The Andamanese Language Family (I)
by George Weber

A contribution to the centenary of M.V. Portman's work

If an island of ice-age hunter-gatherers was discovered in the Atlantic today, scientists and the media would trample each other to death in their eagerness get there. The Andamanese present a no less unusual case: an extremely primitive and very ancient pygmy people, the last remnant of the oldest human population of Asia and likely to be among the earliest ancestors of many Asian and Australian people. Yet no stampede threatens.

Fig.1. The Andaman islands lie in the Bay of Bengal between India and Thailand. Geographically closer to Burma and Thailand than to India, they are politically a part of India today. The latter has a moral and historical claim on the islands since they were the location of a British penal colony from 1858 until the 1930s that was easily as brutal and deadly as the better-known French penal colony on Devil’s Island.

There is a sad multitude of little-known primitive tribes on the verge of extinction in today’s world. In India alone (to which the Andaman islands belong politically) they number in the dozens and world-wide there are hundreds more. There are also still a few truly isolated and hostile tribes left around the world. So why pick out the Andamanese Negrito pygmies? Here is why: their languages, their genetic make-up, their customs, their prehistory, their attitude towards the outside world are all so out of the ordinary that not the least of the mysteries surrounding them is why they are not better known.

Nevertheless, some major scientific figures have noted their importance (1):

Prof. L. Cavalli-Sforza, geneticist, 1994:

"The most interesting aspect of the Andamanese is that they probably had the least admixture compared with other Negritos, and perhaps represent relics of the human bridge that may have existed 65 to 70000 years ago between Africa and Australia. The few genetic data available show remarkable genetic homogeneity for 11 red-cell and enzyme proteins... A complete genetic investigation of these groups with modern techniques is very important... The tendency to homogeneity is obviously a consequence of strong drift, but if very many genes are tested... the information collected may... determine whether these populations represent a missing link between Africa and Australia."

Prof. Göran Burenhult, archaeologist, 1994:

"I completely agree that the Andamans are a blind spot in the eyes of most prehistorians... I am well aware that the archaeology of the Andaman islands is of the utmost importance to our understanding of how and when SEAsia was first settled by modern humans..."

Dr. Peter Bellwood, prehistorian, 1992

"The Negritos... are therefore the only SEAsian survivors of the original Austro-Melanesian continuum outside the eastern Indonesian clinal zone... The Negritos are thus of great significance in SEAsia."

What exactly is it that makes the Andamanese so special? There is their race: the Andamanese are Negritos and as such among the smallest (in stature as well as numbers) of all human races. They were estimated to have numbered around 4800 in 1858; today there are less than 400. Besides the Andamanese, there are several thousand Negrito and Negrito-like (Negritoid) people in Asia, especially on the Malay peninsula (Semang) and in the Philippines (Aeta or Agta). There are other groups in mainland and insular Southeast Asia and Australia who may have some Negrito affinities. Most consist of a few people in remote areas and most are threatened in their existence. Many are known to have vanished over the past century.

Let us return to the Andamanese. With an average height of 137 cm (54 inches) for women and 148.5 cm (58.5 inches) for men, the Andamanese Negrito are tiny. The women have an average weight of 43.4 kg (95.5 lbs.), the men 39.5 kg (87 lbs.). From afar, the Andamanese Negrito may indeed be mistaken for "African" but apart from their common humanity they are not related to the African pygmies or to other Africans. There is, however, the possibility of a remote relationship to the Khoi (Hottentot) of southern Africa but such connection has not been seriously investigated and will, in any case, be very difficult to prove. The Negrito people are very dark-skinned and their hair is of the peppercorn variety, not to be confused with the curly hair common in people of African ancestry. Some Andamanese women (but not all and only very rarely men) show the trait known as steatopygia or ‘fat bottom’.

Fig.2. A modern "Venus of Willendorf" – an Onge woman with steatopygia ("fat bottom"). Steatopygia has been widespread, perhaps even universal, in human prehistory and is reflected in the famous ice-age "Venus figurines." Only two living populations still have this ancient human trait today: the Khoi ("Hottentot") of South Africa and the Andamanese

There are only two living populations today that still have a genetic predisposition towards steatopygia: the Andamanese and the Khoi. The adaptation provides reserves of fat and increases the chance of survival in unpredictable environments. Steatopygia is thought to have been widespread in human prehistory and to be reflected in the famous ice-age figurines. The famous ‘Venus of Willendorf’, found in Austria and estimated to be 30,000 years old, is only one of many known.

