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Indigenous Tribes on India's Andaman Islands Survive Tsunami Disaster

India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands bore the full brunt of the tsunami, generated by the massive Asian earthquake. On Car Nicobar, one of the more heavily populated of the 500 islands, as many as 10,000 people are missing, and aid groups say the death toll could rise. The island chain is home to several small indigenous tribes, and anthropologists say their already precarious existence may be threatened by the disaster.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands have been home to primitive indigenous tribes for tens-of-thousands of years. According to anthropologist Rudolf Ryser, chairman of the U.S.-based Center for World Indigenous Studies, many of the tribes' numbers have dwindled in recent years.

"The Onge have a population estimated in 1991 to be about 101 people. But at the turn of the 20th century, they had 677, who were counted at the time," he said.

Mr. Ryser says the tribal people because of their relative isolation have little resistance to diseases common among larger populations, which explains their dwindling numbers, as the newcomers and tourists have populated the islands.

Some people fear that the devastation from the tsunami and floods may push some indigenous groups into extinction. But S. Chatterjee, joint secretary at India's Ministry of Tribal Affairs in New Delhi, tells VOA that aerial surveys indicate the situation may not be as dire as initially predicted.

Of the five primitive tribal communities on the Andaman archipelago, he says, four are believed to have come through relatively unscathed. As for the fifth, the Shompen, he says it remains to be seen how many survived.

"They, as one can see from the map, could have been the worst affected,” he noted. “Although aerial surveys have been made, we have no information as of yet. We are trying to send some people on foot, some social workers, to find out the whereabouts of the Shompens."

The Shompens, like the Sentinelese, Onges, Jarawas and Great Andamanese, are tribal groups of Mongoloid and African origin, and were the first inhabitants of the islands. Mr. Chatterjee says, unlike the Nicobaris, another tribal people in the Andaman territories who number 26,000 strong, these groups are very small in number, and survive on hunting and gathering.

"They do fishing and food gathering and hunting,” he explained. “They have not yet reached the agricultural level of development."

One indigenous tribe, the Sentinelese, fiercely resist all contact with the outside world, and have been known to fire blow darts at those who do try to make contact. Mr. Chatterjee says the Indian military has flown reconnaissance flights over North Sentinel Island to determine how they fared.

"During the course of an aerial survey, they have reportedly been sighted, so we presume that they are also safe," he added.

The Andaman and Nicobar territories are made up of more than 500 islands, located some 14 hundred kilometers southeast of India's mainland. Approximately 350,000 people live on 30-to-40 of the islands. The tiny islands are so close to the epicenter of the massive Asian earthquake, that the tsunami hit them almost immediately.

The origins of the indigenous tribes still mystify anthropologists. According to Rudolf Ryser, genetic evidence suggests that the tribal people are linked to the oldest homo sapiens.

"The evidence, in so far as physical anthropology can determine, is that these populations arrived in this area about 2000 years ago,” he said. “But then again, physical evidence doesn't necessarily prevent you from determining that it might be much earlier, because as we can tell from the recent devastation in the region, it doesn't take an awful lot to wipe out natural ornamentation. But probably, the real evidence of some use here is to suggest that this population is rooted in a population that is about 70,000 years old."

India's Ministry of Tribal Affairs has dispatched a team including an anthropologist, to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to make a firsthand inspection.

Meanwhile, aftershocks continue to rattle the region, and a volcano on the island chain has erupted spewing lava into the surrounding sea. Indian authorities are operating flights to the mainland for those people who want to leave.