Why the Andaman tribes need isolation

Shubhobroto Ghosh

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.39 Published online 27 March 2019

Following heated debate around the killing of an American traveler by the fiercely isolated Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Shubhobroto Ghosh talks to physical anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay on why the genepool of such aborigines need segregated protection.

[John Allen Chau, an American citizen, reportedly a missionary visiting the North Sentinel Island, was killed by the Sentinelese tribesmen on 17 November 2018. Chau’s death has rekindled discussions on whether it is right to approach these isolated tribes. Madhumala Chattopadhyay, now joint director of India’s ministry of social welfare and justice, has been on two anthropological expeditions that established ‘benign contact’ with the Sentinelese between January and February, 1991.]

Nature India: What is the scientific importance of studying isolated tribes, such as those in the Andaman and Nicobar islands?

Madhumala Chattopadhyay: The importance lies in our desire to understand their genetic makeup, culture, social structure, taboos and dietary habits. However, any contact with tribes for scientific studies should be non-exploitative and benign.

Andaman Negritos have similarities with negritos of Philippines and Malaysia and this is an important component that could be probed further. This is also another reason why these tribes in Andaman and Nicobar islands may require isolation.

NI: What efforts have been made to interact with the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar islands?

MC: Since the British colonial days, efforts have been made to interact with the tribes. Distant contact efforts were made even after India’s Independence in 1947. These included leaving coconut-filled gunny bags in areas inhabited by different tribal groups.

The efforts intended to bring these tribes into the mainstream. In areas inhabited by Jarawa tribes, for instance, bush police were deployed with a buffer zone separating them from the rest of the population. Bakhtawar Singh of the bush police force was the first person to establish friendly contact with the Jarawas in 1966 and remained the key person for further contact with them.

NI: How did you get on the contact expeditions to meet the Sentinelese?

MC: I was a research associate at the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) when the first direct physical contact happened with the Sentinelese at Allen Point on North Sentinel Island on 4 January 1991. A 13-member team including S. A. Awaradi, director of Tribal Welfare, and Dr Arun Mullick, both in the Andaman administration, and I went to meet them. The 28-member Sentinelese group did carry weapons during the meeting but hurt no one.

We anchored our ship at a distance and approached the island on a lifeboat. We noticed smoke on the island. The boat was within the arrow range of the Sentinelese, who were gathering on the shore to meet us. We floated gunny bags carrying coconuts towards them. I approached the Sentinelese and spoke to them in a Negrito language that is understood by the other Andaman tribe Onge, hoping they would understand our benign intentions.

Our contact began in the morning and lasted more than seven and half hours with all our team members going back to the anchored ship around lunchtime to get more coconuts. I wrote a report on the contact for the ASI in January 1991.

The second contact happened on 21 February 1991 with cultural anthropologist Triloknath Pandit as an additional member. This time around the Sentinelese did not carry weapons with them and the meeting was more friendly and relaxed than the first one. Subsequently, government contact expeditions were abandoned on the belief that these efforts could harm the Sentinelese.

NI: What were the key anthropological findings of your work on the Andaman tribes?

MC: I published several accounts – 20 research papers and a book ‘Tribes of Car Nicobar’ – on my time spent with the Jarawa and Sentinelese tribes. Besides, the popular press has covered my interaction with the tribes several times.

During my long years of studying the Andaman tribes, I have found remarkable contrasts between the Sentinelese, the Jarawas and the Onges. The differences are not just in physique and customs but also in the way each group reacts to visits from outsiders. The most easily noticed physical disparity is in height – the Sentinelese are taller than the Jarawa and the Onge. The body of the Sentinelese is also more muscular than the other two. Overall the Sentinelese are healthier. Fat deposition on the buttocks of Onge women is quite prominent, among Jarawa women it is less so, and among Sentinelese, such disposition is totally absent. The Sentinelese woman is more akin to her counterpart from the outside world in that she keeps her genitals covered though only with leaves. The Jarawa women go stark naked.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay with a Jarawa tribeswoman.

© Madhumala Chattopadhyay/ASI

However pleasant our team’s attempt at “friendly contact” with the Sentinelese may have been, they are a tribe extremely suspicious of outsiders. The Jarawas by comparison, are much friendlier and even invite outsiders to visit their huts.

The reason the Sentinelese, also known as the Pathan Jarawas, are wary of outsiders is that they have been kidnapped by passing seafarers and taken as slaves in the past. Many of their members were also captured and killed by the British during forced contact endeavours. These bitter experiences have made them very wary of renewing contact with outsiders in recent times.

NI: In the wake of the recent controversy over the killing of an American citizen, what circumstances do you think are fit for establishing contact with the Sentinelese?

MC: Contact has to be responsible and circumstantial. Contact can be established during an epidemic or a natural disaster and the Andaman and Nicobar administration should always be involved in any outreach with the Sentinelese. All these attempts should be benign and any study to understand the social structure of the Sentinelese or any other aboriginal group should be undertaken only after good rapport has been established with the populations. It also helps to learn their language and I did so while studying the Jarawas and other aboriginal tribes.

However, I do recognise that there can be problems regarding contact with tribes. The Jarawas have contracted measles from labourers deputed in their island from Ranchi in Bihar, for deforestation work. Visitors have made films of their courtship activities and sold the films abroad for high prices, misconstruing their lifestyle. All these activities are unethical and damaging to the spirit of scientific research or anthropological study.

Attempts to contact them have to be gradual, patient and empathetic. During emergency contact for medical aid, there is a risk of the medicines being counterproductive. This should also be borne in mind.

The Sentinelese are animists — they worship nature.It has endowed them with life skills which helped them survive during the Bay of Bengal  tsunami of 2004, when they escaped to high ground because they were able to understand nature.

NI: There has been criticism that even your expeditions of contact were misguided and should not be romanticised in the media. What do you have to say about this?

MC: I went as a researcher of anthropology with government permission following established protocols. I am not against establishing contact with isolated tribes for scientific research or for emergency relief. As I said, there are protocols to do this under government supervision but given the current situation, the contact expeditions need not start right away.

[Shubhobroto Ghosh is project Manager of Wildlife at World Animal Protection in India and a Delhi-based freelance journalist.]