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ETHNONYM: Mincopie


Identification. The Andamanese are the indigenous tribes of Negrito hunters and gatherers of the Andaman Islands. In 1908, the term "Andamanese" referred to thirteen distinct tribal groups, each distinguished by a different dialect and geographical location. Today only four tribes remain and are referred to collectively as "Andamanese." The four extant tribes are the Ongees of Little Andaman Island, the Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, the Jarwas of the Middle Andamans, and the Great Andamanese of Strait Island.

Location. The Andaman Islands, which comprise an archipelago of 348 islands, are located in the Bay of Bengal Between 10°30 and 13°30 N and 92°20 and 93°0 E. The total land area is 8,293 square kilometers, of which about 7,464 square kilometers are covered with tropical rain forests. The northern and central islands are hilly, while the southern islands are surrounded by offshore coral reefs and are criss-crossed with tidal creeks. The southwestern and northwestern monsoons create a rainy season that lasts approximately nine to ten months each year; annual precipitation is 275 to 455 centimeters. The only dry season on the islands begins in February and ends in March.

Demography. In 1800, the total tribal population on the islands was estimated at approximately 3,575. In 1901, the estimate dropped to 1,895, and in 1983, the total tribal Population was 269. Of the 1983 estimate only the count of 9 Great Andamanese and 98 Ongees was accurate. The Jarwas and the Sentinelese are isolated by topography and by each tribe's hostility toward outsiders. Since 1789, the population of nontribal peoples on the islands has steadily increased. The total number of outsiders on the islands was 157,552 in 1983 compared to the 269 tribals. The intrusion of outsiders and diseases introduced by them, such as measles, ophthalmia, and venereal disease, has contributed directly to the overall decline in tribal population and its disproportionate male/female ratio. The islands' expanding timber industry and the settlement of increasing numbers of nontribals, primarily from mainland India, also have reduced the total area available for use by the tribals.

Linguistic Affiliation. Areal linguistic connection of Andamanese with South and Southeast Asian language areas has not been systematically established. Andamanese as a language family is composed of two main groups: Proto-Little Andamanese, which includes Ongee, Jarwa, and Sentinelese; and Proto-Great Andamanese. Proto-Great Andamanese is further subdivided into three groups: Bea and Baie of South Andamans; Puchikwar, Kede, Juwoi, Koi, and Jko of Middle Andamans; and Bo, Chari, Jeru, and Kora of North Andamans. Early ethnographic accounts suggest that each of the tribal groups on the islands spoke mutually unintelligible languages. Yet linguistic records, compiled by the island's administrators and more recent research, suggest a great degree of overlap in terms used by each group.

History and Cultural Relations

The Andamanese are believed to share a cultural affinity with some of the Orang Aslis of insular Southeast Asia. It has been argued that the Andamanese arrived from the Malay and Burmese coasts by land in late quaternary times or, at a later time, by sea. There is also speculation that the Andamanese came from Sumatra via the Nicobar Islands. However, the precise origins of the Andamanese remain scholarly speculations that have not been thoroughly investigated and researched. The early recorded history of the islands began in earnest with the British in 1788. Rapid changes in trade winds in the area, monsoons, and coral reefs surrounding the islands caused many shipwrecks; those few who survived shipwrecks were killed by the Andamanese. In an effort to establish a safe harbor for their ships, the British made many unsuccessful attempts to pacify the islanders. In 1859, the British established Port Blair, a penal settlement on Middle Andamans; the location was chosen because it was fortified by its isolation and by Andamanese hostility. Over a period of time the Great Andamanese, who occupied the forests surrounding Port Blair, were pacified and even cooperated with British authorities in tracking down escaped convicts. Today the islands form a part of the Union Territory of India. The British imperial administration established "Andaman homes" (large permanent residences under a supervisor) for the tribals in an effort to foster a cordial relationship through exposure to European civilization. By 1875, Andamanese Culture had come under scientific scrutiny, as anthropologists Finally realized that this was a group of people dangerously close to extinction. From 1879, under the direction of British scholars, Andamanese culture was documented, cataloged, exhibited, and written about, especially with regard to linguistics and physical anthropology. Since Indian independence in 1947, many different plans for the social welfare and Economic development of the islands and the tribal population have been implemented. Today the remaining four tribal groups are under the government-controlled institution called Andaman Adim Jan Jati Vikas Samiti. Government planners, administrators, and social workers face a dilemma in determining what kinds of changes in the traditional worldview of the remaining tribal groups, especially the Ongees, should be effected. The Jarwas and the Sentinelese have remained largely outside the framework of structured and prolonged welfare activities. The Great Andamanese, who of the four groups have had the longest period of contact with outsiders, are the most dependent on outsiders and their goods; they also are the smallest group, with practically no memory of their own language and traditions.