When the linguist Joseph H. Greenberg in 1971 published the results of his research into links between Papuan, Tasmanian and Andamanese languages (2), only a few linguistic specialists took note. Small wonder: linguistics had not contributed to the knowledge of the remoter human past before. Moreover, the languages investigated are among the least-known in the world. Greenberg called his new hypothetical linguistic grouping of around 750 languages the Indo-Pacific phylum and arranged it as follows (3):

(1) Andamanese family (14 languages of which 3 are still living, 4 if the virtually extinct Great Andamanese remnant is included)

(2) Tasmanian family (classification controversial, up to 9 languages, all extinct)

(3-13) 11 Papuan language families (727 languages)

A language family (and still more a super-family or phylum) is a very high-level classification and one that is not usually obvious. Greenberg used methods he had employed in his earlier work on African (1950s) and Amerindian (1960s) languages, compiling long lists of basic vocabularies along with whatever grammatical information he could lay hands on. Sifting through this material, he thought he had found 35 cognates that he thought connected the Andamanese to the Tasmanian languages. The discovery remains controversial, not least because our knowledge of the extinct Tasmanian is even more incomplete than that of Andamanese languages. It must also be admitted that 35 cognates are not much to go on and Niclas Burenhult has recently questioned the lack of systematic correspondences among Greenberg’s cognates. However, his analysis of the Andamanese languages has led him to suspect a far deeper relationship which, incidentally, re-admits the Andamanese-Tasmanian connection by another, much wider and more theoretical door (4). Burenhult himself says:

The most important point to be made concerning Andamanese... is that it is very different – not only genetically but also typologically – from neighbouring language families and may represent a trace of what Southeast Asia was like linguistically a few thousand years back.

The Andamanese is indeed an enigmatic family. Apart from Greenberg’s controversial 35 cognates, it shows no relationship whatever with any other language grouping.

The Asian Negrito are oddly shadowed by a "twin" people, the Vedda of Sri Lanka and similar groups throughout Southeast Asia, collectively called Veddoids. They form tiny groups who lead a primitive existence very much like that of the Negritos in remote jungle areas. Although Veddoid life and material culture is very similar, they are a little taller than the Negrito and are of distinctly different appearance, most immediately obvious being their wavy hair. What the relationship between the two groups might be has never been investigated. Indeed, the question has barely even been raised. There is quite a lot of information on the now nearly extinct Vedda of Sri Lanka but most of it is going back to colonial days. After gaining independence in 1948, Sri Lanka took little interest in its Veddas. In this, the country followed a pattern seen in many newly independent nations (India with its famous Anthropological Survey making an honourable exception): the dominant population did not see the need to take an interest in or allocate resources to embarrassingly primitive and numerically insignificant minorites.

Negrito and Veddoid territories do not overlap and there is only one place, on the Malay peninsula, where the two live as neighbours. As far as the classification between Veddoids and Negrito can be said to be clear, there is a clear if somewhat wavy line going roughly from Bangladesh through Indonesia to Tasmania separating the two remnant populations: west of this line there are Veddoids, east of it Negrito. The line clearly has something to tell us– if only we could understand it.

It has long been thought that the Negrito, the Vedda and Veddoid people were among the ancestors of many modern Australasian people, from the southern Indians (Dravidians), the Papuans and the Australian-Tasmanian aborigines to many Indonesian, Filipino and mainland-Asian groups. It is thought that there was once a "bridge" of anatomically modern human beings migrating, over tens of thousands of years, from Africa though Southeast Asia to Newguinea, Australia, Tasmania and Oceania. The bridge lasted until the end of the last cold period around 10,000 years ago. The Negrito and Veddoids probably represent populations that were left behind after the melting of the ice shields had caused the sea to rise. The Andamanese were cut off on their shrinking islands, others in their jungle valleys. Many prehistoric stone tools have been found throughout Southeast Asia that could have been made by Negritos or related populations– the level of skill involved is comparable with recent Andamanese and Veddoid stone tool technology. Unfortunately, very few relevant archaeological finds are accompanied by sufficient human bones to allow identification of the type of people associated with them. While a Negrito presence is plausible on a number of grounds, proving it will be difficult and must await future finds of quite exceptional quality.


