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Stone age tribes survive tsunami

January 05, 2005

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WASHINGTON: Asia's last Paleolithic tribes appear to have survived last Sunday's tsunamis, despite the fact that their homelands in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Andaman Sea were among the hardest hit of all the areas affected by the catastrophe.

Survival International (SI), a London-based group that tries to defend the world's most vulnerable indigenous peoples, said that four of the five most isolated groups on the islands - the Jarawa, the Onge, the Sentinelese, and the Great Andamanese - may have suffered little, if any loss of life.

A fifth group, the 380-strong Shompen, have not yet been accounted for on Great Nicobar Island, but SI said it believes that the group's strong preference for living in the deep forest, rather than on the coasts, makes it likely that they avoided the waves' impact.

The largest and most integrated group by far, the 30,000-strong Nicobarese, suffered the greatest damage. All 12 villages on one island, Car Nicobar, were washed away, and initial reports indicated that as many 3,500 people were either killed or are now missing.

Sophie Grig, SI's Andamans campaigner, said she expected the isolated communities to be less affected in the long term because they do not rely on an extensive infrastructure.

"They build their own houses, hunt their own food and are entirely self-sufficient and therefore won't suffer in the same way as the settler communities who use roads, and boat services and rely on others to build their houses or to buy and sell their food," she told IPS.

"As long as the fresh water supplies of the isolated peoples are intact, then they should be able to continue their lives just as they've always done."

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are administered by India, are geographically much closer to Burma and Thailand, stretching along a 435-mile archipelago about 400 miles directly north of the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the tsunamis that killed at least 150,000 people around the Indian Ocean.

Latest reports said that only about 1,000 inhabitants of the 550-island chain are confirmed dead, but relief agencies were predicting that the eventual toll could reach as many as 20,000 out of a total population of about 300,000. Among the losses were hundreds of Indian military personnel at an air force base in the islands.

The islands are home to some of the world's most ancient Stone-Age peoples. The Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese are all African in origin and are believed to have settled in the Andaman Islands as long as 60,000 years ago. Despite their apparently common continental origin and geographical proximity, the languages of the four tribes are mutually unintelligible.

All four, however, share a similar way of life. They are nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in the forest and fish in coastal waters. Grig said that the isolated peoples should not be grouped together with other communities and given rations and other supplies that they might come to depend on.

"The isolated communities have remained isolated from their own choice - they have made it clear that they wish to remain independent from outsiders and have defended themselves and their land from the settlers," Grig said. "Therefore, I would imagine that they will continue to resist outside help, even if it's offered." -Dawn/The Inter Press News Service.