They Call it Home


The Andaman archipelago consists of more than 200 islands covering an area of 8300 sq.km (3200 sq.miles), somewhat smaller than Cyprus or Puerto Rico. Sometimes called collectively the Bay islands by the Indians, the sister archipelagoes of the Andamans and Nicobars form an arc across the Bay of Bengal from Burma in the north to the Indonesian island of Sumatra in the south. They lie nearly parallel to the coast of Burmese Tenasserim, the coastal Mergui archipelago and the Thai mainland, roughly 600 km (370 miles) to the east. The Indian coast at Madras is nearly double (1100 km or 700 miles) this distance to the west.

Fig. 2-1. The Andaman weatherand the seasons.

The tiny, jet-black Andamanese Negrito pygmies were known and feared from the earliest recorded times. Their neighbors called them "monkeys," or "Hanuman people" after the Hindu monkey god. Another common name for them was "Rakshasas," demons or goblins from Hindu mythology. It is interesting to note that Andamanese brought to India and Malaya during the 19th century by the British were spontaneously called these names by the local population. The name "Andaman" itself was first recorded in the 9th century and almost certainly traces back to Hanuman.


Fig. 2-2. Seasonal winds and the monsoon in the Bay of Bengal.

The monsoonal climate of the Andamans is generally hot and always humid, often oppressively so. Heavy though rainfall can be, it is quite unpredictable from year to year and can fall most unevenly within a small area. On islands with few perennial streams, a lack of fresh water can quickly become a serious problem. During the time from December to March temperature and humidity tend to be lower and there is less rain but it would be an exaggeration to call it a "dry" season. Violent thunderstorms occur during the wet south-west monsoon from mid-May to end-September while tropical revolving storms (in other areas of the world known as typhoons or hurricanes) usually form to the south, west and north of the Andamans, moving towards India without directly affecting the islands. Very rarely a major storm crosses the islands, leaving appalling damage behind. Luckily, the islands have not suffered such a major event for the past century but they are, statistically speaking, worryingly overdue for a heavy blow. Several major storms hit the islands during the 19th century, leaving whole areas of jungle flattened. At such times, despite the mountainous waves, the only place for the aboriginal population safe from falling trees and flying debris was the open sea and their wide beaches. The damage caused by a severe storm need not be limited to the land: huge waves whipped up over the deep Andaman sea hit the narrow littoral of the archipelago with tremendous and unbroken force, destroying coral reefs, shifting beaches and removing mangrove swamps. Extensive under-water deserts - areas covered with dead and broken coral - have been found around the archipelago. Under these circumstances it is hardly surprising to find that rain, wind and the weather generally are at the center of aboriginal religious beliefs.


Fig. 2-3. Tracks of tropical cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal.


Fig. 2-4. Frequency of tropical cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal.

Despite their coral reefs, most Andamanese islands themselves are not of coral origin. Instead they are the peaks of a drowned mountain range. While there is only a narrow littoral, there are some shallow banks off the coasts of the Great Andamans, especially to the northwest and southeast. When the level of the sea was lower than today, these could have formed islands. North Sentinel island and Little Andaman are exceptional as they are relatively flat and mostly of coral origin. The other major islands are hilly with the archipelago's highest point at Saddle Peak on North Great Andaman. This hill, with its 738 m (2400 ft), might not look impressive but it has been called the most difficult mountain of his career by a famous Himalayan mountain climber and explorer. He found the slippery rocks, the thorny flora and the clawed, stinged and poisonous fauna almost too much for him. The area around Saddle Peak was one of the few areas avoided by all the aboriginal tribes. They thought it haunted by evil spirits and dangerous animals. The first recorded ascent of the hill was claimed in 1882 by one Major Protheroe of the British army who showed a lamentable lack of sportsmanship: Indian convicts had to cut a path through the vegetation to the top before he and his fellow officers could made their ascent to claim a first.


Fig. 2-5. Surface sea currents in the Bay of Bengal.

