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The Tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The tribes living in the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar are considered to be some of the oldest tribes of the world. They have a total of six tribes – 2 Mongoloid and 4 Negrito. These tribes have occupied the entire island for several centuries.

Negrito Tribes

1. The Great Andamanese

Among the different tribes that inhabit the islands of Andaman and Nicobar, the Great Andamanese were once the largest tribe to inhabit the islands of Andaman. Back in the year 1789 there were approximately 10,000 tribal who belonged to this tribe. But by the year 1901, their population decreased to 625 which further lowered to a shocking 19 by 1969. The tribe then slowly began to increase its population. The census of 1971 showed that there were 24 Andamanese living on the island which slowly increased to 41 by 1999. The administration of India is working very hard to try and preserve this ancient tribe. The tribal themselves also have taken steps in order to protect themselves by rehabilitating to an island known as Strait Island. The Great Andamanese consisted primarily of foragers but today their diet includes dal, rice, chapatti and several food items which are considered to be relatively modern. They have learnt to add spices to their food. Even now they sometimes do go out hunting. The traditional diet of the Andamanese includes dugong, fish, turtle eggs, turtle, tubers, roots and crabs. They occasionally eat pork and the monitor lizard found in the Andaman water. Since they live along the coast, they sometimes add octopus and other mollusks to their diet. Due to the modern influence on the tribe, some of them have started to cultivate vegetables while others have established poultry farms.

2. Onge

The Onges happen to be one of the most primitive tribes in all of India. They are part of a Negrito racial stock and now have been largely relegated to a reservation in Dugong Creek located in the Little Andaman Island. The tribe is semi – nomadic and even now remains completely dependent on whatever food the nature provides them with. Fortunately or unfortunately (we may never know) the tribe has come in contact with the modern lifestyle due to the efforts of the people to befriend them. The Administration of India has now provided them with facilities like food, clothes, pucca houses, medicine etc. their diet includes roots, fish, turtle, jack fruit etc. The Onges are highly skilled in crafts and artistry. They are specifically skilled in making great canoes. At the settlement of Dugong Creek which the Onges have made their home, the government has constructed a primary school.

3. Jarawas

The Jarawa tribes inhabiting the western coasts of the Middle and South Andaman are estimated to be 341 in number. They lead a regular tribal life which is concentrated largely on hunting and gathering. Ministry of Home Affairs along with the A & N Administration and Ministry of Tribal Affairs of India finalized a policy for the protection of the Jarawa tribe which came into effect on December of 2004. To make sure that the traditional forest based food of the Jarawas does not deplete, the government of India has increased the area of Jarawa reserve from just 847 sq.kms to 1028 sq.kms. The Primary Health Center in Tushnabad and G.B.Pant Hospital in Port Blair have exclusive wards which are specifically reserved to members of the Jarawa tribe. A buffer zone of about 5 km all across the Jarawa Reserve forest has been declared to ensure that the tourists do not make them a target to satisfy their curiosity.

4. Sentinelese

The Sentinelese inhabit the Island of North Sentinel which covers an area of approximately 60 sq.kms. They are considered to have roots dating back to the Paleolithic period and also the only surviving tribe from that age. They still continue to remain shy of the rest of the world and hence do not communicate with them. It is believed that the Sentinelese are related to the Onge and the Jarawa tribes which have managed to gain a different identity due to the change in their habitation. The Sentinelese are considered to be very hostile and are known to never get off of their island. Hence not much is known about them.

Mongoloid Tribe

1. Shompens

The Great Nicobar is inhabited by Shompen who also happen to be one of the largest tribes to inhabit the Nicobar Islands. The Shompens are largely classified into two divisions. The smaller division is known as the Mawa Shompens who stay at the area along the coasts in the valleys of the river. Although shy they are very intimate with Nicobarese. The other segment forms the major group which inhabits the area along the Galathia and Alexendra rivers. The past has been witness to several attacks being made by the hostile Shompens on the Mawa Shompens. But no such incident is reported to occur now. The reason behind this is considered to be the reduction in population of the Shompens due to attack of several diseases. The Shompens are considered to be physically weak and hence are victims of frequently occurring diseases. Ever since a settlement was established at Campbell Bay, the Shompens have remained fairly regular visitors and have been gradually getting rid of their shyness.

2. Nicobarese

With a population of about 30,000, this tribe possibly has the largest population among all the tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and most of the population has converted to Christianity. They inhabit Car Nicobar which was almost washed away during the Tsunami which occurred in 2004. Unlike most of the tribes here, the Nicobarese are largely pig – herders or horticulturists. The families are patriarchal with most of the families living jointly under a single roof. This tribe has accepted the modern way of life and has prospered and multiplied while the remaining five still continue to live the way their ancestors lived, off the land. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands had remained untouched by the rest of the world for a very long time. Hence it has maintained its uniqueness with the tribes of the island being very different from any other found in the rest of the world.