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  • The aboriginal inhabitants of a stretch of islandsnear India offer a fascinating glimpse into the wayof life of traditional hunter-gatherers. But howlong will this window to our past remain open?

    by Sita Venkateswar

    The Andaman Islanders

    BOURNE & SHEPERD National Geographic Society Image Collection

    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • The indigenous people who inhabit the lush, ver-dant rain forests of the Andaman Islands in theBay of Bengal have made the islands their homefor at least the past 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the An-daman Islanders have been a subject of both fascination anddread, often being portrayed as brutish cannibals. The 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, for instance, recorded in ac-counts of his travels a story he heard of the “dog-headed” in-habitants of the islands. More recently, in Sir Arthur ConanDoyle’s The Sign of Four, an Andaman Islander appears as avillain, complete with “murderous darts” and a “face [that]was enough to give a man a sleepless night.”

    These creative flights of fancy aside, the history and cul-ture of the Andamanese continue to intrigue visitors to the is-lands, as well as anthropologists such as myself. Between450 and 500 indigenous people still live on the islands, thelast representatives of the dwindling population of Negritopeople in south Asia. The Andaman Islanders followed thetraditional way of life of these people—one of seminomadichunter-gatherer-fishers—well into the 19th century, whenBritish colonists arrived and began to take over the islands.

    Despite intrusions, however, some islanders have managedto hold on to many of their traditional customs. Indeed, evennow, one group remains extraordinarily isolated and hostile to

    any outsiders, defending its territory with po-tentially deadly force. But the influence of oc-cupation, first British and now Indian, has tak-en its toll. The number of Andaman Islandershas dropped precipitously over the past twocenturies, down from an estimated average of5,000 islanders living throughout the archipela-go in the middle of the 19th century.

    DECADES OF COLONIALISM have nearly wiped out the culture of the GreatAndamanese people, one of four indigenous societies of the Andaman Islands inthe Bay of Bengal. By the 1890s the group felt the influence of British occupation:despite the traditional body decorations shown in a photograph from the time(opposite page), the islanders had discovered not only British pipes but also dead-ly diseases, such as syphilis and measles. Today only about 40 Great Andamaneseremain. An older woman in the community, Boro, shown below at the right, fin-ishes an evening of fishing as two young boys arrive on the beach to greet her.

    MADHUSREE MUKERJEE

    Scientific American May 1999 83Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • At present, only four tribes live on theislands—the Great Andamanese, theOnge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese.Yet scholars believe that at one time,some 12 distinct linguistic and separateterritorial groups inhabited the islands.Time is running out for the last represen-tatives of aboriginal Andamanese cul-ture. In hopes of learning more about theislanders—their past, present and fu-ture—I spent some 18 months on the is-lands between 1989 and 1993, living pri-marily with members of the Onge tribe.

    Paleolithic Pasts

    The origins of the Andaman Is-landers remain enshrouded in spec-ulation. Current evidence—most re-cently, excavations by Zarine Cooperof Deccan College in India—supportsthe theory of a long, continuous occu-pation of the islands for at least thepast 2,200 years. Some scholars believethe ancestors of today’s indigenousgroups reached the islands some 35,000years ago. The Andamanese people’ssmall stature and distinctive hair type,in association with their very dark skin,indicate that they are racially separate

    from the mainland Indian populationas well as from the aboriginal popula-tion on neighboring Nicobar Islands.

    Lidio Cipriani, director of the PortBlair office of the Anthropological Sur-vey of India during the early 1950s, and,more recently, Vishvajit Pandya of Vic-toria University in New Zealand havesuggested that the Andaman Islandersmay be related to another Negritogroup, the Semang of southeast Asia.And some new, though still tentative, ge-netic data suggest that the Andaman Is-landers may be descendants of the firsthumans to migrate out of Africa some100,000 years ago, reaching the islandsbetween 35,000 and 40,000 years ago[see “Out of Africa, into Asia,” by Mad-husree Mukerjee; Scientific Ameri-can, News and Analysis, January].

    Two possible routes for the An-damanese’s arrival in the islands havebeen offered. During the ice ages 40,000years ago, when sea levels were signifi-cantly lower, people could have bothwalked and crossed the shallow seas intheir dugout canoes either from Suma-tra by way of the Nicobar Islands orfrom the Malay and Burmese coasts.