Geologically, the Andamans and Nicobars represent the highest peaks of an under-water mountain range which is itself an extension of the Arakan range in Burma and the Sumatran Barisan ranges to the south. The islands lie parallel to a geological fault line to the east, crossing the Andaman sea from north to south. The line marks two tectonic plates rubbing against each other: the eastern plate, an extension of the huge Eurasian plate, is stationary, while the Indian plate to the west is moving north to northeast at the rate of a few centimeters a year, taking the Andaman islands with it. This slow but steady movement is still pushing up the Himalayan mountains and causes earthquakes and volcanic activity in and around the islands. India's only active volcanoes, on Barren and Narcondam islands, are sitting directly on the fault line. The Andamans are rising and falling with the erratic local movement of the earth's crust. On a geological time-scale these are mere shudders, small and rapid. On a human time-scale, however, the shudders have been very slow but some were still rapid enough to have adversely affected human life during the geological instant homo sapiens sapiens has been in residence. While the large-scale geological trend still continues to cause a slow rising of the Andamans,(10) in the relatively short term of a few thousand years, the islands have both sunk and risen. On the still shorter timescale of a few hundred years and quite independently of any geological movements, the sea has also been rising and falling. The interaction of all these movements has resulted in a complex rising and falling, a growing and shrinking of the land area available to the original Andamanese population.

The present geological era is the Cenozoic. It started around 65 millions years ago with the end of the Cretaceous period, a major event that caused mass extinctions among the earth's life forms, including most famously the dinosaurs. Modern humans, including of course the Andamanese, developed during the later part of the Pleistocene, i.e. very recently on a geological time scale.

Table 2-1. The later geological periods and epochs of the Cenozoic era.

period

epoch
remarks


Quaternary


Holocene (the present)


Started around 10,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age. A warm epoch with only minor cold spells.


Pleistocene


Started 2 million years ago and lasted nearly 2 million years. Worldwide a cold epoch with at least two relatively short warm interglacials; the final stage is also known as the ice age, although as far as the Andamans are concerned this is a misnomer (the Andamans have never seen glaciers). Because of the water tied up in the polar ice caps the sea level was lower and the Andamans islands were much larger than they are today; they might at times even have been a peninsula attached to Burma. The climate in the latitude of the Andamans was not as dramatically affected as that of higher latitudes; it was merely a little cooler than it is today and very wet. The islands always supported an abundant forest cover.


Tertiary


Pliocene


Started 5 million years ago and lasted 3 million years.


Miocene


Started 25 million years ago and lasted 20 million years.


Oligocene


Started 38 million years ago and lasted 13 million years. Worldwide began as a relatively warm epoch, cooling towards its end. The Andaman-Nicobar mountain chain first began to rise from the sea floor during this epoch.

The geology of the Andamans has not yet been well studied. Mud volcanoes on Baratang island and Middle Andamans have given rise to the hope that there might be petroleum deposits and this has lately spurred on the geological survey although so far no mineral deposits of economic value have been discovered.

The oldest rock formations represent deposits laid down in the deep, open sea from the Cretaceous period immediately preceding the Cenozoic to the middle Tertiary. The islands were born when the sea floor, consisting of a core of faulted sandstone and shale) was lifted and piled up into the present mountain chain during the Oligocene. Ritchie's archipelago, Little Andaman and the Nicobars rose from the sea at a somewhat later stage. Most of the islands are surrounded by coral reefs or extensive mangrove swamps. Behind these formidable coastal defenses is a deeply indented shore that provides many good and well-camouflaged anchorages. Throughout the ages, any captain keen-eyed and adventurous enough to take the risks could find valuable hiding places. Many undoubtedly did.

 

Fig. 2-6. Colliding plates in Asia

Fig 2-7. Fault lines under the Andaman Sea.

The large main islands (apart from North Sentinel, Ritchie's archipelago and Little Andaman) are collectively called the Great Andamans. They are so close together - in places literally only a stone's throw - that for all practical purposes they form one large island.

Despite the abundant greenery, Andamanese soils are not very fertile, with a low capacity for holding moisture. They are mostly soft, deep sandy loams with acidic or slightly acidic reactions and rather deficient in calcium. Such soils are not conducive to the development of agriculture and this may have been one contributory reason why the aboriginal Andamanese stubbornly remained exclusive hunter-gatherers.

There is little variety in mammal life. Most noticeable is the absence of large carnivores with only 19 land-living species of small mammals sharing the islands with humans. The seas, on the other hand, teem with large mammals: there are sea cows (dugong, of the order sirenia), dolphins and whales. Among non-mammalian groups there is rather more variety: there are 72 kinds of reptiles such as snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles and no less than 255 kinds of bird. It may be noted here that most of the land animals show more affinity to Burma rather than to Malaya or Sumatra.


