contact with modern civilization. They are still for the most part isolated and untouched by the modern world.

The Sentinelese live like hunter gatherers. They plant no crops. wear no clothes and have only minimal use of fire (they can not make it, instead they preserve embers, which they carry from place to place). Researchers believe that still do not understand the connection between sexual intercourse and conception.

Describing a 1974 encounter with some Sentinelese on a beach, journalist Raghubir Singh wrote, "In the early morning light a Negrito emerged from the jungle with a drawn bow. Other joined him, all of them dark skinned, well built, with bark strips around their biceps and amazingly long arrows...One lifted coconuts and waved them at us, another fired an arrow. It hit a motion-picture photographer in the leg. We pulled it out, a scrap of iron fashioned to a point, lashed with bark to the end of a six-foot cane shaft. The Negrito who had shot it, seeing his arrow hit its mark, laughed, proudly walked toward the shade of a tree and sat down."

Nicobarese

The Nicobarese are largest group in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (there are about 15,000 of them) . They are indigenous to the Nicobar Island group, which lies to the south of the Andaman Islands. They speak a Mon-Khmer language and are believed to have migrated to the islands from Southeast Asia. The first reference to them is an inscriptions dated to 1050 which refers to the islands as the “Land of the Naked.” Many converted to Christianity after World War II. They are now outnumbered by settlers from the mainland, who dominate the economy and have marginalized everyone else. Settlers own every business and get every government contact.

The Nicobarese are farmers and fishermen. The only Andaman and Nicobar group that grow crops, they raise rice, maize, fruits, vegetables, coconuts and betel nut. Most of their settlements are near the coast. Villages consists of community houses and “birth huts,” where a new mother, her husband and their baby stay for a year after birth. Each household maintains a coconut and betel-nut plantation. Coconut trees are used in making houses, mats and canoes. The Chowra Islanders are known as powerful magicians and skilled canoe makers.

The Nicobarese often live in large extended families with not only grandparents and grandchildren but also uncles and aunts and cousins. Pre-marital sex is accepted and couples often get married after a long period of having sexual relations. In the marriage ceremony the couple has their heads shaved, are fed a meal of roast pig, engage in a ritual swim and are honored with a great feast. After spending four to seven days in isolation the couple return to their villages and are regarded as man and wife.

Feasts are held to honor spirits of the dead, drive away evil spirits and mark events on the agricultural cycle. A great number of pigs are eaten. Sometimes pig fights are held. Medicine men often cure the sick by “sucking” out bits of stone or bone from the body of the person who is ill. The dead are believed to be to living in a world not unlike the real world. They are buried with their personal belongings and certain coconut trees are marked and set aside for their use. One of the biggest events is the Ossuary Feast or Pig Festival. Dedicated to the deceased head of the family, it is observed with all night dancing, feasting and pig fights.

Car Nicobar is off limits to foreigners. But at one time missionaries were active there. Many of the residents are Christians with Christian names like Watchful Sonofjob. The Shompens live in the dense forest of Great Nicobar. They are Mongoloids and have rejected contact with the outside world." There are about 200 Shompen. They threaten outsiders with spears and arrows.

Early History of the Andamanese

DNA evidence from the Negrito tribes of the Andaman Islands spans back 70,000 years and suggests they originated from people from Africa who migrated to India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia. DNA evidence also indicates that they are direct descendants of the first modern humans to leave Africa but lack a distinctive feature of Australian aborigines, another early group to leave Africa.

The Onge from the Andaman Islands carry some of the oldest genetic markers found outside Africa. The tribes of the Andaman Islands are believed to be related the Negritos of Southeast Asia and the Philippines (See Malaysia and the Philippines). Some scholars theorize that they arrived in the Andaman Islands from Burma or Malaysia at some time in the distant past by sea, or perhaps arrived from Sumatra by way of the Nicobar Islands. However there are no firm evidence to back this up and is regarded mostly as speculation.

Negritos on the Andaman Islands were first reported by Arab traders in 871 and Marco Polo, who never set foot on the islands, said its inhabitants were savages with dog teeth that killed outsiders. The only traders who came here early on were Malay and Chinese pirates on raids to claim Negrito slaves. Beginning in the 1700 the winds in the area began to change and a number of shipwrecks occurred in the area of the Andamans. Most of the shipwrecked sailors were killed, in some cases ripped "limb from limb and cast into the flames to destroy evil spirits."

