- A view of Andaman islands (picture from Wikimedia commons)
On the name
“The Malays called the archipelago ‘Pulan Hantuman’ or the `Land of Hanuman’ and this we have corrupted into Andaman,” wrote Sir Maxwell in the Journal Straits Branch (June 1886) of Royal Asiatic Society of England.
I-Tsing, a Chinese Buddhist monk, referred the islands as Lo-jen-kuo (Land of the Naked) in 672 A.D. The Tamil Cholas who conquered and ruled South East Asian countries in 11 the century AD called them as Nakkavaram meaning land of the naked people. This changed to Nicobar by the end of the second millennium.
Andaman and Nicobar consist of 572 islands and islets on the South Eastern Bay of Bengal.
Original inhabitants of the islands
The original inhabitants of Andaman are pygmy Negritos, considered by anthropologists as belonging to the earliest groups of humans to migrate from Africa. According to researchers they arrived at Andaman about 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. Genetic and cultural studies suggest they may have been isolated from other populations since the Middle Paleolithic (30,000 to 300, 000 years BC).
A 2003 report from scientists of Central Forensic Science Laboratory and Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata states “the Negrito populations of Andaman Islands have remained in isolation for a longer period, even more than the descendants of founder populations of Africa.”
Centre for Cellular Micro Biology, Hyderabad, India report of 2006 says: “Our mtDNA and Y chromosome studies lead to the conclusion that the Andamanese “Negrito” mtDNA lineages have survived in the Andaman Islands in complete genetic isolation from other South and Southeast Asian populations since the initial settlement of the region by the out-of-Africa migration.” Further: “The Andaman “Negrito” populations do not show particular affinities either with the African populations or with the Indian populations, confirming their unique origin. ”
However, a limited archaeological survey conducted from January to April, 1985 was unable to find evidence of the existence of pygmy Negritos on the islands beyond 2,200 years.
How the pygmy Negritos arrived
It is held that migration of early humans from Africa proceeded along two routes after reaching West Asia. A sub group turned south and spread, generation by generation, around the coast of Arabia and Persia until they reached India. Another group went north and branched into Europe and from central Asia into India. The former group headed along the southeast coast of Asia, reaching Australia between 30,000 and 55,000 years ago.
A panel in the Anthropological Museum in Port Blair, Andaman shows migration routes of pygmy Negritos from eastern China through South East Asia into Andaman. However considering the stupendous distance from Africa to Andaman, in the absence of convincing reasons for them to choose the isolated islands in an age when better terrains were available, makes this theory questionable.
Could they have sailed from Africa to Andaman? This might not have happened as larger sea going vessels necessary for such a voyage such as long boats with several oarsmen and then boats with sails appeared much later, about 4000 to 6300 BC. Supposing they had indeed the capability to reach by sea it is inexplicable why they stopped sailing long distance forever after that.
Were they shipwrecked near the islands? Black slaves used to be sourced from Africa to be sold as commodity by traders of some ancient and later day sea faring nations. It is possible that a cargo of slaves who were ship wrecked reached these islands but what rules out the present population being a descendants of such slaves is that the blacks on Andaman are remarkably short in stature compared to the African Negros of recent millennia.
There were settlements of Pygmy Negritos in other parts of Asia but even if some of them had reached the islands after a shipwreck it is inconceivable that they forget their more ‘civilised’ way of being and habits of the past and become a tribe of naked people hunting in the forests shunning all contact with outsiders. Migration of the pygmy Negritos from Africa by both land and sea being, at best, remote possibilities leaves yet another possibility that has not been explored so far: the islanders might be from a landmass that was connected to the islands or existed not too far from them but which sank under sea later.
According to Vijoy Shankar Shahay, head of the department of anthropology, Allahabad University, the region of Andaman and Nicobar islands and South Asian islands witnessed the first evolution of man from apes. Giving details about the evidence which strengthen his observation, Sahay said that Darwin’s theory about the evolution of mankind had a missing link between ape and man which was solved by Haeckle, who named this missing link as Phecanthropus, the apeman. Haeckle has propounded that it was the tropical country where mankind had lost its hairy cover and that the apeman would be found only in the region where apes are found. In this case, gorillas and chimpanzees are found in Africa and orangutan and gibbon in Malaysia. (Times of India, 25 July, 2009)
It is a known fact that low altitude location on the equator favors maximum terrestrial bio diversity and a landmass on the equator on the Indian Ocean could have met the ideal condition favourable to Nature to evolve the first of the human species.
