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Stone-Age Tribes Believed Unharmed By Tsunami-Earthquake Disaster

by Jim Lobe

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the Andamans

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Asia's last Paleolithic tribes appear to have survived last Sunday's tsunamis, despite the fact that their homelands in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Andaman Sea were among the hardest hit of all the areas affected by the catastrophe.

Survival International (SI), a London-based group that tries to defend the world's most vulnerable Native peoples, said that four of the five most isolated groups on the islands -- the Jarawa, the Onge, the Sentinelese, and the Great Andamanese -- may have suffered little, if any loss of life.

A fifth group, the 380-strong Shompen, have not yet been accounted for on Great Nicobar Island, but SI said it believes that the group's strong preference for living in the deep forest, rather than on the coasts, makes it likely that they avoided the waves' impact.

The largest and most integrated group by far, the 30,000-strong Nicobarese, suffered the greatest damage. All 12 villages on one island, Car Nicobar, were washed away, and initial reports indicated that as many 3,500 people were either killed or are now missing.

Sophie Grig, SI's Andamans campaigner, said she expected the isolated communities to be less affected in the long term because they do not rely on an extensive infrastructure.

"They build their own houses, hunt their own food and are entirely self-sufficient and therefore won't suffer in the same way as the settler communities who use roads, and boat services and rely on others to build their houses or to buy and sell their food," she told IPS. "As long as the fresh water supplies of the isolated peoples are intact, then they should be able to continue their lives just as they've always done."

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are administered by India, are geographically much closer to Burma and Thailand, stretching along a 435-mile archipelago about 400 miles directly north of the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunamis that killed at least 150,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

Latest reports said that only about 1,000 inhabitants of the 550-island chain are confirmed dead, but relief agencies were predicting that the eventual toll could reach as many as 20,000 out of a total population of about 300,000. Among the losses were hundreds of Indian military personnel at an air force base in the islands.

The islands are home to some of the world's most ancient Stone-Age peoples.

The Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese are all African in origin and are believed to have settled in the Andaman Islands as long as 60,000 years ago. Despite their apparently common continental origin and geographical proximity, the languages of the four tribes are mutually unintelligible.

All four, however, share a similar way of life. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the forest and fish in coastal waters.

Grig said that the isolated peoples should not be grouped together with other communities and given rations and other supplies that they might come to depend on.

"The isolated communities have remained isolated from their own choice -- they have made it clear that they wish to remain independent from outsiders and have defended themselves and their land from the settlers," Grig said. "Therefore, I would imagine that they will continue to resist outside help, even if it's offered."

The Indian government turned down offers of international aid for the islands on Monday, saying it had "enough assets at its disposal."

Very little is known about the 270 Jarawa, who lived in complete isolation in western part of the South and Middle Andamans until the late 1990s. Living in bands of between 40 and 50 members, they hunt wild pig and monitor lizard, fish with bows and arrows, and gather seeds, berries and honey.

The Jarawa have been threatened primarily by the encroachment of settlers, greatly facilitated by the building of a road through their forest in 1970. In May 2002, the Indian Supreme Court ordered that road to be closed, settlers removed from the area, and all logging banned, but the government has so far been slow to enforce its decree.

SI, which is pressing for compliance with the court's order, said that reports from the area indicate that the Jarawa were almost certainly living in the forest at the time that the tsunami struck.

The Onge, who have lived in two government-built settlements in Little Andamans since 1976, reportedly fled to high ground as the sea level fell, and are currently being supported by a nearby community in a schoolhouse. The group, which numbered over 600 in 1901, now consists of only about 100 members.

Reports from overflights of Sentinel Island, which is home to the most isolated of all the tribes, indicate that the inhabitants survived the waves, greeting a helicopter that flew over the island, which is impossible to reach by sea, with arrows and rocks. SI, however, reported however that it could not be fully confident of the fate of the Sentinelese because so little is known about them. The estimates of their population before the tsunamis ranged from 50 to 250.

No reliable reports have yet been received regarding the 41 Great Andamanese who live on Strait Island about 30 miles north of Port Blair, the capital of Great Nicobar Island. Once a large and reportedly fierce tribe, the Great Andamanese were defeated in an 1859 battle against the industrial-age British forces, which conducted a series of punitive expeditions over the decades that followed. Only 41 members survive.

The Nicobarese, who, like the Shompens, are Mongoloid in origin, have largely given up their traditional customs and dress, and have been almost fully assimilated into the settler society of Car Nicobar. Some 98 percent of the group profess Christianity, while the rest have converted to Islam. Unlike the other groups, the Nicobarese are horticulturalists, although a significant number work in the government and the private sector.

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Albion Monitor January 3, 2005 (

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