Andamanese settlement patterns are based on seasonal changes. During the relatively dry season (from October to February) simple thatched lean-to huts are set up in a circular formation close to the coastal area by four families or more. All huts face the central campground created by the surrounding huts. Usually the separate huts for the unmarried men and newly married couples do not form a part of the huts surrounding the campground. During the months of May to September, the Andamanese move from the coast to the forest where pigs are hunted and honey, fruit, and tubers are collected. Violent rainstorms, which occur from May to September, make it impossible for the Andamanese to hunt turtles, dugongs, or fish from their canoes. The move from the coast to the forest is marked by a change in settlement pattern: though camps are set up in the forest as they are at the coast, only four or five families stay in one camp. As the wet season ends, each family moves to its clan's traditional hut, which is circular and houses from fifteen to twenty sleeping platforms. A clan's hut is stationary and is maintained throughout the year by the men of the clan. With the exception of a clan's hut, all housing is temporary. A clan's hut, usually 5 to 7 meters in diameter, has a woven thatched roof and side walls. Permanently installed sleeping platforms for each nuclear family are arranged circularly within each hut. Housing, in the forest and at the coast, is usually dismantled before leaving a campsite. At each new campsiteselected for its proximity to fresh water and firewooda new sleeping platform, about 70 centimeters above the ground, is constructed for each hut. Each family retains its sleeping mats and log head-rests and moves them to each new campsite. The government of India has constructed wooden houses situated on 2-meter stilts for the Great Andamanese and the Ongees. Some families use these, but among the Ongees they are not very popular and the structures are used primarily for storage.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Hunting and gathering, predicated on a seasonal translocationary pattern, characterize Andamanese culture. The Jarwas and Sentinelese are still completely dependent on hunting and gathering activities. Among the Ongees, however, plantation cultivation of coconuts has become important since its introduction in 1958. Although the Ongees gather the coconuts, they do not want to be involved with, nor do they participate in, any form of agricultural activity. The Ongees are paid for gathering coconuts by the welfare agency with food rations and industrial products from mainland India. Consequently, the forest products they consume increasingly are being replaced by imported products. Among the Great Andamanese hunting is only an occasional activity. They are paid a monthly allowance by the government and also receive wages for taking care of the citrus fruit plantations. Fishing in the sea is usually done with bows and arrows while standing in knee-deep water, especially during low tide, and it is a year-round activity. Occasionally lines and hooks are used to fish in the sea. Hand-held nets are used to fish and to gather crabs and other shellfish from the island's inland creeks. Fish is an important part of Andamanese culture; in the different dialects the term for "food" is the same as that for "fish." Traditionally the northern groups caught sea turtles in large nets, but this is not done by the southern groups. Ongees paddle out to sea in their dugout outrigger canoes to hunt sea turtles and dugongs with harpoons. During the wet season the Andamanese hunt pigs in the forest with bows and detachable arrowheads. Dogs, introduced to the island in 1850 and the only domesticated animals among the Andamanese, are sometimes used to track down the pigs. Throughout the year there is a strong dependence on gathering a variety of items, such as turtle eggs, honey, yams, larvae, jackfruit, wild citrus fruits, and wild berries.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally the Andamanese were dependent on the forest and the sea for all resources and raw materials. Raw materials such as plastic and nylon cords have now been incorporated into Andamanese material culture: plastic containers are used for storage; nylon cords are used as string to make nets. These items are usually discarded by passing ships and fishing boats and are then washed up onto the islands. The Indian government distributes as gifts to the Ongees, Jarwas, and Sentinelese metal pots and pans, and as a consequence metal cookware has nearly replaced the traditional hand-molded clay cooking pots that were sun-dried and partially fire-baked. The Ongees continue to make clay pots but use them primarily for ceremonial occasions. Ongees grind metal scraps, found on the shore or received from the government, on stones and rocks to fashion their cutting blades and arrowheads. Prior to the introduction of metal in 1870 by the British, the Ongees made adzes and arrowheads from shells, bones, or hard wood. Although iron is highly valued by the Ongees, they do not use iron nails to join objects. Ongees still join objects by carving or tying rattan rope, cane strips, or strands of nylon cord. Smoking pipes, outrigger canoes, and cylindrical containers for holding honey are among the many items carved by the Ongees.

