Q&A: Pygmy Negritos of Andaman Islands

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent   |   Sept. 9, 2002 at 1:51 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 6 (UPI) -- In an era when we are routinely encouraged to celebrate diversity, perhaps no group of humans on Earth is more diverse yet less celebrated than the tiny but fierce Pygmy Negritos of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. They provide some of the best examples of what modern humans were like when they first emerged out of Africa dozens of millennia ago.

Wildlife biodiversity conservation is a hugely popular cause today, but little thought is given to preservation of human biodiversity, nor to protection of the few remaining Stone Age cultures. Yet, the Andamanese Negrito tribes have been decimated by contact with the modern world and its germs. Fortunately, one remaining tribe on isolated North Sentinel Island continues to drive off outsiders with swarms of arrows.

George H. J. Weber, a Swiss businessman and independent scholar, is the founder of the Andaman Association and creator of the encyclopedic andaman.org Web site, which is the leading source for information on these almost unknown but fascinating people.

Weber took time out to answer United Press International's questions.

UPI: Who are the Pygmy Negritos of the Andaman Islands?

Weber: They are a group living since deep prehistoric times on the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. Although politically part of India, the islands are geographically closer to Thailand than to India. Until less than 200 years ago, the islands' sole inhabitants were several tribes of Negritos. They had a fearsome and fully deserved reputation for killing any outsiders they found trying to land on their islands, from would-be traders to shipwrecked sailors. Their islands lie right across ancient sea trading routes, but no outside group has succeeded in establishing a foothold there until in 1858, the British established a penal colony and introduced convicts, jailers and diseases. Genetic evidence hints at a Negrito residence in the islands going back more than 30,000 years, and possibly reaching as far back as 60,000 years. It is thought that the surviving Negritos are a remnant population representing an early -- perhaps the earliest -- migration out of Africa of modern Homo sapiens. That such an early population could have survived into our days is a major miracle, made possible only by the Andamanese ferocity toward outsiders and their geographical isolation over tens of thousands of years.

Q: What are they like?

A: Although living in the middle of Asia, they are totally unlike what we today think of as "Asian." They look more like Africans or aboriginal Australians. Most are small to tiny (that is why they are often called "Pygmies"), and of slim and elegant appearance. The average height for adult men is just under 150 cm (4'-10.5") and for adult women 137 cm (4'-6").

Their traditional technology is the simplest and most ancient still in use in today's world. It is a technology of a sort that was in use in tropical areas around the world 40,000 or more years ago. In spite of its surface simplicity, their tools are in fact quite sophisticated and perfectly adapted to an uncompromisingly hunter-gatherer way of life. Bow and arrows and canoes are known, as are simple stone tools and basketry of high esthetic value. Most remarkably for a people with a Paleolithic technology and living as hunter-gatherers, they do have pottery -- very simple pottery, but pottery all the same.

Q: Are there other Pygmy Negritos in the world?

A: In the final analysis all humans are related -- we all originated in Africa.

Most specialists would agree that some tiny remnant groups surviving in remote areas in the Philippines, peninsular Malaysia, and Thailand are indeed Negrito and closely related to the Andamanese. None of these groups has preserved its original language, so in this respect the Andamanese remain unique.

Just how closely these groups are related to each other and to other groups elsewhere in Asia and outside, only future DNA analyses can tell. DNA samples have been taken from Andamanese by Indian scientists -- they have exclusive access -- but whether, when, where, or how their results will be published is anybody's guess.

A relationship with Australian aborigines and Papuan New Guinean/Melanesian groups is likely. There is some evidence of a more distant relationship with the Khoisan (the Bushmen/Hottentot peoples of Southern Africa; they have the oldest DNA haplotype known), and perhaps some other African people such as the Mbuti pygmies of Central Africa. All these connections will need to await DNA analysis.

Physical anatomy and archaeology cannot definitively answer these questions. However, the fact that Khoisan and Andamanese are today the only living people with the genetic trait of steatopygia ("fat bottom") gives both a potential link of some kind to Ice Age Europe. Many Ice Age "Venus figurines" show the trait.

The same goes for the highly controversial possibility that Australoid/Negritoid people were in the Americas in small numbers before the modern Amerindians. The "Luzia" skull found in Brazil and the Tierra del Fuegians of the southern tip of South America perhaps give a hint, but hard evidence has yet to be produced.

Just what surprises can pop up in the search for possible Negrito relatives is shown by the very recent confirmation that there are indeed Negritoid people in the Arab peninsula. They are at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Yemen and seem to have been missed by the few genetic sample takers that have ever been there. If the Yemeni Negritos are confirmed, it would show that modern Homo sapiens may have left Africa not only through the Egypt/Sinai route but also through the Somali/Yemen route.

We have recently started a section called "Relatives?" on Andaman.Org, and even though not complete yet (we are working hard at it), a visit there for those interested in these questions is recommended.