Plate 2-1. Fallen jungle giants (click here or on picture for detail view).

The largest naturally occurring land mammal is the Andamanese pig (sus andamanensis, sometimes called sus scrofus andamanensis) which played and still plays a major part in traditional Andamanese life. There are also a civet cat, a wild cat as well as many types of small rodents, flying fox and bats. Among reptiles, the large turtles are important to the natives but there are also many species of snakes, lizards and a truly terrifying saltwater crocodile (crocodilus porosus) that can reach a length of up to 9 m (30 ft). The very common carrion-eating monitor lizard also can grow to impressive size. The monitors fill the role that the jackal and the vultures fill elsewhere, eating the cadavers and offal that even the dogs will not touch. Amphibians, mostly frogs and toads, abound.

There is a vast variety of life in the seas all around the islands, from sharks and sting rays to fish of all shapes and sizes, not forgetting an enormous variety of crustaceans in the water, on the beach and on dry land. A walk along or behind an Andamanese beach can be an odd experience as thousands of "stones," ranging from the size of sand grains to sizeable "rocks," scatter unhurriedly in all directions before one's approach. These are hermit crabs in their protective shells. Just as fascinating but not always quite so agreeable, there is also a lot of insect life. The two species of honey bee whose product has always been of great importance to aboriginal Andamanese society are among the more agreeable ones. Much of the rest, unfortunately, shows a tendency towards the frankly obnoxious. The insect torturers are joined by legions of ticks, leeches, centipedes and other creatures. The lower animals of the archipelago have been studied and classified only superficially. Many new species are sure to be found once this work is systematically taken in hand but there is so much variety that it will be the life's work of more than just one person. The Andamanese jungle is not the place one could recommend, with a clear conscience, to people who feel bothered at a picnic by a lone wasp or a few ants.

The islands are well-known in diving circles for their coral reefs, most of them of the fringing type. Because there are so many large rivers emptying fresh water into the Bay of Bengal and there is such heavy rain in the area at times that salinity is rather low (usually less than 33 ppt around the Andamans), conditions for the growth of corals are not optimal but clearly sufficient. Two coral-building species dominate: Porites and Favia, with Acropora and Pocillopora also present to a lesser extent.

That the archipelago has long been isolated is documented by no less than 200 endemic species of animals, i.e. animals that occur only in these islands and nowhere else, apart from the Nicobar islands in some cases. It is well-known that evolutionary pressure on an island population and in a heavily forested habitat tends to produce dwarf forms. This seems to have happened in the Andamans: many indigenous land-living species are down-sized variants of relatives living on the mainland, including most remarkably homo sapiens.

The best known and largest of the endemic forms is the Andamanese pig. Other special Andamanese forms include a civet cat (paguma larvata tytlerii), a water snake (xenochrophis melazostus andamanensis), a gecko (phelsuma andamanensis), a monitor lizard (varanus salvator andamanensis) as well as several birds that are often known from the Nicobars also such as the Andaman dark serpent eagle (spilornis elgini), a teal (anas gibberifrons albogularis), a pigeon (ducula aenea andamanensis) and two parakeets (psittacula eupatrid magnirostris and psittacula alexandri abbotti) as well as many others.


Plate 2-2. An Andamanese beach (click here or on picture for detail view).

At least two forms of deer, the hog deer and the spotted deer, have been introduced from India after the 1920s. In the absence of large predators, they have become pests in some places. The traditional arch-conservative aboriginal Andamanese will not hunt and eat the new-fangled animals despite their perfectly edible meat. Another recent introduction to the island is the elephant. Many are used by the timber industry and they often swim in the sea when they are off-duty. Over the years, individual enterprising elephants have used their ability to swim up to 20 km (12 miles) to abandon their work and their employers to settle elsewhere. On Interview island today, for example, there is a population of feral elephants that is not entirely harmless and that is actively hindering the exploration of that island.