Fig. 3. The distribution of Negrito populations and their separation from the Veddoids. Most of the populations on this map are tiny groups surrounded by much more powerful neighbours and most are on the verge of extinction or already extinct.


Southeast Asia


Papua New Guinea

The Philippines and



Kadar, Kanikkar, Kurumbar, Palliyan, Panyan, Puliyan, Urali
Vhengcu, Ho



Porr (Jong)
Moi (Anu-chu, Jarai, or Montagnards)
Senoi, Sakai










Sumatran Kubus
Lingga Kubus
Belitung Kubus
Bangka Kubus
Alorese, Pantarese, some Timorese ...
Alfur, etc.
Tobelorese, etc.
Toradja, etc.
Loinang, Laki, etc.







Pygmies of the Sepik source area
Pygmies of the Torricelli mts.
Ayomé pygmies
Pygmies of the Gogol and Ramu river areas
Normanby island pygmies
Population in the interior of the Gazelle peninsula (New Britain)









Alangan (Mindoro)
Batak (Palawan)
Dumagat Negritos
Ati (Panay)
Ati (Negros)
Mamanua (Mindanao)
Tiruray, Ata, Upland Bagobo
Bathurst and Melville islanders (Negritoid traces)
Barrineans (pygmies of the Atherton plateau, Queensland Negritos)


With the sole exception of the Andamanese, all other Negrito, Vedda and Veddoid groups have lost their original languages.

The Vedda (from a Sinhala word meaning "hunter") of Sri Lanka have been speaking dialects of their neighbours’ Indo-European Sinhala language for a very long time. Possible remnants of the prehistoric Vedda language have been reported in the late 19th century by the Sarasin cousins, who also expressed the hope that someone would do a systematic analysis of their evidence. Nobody has done so. The Sarasins noted a number of local terms used by some (but not all) Vedda groups that could well be survivors. Among them are three synonyms tambela, galrekki and malakedde for "axe" but also words used by some Vedda groups for "bow" and "arrow." The words vary from group to group which may reflect the existence of several original Vedda languages or, as the Sarasins themselves warned, the words could be local creations of ultimately Sinhala origin. Until someone does that rigorous analysis a century after it has been requested, we have no way of telling.

There are also two Veddoid groups speaking unclassified languages that may not be related to the languages of their neighbours: the inaccessible Shompen of Great Nicobar speak a language about which virtually nothing is known (even if it is usually classified as Nicobarese, for lack of somewhere else to put it) while the unclassified Lom language from the interior of Bangka island in Indonesia, (off the eastern coast of Sumatra) has last been reported in the 19th century and has not been heard of since (5). Off the west coast of Sumatra on the tiny island of Enggano, a language is spoken that undoubtedly belongs to the Austronesian family but is said to be "extremely aberrant."

If all this looks as if there are some serious gaps in our knowledge, appearances are not deceiving. Indeed not. As far as surviving traces of Negrito languages are concerned, things do look a little brighter.

Traces of what must be the original Negrito language have been reported among the Semang of Malaya and the Philippine Negrito. That their change of language happened during prehistoric times is hinted at by the fact that the Malaysian Negrito speak languages of the Aslian branch of the Austro-Asian family, a family that dominated the area until two thousand years ago but has since been replaced on the peninsula except for isolated pockets by Malay and other Austronesian languages.

Among the Malay Semang Negrito words that cannot be traced to any other language have been reported. There are jebeg ("bad"), chog or seneng ("bag"), lebeh ("bamboo"), boo ("big"), kawod ("bird"), herpai ("coconut"), keto ("day"), kam ("frog"), chas ("hand"), napeg ("pig"), jekob ("snake"), wayd ("squirrel"), takob ("yam") and many others (6).