There are a couple of legends and a vision of a highly regarded occultist about a sunken landmass in South Asia which lends support to the existence of such a laboratory of nature in the distant past in this region. Some literature on the lost continent of Lemuria speculate that it existed on the Indian Ocean or Bay of Bengal. In Tamil Nadu – southern most state of India spanning up to the tip of peninsular India – there is a legend of Kumari Kandam, a virgin continent on the Indian ocean which is believed to have extended westward and eastward from Sri Lanka. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, (Puducherry, Southern India) who was an accomplished occultist had also spoken in a recorded private conversation the existence of a landmass west or east of India and Sri Lanka in the past. She said, “From certain impressions (but these are only impressions), it would seem that it was in the vicinity of either this side of Ceylon and India or the other, I don’t know exactly (Mother indicates the Indian Ocean either west of Ceylon and India or to the east between Ceylon and Java), although certainly the place no longer exists; it must have been swallowed up by the sea.” From the foregoing it seems the real story could be that the pygmy Negritos of Andaman did not arrive from Africa but were more likely survivors of a lost landmass quite nearby on the Bay of Bengal/Indian Ocean.
When the landmass sank the survivors from the catastrophe might have reached the islands of Andaman directly or through Java – Sumatra. It is also possible that they first reached India and then travelled along the east coast up to Myanmar, exploring a way back to their lost homeland, and then reached the Andaman islands crossing the land bridges and straits that would have existed there during the ice age.
Historic records about the islands
“The earliest written reference to these islands is found in a literary work of an Indian poet who related how once Emperor Ashoka the Great was approached by some Indian Merchants who complained to him of their losses and complete ruin brought out by ‘Black Savages’ when they passed through the islands, in 3rd century BC.”
“Ptolemy the Greek geographer who lived in 2nd century AD called Andamans as Bazakata, derived from the Sanskrit vivasakrata , meaning “stripped of clothes”. Ancient palm leaf Tamil inscriptions of Thanjavur refer to Andaman islands as Theemai-t-theevugal (Islands of Harm or Evil).”
“Rajendra Chola I (1014 to 1042 CE), one of the Tamil Chola dynasty kings, conquered the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to use them as a strategic naval base to launch a naval expedition against the Sriwijaya Empire (a Hindu-Malay empire based on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia). The islands provided a temporary maritime base for ships of the Maratha Empire in the 17th century. The legendary Maratha admiral Kanhoji Angre established naval supremacy with a base in the islands and is credited with attaching those islands to India.”
“The history of organised European colonisation on the islands began when the Danish settlers of the Danish East India Company arrived in the Nicobar Islands on 12 December 1755. On 1 January 1756, the Nicobar Islands were made a Danish colony, first named New Denmark, and later (December 1756) Frederick’s Islands (Frederiksøerne). During 1754–1756 they were administrated from Tranquebar (in continental Danish India). The islands were repeatedly abandoned due to outbreaks of malaria and finally in 1848 for good.”
“From 1 June 1778 to 1784, Austria mistakenly assumed that Denmark had abandoned its claims to the Nicobar Islands and attempted to establish a colony on them, renaming them Theresia Islands.”
“In 1789 the British set up a naval base and penal colony on Chatham Island next to Great Andaman, where now lies the town of Port Blair. They abandoned Andaman 1796 due to disease. In 1858 the British again established a colony at Port Blair, which proved to be more permanent. Denmark’s presence in the territory ended formally on 16 October 1868 when it sold the rights to the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British India in 1869.”
“At the independence of both India (1947) and Burma (1948), the departing British announced their intention to resettle all Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmese on the islands to form their own nation, although this never materialised. It became part of the Indian union in 1950 and was declared a union territory in 1956.”
Decline of indigenous population
When the British arrived in late 19th century, reportedly to secure the islands to prevent attacks on their ships from pirates and natives, the total indigenous population of Andaman was estimated to be about 7000. They were classified as Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Jangil, Onge and Sentinelese. Great Andamanese were the largest group with ten tribes totalling about 5000 people.
“The Andamanese’s protective isolation changed with the first British colonial presence (in 1789) and subsequent settlements, which proved disastrous for them. Lacking immunity against common diseases of the Eurasian mainland, the large Jarawa habitats on the southeastern regions of South Andaman Island were likely depopulated by disease within four years (1789-1793) of the initial British colonial settlement. Epidemics of pneumonia, measles and influenza spread rapidly and exacted heavy tolls, as did alcoholism.”
“In 1858, the British started building the vast penal settlement at Port Blair and also their administrative seat at Ross Island, near Port Blair. The year passed with bloody conflicts with indigenous people. The next year thousands of tribal lauched a war against the invaders who had taken away their finest harbor and hunting grounds. That turned out to be suicidal as their bows and arrows had no chance against the soldiers with guns, rifles and bombs; most of tribal army perished.”
Wrote E.H. Man in the introduction to the book on Aborigines of Andaman, “A wholesome dread of our power having been duly instilled, efforts were made by the Government with a view to the civilisation of the race…” Punitive raids were carried out by so called Bush Police killing dozens of natives. The population of Great Andamanese dwindled greatly and finally they lowered their arms and made peace.