Trade. Traditionally trade within a group was conducted between the bands identified as pig hunters (forest dwellers) and turtle hunters (coastal dwellers). The pig hunter band traded clay paint, clay for making pots, honey, wood for bows and arrows, trunks of small trees for canoes, and betel nuts in exchange for metal gathered from the shore, shells for ornaments, ropes and strings made from plant fibers and nylon, and edible lime gathered by the turtle hunters. The bands would take turns serving as host for these organized events of exchange. Historically the Andamanese gathered honey, shells, and ambergris to trade with outsiders in return for clothes, metal implements, or even cosmetics. Under the imperial administration trade with outsiders was the means of entry for opium and liquor into the Northern Andamanese community. According to the Ongees in the days before coconut plantations and the help of the welfare agencies, they and their ancestors would travel by canoe northward to Port Blair to exchange with other Andamanese for the sugar and tobacco received from the British administration.

Division of Labor. Only men hunt pigs, dugongs, and turtles. Both men and women perform all other activities of day-to-day life, including child care, cooking, and the gathering of food resources and raw materials.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, among the Andamanese certain territories were identified as belonging to a specific band. In the Northern and the Middle Andamans it was frequently necessary to pass through another's territory. The trespassers were obliged to behave as guests in another's territory and, in return, the owners of a given territory were obliged to behave as cordial hosts. Thus, a feeling of mutual interdependence and a value for hunting and gathering in each other's part of the island has created a process of shared production and consumption. Among the Ongees of Little Andaman, where no other tribal group resides, the island is divided into four major parts and identified with two pairs of mythical birds, each of which is associated with land or water. The four divisions of land represent the four Ongee clans. Each section of the island is further subdivided into sections of land associated with a lineage. These land divisions, known as megeyabarrotas, are identified with a person's matrilineage and, depending on whether the territory is in the forest or on the coast, with either the turtle hunters (eahambelakwe ) or the pig hunters (ehansakwe ). Ongees prefer to hunt and gather in their own megeyabarrota but there are no restrictions on hunting in someone else's megeyabarrota. If one does hunt in another's megeyabarrota one is obliged to offer and share first with the owners any resource taken. A person's identity with a megeyabarrota plays a crucial role in Ongee rituals and ceremonies; for example, consummation of a marriage must occur in the wife's megeya-barrota, and a dead person's bones must be kept in the berale (circular hut) of a descendant's megeyabarrota.


