It is safe to say that the original population of the Andaman and Nicobar islands consist 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 where as – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese. Where as 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 suffured heavily. They were fighting with bows and arrows against guns and artillery. Most of the young male population was killed in the battle. Population dwindled as and threatened the genes for the future survival of the tribes. Imported diseases, to which the islanders had no immunity further effected 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 in significant 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 obtain some of their diet 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.
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.
With a population between 250 to 400, the Jarawa tribe is one of the largest tribes in Andaman islands. For centuries this tribe has shunned all interaction with outsiders and therefore there 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 jarawas of both sexes go complete 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 specially 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 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 sentinilese archers. The helicopters which was sent to retrieve the bodies was 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 Sentinilese alone. Any access to North Sentinel island is strictly forbidden.
The Video below is a documentation of an attempt to contact the sentinilese:
Courtesy: Dale Andrews
The Shompens, who live in the Great Nicobar island, are a semi-nomadic tribe that were first discovered by steen Bille a Danish admirer in 1846.
Courtesy: Charles Sagigi