    Contrary to the common misconcep-

    The Andaman Islanders84 Scientific American May 1999

    ANDAMAN ISLANDERS now consist of four tribes: the Great Andamanese, Jarawa,Onge and Sentinelese. Great Andamanese, such as the three boys shown above, typicallyhave both Andamanese, Indian and Karen Burmese heritage. Today the group, whichoriginally occupied North, Middle and South Andaman, has been moved to tiny Strait Is-land (map) by the Indian government. The Jarawa people have remained much more iso-lated, only sporadically venturing out from the dense forests set aside for them on Southand Middle Andaman. Three young Jarawa men are shown wearing decorations andjewelry (near right). The Onge now inhabit coastal areas of Little Andaman. This Ongemother and child, shown at the far right, display the traditional practice of painting facesand bodies with white clay. Members of the Sentinelese group are rarely seen. They liveon North Sentinel Island, which they vigorously defend from invasion.

    NORTH ANDAMAN

    NORTHSENTINELISLAND

    GREAT ANDAMANESE

    JARAWA

    SENTINELESE

    STRAITISLAND

    GREAT ANDAMAN

    LITTLEANDAMAN

    MIDDLE ANDAMAN

    SOUTHANDAMAN

    The Andaman Islands

    ANDAMAN ISLANDS

    INDIA

    BURMA(MYANMAR)

    MALAYSIA

    SUMATRA

    INDIAN OCEAN

    23

    150*

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    672*

    468*

    117*

    GREAT ANDAMANESE

    ONGE

    JARAWA

    SENTINELESE

    1901 1951 1998

    *ESTIMATED

    INDIGENOUS POPULATION

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    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • The Andaman Islanders Scientific American May 1999 85

    tion, the Andamanese are not and neverwere cannibals. The probable origin ofthis myth is the islanders’ former prac-tice of cutting up the dead bodies of theirenemies and throwing the pieces into afire. Outside observers apparently as-sumed this act was a preamble to a can-nibalistic feast. But scholars now knowthat the bodies were never consumedand that this practice was simply a pre-cautionary measure for dispersing harm-ful spirits. In contrast, the islanders burythe bodies of their kin under the com-munal huts to keep their spirits close tothe surviving family members.

    People often describe the AndamanIslanders as a Stone Age culture, but itis inaccurate to portray them as havingbeen utterly isolated until the appear-ance of the British. Even before the ar-rival of the colonial powers, the is-landers had been forcibly drawn intothe slave-trading networks of south andsoutheast Asia. Many of the slaveswere supplied to the rajah of Kedah,who then sent them to the king of Siamas part of his tribute. There is evensome evidence that Andamanese slavesreached the courts of France. In addi-tion, as island dwellers, the Andamanpeople have always incorporated intotheir culture the varied objects washedashore or introduced by assorted visi-tors through the centuries.

    During my research visits to the An-daman Islands, I spent most of my timewith the Onge tribe. Roughly 100Onge now live on Little Andaman Is-land [see map on opposite page] in twopermanent settlements: Dugong Creek,in the north, and South Bay, at the south-

    ern tip of the island. The rest of the is-land is inhabited by ethnically distinctimmigrants from India. By piecing to-gether details obtained from diversesources—tales from the Onge them-selves and my own observations, aswell as earlier research by Cipriani, byBadal Basu of the Anthropological Sur-vey of India and by Pandya—I havebeen able to assemble a patchwork ofinformation about aspects of the Ongeway of life and about many typical An-damanese traditions.

    Daily Life

    Over the course of my numerous in-terviews with approximately 30Onge women, men and children, previ-ously unknown details emerged abouttheir life in the forest. I conducted thesediscussions in Onge; some of the mostinformative accounts came from threemen, Bada Raju, Totanange and Tilai. Ihave integrated these details into thecomposite account that follows:

    “During the dry season, they [an-cestral or other Onge] would get bu-lundange [jackfruit], and store it.They would fill up tole [big baskets]with fruit, cover them with leaves,tie them up and hide them in theforest. So when there is a lot of rainthere is food. They would also hunt,and bring back pork, and when thatfinished, they ate bulundange. Therewas no tea then, they would onlydrink water. They would store a lotof dry wood, because once it getswet it is very difficult to get wood.

    That’s why during Torale [the dryseason] all the wood is obtained andstored. Then before the rain begins,the big tokabe [communal hut] isbuilt, and during the rains it is verycomfortable inside.

    “In the past, there was no wagework, we had all the time to buildour houses, get pork, eat pork richin fat. They didn’t have any utensils,they would make bucu [clay pots] . . .to cook the pork. Then when Kwa-lokange [the southeast monsoon]starts, the boars become thin, andthey are not tasty. In the creeks in theforest there is so much fish, wewould get fish and nana [prawn].