Kin Groups and Descent. The present small size of the population and the limited information available on the Northern and Middle Andamans makes it difficult to create a comprehensive picture of Andamanese kinship. Earlier Ethnographic accounts present the basic tribal division as the "sept," but Radcliffe-Brown's observations lead us to believe that groups came together to ensure friendly relations. On the basis of Ongee ethnographic material and early descriptions of the Andamanese, it is beyond a doubt that the Andamanese have bilateral descent groups.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is cognatic and terminology, on the whole, specifies classificatory relations. Prefixes are affixed to classificatory terms of reference that also emphasize senior and junior age differentials.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is arranged by the elders within the prescribed group, that is, between turtle hunters and pig hunters. A man's patrilineal relatives take gifts and demand a daughter from a man's matrilineal group. Among the Ongees, population decline often makes it impossible for a young man to marry his classificatory cross cousin, and consequently he sometimes must marry a much older woman who is his mother's classificatory cross cousin. Monogamy is a strict rule. An older man or woman who has lost a spouse receives priority for marriage. Levirate marriage is acceptable. Marriage is a highly valued status. Both Man and Radcliffe-Brown imply that residence is ambilocal, but some of Radcliffe-Brown's remarks indicate a tendency towards virilocal residence. Among the Ongees a newly married couple stays with the wife's matrilineal relatives at least until a child is born. After a child is born the couple may move to live with the husband's siblings and their families. Divorce is rare and is considered immoral after the birth of a child.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the major group around which all activities revolve. The nuclear family includes a married couple's own children as well as any adopted children.

Inheritance. Men and women inherit rights and obligations primarily from their matrilineal lineage. Tools and canoes may be inherited from the father's side.

Socialization. Customarily children are given in adoption. The responsibility of early socialization of the child rests with the child's matrilineal relatives. Once a young boy is ready for initiation his training and education become the responsibility of his father and his paternal relatives. After a girl's first menstruation she is even more closely aligned with her matrilineal relatives. Children of both sexes are taught about the forest while they accompany their elders on various hunting and gathering activities. Through play and the making of toy canoes, bows and arrows, shelters, and small nets, children are introduced to the basic requisite skills.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social and Political Organization. Traditionally speakers of a dialect resided as an independent and autonomous group in a specific part of the islands. Each local group was further divided up, especially in the Northern and the Middle Andamans, into twenty to fifty people who, depending on the season, lived either at the coast or in the forest. Marriage alliances and adoptions between coastal and forest dwellers controlled conflict; those social controls were supplemented by the dictates of the elders.

Social Control. The Andamanese value system is the basic means for maintaining social control. Direct confrontation is avoided, and "going away"that is, leaving the source and scene of conflict for a short timeis encouraged. Usually a person expresses resentment by breaking or destroying some piece of property at the campsite and then staying in the forest for a few days. While the offended person is gone, other campmates fix up the destroyed property and wait for that person, who is taken back without recriminations.

Conflict. Occasionally neighboring groups would have a conflict of interests; however, hostility never escalated beyond the level of avoidance. When problems between groups would arise, women, through informal channels of negotiation, were instrumental in the resolution of tension. Resolution was usually marked by a feast in which the groups in conflict would participate. Between neighboring groups with different identities that were marked by different spoken dialects, the peacemaking ceremony consisted of a sequence of shared feasts held over a period of time. The imperial administrators of the islands acknowledged the position of influence held by some of the elders, and thus titles such as raja were introduced and functionary chiefs created. The position of raja was always held by an elder who could speak the administration's language of Hindustani.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The basic belief system of the Andamanese may be characterized as animistic. All living things are believed to be endowed with power that affects human beings. The universe is a multilayered structure, a configuration of various places through which spirits and the smell and the breath of humans, animals, and plants move. Restriction of movement is regarded as a major threat to the order of nature, since each place within space is associated with a distinct type of spirit that permits or restricts the movements of all living things.

Formless, boneless, and smell-absorbing spirits live in different parts of the forest and the sea and may be divided into two main categories: those associated with natural phenomena and those of the dead. Natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, thunder, rainbows, waterspouts in the sea, and storms, mark the arrival at and departure from the islands of the spirits associated with the winds coming from different Directions. The second significant category of spirits, those of the dead, may be further subdivided into benevolent and malevolent spirits. When a person dies his body undergoes a sequence of burial rites; a secondary burial rite transforms a dead person's spirit into a benevolent spirit who helps the living. Persons who die and do not receive the appropriate burial rites become a class of malevolent spirits who cause harm. The Andamanese, and specifically the Ongees, share an identity and space with the spirits; that is, spirits are formed from dead Andamanese and both spirits and the living compete in hunting and gathering the same resources on the islands.