The handful of undeveloped cultures that reportedly have never waged war includes the Andaman Islanders of India, the Yahgan of Patagonia, the Semai of Malaysia and the Tasaday of the Philippines.

Later History of the Andamanese

In the late 1700s and early 1800s the British made several unsuccessful efforts to pacify the islander so they could establish a safe harbor for vessels. In the 1850s the British open a penal colony at Port Blair on Middle Andaman island. The Great Andamanese that lived there were pacified and even helped the British track down escaped convicts. Some tribes resisted but their bows and arrows were no match for European guns and cannons, which the Negritos had never seen before. During World War II, the Japanese occupied the island and bombed Negrito camps. After Indian independence land-starved Indians began arriving en masse, bulldozing down rain forests where the Negritos made their home, harvesting timber and setting up farms.

In 1800, the tribal population on the Andaman islands was estimated to be around 3,600. By 1901, there were only 1,900 indigenous people. In the early 1980s there were 160,000 settlers on the islands but only 270 Andamanese (of these only the count of nine Great Andamanese and 98 Ongees were deemed accurate).

Some tribes have been wiped out completely. In 1975 there where only 24 members of one tribe, all of them mixed blood. It is difficult to estimate how many islanders there once were, but, like Indians in the America, most succumbed to European diseases, particularly small pox, measles, syphilis and ophthalmia (eye disease which blind many of them). They also have problems with goiter, bronchitis and hookworm.

In the 1950s a policy of protection was adopted towards all the tribal peoples in India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote: "There is no point in trying to make them a second rate copy of ourselves...they are people who sing and dance and try to enjoy life; not people who sit in stock exchanges, shout at each other, and think themselves civilized." On the Andamanese Singh said that he had "never seen people so happy before." On one encounter with the Jawara’s women dances he said there was “an explosion of merriment that lasted for a several hours."

To make contact with the non-Westernized Andamanese Indian officials hired fiddlers to serenade them, used members of other tribes to tell them no harm was meant and left gifts on the beach like buckets, handsaws, household utensils, flashlights, matches and metal cups. The Andamanese were most interested in the metal items, from which they fashioned arrows, and indicated their willingness for friendship by leaving pig parts or arrows and finally swam to the boat with officials.

Assimilation, Outsiders and the Andamanese

In the 1970s, the Indian government began making more of an effort to assimilate the islanders and opened up the islands to outsiders. Some believe that the primary reason for this policy was to exploit the island’s resources. An effort to modernize the Onge in the early 1970s coincided with the opening of a forest reserve on their land to logging. The Onge were moved into houses with corrugated asbestos roofs in two settlements. These houses were not as cool as their traditional huts. They were also encouraged to take part in the money economy and work on palm oil plantations and buy goods from settlers.

Most of the outsiders have come from Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Outsiders introduced smoking and drinking to the Onge. In some cases they sexually exploited their women. For the part, initially anyway, the outsiders didn’t like the tribal people and the tribal people didn’t like them. A marine biologist at Port Blair told AP, “There is an inherent mistrust and hatred for the tribals” among the mainland Indians. “But the tribals are a gentle, stoic people so they have quietly borne the discrimination.”

The Indian government has set up several social welfare and economic development organization to help the Andamanese. The Great Andamanese have the closest contacts with settlers. The Jarawas and Sentinelese remain hostile to outsiders. The Ongees are somewhere in the middle.

Many believe the Andaman and Nicobar islanders are being overwhelmed by outsiders. On the Onge, the anthropologist Madusre Mukerjee told the Los Angeles Times, “The children don’t smile. They were curious but also afraid. There’s a real sense that Onge are defeated and dying.” In 2002. the Supreme Court banned logging on the Andaman island but a great deal of illegal logging is reportedly still carried out.

Andamanese and the Tsunami of 2004

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were devastated by the tsunami in 2004. It was initially thought that the tribal groups might have been wiped out and there were worries some might be extinct. But it turns out that they all survived in part because of knowledge about the sea and tsunamis that had been passed down to them by their ancestors.

