Out of the total number of islands that together form the Union Territory of Andaman and Nicobar, only 36 islands support human settlement; 24 of Andaman Group of Islands and 12 of Nicobar group of Islands.
Today the local population is an amalgamation of the 6 indigenous tribes, descendants of the immigrants from South Asia, Tamilians, Bengalis and the families of the freedom fighters (convicts, as British called them and were lodged here in the ‘Penal Colony’) who decided to make their home here. Also, during 1960s and 70s a sizable group of people were encouraged to settle here as part of the Indian government’s plan to develop agriculture.
The Archipelago in the Bay of Bengal has been a home to tribal groups for over 20,000 years now .Genetic and cultural studies of the indigenous tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Island indicate that these tribes are of Negrito and Mongoloid origin.
How and when they inhabited these islands is not known but study proves that these tribal people may have become isolated from the main group as far back as during the Paleolithic period and then diversified into distinct territorial groups.
Their decline and revival attempts
These groups led a primitive life till 1857. Their hostility towards outsiders prevented any major cultural change till early 20th century. However, unfortunately, the unavoidable exposure to the non-native people, who were more assertive and apathetic, spelt doom for these groups. Communicable diseases and exploitation at the hands of outsiders saw a sharp decline in their population. Very few of them have survived today.
The government is doing its part and is trying its best to protect and help these tribal groups to grow and prosper. While efforts are under way to improve the situation, not much can be done due to limitations; these tribes cannot and should not be ‘tamed’ or forced into ‘settlements’.
The major tribes
The tribal groups of Andaman and Nicobar Islands can be divided into 6 categories. However, they all can be traced back to two races :
a) Negrito – descendants of African Negro race but of much lesser height and lighter skin tone
b) Mongoloid-descendants of Malay (South East Asia) and Mon (Mayanmar).
The tribes are distributed across the islands, each within a specific area as given:
- Great Andamanese of ‘Strait Island’.
- Onges of Little Islands.
- Jarawas of South and Middle Andaman.
- Sentinels of Sentinel Islands.
- Shompens of Great Nicobar
- Nicobarese of Great Nicobar