Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Land of Naked People

I just finished reading the book The Land of Naked People by Madhusree Mukerjee. The book describes her research into the Andaman Islanders. They are described as the last Stone Age people.

Wikipedia article on the Andaman Islands

While reading her account and the historical pieces she's added, I couldn't believe that the colonial practices of the past were alive and well today. The book was published in 2003 and at the time of her visit to the islands, 1997, the same practices of forced relocation, introduction of intoxicants and alcohol, settlements of foreigners, rape of the forests and livelihood of the islanders, racist mockery, forced conversions, etc. were still being practiced. The people were decimated by the colonial administration who didn't really care about the welfare of their charges as much as they did their jobs.

She returned in 2003 just before publishing her book to follow up and try to get to the last island, the Sentinel Island. She saw the people left alone and unmolested. She couldn't get to the island because some of the Tribesmen scared her boat off with nocked arrows. She was happy that they had still remained as they were.

The most isolated community in the world is the Sentinelese which inhabits North Sentinel Island. The first ever friendly contact was made shortly in 1991 and only very few contacts have been made ever since. Accidentally drifted fishermen from other islands in the Andamans have been killed in recent years and a helicopter was send to investigate after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which also struck the Andamans - the helicopter was attacked by naked tribal warriors with bows and arrows and left the island before landing – fortunately this event proved that this magnificent culture survived the tsunami. The Sentinelese tribal people, which has been called the last Stone Age tribe in the world, live in temporary huts and both men and women are naked. They lack the skills to make fire and a word to describe a number greater than two. The estimated population is only 100.

A Sentinelese man aims his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over his island on Dec. 28, surveying for tsunami damage.
© Indian Coast Guard/AP
Image Source: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com

The book is a testament to the hunter-gatherer culture. Their lives are so intricately wound in their environment, that when unbalanced by the colonial intrusion, they began to die off and become barren. As their lush tropical island was denuded of trees and the beach hauled away truck-loads at a time, they too began to decline. The more the colonial government intervened to "civilize" them, the more they began to fade.

The book was enlightening as much as it was troubling. I appreciate her honesty and forthrightness. Dr. Mukerjee didn't gloss over anything.

She wrote the book in 2003. The following year in 2004 the Tsunami struck that part of the world. While many thousands of people perished, the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands survived. Here's one report.

There is good news, at least from the anthropological front: "It will now be our avowed policy to minimise unnecessary and inappropriate contact between the primitive tribes and settlers [from Indian mainland],"

To learn more about the Andaman people, visit the official website.