Recent painstaking research by Lawrence A. Reid (7) has also uncovered a wealth of evidence for the existence of several prehistoric non-Austronesian Negrito languages in the Philippines. Reid has even found evidence to give a likely sequence for the beginning in the change of languages by the Negritos: around 5000 years ago the first Austronesian agriculturalists appeared in the Philippines probably from Taiwan and somehow forced or persuaded local Negrito hunter-gatherers to labour in their new fields. Out of the need for a means of communications between immigrants and Negritos a pidgin language arose quickly which later, in the course of passing centuries, was creolised, finally to such an extent that the modern Negrito languages of the Philippines came to bear a close resemblance to the neighbouring Austronesian languages. A similar sequence very likely also took place in Sri Lanka, the Malay peninsula and elsewhere.

Reid has found many unique (i.e. non-Austalasian) terms. The record holder is a term shared by no less than four modern Negrito languages: lati means "rattan" in the North Agta, Central Agta, Alta and Arta Negrito languages. Other unique sample words are shared among three Negrito languages each: litid ("vein"), tapur ("bury," "inter") and babak ("snake) and still many others occur in only one or two languages.

Traces of ancient and extinct Negrito languages found so far show no obvious relationship with Andamanese and no cognates have been found. That would indeed be asking rather a lot. Even 5000 years ago the Negritos of Malaysia and the Philippines must have been out of contact with their Andamanese brethren for untold millennia – their languages, if they ever were related, having drifted apart into profound mutual unintelligibility. Yet the hope remains that a painstaking analysis of the available evidence will one day reward a hardworking linguist with a discovery and following inevitable controversy.

Let us once more return to the Andamanese. Why did they, alone, retain their own languages? A relatively isolated island habitat without interfering migrants or dominant neighbours must have been a major reason but it cannot have been the whole story. The Indian archaeologist, Zarine Cooper has done field work in the Andamans and has pushed the archaeological evidence for Negrito occupation back to around 2500 years (8). This is not a long time in view of the antiquity of the Negritos but it is a long time for a culture to show no change or outside influence despite its location athwart shipping lanes, busy with commerce since early times. For the past 1300 years and possibly much longer, the Andamanese have been hostile to outsiders. Ships trying to replenish their fresh water, looking for wood to make repairs or just seeking shelter from storms, were attacked just as was any mariner unfortunate enough to be wrecked on one of the many Andamanese reefs. If the visitors were too numerous or well-armed, the natives hid in the dense undergrowth and waited until the coast was, literally, clear again. No wonder the Andamans have always had a terrible reputation. The setting up of a British penal colony did nothing to improve it. Even today, two of the three surviving Andamanese groups still more or less follow the same behaviour and will not allow anyone to approach them and still employ technologies that went out with the mammoth and sabre-toothed tiger elsewhere. What caused this extreme hostility in the first place can only be guessed at. Slave-raiders seem to have played a part and continued to play it until less than 130 years ago. Whatever the reasons in detail, there is good genetic evidence that the Andamanese have been isolated for a very long time. Indeed, theirs is by far the most complete and longest-lasting isolation of any human group alive today.

In 1858 the Andamanese were tragically pulled back into the broad stream of world history. The British rulers of India needed an inaccessible and escape-proof place in which to lock up thousands of prisoners fresh from the atrocities of the "Great Mutiny" of 1857. The Andaman islands were just what they were looking for: hostile natives, atrocious climate, surrounded by reefs and a large expanse of stormy seas. From the Andamanese point of view, the British invasion was the beginning of the end of the world. Long isolation from the rest of humanity had not prepared them for the many "new" diseases that came with the British jailers and their Indian and Burmese prisoners. After initial resistance, some Great Andamanese groups grudgingly came to accept the presence of outsiders and some even turned actively friendly. Contact became closer and common. The consequences of such friendship were not long in coming: epidemics of measles, pneumonia and syphilis started in the 1870s and never let up again. The friendly groups are now extinct but for two dozen survivors of mixed Indian-Burmese-Andamanese ancestry that exist on Indian government handouts on tiny Straits island. They have preserved Great Andaman cultural traditions only in fading traces. The Straits islanders use a kind of mongrelised Aka-Jeru amongst themselves which the Indians have taken to calling "Andamanese." For external contact Hindi is used as the Indian social workers do not speak Andamanese. This essentially new language is the result of mixing 30-odd Great Andamanese survivors on the reservation in the 1950s and Aka-Jeru speakers were the majority, they dominated. An ever increasing amount of Hindi words and expressions is also constantly being added to the mix. This "Andamanese" is not likely to have a long-term future.