This friendly contact brought new types of enemies in the guise of epidemics, unknown diseases and addictions. E.H. Man attributes to Indian convicts brought by the British from the mainland the spread of Measles and Syphilis, two diseases that claimed a lot of islanders’ lives. It is puzzling how the convicts who were supposed to be insid jails could spread their diseases widely. The extent of the epidemic was so gruesome that the colonizers sent the Great Andamanese staying in government homes, established to rehabilitate captured and voluntary natives, back to the forest.
“In the 1867 Andaman Islands Expedition dozens of Onge tribes were killed by British naval personnel, which resulted in four Victoria Crosses for the British soldiers. When in 1930, a head count was conducted there were less than 20 Great Andamanese left.”
In the 1940s, Andaman and Nicobar came under Japanese occupation. May Jarawas were captured and their settlements were bombed from fighter aircraft.
“After India’s independence, to protect the Great Anamanese from diseases and ill effects of tobacco and alcohol, they were camped at Bluff Island (1949). Later they were shifted to slightly larger Strait Island (1969). Someone aptly named Strait Island as ‘Government Breeding Center’, as the gradual increase in population began from there.”
“In the year 2006 the total Great Andamanese population numbered more than 43 and in 2010 more than 50, thanks to the ‘efforts’ of the tribal welfare and police departments.”
Sentinelese (present population 100 – 200) are still hostile to any contact with ‘outsiders’. Several of them were killed by an armed salvage party that went to retrieve a shipwreck at their island in 1984. More recently helicopters when hovered over their island to ascertain their state after Tsunami they were greeted by the customary shower of arrows. That was taken as a signal that they were doing just fine and they were left alone as before. Jarawas (now estimated to be 250 to 400) had cut off the hands of some Indian tree cutters and killed some settlers who had put up huts in the jungle to hunt pigs. However, they have been friendlier since 1996 when a young man of their tribe who slipped and got hurt while taking fruits from a settler’s farm was treated at govt. hospital and returned cured. Onge (now less than 100) are now confined to only Little Andaman island. Great Andamanese ( about 50) who live mainly in Straight islands obtain some of their diet from hunting, fishing and gathering. They also practice some agriculture and poultry farming.
Tribes with mongoloid features live in the 19 islands that constitute Nicobar. They are of south and south east Asian origin and arrived at these islands only during the past two thousand years. Shompen, a reclusive tribe living at the southern tip of Great Nicobar were the first ones to arrive followed by Nicobarese. The total tribal population consisting of these two in Nicobar is about 24000 and more than 90% of them have been converted to Christianity beginning with the arrival of the European missionaries centuries ago. Most of these tribes have been integrating fast with the main stream. Their children study in govt. schools and women work in govt. services. The Shomphen tribe that has been reclusive has also recently started interacting with settlers from the mainland.
Religion, culture and society
The following passages and quotes are based on manuals published by British anthropological researchers. E.H. Man lived in the islands from 1869 to 1880 and published his findings in 1883. Alfred Radcliffe Brown travelled extensively and researched on the islanders from 1906 to 1908 and published his findings, delayed due to the intervening world war, in 1934 .
“There is no trace to be found of worship of trees, stones or other objects, and it is a mistake to suppose that they adore or invoke the celestial bodies. There is no salutation, dance or festival of any kind held in honor of the new moon…” (E.H. Man)
The tribals believed in spirits (Lau). Major ones are the spirits of forest and sea which they feared. The sun, moon and stars were talked of as if they were living beings and so were lightning and thunder. All non islanders were considered Lau. The north west wind is attributed to Biliku and south west wind to Tarai spirits. There are many different tales of how the world, man, woman and animals were created. According to one story Puluga is their supreme spirit and he is seated on the highest peak of the islands or in the sky. He was never born and is immortal. By him all objects animate and inanimate were created. He did not create evil spirits nor does he have power to control them. He created the first man Tomo and his wife Elewadi, taught them how to hunt, gave them fire etc. He issued them some commandments which were not followed by the generations after Tomo. Puluga got angry and sent a great flood which covered the whole land and destroyed everything. Only two couples who were sitting on a canoe were saved.
“When a person died he was either buried in the ground or upon a platform placed on a tree. The latter is considered a more honorable form of burial and is adopted only in the case of a man or woman dying in the prime of life.” (Radcliffe) According to his sources the islanders just cut up to pieces the body of enemies who die in fighting with them and burned them as a sacrifice so that they don’t return as evil spirits. He says this might have given the impression of them being cannibals to some non islanders. “There can be no doubt whatever that since the islands were occupied in 1858 the inhabitants have not practised cannibalism and there is no good reason to suppose that they once followed it and then abandoned it.”