Some survived because they lived in the forest interior of the islands were a safe distance from the rising waters. Trees between the coast and their village protected them. Some Onge reportedly survived because when they saw water in a creek in their village they knew that meant the ocean was retreating. And they knew that was a sign of impending doom and headed for higher ground. Other reportedly sensed something was amiss from the calls of birds and the swimming patterns of fish.

The chief of the Great Andamanese reportedly led his people to a hill after a boy’s sudden dizziness alerted him trouble was coming A tribal welfare official told the Los Angeles Times, “The old man told them that when he was a child and these types of things happened, his father told him that he should follow ths procedure if they happened again.” By contrast outsiders that lived along the coast did nothing and died in great numbers.

The India government prevented foreign relief workers from entering three tribal areas to protect the tribes from outside influences. Journalists, however, used the disaster as an opportunity enter the reserves without permits, often hitching rides on military helicopters. In one case naked Jarawa tribesmen were photorpahed in VIP Frenchie underwear. The Sentinelese were provoked into firing arrows at a low-flying aircraft with a television crew on broad. The Onge were airlifted out and placed in a stadium.

Many of coastal villages were devastated. Settlers were hurt more than the local tribal groups. After the disaster many Settlers fled back to the mainland. The Nicobarese saw the disaster as a chance to get rid of the settlers

See Separate Article GREAT TSUNAMI OF 2004 IN INDIA AND THE ANDAMAN ISLANDS

Andamanese Health

The Andamanese believe that disease is caused by too much cold or too much heat and the presence of an illness can be determined by smell and body fluids. Andamanese wear ornaments made from the bones of deceased relatives to ward off diseases. Treatments include massages, medicines made from forest plants, clay paints mixed with various substances and tying a chord around the infected area of the body.

Insects and pests on the Andaman Islands can be unrelenting. Singh woke up one morning and found 45 ticks on his body, mosquitos can attack at a rate of 300 bites an hour, and leeches are a problem in the rainy season. The Andamanese have a natural resistance to malaria but protect themselves by painting their bodies with clay and turtle fat, which is also how they adorn themselves, particularly during weddings.

Andamanese used to brush their teeth with charcoal. Charcoal tablets are ingested some places as a cure for stomach diseases. Many Onge suffer from malnutrition because their adopted diet of rice, sugar, tea and other Indian foods doesn’t not supply them with a as much nutrition as their traditional diet. They also suffer from high rates of tuberculosis, anemia and diarrhea.

Over the centuries, like Indians in the America, many Andaman Islanders succumbed to European diseases, particularly small pox, measles, syphilis and ophthalmia (an eye disease which blinded many of them). They also have also had problems with goiter, bronchitis and hookworm.

Onge and Malaria

The Onge have a sickle-shaped cell keeps which helps prevent them from getting malaria. Some Africans and black have similar cells which help fight off the disease. Andaman Islanders use an herbal brew that some biologist might be a cure for malaria. Microbiologist Debaprasad Chattopadhyay made the discovery that the Onge had seemed to have found a cure for malaria but the Indian has refused to publish the formula to protect the tribe and keep it being exploited by profiteering drug companies.

Chattopadhyay lived with the Onge in one of their beehive-shaped huts and found that even though the Onge were surrounded by malaria-carrying mosquitos they didn't come down with the disease. He was given several plant used to make the potion. In his laboratory in the Andaman town of Port Blair he discovered two of the plants contained anti-fever properties and a third reduced the number of malaria parasites in infected humans. Chattopadhyay himself came down with malaria. When he took the potion he was cured in three days. Since then his malaria has not reoccurred. He also gave the mixture to some local doctors. All seven of the patents who took it were cured as well.

Andamanese Economics and Development

The Jarwas and Sentinelese are still primarily hunters and gatherers. The Ongees earn money by gathering coconuts for plantation cultivators. The Great Andamanese hunt now more for fun than for survival. They receive money from the government and work on citrus fruit plantations.

Trade has traditionally been conducted between pig hunters in forest and turtle hunters on the coast. The pig hunters have traded clay paint, clay for making pots, honey, wood for bows and arrows, tree trunks to make canoes and betel nut in exchange for ornamental shells, ropes and strings made from fibers, nylon and edible items. The goods were exchanged at organized events. Honey, shells and amberfish have been collected and traded with outsiders for cloth, metal tools, even cosmetics. Plantation owners sometimes provide their workers with opium, alcohol and tobacco.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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