    “There was no iron then, wewould use the wood from the arecatrees . . . but we would get iron fromthe sea, when it washed ashore. Anduse the resin from the forest tosharpen the metal. Otherwise, weused the wood from the forest. Wewould make dange [dugout canoes]using a different wood, but when itwas taken to the water it sank, so weknew this wood was no good. So wetried a different wood, took it to thewater and saw, yes, it stayed afloat.So, that’s what we used afterwards.That’s how we learned things.

    “In the old days, there was no ny-lon rope, the fiber used to kill turtlesnow. We would get into the waterand crowd the turtle, we used the in-cense from the forest, make a torchwith kuendeve [dried rattan leaves]and light it with the incense, as wecrowded around the turtle. We werea lot of Onge then, and that’s how

    Jarawa decorative pattern, used on leaf belts

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    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • we would hem in the turtle. Wedidn’t harpoon the turtle then, weonly used arrows to hunt boar.

    “And that’s how we caught du-gong as well. We would wait forlow tide and then go to hunt turtleand dugong at night. Not when thetide is high—then we would drown.Then when that was done, wewould go to the forest again, andget more incense, and light it, andgo search for boar.

    “We were a lot of Onge then, wewere not afraid of Tommanyo [a spir-it of the night], and we would go intothe forest at night. We had no fearthen. At that time there were Ongeeverywhere, many bera [a territorialgrouping] all over. There were somany of us then. The boars would goto sleep at night, and that’s when wewould hunt them. It was so easythen. We would come back duringthe day and go look for the boar wehunted the previous night. Then wewould take it back with us, smoke itand cook it. And that’s how we

    lived. We didn’t have clothes then,we would wear bark from the for-est. The girls would make themwith kuendeve. Those are some ofthe things we would do.”

    Like many other indigenous groups,the Onge perceive themselves as inhabit-ing an interconnected universe, peopledwith spirits that include their ancestors—the Onkoboykwo—who play an activerole in everyday life. The Onge share thisuniverse with various other spirits, thetomya, who make their presence knownby blowing in as winds from different di-rections, thereby marking and namingeach season.

    Food fuels the cycle of life and deathfor the Onge. For example, new life isconceived when women eat foods inwhich the Onkoboykwo reside. Theseancestor spirits, who otherwise dwell ina realm similar to the Onge’s world,have no teeth and cannot chew food.Hence they enter various foods to satis-fy their hunger. Thus, when women eatfoods containing the spirits, the Onko-

    boykwo become Onge; after death theOnge are again transformed into theOnkoboykwo. Food also creates the ba-sis for certain social interactions. Impor-tant bonds develop between a child andall the women who nursed the infant, aswell as between the child and the manor woman who procured the food thatimpregnated the mother.

    This description emphasizes the deepand symbolic significance embodied inthe foods consumed by the Onge—a sig-nificance that reflects the Onge’s hunt-ing-and-gathering way of life as well astheir relationship to the environment.This connection with nature is particu-larly strong, dictating where the Ongetribes live during the year and what theyeat. With the onset of the hot, dry season(usually in March and April), for in-stance, Onge families move from thecoastline, where they had been huntingturtles, into the interior of the forest tocollect tanja, or honey. This relocationmarks the beginning of the season ofTorale, when the spirits vacate the is-lands. Families from one bera collect inthe large, beehive-shaped communal hutwhere the ancestral bones are buried.

    The arrival of the spirit Dare in the for-est, riding on the back of the southwestmonsoon (typically in June), signals theend of Torale and the time to leave theinterior of the forest for shelters by thecreeks and mangrove forests. Here theOnge can find crabs, fish and mangrovefruit. Once the spirit Dare leaves inSeptember, the Onge move back to theforests and feast on boar until the ap-proach of the spirit Kwalokange andthe southeast monsoon in October. At

    The Andaman Islanders86 Scientific American May 1999

    DOMESTIC LIFE for some Andaman Islanders reflects historic customs; for others,the modern world prevails. An Onge woman prepares rice (supplied by the Indian gov-ernment) for her family’s midday meal in a traditional Onge home located in SouthBay, Little Andaman Island (above). On Strait Island, Golat, a young man who isGreat Andamanese, watches a cricket match on the television in the schoolhouse withtwo boys from the community (right).

    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • The Andaman Islanders Scientific American May 1999 87

    this time, the Onge returnto the coast and beginhunting for dugong. Theybelieve that the spiritKwalokange consumes theremaining boar within theforest, leaving just a smallamount for the next spirit,Mekange, the northeastwind. The appearance ofMekange from Novemberto February indicates thatthe Onge should resumehunting turtles. The sea-sonal cycle is complete.

