When the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a tribal tsunami warning system kept the indigenous people safe from the ravaging waves. On the Andaman Islands, where the Onge people had resided for 30,000 years, an oral tradition taught the Onge people that the shaking of the ground preceded destructive waves. They made their way to higher ground – suffering no casualties.
On the Nicobar Islands, in contrast, the tribes had only been around for up to 600 years. With no foreknowledge, they suffered the most. Up to a third of their population either died or went missing in the aftermath. The situation was similar for the ‘Indian’ part of the island – Port Blair was designed with European conceptions of ports in water (the waters in Europe yield no Tsunamis). Large parts of it, including the airstrip, were in direct path of the tsunami waves.
It was yet another example that the indigenous people knew best when it came to taking care of themselves. As ‘development’ encroached upon their lands, many tribes have found that adapting to the ‘civilized’ customers spelled their own doom. The experience of the Onge people of the little Andaman island is testimony to this.
They have a genetic lineage that dates to the Palaeolithic era – part of the first wave of humans leaving Africa by boat. Thousands of years of unbroken history mean their genetic code preserves ancient DNA – and their language too is a proto one.
This heritage began to crack in 1825, when they first met the British. Until 1867, little contact existed between the two. But that year, a British expedition went awry, resulting in a clash with the Onges – described then as a ‘cannibalistic’ tribe. 70 were killed by British firing, ten percent of the tribe’s population at the time.
It was all downhill from there. Following the Revolt of 1857, a penal colony was set up on the islands. Disease and land encroachment began to push other Andaman tribal groups out of their lands. With independence, India inherited the failed British colonizing mission – attempting to resettle them and change their diet to one of rice and lentils. The government tried to teach them Hindi, but all they learned were hit songs from Hindi films. Making matters worse, settlers encouraged the Onges to give them turtle eggs, honey and wild boar meat in exchange for alcohol. Soon, the Onges had an addiction problem.
The Onges suffered from some of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and their numbers dropped from under a thousand in the beginning of the 20th century to around a hundred today. Matters were made worse when six died after drinking from a bottle that washed up on shore – thinking it was alcohol.
The deal with change
Lifestyles on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands survived millennia without significant shakeup. The indigenous peoples are varied, and hail from proto-civilizations that first migrated from Africa to the Indian subcontinent. As journalist Pankaj Sekhsaria wrote in his anthology on the archipelago, “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph.”
Respecting this, anthropologists and journalists have often advised against furthering contact with the indigenous. Even the government’s policy is to stay away – even if it means letting murder go unpunished. But contact is inevitable. The Jarawa, once an isolated tribe, are now a part of the landscape – their land hewed in two by the Grand Trunk Road. What protected habitats they once inhabited were cut down in increasing ambition by the settlers.
Left to their own devices, the indigenous tribes have persisted on the islands for thousands of years. They have an understanding of the local ecology, and show few signs of damaging it on a large scale. It’s a similar story when you consider the Adivasi non-agrarian communities in the mainland.
Displacing the tribal has historically come at the cost of the environment. Human civilization, with its endless milieu of political, economic and social structures may seem like a creation far outside the comprehension of a tribal populace. But our same complex setup is on course to bringing us a host of manmade natural disasters in the future. We have made conservation complex – whereas the Jarawas have kept things simple.
As is the case, the solution in the Andamans is not going to be simple. Few tribes exist that have not seen their numbers drop dramatically. Settlers moved in from India and parts of Bangaldesh, making the island their own. The Andaman and Nicobar’s new inhabitants will have to learn how to negotiate their local ecology, the rising sea-levels and threat of future tsunamis as well as the people they have shunted out. We need to learn from the tribes before there are none left to learn from.
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