Write articles and earn !

(Return to GatewayforIndia - Tourism)

Tsunami  Warning System of Aboriginal Tribes 

By Manmohan Melville

We call ourselves the “civilized world”. We call them “aboriginal tribes”. Sometimes, when we are in a condescending mood, we smilingly refer to them as “the missing links with our primitive past”.  

There are also five distinct aboriginal tribes that inhabit the islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago – the Jarawas, Onges, Shompens, Sentinelese and the Great Andamanese.  

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which form a part of the Indian nation, are situated in the Indian Ocean – almost 1,000 miles to the east of the mainland. They comprise of an archipelago of over 500 islands – 38 of which are populated.  

The main modern settlements are around Port Blair (the capital town), on one of the northernmost islands. The cluster of towns near the capital see an influx of tourists – both Indian and foreign. And these islands are also home to members of scientific teams, Coast Guards and the Indian military forces.  

On the other hand, the original, native tribes (now forming just 12% of the islands’ population) – by and large -- keep very much to themselves – living on the remote, scattered islands – in life-styles that have remained almost unchanged over the centuries. You can say that that they are almost “untouched by our modern civilization”. In fact, a few of the tribes have (what can be best described as) a healthy disdain for modern man and his civilized world!  

On 26 December 2004, a massive, underwater earthquake took place near the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, triggering off 20 feet high tsunami waves that ravaged the coastlines of 12 countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean.

Now, it so happens that the beautiful islands of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago are situated a mere 60 nautical miles to the west of the probable underwater epicenter of those tsunami waves!

 A Trail of Destruction

 The tsunami waves left a trail of death and destruction wherever they struck along the coastlines! The islands of Andaman and Nicobar bore the brunt of the sea’s fury on that fateful day. The village of Kakana – on the central Car Nicobar Island – was once considered the ideal village, based on which the neighbouring villages modeled themselves. It had a power station, electricity, a school, banks, shops, concrete houses, roads and television. After the tsunami struck, however, the village was almost reduced to rubble.  

Village after village on the coastlines of the scattered islands showed similar heartrending scenes. In addition, there was tremendous loss to life and thousands of persons were reported to be “missing”. A week after the disaster, the figures sent in from the islands showed about 700 dead and over 3,000 others missing.

 And what about the natives?  

Had the island tribes survived the fury of the tsunami? After all, most of the villages built on more modern standards had been flattened by the waves. The initial reports about the tribes that came in sounded most grim. At first, there was every reason to believe that none of the five tribes had survived!

 Geographically, the southern islands of the Nicobar group are closest to the epicenter of the tsunami. And it is mainly on these islands that the aboriginal natives still live. (95% of the tribal folks live in the central and southern Nicobar Islands).

Initial sorties showed that many of the smaller islands of the Nicobar group had been totally submerged by the disaster. And there was a fear that many would never be seen again. And what about the natives?

In recent years, these tribes had already dwindled to very small numbers. The smallest tribe – the Sentinelese – numbered only 32, while the largest group – Jarawas – had about 226 members.

Had the indigenous tribes vanished under the waves?

 A most welcome shower of arrows!

 A few days after the tsunami struck, a Coast Guard helicopter was making a survey over Sentinel Island – the home of the Sentinelese tribes. On spotting some of the tribesmen on the beach, the curious pilot veered the helicopter towards them.  

At once, the tribesmen sent an angry shower of arrows at the helicopter. That was taken as a sign that the tribe had not only survived but was as fighting fit as ever! Their arrows said it all – we have survived on our own and do not need your help – thank you!  

The personnel in the helicopter clicked photographs of the tribesmen, with their bows in hand, as proof to show that the aborigines had survived the natural disaster.

On other tribal islands, it was found that the salt water from the tsunami had contaminated the water holes. In these areas, the Air Force airdropped food packages for the tribes.

 Ancient, native warning systems  

The next question that surfaced in everyone’s minds was – just how did these simple, unsophisticated people manage to save themselves? After all, many of the larger bases on the islands had almost been flattened and hundreds of civilians – caught unawares -- had been washed into the sea.  

The probable answer lies in the ancient, ancestral warning system that these tribes have evolved over the centuries. Their system is simple and unique. The tribes-people live in close harmony with nature and with the local flora and fauna. They seem to have an intense system of by which they observe their fellow-creatures. The cries of the birds, the frenzy of the smaller mammals, even the change in the swimming pattern of the marine animals – all give them clues and signals of approaching natural calamities -- like storms or tidal waves.

It is a system that has been developed – almost through natural instinct – by their forefathers and which have been passed down from generation to generation. Probably, as the tribes-people read the signs on that fateful day, they began to move their people inwards and upwards to higher grounds just before the tsunami struck.  

The surveys made later by the Coast Guards confirmed this – all five of the indigenous tribes had “instinctively” moved to safer, high ground.

 A lesson for the civilized people  

Anthropologists have further confirmed that these tribes probably trace their traditions back 20,000 years – each generation adding its own knowledge to the existing pool of information.

This knowledge has not yet been completely recorded and studied by “civilized” man. Probably hidden somewhere in the knowledge that the tribes have there may be some methods that can be developed to form a warning system that will save future generations of the civilized world from the destruction by the forces of nature.  

With the trauma of the tsunami fresh in our minds, this may be the right time for the “civilized people” to start that study – in a spirit of true humility. And probably this is the right point to end this narrative, but not before adding this moral to the tale -- the next time we refer to ourselves as the “civilized world” -- stop and think!

There’s a lot we have to learn from the so-called “primitive” people!