    Everything I have de-scribed about the customsand beliefs of the Onge re-lates back to their tradi-tional way of life, one that

    was shared to a large extent with the oth-er peoples of the islands. This traditionalculture has been in decline for almost acentury and a half, however, since the be-ginning of colonial rule over the islands.

    The Colonial Era

    The British government established apermanent penal colony on the is-lands in 1858, the first time relativelyaccurate descriptions of the islands ortheir inhabitants were written. Thatyear marked the start of a continuoushistory of colonization. When the firstEnglish colonists arrived, the local in-habitants made their homes throughmost of the some 200 islands that makeup the Andamans. Contact with theBritish brought about the so-called paci-fication of various groups of the GreatAndamanese tribe as well as of somecoastal populations of Onge.

    Of course, “pacification” is a mis-nomer—the military used the word to de-note the often violent silencing of resis-tance from local populations. As CarmelSchrire of Rutgers University has writtenin her book Digging through Darkness:Chronicles of an Archaeologist (Universi-ty Press of Virginia, 1995), although “theopinions and feelings of the dispos-sessed” seldom become known, “it is notthat they were silent. . . . It is simply thatthey went unrecorded.” As a result, mostof our knowledge of this era comes fromthe reports of those confrontations aschronicled by the colonists.

    The British arrival brought firstbloodshed and then disease and dispos-session to local populations across the

    North, Middle and South Andaman Is-lands. In 1901, when the British under-took the first census in the Indian sub-continent, officials counted 625 GreatAndamanese and estimated numbersfor the other three tribes: 672 Onge,468 Jarawa and 117 Sentinelese. Aftera brief Japanese occupation of the An-daman Islands during World War II, In-dia took control of the region in 1947.

    The subsequent Indian style of gov-erning was also colonial in its nature, atleast as it pertained to the islanders.The change from the British to the Indi-an regime amounted to no more than atransfer of power, with little to differen-tiate the two. The Indian government,like its predecessor, attempted to shoul-der “the white man’s burden” of assist-ing native populations. Disease andother forces continued to take their toll,however. By 1951, when independentIndia conducted its first census, thenumber of Great Andamanese had fall-en to a mere 23. Estimates for the othertribes were also low—150 Onge, 50Jarawa and 50 Sentinelese.

    Today, of the nearly 40 people whocan claim Great Andamanese heritage,many have recent Indian ancestry aswell. Only an estimated 100 Onge, 250Jarawa and 100 Sentinelese are nowalive. The ravages of the earliest andlongest duration of contact have beenborne by the Great Andamanese, whohave been resettled on the small StraitIsland; the Indian government arrangedthis as some measure of reparation forthe historical injustices that the peoplehave undergone.

    Both the Great Andamanese and theOnge currently lead sedentary lives—in-stead of hunting and fishing, they haverations allotted to them by the Indiangovernment. The Jarawa and the Sen-tinelese have survived the colonial erabetter than the other groups. TheJarawa tribe, living in dense forests,continues to have only limited contactwith others, and any contact they dohave is on their terms, when they willtolerate it. Members of the Sentinelese

    tribe (named after the island they inhab-it) rarely, if ever, see outsiders.

    Both tribes—particularly the Sentine-lese—defend their territorial boundarieswith bows and arrows, now reinforcedwith iron arrowheads. Declaring theirintentions of including the Jarawa as“full-fledged citizens of the country,” In-dian officials are trying to lure theJarawa into more peaceful interactionswith the promise of coconuts, bananas,rice, cloth and pieces of iron.

    Romulus Whitaker, a prominent ecol-ogist, has asserted that the most seriousthreat to the Jarawa today is the in-creasing encroachment by outsiders intotheir prime hunting and fishing land. Heobserves that the Jarawa are willing toundertake considerable risks to obtain

    TRADITIONAL ONGE DWELLING(top) at Dugong Creek on Little AndamanIsland is more popular among some resi-dents of the settlement than are the wood-en houses built for them by the govern-ment. In contrast, the Great Andamaneselive in government-built houses, such asBoro’s home on Strait Island (bottom).

    Jarawa decorative pattern, used on leaf belts

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    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

  • metal for their arrowheads, includingraiding road-building camps, forestcamps and farms. As the number andscale of “Jarawa incidents” (which re-ceive media attention only if there aredeaths on the Indian side) indicate, thesettlers, illegal encroachers and the po-lice have taken it on themselves tolaunch a miniwar against the Jarawawithout formal government approval.

