Andamanese Indigenous people

Cultural Antropology of the Indigenous Andamanese People

An Introduction to the Andamanese tribes

The Andamanese people
by Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Wikipedia

The tribes of indigenous natives, residing in the Andaman islands, comprising Negrito hunters, are the Andamanese. Did you know that, back in 1908, Andamanese was the term used to refer to 13 different native tribal groups? At present, however, only four tribes come under the classification of the Andamanese natives.

The Sentinel on the North Sentinel island, the Ongees residing on Little Andaman island, the Great Andamanese located on strait island, and the Jarwas of the middle Andaman are those four native tribal groups.

Geographical location

Located in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman islands are known to be an archipelago consisting of 348 islands. This area is known to be blanketed with densely packed tropical rainforest. Of the 8293 square kilometers of the total land area, about 7464 square kilometers are known to be blanketed with these forests. The central, as well as the northern island’s area, is, geographically speaking, mountainous and hilly. However, offshore coral reefs surround the southern islands. The annual precipitation is pretty high in this archipelago, almost 275 to 455 centimeters per year.  If you want to visit the area during the dry season, then you will only find it between February and March.

Languages

The Andamanese language family is classified into two major branches, namely proto-Little Andamanese and proto-Great Andamanese. Sentinelese, Jarwa, and Ongee are three subgroups that come under the proto-Little Andamanese. Bo, Baie of South Andamanese, and Bea are subgroups of proto-Great Andamanese. Older records state that the tribal natives used to speak different dialects completely unintelligible from each other. However, newer research by experts in the field indicates that there is some crossover of spoken terms between each subgroup.

Historical timeline of the Andamanese tribes

A curious similarity between Ongees that reside in insular southeast Asia and the Andamanese has been found. Some experts debate the origin of the Andamanese as a result of migration via Malay or Burmese coasts. Even after all this time, their factual origin remains speculation, yet to be confirmed. The presence of the Andamanese came to light in 1788, through the explorations of the British. Many of their usually successful strategies of approach didn’t work with the Andamanese tribes. All attempts at trade and negotiation with the natives failed.

The Andamanese tribes turned out to be extremely protective of their native lands and any attempts to get in touch with them by the British were seen as an invasion. The hostilities with the Andamanese as well as the coral reefs that surrounded the island forced the British to find a harbor elsewhere. After a long time, from the first contact, in 1859, the British succeeded in making a safe harbor for their future trade route in Port Blair.

Peace talks

A garden party at Viper Island, South Andaman, 1930.
A garden party at Viper Island, South Andaman, 1930. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement, The Hindu

There were a great many attempts by the British to pacify the local natives, which in time did start showing results. The British administration even tried implementing a demanding home strategy that offered permanent housing to the local natives. Around 1875, scholars and scientific researchers realized that the Andamanese culture was on the brink of extinction. After the realization of the scientific groups, anthropologists started documenting the various aspects of the Andamanese culture.

After the independence of India in 1947, the Andamanese people came under the banner of the Indian government. Presently, the Andaman islands are under the banner of the Union Territory of India.

The Indian government has tried to implement many economic development efforts as well as social welfare campaigns. And yet the Andamanese culture continues to disappear. The Sentinelese as well as the Jarwas are found outside the welfare activities and are structured administration. Despite all attempts by the social workers and the governments, however, the native Andamanese culture has been steadily fading away. The Great Andamanese group has almost no remaining traditions and customs of their own ancestors.

The economy of the Andamanese people

Group of Andaman Men and Women in Costume, Some Wearing Body Paint And with Bows and Arrows, Catching Turtles from Boat on Water
by Murray, Colin. Bourne and Shepherd – Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives: NM 40922 04421302

The Andamanese culture is characterized by hunting and gathering. The patterns change depending on the season. Even up to this date, the Jarwas as well as the Sentinelese, who keep themselves away from outsider interference, are dependent on this. The Ongees prefer plantation and cultivation of coconuts ever since 1958. They may be associated with the gathering of coconuts. However, they do not associate themselves with agriculture in any way. In return for their coconut gathering, the social welfare agencies offer them food rations as well as other modern products.

Back in time, they used to be dependent completely on products from the forest. It is being replaced by industrial products from mainland India increasingly with time. Fishing is one of the most significant aspects of Andamanese culture. It is usually done with bows and arrows in the sea. Mostly done during low tide throughout the year. Fishing nets, which are handheld as well as hooks and lines, are also used. Ongees have also been known to hunt sea turtles with harpoons. Hunting and gathering activities depend highly on the season and seasonal changes. During the monsoon, pig hunting using bows and arrows is one of the major ways of getting food for the Andamanese.

In 1850, dogs were introduced to the Andamanese people. Ever since then, dogs have been a reliable partner to the natives for tracking down pigs in the forest.

Cultural aspects of the Andamanese culture

Cultural ceremony on the Andaman islands
by A British-era photograph of Andaman Island’s tribal people dancing. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Marriages in the tribes are decided by elders and tribal groups. The tribal societies are led by men, as in most indigenous cultures. The relatives of a married man demand gifts from the father of the bride. The continued decline in the number of natives has caused the closest relatives among the Andamanese to get married. Even very older counterparts in most cases.

Monogamy is a strictly followed concept among the Andamanese tribes. Completely varying from the Indian cultural tradition, newly married couples in Ongees groups stay at the wife’s side of the family as long as a child is born. Divorce is considered an immoral concept by the Andamanese natives. Especially after a child is born.