Q: What's been happening to the Jarawa tribe in the Andamans?

A: In the last few years ago, the Jarawa tribe has largely given up its old hostility toward all outsiders. The result was predictable: a large number of diseases have struck and violent crime is on the rise. The latest reports received privately speak of 50 percent infection rate with Hepatitis B among Jarawas (only a few months ago it was said to be 30 percent). Other diseases are rampant and one official has carelessly let slip that there is AIDS among the Jarawa. Officially, of course, all is well.

You had better heed local advice when meeting with Jarawa. Thanks to grossly incompetent government policies in the past, you are likely to meet them on the Andaman trunk road where they will hijack your bus and not be satisfied with a handshake, but instead will demand goodies -- or else. Such is progress in the Andamans.

Q: Why are Andamanese so vulnerable to the outside world?

A: They have been isolated from other people for a long time and have never had a chance to develop resistance against outside diseases. The Andamanese do have a limited immunity against malaria (a very ancient human scourge), but the common cold or an ordinary flu, let alone pneumonia, measles or venereal diseases, can be deadly to them.

Q: What's special about the North Sentinel Islanders?

A: They are the only Andamanese group that is today still as isolated as all the Andamanese were in the past. That they live on a coral-fringed island in stormy waters has protected them until now from those do-gooders who would "bring them into the mainstream of Indian society," as the nationalist phrase has it. For just what this expression means in reality, the Jarawa situation provides an all too clear illustration.

Q: Is their future safe?

A: "Missions of friendship" to the Sentineli have started only a few years ago. Just as with the Jarawa, most were junkets for visiting VIPs, camouflaged by being called "scientific." They were hurriedly aborted after the Jarawa catastrophe burst over the guilty administrators at Port Blair, the main city of the Andamans. At the moment, the Sentineli are left alone again and all development plans have been put on ice. May they long remain there.

Q: Have you ever met an Andamanese?

A: Not met to shake hands, no; to watch from afar, yes. When my wife and I were in the Andamans in 1995, we were offered the opportunity to visit a Jarawa camp in the jungle and shake hands with them for $200. The offer came from a ranking bush police officer and tribal welfare administrator. After much agonizing, we decided not to have anything to do with it. Still, ever since we have been in two minds about it: we know we did the right thing, morally, but still wish we had met the Jarawa.

Q: The protection of animal and plant biodiversity has become very popular in recent years. Should that be extended to human biodiversity?

A: That is a hard one. Human biodiversity hardly exists since genetic differences among all of us are minute (but still sufficient to trace ancient wanderings and group relationships). What set us apart are cultural differences and I do not think these can be preserved artificially except in the most unusual circumstances. As it happens, the Sentineli Islanders are in just such a highly unusual situation. They could be preserved ... provided they are left alone.

The only solution to the dilemma of "leaving alone while doing research" that I can see is to introduce a husband-and-wife team to the Sentineli. They would have to be brave indeed since their chances of surviving introduction will not be overwhelming. Once successfully introduced, they would have to live with the Sentineli exactly as the Sentineli do for some time (ideally, years) without outside contact. It would be just as hard to find anyone willing to do this as it would be to introduce them safely to the Sentineli - but it is the only way I can see of finding out more about the Sentineli without destroying them. The only alternative is to REALLY leave them alone.

Q: Why do you find the Andamanese so interesting?

A: Originally, I stumbled over the Andamanese Negrito more than a decade ago when I wanted to write an article on the most obscure, least researched but still living language family (note: family, not individual language).

With the Andamanese, I certainly got what I was looking for -- in spades. First, I hit a brick wall. Nobody seemed to do research. Little had been published and that a hundred years ago. Access to the Andamanese was limited to Indian citizens, and Indian scientists did not deign to respond to my inquiries nor had they published much. My head and brick walls are well suited for each other -- and so I charged.

I am pleased to say that in the end the wall lost. What I discovered was so unexpected and fascinating that I have kept at it ever since. The planned article has now appeared and forms the foundation of our linguistics chapters on www.andaman.Org. I then started to write up my material for a book, but (perhaps understandably) no sane publisher was interested. A few of us then started the Andaman Association with a Web site to interest a wider public in our subject and to publish some of our material.

Q: Why do you keep working so hard on Andaman issues?

A: Boredom is not a problem at the Andaman Association. We all now enjoy the chance of meeting or corresponding with highly interesting people from an enormous variety of sciences and other walks of life, people that none of us here would ever have met or corresponded with if our website and interest did not exist. Every week there are e-mails with new and surprising data, advance notice of forthcoming publications, rumors, hints, suggestions, questions.

That we are not researchers ourselves and not involved in the academic rat race makes us a trusted and neutral hub for anyone. We have also found that as non-specialists, we can contribute a wider perspective to many specialists' work. So, we have a lot of fun doing what we want to do, and at the same time, we do something that nobody else seems to be doing.

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