The archipelago is dominated by one color above all others: green. The natural vegetation in many places is impenetrable to all but the aboriginal population and forms one of the densest rainforests on earth. Only on North Sentinel and Rutland island is there a more open natural forest without thick underbrush. The natural vegetation contains a least 2315 species of vascular plants ranging from enormous hardwood trees, palms, lianas and many other creepers to canes, bamboo and orchids. Many bear fruit or are themselves edible while others have scarcely-investigated medicinal properties that were known and utilized by the aboriginal Andamanese. The local flora presents a broadly similar picture to that of the faun: of the vascular species only 25% are widely spread over mainland Asia and the Indonesian islands while 10% are endemic. If non-vascular plants such as mosses, ferns and their relations, had been more closely investigated, it is certain that a lot more endemic species could be added to the count. Like the fauna, the majority of non-endemic plants show affinities to Burma.

Today, the native jungle is retreating before the chainsaw and the ax. The Indian government has set aside 40% of the forests as Primitive Tribal Reserve, leaving the remaining 60% for commercial exploitation. High-quality timber such as mahogany, teak and rosewood as well as lesser qualities for plywood and matchwood are among the few export commodities of the islands.

  

We have a video clip to this subject (click here or on picture for selection).

When the British arrived to stay in 1858 there were very few naturally occurring coconut trees in the archipelago even though the trees grow readily enough when planted. All of the coconut palms growing in the Andamans today are descendants of trees planted by outsiders. The conclusion that the native Andamanese must have had something to do with this pre-1858 botanical oddity is inescapable. The Coco islands to the north received their name from the abundance of coconut palms growing there from times immemorial and it cannot be mere coincidence that these islands were just out of reach of aboriginal Andamanese canoes.

To bury a coconut, uneaten, and then to wait a decade for it to grow into a fruit-bearing tree would have been inconceivable to these exclusive hunter-gatherers. Instead, they immediately ate all the nuts the bountiful sea washed up on their beaches. The beachcombing Aryoto groups before 1858 were sufficiently thorough and numerous to ensure the permanent absence of germinating coconuts all around the islands. They searched every yard of the entire coastline weekly and the few nuts that escaped their keen eyesight would be polished off by the ubiquitous Andamanese pigs.No nut had a chance to germinate and grow into an adult tree.


Plate 2-3. Mangrove swamps (click here or on picture for detail view).

Naval Lieutenant Colebrooke was one of the earliest reliable observers to have visited the islands in 1789-1790. He was the first to note the peculiar absence of coconut palms but he also reported a few isolated clumps of the trees in secluded places. Such isolated clumps are now thought to have marked the hiding places of Malay and Burmese pirates.

As we have seen, the Andamanese fauna and flora presents a somewhat impoverished version of its counterpart in the Burmese Arakan region to the north. This is an important clue: in the geological past and especially during the Pleistocene epoch the Andamans must have been a peninsula connected to the Burmese mainland a few times or a least an island separated from the mainland by only a narrow passage. The Andamans have never been connected to the Nicobars, still less to Sumatra or the Malayan peninsula. The conclusions that can be drawn from the limited mammalian life on the islands are less clear-cut. It may be that many species did not yet populate the Burmese mainland when the Andamans were cut off for the last time by the rising sea or, alternatively, the Andamanese hunters together with the shrinking area of the islands could have affected the larger more drastically than the smaller animals. It cannot be coincidence that the only sizable animals occurring naturally are creatures of the sea, the species that would not at all be affected by the rising of the sea or very little by bands of human hunters.

Geographically, the Andaman archipelago is not remote. It sits right across several major ancient trade routes, offering mariners fresh water, food and wood as well as shelter from storms and competitors. Generally, oceans are more likely to bring together rather than isolate prehistoric as well as modern human populations. Given an elementary boating technology and minimal navigational skills, it is obviously easier to travel along a river, a coast or even across the sea than it is to hack one's way through thick jungle.


Plate 2-4. The Andamanese jungle (click here or on picture for detail view).

It is therefore all the more surprising, to say the least, to find the Andaman islands and their aboriginal population largely untouched by the outside world far into modern times. The neighboring Nicobars are so similar in so many ways yet their population, apart from the Shompen, does not resemble that of the Andamans in any way. The Nicobarese boast of an ancient, totally different and far more advanced technology and culture and they are not Negritos. No really convincing explanation can be offered for this remarkable state of affairs. We can only note for the Andamans that a combination of dangerous coral reefs, an always unhealthy and sometimes violent climate and the vicious hostility of the aboriginal population towards intruders seem to have been sufficient to keep the outside world away for thousands of years - until 1858.