Quite where the indigenous population of the Andaman and Nicobar islands originally came from is a puzzle that has preoccupied anthropologists since Alfred Radcliffe-Brown conducted his famous fieldwork among the Andamanese at the beginning of the twentieth century. Asian-looking groups such as the Shompen may have migrated here from the east and north when the islands were connected to Burma, or the sea was sufficiently shallow to allow transport by canoe, but this doesn’t explain the origins of the black populations, whose appearance suggests African roots.
The survival of the islands’ first inhabitants has long been threatened by traders and colonizers, who introduced disease and destroyed their territories through widespread tree-felling. Thousands also died from addiction to the alcohol and opium that the Chinese, Japanese and British exchanged for valuable shells. Many have had their populations decimated, while others like the Nicobarese have assimilated to modern culture, often adopting Christianity. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andamans, divided into eramtaga (those living in the jungle) and ar-yuato (those living on the coast), traditionally subsisted as hunter-gatherers, living on fish, turtles, turtle eggs, pigs, fruit, honey and roots. For more information on the islands’ original inhabitants, visit Survival International’s website, survival-international.org.
The Great Andamanese
Although they comprised the largest group when the islands were first colonized, only around fifty Great Andamanese now survive. In the 1860s, the Rev Henry Corbyn set up a “home” for the tribe to learn English on Ross Island, insisting that they wear clothes and attend reading and writing classes. Five children and three adults from Corbyn’s school were taken to Calcutta in 1864, where they were shown around the sights but treated more as curiosities themselves. Within three years, almost the entire population had died, victims of either introduced diseases or addiction. In recent years the surviving Great Andamanese were forcibly settled on Strait Island, north of South Andaman, as a “breeding centre”, where they were forced to rely on the Indian authorities for food and shelter. Sadly, the last speaker of Bo, one of the oldest Andamanese languages, died in January 2010.
The Jarawas, who were shifted from their original homes when land was cleared to build Port Blair, currently number around three hundred and live on the remote western coasts of Middle and South Andaman. They are hemmed in by the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), which since the 1970s has cut them off from hunting grounds and freshwater supplies. During the 1980s and 1990s, encroachments on their land by loggers, road builders and settlers met with fierce resistance, and dozens, possibly hundreds, of people died in skirmishes, mostly on or near the ATR. Some more amicable contact between settlers and tribals was subsequently made through gift exchanges at each full moon, although the initiative was later cancelled. These meetings nevertheless led to some Jarawas becoming curious about what “civilization” had to offer, and they started to hold their hands out to passing vehicles and even visiting Indian settlements near their territory. Despite the authorities trying to minimize contact, it is still common for Jarawas to approach buses, and some private vehicles ignore the rules and stop for photo shoots. The government has increased Jarawa land by 180 square kilometres, but lodged an ongoing appeal over a 2002 Indian Supreme Court order to close the ATR – a ruling made following protests by international pressure groups such as Survival International. A disturbing legal reversal made early in 2013 has also once again allowed “human safaris” to take place.
Relations with the Onge, who call themselves the Gaubolambe, have been relatively peaceful. Distinguished by their white-clay and ochre body paint, they continue to live in communal shelters and construct temporary thatched huts on Little Andaman. The remaining population of just under one hundred retain their traditional way of life on two small reserves. Contact with outsiders is limited to an occasional trip into town to purchase liquor, and visits from rare parties of anthropologists. The reserves are strictly off-limits to foreigners, but you can learn about the Onge’s traditional hunting practices, beliefs and rituals in Vishvajit Pandya’s wonderful ethnographic study, Above the Forest.
The Nicobar People
On the Nicobars, the most assimilated and numerous tribe, the Nicobarese, are of Mongoloid descent and number well over twenty thousand. They live in villages, ruled by a headman, and have largely cordial relations with the Indian settlers. By contrast, only very limited contact is ever had with the isolated Shompen tribe of Great Nicobar, whose population of around four hundred manage to lead a traditional hunting-and-gathering existence. The most elusive tribe of all, the Sentinelese, live on North Sentinel Island west of South Andaman. Following the first encounter with Indian settlers in 1967, some contact was made with them in 1990, after a team put together by the local administration left gifts on the beaches every month for two years, but subsequent visits have invariably ended in a hail of arrows and two Indian fishermen who ventured too close to the island were killed in 2006. Since the early 1990s, the authorities have effectively given up trying to contact the Sentinelese, who are estimated to number anywhere between forty and two hundred. Flying in or out of Port Blair, you pass above their island, ringed by a spectacular coral reef. It’s reassuring to think that the people sitting at the bottom of the plumes of smoke drifting up from the forest canopy still manage to resist contact with the outside world.