Fig.4. The distribution of the Andamanese tribes at the time of the British annexation in 1858. Little is known about the areas occupied by Jarawas at that time. Before the 1790s, when the first shortlived British attempt to set up a colony introduced new diseases among them, they occupied the southern coastlines as well as the interior and seem to have been more numerous. When the British returned in 1858 the coastal Jarawa had disappeared and been replaced by Great Andamanese. The remaining Jarawa in the interior were found in the 1860s to be hostile to all outsiders and they have remained so until the present. Today they are living further north, along the west coast of South and Middle Great Andaman.

The three groups that did not become friendly soon after 1858 are still with us today, mostly healthy and with their culture intact. One has become friendly since and is now fading, physically and culturally. Two of them are still hostile. The point should be borne in mind when humanitarian plans to cultivate "friendship" with the hostile Andamanese are discussed. Friendship in the Andamans has been deadly.

The Onge on Little Andaman have been peaceful only since the 1890s when M.V. Portman managed to pacify them by diplomatic means and the force of his personality. They did not entirely escape the fate of the earlier "friendlies" even though their island was left largely alone by the British and they did not have to accept permanent resident outsiders until the 1950s. Only then did Indian refugee settlers start to arrive in numbers. Still, the number of Onges has shrunk from an estimated 700 in the 1860s, to 150 in 1951 and is now down to just under 100. Looked after by Indian doctors, their problem today is not so much the obvious diseases rather than their very low birth and infant survival rate, the causes of which have not been established.

Two other groups are both hostile and unapproachable. The Jarawa originally lived on the southern tip of South Great Andaman but today are spread out in the dense jungles along the west coast of South and Middle Great Andaman. Few years pass without a number of dead Jarawas and Indian settlers, the result of recurrent clashes. Keeping the Jarawa on the one hand from raiding the Indian farmers for iron and the farmers on the other hand from poaching in Jarawa territory is the difficult task of a special Indian bush police. The number of Jarawa is thought to be less than 200 and can be estimated only by flying over their territory in the early evening to count the number of smokes from cooking fires. Two small Jarawa local groups have been contacted and are getting accustomed to taking coconuts and other gifts from visitors without the traditional bloodbath. Most Jarawa remain utterly unapproachable, however. The few visitors are mostly Indian researchers and security staff who have to go through a strict medical check-up before being allowed into Jarawa territory. Unfortunately, tourists without medical check-ups are occasionally brought in to meet the friendly Jarawas in return for some baubles for the aborigines and hard cash for the guides. The first such tourist with a runny nose could well wipe out the entire local group. Nor are such visits without risk to the visitors since Jarawa behaviour remains quite unpredictable.

Fig.5. Youths from one of the few approachable Jarawa groups look over a rare photographer from the outside world. While they look cheerful and harmless enough, on several similar occasions the mood had changed dramatically and for no apparent reason within seconds to frothing fury. We are a long way from understanding these people

A third Andamanese group, the Sentineli, have been observed only from afar. Some magnificent photographs have been taken of them from an off-shore boat by the Indian photographer Raghubir Singh and first published 1975 (9). The Sentineli live on North Sentinel island, an isolated place surrounded by a nearly unbroken line of dangerous reefs. Virtually nothing is known of them and they still defend their beaches, as they must have done for centuries, by shooting seriously hostile arrows at approaching boats. Recently some have mellowed a little and have accepted gifts of coconuts thrown into the water. One Sentineli party has even climbed briefly aboard a small Indian vessel containing delighted Indian anthropologists. Perhaps closer contact with them is possible in future. The Indians are working at establishing a line of communication with the Sentineli in case of a shipwreck, an oil spillage or other accident. The authorities could not, for example, let the survivors of an aircraft crash or ship wreck simply be slaughtered in the traditional manner. A way must be found to persuade the Sentineli to let such people live until they can be removed from the island. There is no argument against this if saving lives and scientific research is indeed the only motive. Suspicions are raised by reported plans to establish coconut plantations on the island which are said to be required "to feed the Sentineli" and to establish "friendship." That they need feeding will no doubt come as a surprise to the Sentineli since they have fed themselves for centuries with no apparent ill effects. Even the surrealistic argument that the Sentinelis are "voters in a democracy" and need their rights as cititzens explained to them has been trotted out. Apparently, only waves of social workers and plantation managers landing on their beaches could do so. Such a move would be an exact repetion of the mistake made with the Onge in the 1950s, only now there would not be the excuse of inexperience. . Their island is difficult to reach and access to it can be easily controlled. Such dubious help would put an end to the only stable Palaeolithic human community on earth today with a chance for long-term survival.