    The Sentinelese, however, are assuredof a certain degree of security by their oc-cupation of a small, isolated island, ac-cess to which remains difficult. They con-tinue to present a militant front to theoutside world and until eight years agohad actively thwarted any attempt toreach their island. But in 1991 they ac-cepted some coconuts from a team of In-dian anthropologists and administrators.There have been no further develop-ments since then. From the little that hasbeen observed and can be inferred ofthese people, their way of life and materi-al culture are very similar to those of theother Andaman groups.

    In recent years, the term “ethnocide”

    has come into prominence to describe theongoing destruction of many indigenouscultures around the world. The peoplethemselves are not purposely harmed,but they are often sequestered within en-claves where they are rendered depen-dent on a dominant majority that hastaken over their lands, leaving the groupwithout any alternative means for sur-vival. The dominant people then pro-ceed to improve the condition of these“primitives” by destroying all the ele-ments of their “backward” way of life,resulting in the death of a distinct culture.

    On the surface, such policies seem toembody a humanitarian desire to helppeople, but they also reflect the preju-diced assumption that the way of life ofindigenous people is inherently inferiorand hence must be supplanted by a dif-ferent and better one. Moreover, thesepolicies presume that the indigenous peo-ples are incapable of envisioning or plan-ning their own future, and as a resultoutsiders feel they must step in to assist.

    In truth, the assimilation of the is-landers into the Indian mainstream has

    primarily benefited the colonizers. As theBritish extended their colony across theNorth, Middle and South Andaman is-lands, and plans developed for morecommercially profitable uses for land oc-cupied by the Great Andamanese (forlumber, farming and the clearing of for-ests for roads), the government’s policiesclearly resolved in favor of moving theislanders into restricted settlements. Andafter India’s independence from theBritish, the forests of Little Andaman Is-land, where the Onge live, also becamethe target of development efforts.

    Unfortunately, no matter how poli-cies are framed, for the Andaman Is-landers the consequences are a steadilydwindling amount of territory undertheir control, the gradual destruction oftheir unique and viable way of life, andthe eventual induction of the islandersinto the swelling ranks of other dispos-sessed marginals of mainland Indiansociety. As David Maybury-Lewis ofCultural Survival notes, “Land and thestruggle for it is at the heart of theproblem of cultural survival, for theguarantee of their lands is what tribalpeoples need most.” But because in-digenous peoples’ claims around theworld for land present a challenge tothe ruling states’ authority, not surpris-ingly most have met with little success.

    Nevertheless, any discussion of inter-national human rights should addressindigenous peoples’ land claims as wellas alternative ways to resolve these dis-putes. It will be some time before theAndaman Islanders themselves becomepolitically active enough to make a bidto define their own rights. The first stepwe outsiders must take, then, is at thelocal level: we must acknowledge that,if they are to survive, the Andaman Is-landers can and should be allowed toplan for their own future.

    The Andaman Islanders88 Scientific American May 1999

    The Author

    SITA VENKATESWAR is a lecturer in social anthropolo-gy at Massey University in New Zealand. She joined theprogram after completion of her Ph.D. from Rutgers Uni-versity. Her research was conducted in the Andaman Islandsand from 1991 to 1993 was made possible by a dissertationimprovement grant from the National Science Foundation.At present, Venkateswar is exploring her long-standing in-terest in visual anthropology by developing new courses onIndian films and culture. She has also embarked on researchin Nepal to investigate visual documentation of child labor.

    Further Reading

    The Andaman Islanders. Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown. Cambridge UniversityPress, 1922. Republished 1970.

    The Andaman Islanders. Lidio Cipriani. Frederic A. Praeger, 1966.Above the Forest: A Study of Andamanese Ethnoanemology, Cos-mology, and the Power of Ritual. Vishvajit Pandya. Oxford UniversityPress, New York and Delhi, 1993.

    Policing Power, Governing Gender and Reimagining Resistance: APerspective on the Contemporary Situation of the Andaman Is-landers. Sita Venkateswar. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropolo-gy, Rutgers University, 1997.

    JARAWA people run to meet a government boat sent to view the aboriginals and to de-liver coconuts, bananas, rice, pieces of iron and red cloth. Earlier this century anthro-pologists began offering red cloth to the Jarawa; the tradition continues to this day.

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    Jarawa decorative pattern,used on leaf belts

    Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.

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The aboriginal inhabitants of a stretch of islands near India offer a fascinating glimpse into the way of life of traditional hunter-gatherers. But how long will this window to our past remain open? by Sita Venkateswar The Andaman Islanders BOURNE & SHEPERD National Geographic Society Image Collection Copyright 1999 Scientific American, Inc.
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