Did Island Tribes Use Ancient Lore to Evade Tsunami?

January 24, 2005

One of the regions hardest hit by the December 26 tsunami was an extremely remote chain of more than 500 islands known collectively as the Andamans and Nicobars.

Governed by India, the archipelago separates the Bay of Bengal from the Andaman Sea. The islands are home to several hunter-gatherer tribes who until fairly recently have had very little contact with the outside world.

Anthropologists initially feared the tribes could have been completely wiped out. But Indian Air Force pilots flying sorties over the islands days after the tsunami reported seeing men who fired arrows at their helicopters. Since then there have been reports that the islanders used their ancient knowledge of nature to escape the tsunami.

Bernice Notenboom, president of Moki Treks, a travel company specializing in indigenous cultural tourism, is one of the few outsiders to have visited the tribes. She tells National Geographic of her impressions from her visit in April 2003.

How did the indigenous islanders fare in the tsunami? What have you been able to tell so far?

Due to its remoteness, it took several days before reports came out about the dead and missing in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The first reliable reports on the fate of the Andamanese tribes indicate that most have survived.

Their awareness of the ocean, earth, and the movement of animals has been accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the islands. Oral history teachings and their hunter-gatherer lifestyle might have prepared them to move deeper into the forests after they felt the first trembles of the earthquake.

In contrast, the Nicobarese were badly hit. The southernmost island was only 260 miles (418 kilometers) from the epicenter and suffered a series of aftershock earthquakes not one of them less than magnitude 6 [on the moment-magnitude scale] in the days following the big shake. Tens of thousand people are missing and feared dead.

Anthropologists were concerned that in addition to the human tragedy and utter devastation, one of the casualties might be the extinction of some of the very ancient indigenous cultures occupying the islands. What can you tell us about these tribes? Where did they come from?

The tribes present something of an enigma to anthropologists. The four Andaman tribes—the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese—are known as the Negrito tribes and are of African descent. [Editor's Note: DNA evidence suggests these people might be the ancestors of some of the earliest humans to come out of Africa. Some scientists believe the Negrito residence in the islands goes back more than 30,000 years, possibly as far back as 60,000 years.] Those living on the Nicobar Islands—the Shompen and Nicobarese—are of Asian descent.

The Andamanese are hunter-gatherers who until 50 years ago lived mostly in isolation, with little interaction with the outside world. Now, with recent encroachments and settlers penetrating their lands, they have been forced to withdraw farther in the forests. Threatened by disease, overpopulation, Western influence, and lack of resources, most tribes on the islands are endangered and their numbers have dwindled to just a few hundred.

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