M.V. Portman, the centenary of whose two important publications (10,11) on the Andamanese we are celebrating, was in charge of the first known landing on North Sentinel island in 1880. He stayed for a fortnight. As the Sentineli would do so many times later, they evaded the unwelcome and well-armed visitors by simply vanishing into the jungle. A woman and four children were nevertheless captured by chance and kept for a few days aboard the expedition ship after which the woman and one child were loaded with presents and released. A few days later, an old man, a woman and a child were also caught and they with the three children from the earlier "bag" were brought to Port Blair for observation. There, as so often happened with captured Andamanese, the two adults sickened and died within a few days. The children were hurriedly returned to their home island, given presents and released. As Mr. Portman himself admitted later, this was hardly the right way to go about establishing friendly relations. Rather unconvincingly, he blamed lack of reliable intelligence for the unfortunate tactics and took a little revenge on the elusive Sentinelis by describing them as habitually wearing a "peculiarly idiotic expression." Today, little more is known about them than when Mr. Portman went ashore there 120 years ago.

Mr. Portman was much more successful with the Great Andamanese. His book of 1898 on the languages of the southern Great Andamanese (11) is one of only a handful of sources on these languages; another is a supplement by A. J. Ellis contained in the major anthropological (but not linguistic) work on the Andamanese by E.H. Man (12). The Aka-Bea tribe’s territory included what was to be the British penal colony at Port Blair so that they were first and longest in contact with the intruders and became the best-documented of all Great Andamanese tribes. We know little about the languages of the northern Great Andamanese tribes, some of which were not discovered until just before 1900. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, later a famous anthropologist, gained his first field experience in the Andamans 1906–1908. In 1922 he published (13) one of the few major works on Andamanese anthropology. He dealt with the languages only in a brief but important appendix which, together with an earlier article, gives us practically all the information we have today on the northern languages apart from Aka-Jeru.

With the outbreak of War 1914 field research into the Andamanese languages ceased and was not resumed until Indian independence in 1947. By that time, the Great Andamanese had become culturally and very nearly physically extinct. Indian efforts therefore concentrated on the only accessible living Andamanese, the Onge of Little Andaman. That the Great Andamanese languages on the one hand and the Onge language on the other have been researched and documented at such widely different times and by such widely different people tends to make comparison between the sources difficult. While it is clear that all are members of the same Andamanese language family, it is by no means clear just how the two main groups are related.

Besides Onge there are three other languages in the Onge-Jarawa group. Manuscripts on the Jarawa language exist and are gathering dust in libraries and museums, little having been published on the subject. That Jarawa is closely related to Onge is not in doubt: the Jarawa (which means "stranger" in Aka-Bea) call themselves ya-eng-nga which, without the characteristic Jarawa prefix ya-, is very close to what the Onge call themselves: en-nge (which, not unexpectedly, means "human being") . Nothing is known of the Sentineli language but some information might be gathered in future. A relationship with Onge and Sentineli can be assumed on what is known of their technology. Jangil, sometimes called Rutland-Jarawa, will remain forever unknown and few scientific works even mention its existence. Although it has never been documented, the existence of a separate Jangil language has been reported by M.V. Portman (10) and cannot be seriously doubted. The last reported sighting of a Jangil man took place 1895; in the 1920s the Jangil territory in the interior of Rutland island was found to be empty.

Since the days when Greenberg had trouble finding any information on the Onge language, some good Indian publications on the subject have appeared (15). Even video cassettes for teaching yourself Onge and "Andamanese" (presumably the Aka-Jeru-based "Andamanese" of Straits island is meant) have been announced (16) – but perhaps not published. Neither this author nor several of his Indian bookshops have been able to get hold of these mythical cassettes despite years of effort.