E.H. Man also dismisses the allegations of cannibalism by Andamanese as fiction: “No lengthened investigation was needed to disprove the long credited fiction, for not a trace could be discovered for the existence of such a practice in their midst, even in the far off times.
On their social structure Radcliffe wrote: “We have seen that the Andamanese were individualists and not inclined to take orders from a person they did not respect. No one commanded and no one obeyed. It all had to be voluntary or required by tradition, there being nothing like a structure of government. Chiefs existed but had no power to enforce their will on anyone; they were only men of influence. A chief reached his position through strength of character; heredity played no role whatever. A headman had to rely exclusively on respect and reputation to keep his followers in line and loyal. Decisions were taken by all grown-up older men with the older women given a considerable voice as well. Younger people were expected to show respect towards their elders and their opinions counted for less but they were free to voice them and were listened to. The final decision was taken by general consent among the older members of the group.”
E.H. Man says: “Their domestic polity maybe described as a communism modified by the authority, more or less nominal, of the chief.”
“It is said to be of rare occurrence to find any child of above six or seven years of age residing with its parents and this because it is considered a compliment or a mark of friendship for a married man after paying a visit to ask his hosts to adopt one of their children. The request is usually complied with…” (E.H. Man) There is no ear or nose piercing of children to insert ornamental studs, bars or rings as it is the practice with many aborigines and even non aboriginal traditional cultures in other parts of the world.
They eat only cooked fish, flesh or vegetable.
Future of the tribes
As the story of the paleolithic people of the islands spread it attracted professional and amateur researchers from around the world. The govt. of Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar restricted access of visitors, particularly foreign nationals, to the tribal areas as a protective measure. However there are occasional reports of some greedy operators luring tourists, domestic and foreign, with offer of arranging sighting of the tribals. The international and Indian media have been exposing activities detrimental to the tribals, who are known to have low resistance to diseases. Gratifyingly the local media and activists in Andaman and Nicobar have also been very concerned and vocal about the welfare of the tribals and judiciary has ruled in favor of their cases.
One of the demands of the activist has been to shut down the road through the tribal territory of south and north Andaman. The road is a lifeline for settlers in these areas and contributes the local economy as it takes tourists to many locations of interest. When I asked a loca young man born to settlers from India if the tribals came to the ferry sometimes, he replied they used to earlier but nowadays they don’t as the policemen are telling them to stay away. All vehicles through these areas are taken in convoys – there were only 4 convoys in a day – and there was no stopping enroute. The convoy is escorted by a pilot vehicle and there are policemen inside buses to ensure no vehicle stopped and no one took video or photography.
The fact is the tribals, excepting Sentinelese, seem to be equally keen now to see the outsiders and adopt their ways of lives at least at an experimental level. This is a natural human characteristics and it is inevitable that they may venture into the outside world sometimes soon and may not like to remain for long in the forests. However it is a fact that the road has increased contact with outsiders and thereby raised the risk for their lives through diseases. Some political parties are demanding to close the road cutting through the middle of the forests and instead open another along the coast. However considering the fast expanding population in the main land and the islands the chances of survival of the tribals seem quite bleak.
On the contrary, the Nicobarese tribes (of Nicobar islands) have been integrating fast with the main stream. Their children study in govt. schools and women work in govt. services. The Shomphen tribe that has been reclusive has also recently started interacting with settlers from the mainland.
1. On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands With Report of Researches into the language of the South Andaman Island. – E.H. Man, A.J. Ellis – 1883
2. The Andaman Islanders, Cambridge University Press – 1924
3. Report of Archaeological Explorations from the Andaman Islands, Zarine Cooper, Deccan College, Pune.
3. Molecular Relatedness of Aboriginal Groups of Andaman and Nicobar Islands with Similar Ethnic Populations – Central Forensic Science Laboratory and Anthroplogical Survey of India, Kolkata – 2003
4. Unique Origin of Andaman Islanders: Insight from autosomal loci – Centre for cellular and molecular biology, Hydearabad; Institute of Molecular and cell biology, University of Tartu and Estonian Bio-centre, Estonia.
5. What does it mean to be human? – Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
6. Glimpses to the History of Andman and Nicobar Islands before 1789 – Andaman Chronicle
7. The Jarawa – Tribes and Campaigns – Survival International
8. Tribal population of Andaman and Nicobar has declined: Census Report – Down to Earth
9. Q&A – Pygmy Negritos of the Andaman Island – Steve Sailer – UPI National Correspondent
10. Early human migrations – Lemuria (continent) – Andaman and Nicobar Islands – Shompen People – Andamanese People – Nicobar Islands – Japanese Occupation of the Andaman Islands – Wikipedia
11. Mother’s Agenda – Institute of Evolutionary Research, New York