“Stone Age” Tribes of Andaman & Nicobar Islands Part 1
The author Prasanta Paul, tries to delve deep into the myth and mystery that surround these six ‘pre-historic’ tribes living in the archipelago.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands are home to stone age humans, estimated to be 60,000 years behind us in the evolutionary scale.
The six different tribes are often labeled as “Paleolithic”, “Pre-Neolithic”, “Stone-Age”, “Uncontacted”, “Outside of civilisation”, “descendants of the early men from Africa” etc.
Because of their secluded nature and hostility towards the modern civilized society, all these six categories of tribes have been brought under a legal umbrella and put under `Particularly Vulnerable Tribe’ (PVT) category.
The effect of British colonization and Japanese occupation of the Andaman archipelago has had its disastrous impact on these tribes.
Faced with intermittent global criticism since then, the Indian government which had slapped the Restricted Area Permit(RAP) on several islands of the region, finally removed RAP from 29 , allowing foreign nationals to visit these islands for tourism.
Coming to the tribes, while research on them has still been going on at various levels, there has been a general consensus that they are direct descendants of the `early man’.
Of the six, four have so far been bracketed under ‘Negrito’ tribe origin – the Jarawa, Great Andamanese, Onge, and Sentinelese who, despite being very sparse, continue to live in some secluded islands of the Andamans. 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.
Special interest has been generated worldwide after it was found that these stone age tribes living in the archipelago, not only survived the devastating 2005, December. 26 tsunami – triggered by an undersea quake whose epicenter was closest to their homelands – but may actually have a few lessons in reading natural early warning systems for their less perceptive Asian neighbours.
These tribes, experts believe, may hold the key to building a resource base for a reliable and cost-effective coastal warning system against future catastrophes.
However, that is a completely different segment which I will take up later. In the analysis that follows, I would like to dwell little elaborately on each of these tribes separately as very little information gets elicited on them in view of a pall of mystery that is cast on and around them.
What the Jarawas call themselves is not known. The name Jarawa means `the other people’ or `strangers’; the name seems to have its origin in the Aka-bea dialect of the Great Andamanese.
Jarawas are one of the least known tribes of the world. Their isolation has largely been due to their hostility towards the external world. There has so far been definite information about the structure of their social organization.
They presently live in the forest area of about 765 sqkm along the west coast of South and Middle Andaman. This area has been declared the Jarawa Reserve.
According to Radcliffe Brown, they are the descendants of the emigrants who some time in the past made their way across from Little Andaman and thrust themselves upon the inhabitants of Rutland Island and South Andamans … by force of arms.
Jarawas being still hostile to outsiders, no census of their population could so far be possible. The 1971 Census roughly put their population at 275 after which coast guard vessels and Anthropological Survey of India(ASI) made some endeavours to establish `contact’ with them.
Some of the Jarawas had responded to the gesture as a result of which a special enclave, fenced all around, was built for them in Port Blair.
Two male Jarawas were brought for the first time to Port Blair for about three weeks in January, 1977. But little could be known about their language as officials mostly communicated with them through sign language.
Philologists have not yet succeeded in connecting them with any recognized family of speech. In fact, according to an expert, the language of the Jarawas has ‘intense nasalization and aspiration of stops.’
In the enclave at Port Blair, they have peaceful contact with outsiders for nearly two decades. They are believed to have survived the tsunami. They are still completely independent and live entirely by hunting, gathering and fishing.
(To Be Continued)
Photographs by the author Prasanta Paul
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world