Background on the tribes of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands

January 6, 2005

This page was created in 2005 and may contain language which is now outdated.

The Andaman Islands are home to four 'Negrito' tribes – the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese. The Nicobar Islands are home to two 'Mongoloid' tribes – the Shompen and Nicobarese.

The 'Negrito' tribes are believed to have arrived in the islands from Africa up to 60,000 years ago. All are nomadic hunter-gatherers, hunting wild pig and monitor lizard, and catching fish with bows and arrows. They also collect honey, roots and berries from the forest.

The 'Mongoloid' tribes probably came to the islands from the Malay-Burma coast several thousand years ago.

* Great Andamanese: Population 43. The tribe that has suffered most from contact with outsiders: 99% have been wiped out since the British first colonized the islands. Before the tsunami they lived in a government settlement and were dependent on government aid. They have just been moved to the islands' capital, Port Blair, as their village was badly damaged in the tsunami.

* Onge: Population 100. Their forest home has been plundered by poachers and loggers. They were settled by the Indian administration and are dependent on food handouts. The 73 Onge living at Dugong Creek fled to high ground when they saw the sea level fall, and so survived.

* Jarawa: Population about 270. Have only had peaceful contact with outsiders for six years. They live on the west coast of South and Middle Andaman, and are believed to have survived the tsunami. They are still completely independent and live entirely by hunting, gathering and fishing. The main threat to their existence comes from the highway running through their territory: the Indian government was ordered to close this by the Supreme Court in 2002, but it has ignored the order.

* Sentinelese: Population estimated at 50-250. The most isolated of all the tribes, they have no peaceful contact with outsiders, and fire warning arrows at those who approach. Their home, Sentinel Island, appears to have been relatively unaffected by the tsunami, and some Sentinelese have been sighted since the disaster. They are completely self-sufficient hunter-gatherers.

* Shompen: Population 380. A relatively isolated tribe of Great Nicobar Island, the Shompen are hunter-gatherers who have some, limited, contact with outsiders. Overflights of their territory suggest their forest has been little damaged, raising hopes that the tribe has survived more or less intact.

* Nicobarese: Population 30,000. Unlike the other tribes, the Nicobarese are largely horticulturalists. Most have converted to Christianity, and are much more assimilated than the other Andaman and Nicobar tribes, but still maintain their own distinct culture. The Nicobarese have also suffered much more from the tsunami. All 12 villages on one island, Car Nicobar, have been washed away, and many are feared dead.

A note on terminology: the tribal people of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are neither 'primitive' nor living in the 'stone age'. Their way of life has not remained unchanged for thousands of years. Like all peoples, their cultures have been continuously evolving. There is no reason why the tribes cannot both survive and thrive, as long as their lands and resources are secure.

Survival's Andaman campaigners, Sophie Grig and Miriam Ross, have both spent several weeks in the Andamans, and are in close touch with contacts there. Tel (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or email [email protected]

Photos and footage available.