The Tribes of Andaman & Nicobar Islands

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It is safe to say that the original population of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands consists of aboriginal indigenous people, i.e. tribal people. They have been dwelling in the forests and jungles of the islands for centuries, lead a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and appear to have lived in substantial isolation for thousands of years. The so-called “civilians” or city/town dwellers only came later, earliest a few hundred years ago.

The Andamanese and Nicobarese can be split into two broad tribal groups mainly based on their place of origin.

The Andaman Islands are home to four ‘Negrito’ tribes were as – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese.

Whereas the Nicobar Islands are home to two ‘Mongoloid’ tribes – the Shompen and Nicobarese.

The ‘Negrito’ tribes are believed to have arrived in the islands from Africa up to 60,000 years ago. All are nomadic hunter-gatherers, hunting wild pig and monitor lizard, and catching fish with bows and arrows. They also collect honey, roots, and berries from the forest. The ‘Mongoloid’ tribes probably came to the islands from the Malay-Burma coast several thousand years ago.

The Great Andamanese

The Great Andamanese is a collective term used for 10 different tribes that lived in most of the large islands in the Andaman. These tribes spoke different but related languages were of Negrito origin and were related by culture and geography.

Until the late 18th century, the Andamanese peoples were preserved from outside influences by their fierce rejection of contacts (which included killing any shipwrecked foreigners) and by the remoteness of the islands. But after the coming of the British, things changed.

When the British first tried to enter the island in around 1788-89 the Andamanese tribes, with their total population of 5000-8000, were able to resist them, resulting in the British to move to Port Conwallis and withdraw from all attempts to obtain Port Blair and Ross island for about 60 years.

However, they made another attempt to capture Port Blair in 1858 and succeeded, only to be met by the soldiers of the Great Andamanese tribe in 1859. The battle between the great Andamanese and the British regime is known as ‘The Aberdeen war’.

The tribe organized a well-planned attack on the high-ranking British officials but they were betrayed by an escaped convict Dudhanth Tiwari who had lived with the tribals for several months. As a result of the betrayal, the great Andamanese suffered heavily. They were fighting with bows and arrows against guns and artillery. Most of the young male population was killed in the battle. The population dwindled as and threatened the genes for the future survival of the tribes. Imported diseases, to which the islanders had no immunity further affected the population and by 1901 only 625 great Andamanese were left.

They shifted base to Straight island and that is where they live today.

Today only two tribes (Jeru and Bo) remain insignificant number; the other 8 have been mostly extinct. The cultural and linguistic identities of the individual tribes have largely been lost; their members now speak mostly Hindi.

Although the Great Andamanese on Strait Island still obtains some of their diets from hunting, fishing, and gathering, they now consume rice and other Indian food and are dependent on support by the Indian government for survival. They now practice some agriculture and have established some poultry farms.

The Onge

Onges are one of the most primitive tribes in India. They belong to the Negrito racial stock and they have been mainly seen near the Dugong creek in Little Andaman. They are dependent on the food provided by nature and are a semi-nomadic tribe.

The onge population fell post british colonization from 672 in 1986 to 92 in 1901 but has remained stable since.

At present the Onge population have opened up to the locals in the island. They have now experienced the impact of outsiders, as efforts at befriending them have proved successful. They have been provided with pucca houses, food, clothes, medicine etc. by the Administration. They eat turtle, fish, roots and jack fruits etc. They have developed artistry and crafts. The Onges can make canoes. A primary school has also been functioning at the Dugong Creek settlement of Onges. The population of this tribe is stable and is at present 110. A major drawback is the addiction of the Deugong mails to alcohol. 6 deaths have been reported because of this already. Enquiries into ways of controlling this addiction are taking place.

The Jarawa

With a population between 250 to 400, the Jarawa tribe is one of the largest tribes in the Andaman Islands. For centuries this tribe has shunned all interaction with outsiders and therefore their name means “The hostile ones” or “people of the earth”.

The Jarawa are still at the primitive stage of life on earth. They entirely depend upon forest and sea for food. Wild boar and monitor lizard are consumed. Various kinds of fruit, honey, and tubers are parts of their diet too. The Jarwas of both sexes goes completely naked. However, some ornaments made with shells and palm leaves are worn by them but these are not in the sense to cover their nudity.

This tribe has lived in the southeast part of Andaman but after the British regime, they shifted to the western region of the island. They have forever been hunter-gatherers in the true sense however things have changed since the 1990’s especially after the building of the old trunk road.

The great Andaman trunk road is a 360 km long road that connects Port Blair to the western regions of Andaman. Though it proves beneficial for tourism and business, it has proved life-threatening for the Jarawas. This trunk road cuts through the jungles that are home to the Jarawa community.

The Sentinelese

The Sentinelese people are said to be so hostile that their home has been named the ‘hardest place to visit in the world.

They inhabit the North Sentinel island and are the only remaining tribe in the Andamans to still maintain their isolation from the rest of the world. Nobody knows exactly how they look, the population, or how they live. Since 1967, the Indian governments with the help of anthropologists have tried to make contact with the tribe. They tried giving gifts of food, coconuts, etc but they were always met with hostility. The tribe showers arrows and stones at whoever comes near the island.

In 2006, 2 fishermen who were fishing illegally near the island were shot by Sentinelese archers. The helicopters which were sent to retrieve the bodies were also greeted by arrows. After the tsunami, the government again tried to help them by sending a few employees to the island with gifts but again, the same response followed. Presently the policy of the Indian government is to leave the Sentinelese alone. Any access to North Sentinel island is strictly forbidden.

The video below is documentation of an attempt to contact the Sentinelese:

Courtesy: Dale Andrews

The Shompen

The Shompens, who live in the Great Nicobar island, are a semi-nomadic tribe that was first discovered by steen Bille a Danish admirer in 1846.

Courtesy: Charles Sagigi

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