Once a child is born, the wife’s side of the family takes care of the child until they are of age for initiation. The father’s side of the family takes care of the training as well as the education of a young child. After the menstruation of a girl, they come in closer contact with the mother’s side of the family. Boys and girls are both educated about the forest as well as hunting and gathering.

Settlement structures

Seasonal changes dictate the patterns of settlement that the Andamanese people arrange in their accommodations. From October to February, thatched huts are arranged in circular arrangements. This settlement is usually near the coastal regions. It has been seen that the hearts of newly married people who are unmarried are not found in this circular arrangement. From me to September it is time for hunting pigs. due to this panda money’s people move from the coastal regions towards the forest. It is also the optimum time for collecting honey, fruits as well as various kinds of tubers.

During this time, the archipelago is heavily influenced by rainstorms. Due to the adverse climate, fishing or hunting turtles from the sea has become almost impossible.

Sociopolitical structures

Picture of Great Andamanese men, women and children, 1876
by Maurice Vidal Portman (1861-1935) – Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, Wikipedia

The difference in dialect in some cases results in the formation of different social groups. As in the case of the Andamanese natives, traditional speakers of the dialect have their own closely-knit community. These local autonomous divisions can be found to be even more divided into smaller groups of people. Despite their differences, however, these groups practice cross-marriages between their tribes. This helps control any possibility of conflict. The elders oversee these groups and control any possibility of feuds from time to time.

Resolving feuds inside the tribes

Resolving feuds inside the Andamanese tribes
by listwand.com

It is quite a curious system of conflict control that the Andamanese people practice. It’s called the “going away”. To understand further, you need to know the reasoning first. The Andamanese people have been on an unfortunate slope of decline in the last few centuries. This called for measures to be taken to mitigate any internal conflict that may arise. The “going away” practice was thus birthed by the elders. When a person gets offended in a gathering, they usually express their displeasure by breaking down some property at the camp and then leave the campsite towards the forest for a few days. This is highly encouraged to mitigate any chances of a rise in the conflict. During the time the offended person has left for the forest, the rest of the people fix up any of the damage.

Most of the time, the conflicts were mitigated by avoidance. In rare cases, when conflicts did arise, women played a pivotal role in the resolution of such queries. They act as a channel between both parties for negotiations. The resolution of queries was done in feasts that had both the offender and the offending party present. In some cases, if the conflict is between people of different dialects, the peacemaking ceremony stretches to a series of feasts and peace talks conducted over time.

Art forms among native Andamanese people

Artform of the indigenous Jaraw Andamanese people
by The Jarawa tribe has lives on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean for 55,000 yearsCredit: CLAIRE BEILVERT

The most significant aspect of art in the Andamanese culture is body and face painting. Every lineage in the tribes has their separate designs passed down from their ancestors. These ancient patterns are painted on the faces and bodies of both genders. The paint is usually created with a combination of colored clay; red, yellow, white, and pig fat alongside some water. These patterns are applied to the face and body of individuals through comb-like tools and fingers. Body painting is seen mostly during special ceremonies, while face painting is done daily on a routine basis.

Women are the more common pattern painters in most families. In different ceremonies that usually involve singing, both genders adorn themselves with ornaments made of shells. The songs are usually a traditional style that gets passed on from generation to generation. Newer songs aren’t made, the ancient songs passed down by elders are kept being taken up by the newer generations. The traditional songs contain mythological events as their prevalent subject matter.

The crying form of singing

Especially in the case of Ongees people, the traditional songs are in the format of mourning. Songs are sung in a way that it appears to an outsider as if people were weeping and crying. Dramatic storytelling is another art form practiced by the Andamanese people.

Traditional folk dancing usually accompanies the singing in ceremonies. No musical instruments are usually seen in any of the tribe’s ceremonial activities. The Great Andamanese people remain an exception to this rule due to most of their traditional styles and customs being lost to time.

Medicine in the tribes

The Andamanese people have a belief that states “extreme changes in body temperature is the prevalent reason behind a person’s illness”. If the body temperature of any person varies too greatly from the norm, it results in side effects that follow up with illness. If a person gets too hot, it can result in the release or solidification of fluids of the body during hot and cold extremes. The diagnosis by the village elders determines the way the wound is treated. It is usually done with various clay paints, in which different kinds of herbs can be mixed. The sick part of the body may be tied with strings and made to bleed by cutting open the affected area as well. Massage is another way of doing the same.

Supernatural myths also play a large part in tribal medicinal applications. For example, the tribal natives wear the bones of their relatives that have passed away to ward off evil spirits from themselves. It is a prevalent belief among the Andamanese tribal natives that the ancestral spirits take care of their relatives even from the afterlife.

The myth of the afterlife

There are curious myths related to death and the afterlife among the Andamanese tribes. Even after a person dies, their spirit is considered immortal. It is believed among the Andamanese people that the spirit either escapes to the forest or the sea. The inhabitants of the coastal area are believed to be the spirit of the sea (Jurua) and the spirit of the forest (Lua).

It is believed that those that pass away due to accidents turn into malevolent spirits due to a lack of ceremonial burial.

 

The Andamanese are a reclusive indigenous tribe, unfortunately on the brink of extinction. While the social welfare programs by the Indian government helped in stabilizing their numbers, the cultural aspects of the natives faded with increasing familiarity with the outside world. The Great Andamanese group is an unfortunate example of the lost customs.

If you plan to visit the Andaman archipelago and interact with the natives, be respectful of their customs.

Have fun exploring your adventures!

 

 

 

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