Religious Practitioners. The only distinguishable practitioner is the spirit communicator who communicates with ancestral spirits while dreaming or being in a state of unconsciousness. Frequent contact with spirits endows the okojumu or okopaid (medicine man) with supernatural powers. Among the Ongees such a specialist is called torale and he or she is consulted by the community to locate resources, cure the sick, and plan the group's routine and ceremonial activities. Ongees believe that anyone can become a torale, but only an apprenticeship under an experienced torale provides one with the skill to navigate to and from the spirit world.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies are held for the initiation of young men and women and at the time of death. There is a continuity between these ceremonies: initiation completes the child, who is closer in identity to the spirits prior to initiation, and makes him a full human being; the funerary ceremonies transform the human being into a full spirit. Singing, dancing, and feasts form an integral part of these occasions and other rites of passage. These ceremonies entail certain food restrictions and prescriptions for the participating individual and his or her family. Ceremonial singing and dancing frequently accompany changes in residence, from forest to sea or sea to forest, and the change of seasons. The launching of a new canoe is also marked by ceremonies.

Arts. The primary art form practiced by the Andamanese is clay painting of the body and the face. Each lineage has its own distinct design that is painted on the faces of men and women. The paint is made of red, white, or yellow clay mixed with water and/or pig fat. Intricate geometric patterns are applied to the body and the face with fingers or wooden comblike instruments. Body painting accompanies almost all ceremonies; face painting is an everyday affair. Usually the woman paints each member of her family. Men and women make and wear ornaments made of shells and different plant materials to wear at organized singing sessions. The singing sessions are of the call-and-response style, and any individual may lead the songs. The elders will also sing traditional songs to which new lines are never added. The subject matter for traditional songs is historical and mythological events. Ongees regard traditional songs as a form of "weeping and crying" and the songs are sung in a formalized "crying" style. Storytelling, with dramatic enactments and highly stylized discourse, is another form of expression that brings campmates, especially the children, together. Among the Ongees some individuals are acknowledged to be better storytellers than others and are frequently called upon to perform. With the exception of the Great Andamanese who use sounding boards to accompany their singing and dancing, no musical instruments are used among the Andamanese. The dance steps are all a traditional body of choreographed movements that are performed on specific ceremonial occasions. Rhythm for dancing is usually accomplished by hand clapping and the slapping of the foot against the body and ground. Men and women always dance separately.

Medicine. The Andamanese believe that the body gets sick when it becomes either too hot or too cold. Extremes in body temperature result in the release (hot) or solidification (cold) of body fluids and smell. The spirit communicator diagnoses the illness and usually attributes it to spirits. Depending upon the diagnosis, an illness is cured through the application of clay paints, mixed with other substances, in conjunction with the body either being tied with a cord around the affected part or being cut to make it bleed. Massage is also used to cure. As a preventive medicine, the Andamanese wear amulets made out of the bones of dead relatives that are believed to ward off any malevolent spirit who may cause sickness.

Death and Afterlife. When a person dies his "body internal" is believed to escape into either the forest or the sea. Thus a dead coastal dweller becomes a spirit of the sea (jurua ) and a dead forest dweller becomes a spirit in the forest (lau ). Those who die in accidents or those whose dead body did not receive the appropriate ceremonial burial become malevolent spirits who cause sickness and death among human beings. Through secondary burial the bones of the dead person are recovered and made into amulets and body ornaments that attract the spirits of benevolent ancestors who will help and keep safe his living human relatives. The Ongees believe that the spirits of dead ancestors are attracted to the islands and, through a series of events, are transformed into the fetuses in human mothers. Thus the spirits of the ancestors become the children of the Ongees.


Cipriani, Lidio (1966). The Andaman Islanders. New York: Praeger.

Man, E. H. (1885). On the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the Andaman Islands. London: Anthropological Institute.

Pandya, Vishvajit (1897). "Above the Forest: A Study of Andamanese Ethnoanemology, Cosmology, and the Power of Ritual." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.

Portman, M. V. (1859). History of Our Relations with the Andamanese. Calcutta: Government Printing Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922). The Andaman Islanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.