Fig.6. How the Andamanese languages are related. Andamanese tribes were/are lose groupings of "local groups" held together by a common language as well as split into forest and shore dwellers and many local feuds). There was no central authority, no chief. A feeling of belonging together arose only after the arrival of the outsiders (the British, their prisoners – and their diseases) in 1858.

Before we go on to discuss the Andamanese languages in more detail, a few words must be said about the "tribes" of the Great Andamanese (the Onge-Jarawa group did not know these divisions). The centre of all traditional Andamanese life was the local group, a sort of semi-nomadic village community of between 30 to 50 persons. Some of these were allied to form "septs." The Great Andamanese tribes in normal times were merely collections of local groups speaking the same language and being bound by ties of friendships as well as feuds, i.e. the tribe was basically a linguistic unit. People from outside the tribe did not really exist and, if met, would be ignored or killed. This system broke down rapidly after 1858 but this is how traditional Andamanese had organised itself before that date. One would have thought that "tribes" numbering between only 100 and 700 people would be too small to split up further. But they did. The Great Andamanese seem to have had an insatiable and rather self-destructive urge for splitting up and excluding others. Most Great Andamanese tribes were split into two sub-groups (some even managed three but let that be): the Aryoto and the Eremtaga. The former were people living along the shores and the latter in the interior. Within each tribe, the language of the two sub-groups, apart from minor dialectal differences, was the same but the basis of their food collection was obviously different. The Aryoto thought themselves superior to the Eremtaga and the two heartily disliked each other, rarely mixing or speaking. Children could be adopted from the Eremtaga to the Aryoto but never the other way round. A clear case of palaeolithic snobbery.

Scientific study of the Andamanese and their languages commenced with British officers of the penal colony. Initial interest was motivated by the problems of setting up a penal colony. Later, ways had to be found to stop the natives from murdering escapees and to make the natives hand them over to the authorities for a civilised hanging. Man and Portman were both in turn appointed "Officers in Charge of the Andamanese," two of a mere handful of officers in this brutal environment who developed a liking for and a genuine interest in their unusual charges. They could not escape their time and place entirely, however, and a remark in Portman’s obituary in "The Times" of London 1935 sums up the mixture of paternalism and brutality by stating that Portman "judged them and if necessary he hanged them" (actually, only one Andamanese man was ever legally executed – for multiple murder). Despite occasional brutalities which the Andamanese took for granted from each other and from the outside world, both Man and Portman were popular with the Andamanese. Each of the two men kept the surface civilities towards the other as befitted gentlemen in the service of Her Majesty the Queen. In reality, each was intensely jealous of the other’s scientific reputation and influence over the Andamanese. Scientific knowledge was the chief beneficiary of the resulting competition to collect and publish. Without the two men’s original field work, our knowledge of traditional Great Andamanese society and language before the onslaught of the great epidemics and the following cultural disintegration would be close to zero.

The southern and middle Great Andamanese tribes had a common legend that points to a site called Wota-Emi (see the legend at the end of this article) on the north-eastern corner of Baratang island (the largest island between South and Middle Great Andaman) as the place where humans were created and fire was later brought to them by the god Biliku. It is interesting to note that this spot was in the territory of the A-Pucikwar tribe whose name (in Akar-Bea, Akar-Bale, Oko-Juwoi, Aka-Kol as well as their own language) means "they speak Andamanese." Whether this points to a myth of great antiquity relating to the origin of all Andamanese Negrito or is merely the residue of a splitting up of an originally much larger tribe centred on the A-Pucikwar in less remote times, we have no way of knowing. It is not clear whether the northern tribes without contiguous territories with the A-Pucikwar (the Aka-Kede, Aka-Jeru, Aka-Bo, Aka-Kora and Aka-Cari) subscribed to the same myth. Pointing in the direction of the second, more recent, possibility is that the northern Andamanese languages have some features in common with Onge: only Onge and Aka-Jeru are known to use infixes and while Aka-Bea is strict about prefixes and some neutral suffixes, Onge and Aka-Jeru are much more relaxed.

© 1998, George Weber, Switzerland

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