A curious article has been spreading through the web in the last months, listing 10 extraordinary places which are forbidden to common people. Among these, maybe the most interesting are the Andaman islands. Located next to the Bay of Bengal, in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean (close to Burma), their main attraction are their inhabitants. Yes, you’re right: I’ve just said that the aforementioned list comprises a bunch of places inaccessible to common people, so, how come that the Andaman host some inhabitants? The reason is simple: the Andamanese are not normal people at all, as we shall immediately see.
The tribes living in the islands, in fact, are one of the few remaining examples of ethnic communities which have stubbornly avoided any connection and communication with external societies, maintaining a “primitive” way of living, based on hunting and gathering. Favoured by the relative remoteness of the Andaman, the indigenous (which can be divided into 4 major tribes: the so-called Great Andamanese; the Jarawa; the Onge and the Sentinelese) seem to have migrated here from Africa around 60.000 years ago, and since then they have never moved. Caracterised by their shortness (they are affected by steatopygia, i.e. they are pygmies), the Andamanese have lived in a status of complete isolation since they reached the islands, and they also cut all the inter-tribal ties: the different groups speak mutually unintelligible languages, and are often hostile with each other.
A hostility which of course has been reserved also to all the visitors who, spontaneously or not, went to the atoll: since the 18th century, when the Andamanese were firstly “discovered” by Western foreigners (with the notable exception of Marco Polo, who already speaks about them in his “Travels”), the most part of the shipwrecked foreigners were killed, or fell victim of cannibalism or were repulsed by arrows. This is not totally unmotivated: when the British first decided to settle there to build a penal colony, they also caused epidemics of various diseases among the indigenous, causing an hecatomb. Some of the native tribes, lacking immunity against pneumonia or influenza, suffered from a severe population decline or even fell extinct. More recently, in the last two decades the Andamanese have become a sort of tourist attraction. Thousands of visitors a day travel the Andaman Trunk Road (built illegally in the 70′s by the Indian government, by destroying the forest of the island inhabited by the Jarawa) hoping to see some natives. These practices, labelled by the organization Survival International as “human safaris”, not only endanger the Jarawa, but often degenerate in offensive behaviors and inhuman treatments: an andamanese, for example, was filmed while forced to dance in return for sweets . The only legal act aimed at protecting these people, the “Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation”, dates back to 1956, and apart from the efforts of Survival International, not so many care about the fate of this population. As a result, today less than 1000 Andamanese are still alive, and they are constantly menaced by the threats of consumism and the retaliation actions following their armed defense against visitors.
Needless to say, this society is an extremely fascinating example of endurance to modern practices and the demonstration that, even in the 21th century, someone can still survive without the help of technology. There are many interesting questions which might be asked to them (if they could understand other languages): how do they intend friendship, for example, in a world foreign to the main social networks and to any digital form of communication? Who do they think we are? What is the relationship with their gods (they practice a form of animism), and what is the real meaning of the rituals they conduct? Finally, how did they manage to survive for so long?
When I went to Nicaragua, two years ago, I was struck by the fact that people, even if having to do with poverty on a daily basis and almost totally lacking opportunities to improve their lives, are extraordinarily happy. They do not know the meaning of stress, and they still maintain a privileged relationship with Nature. In the end, maybe we should be the ones asking for help, because the Andamanese may have seriously discovered the secret of happiness.