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Wednesday 12 January 2005

Search still on for ancient Nicobar tribe

Source: Deccan Herald (Indian newspaper)

Rescue authorities under the Integrated Relief Command (IRC) are not giving up search operations in the battered parts of the Andaman & Nicobar islands for an ancient tribe. But they have expressed concern over failure to contact so far one of the aboriginal and Mongoloid tribes classified as Shompens living in the southern most tip of Great Nicobar island.

"We are sending men wherever smoke is found rising from the forest but with no success so far," Lt General B S Thakur told Deccan Herald here on Monday.
"However, we strongly believe that they are safe and we have asked the locals for relaying us any information that they may have on the Shompens," he said.

Except the Shompens, information about other aboriginal tribes like Jarawas, Sentinelese, Great Andamanese and Onges has already reached the IRC. The Shompens lead a semi-nomadic and primitive life. They camp in difficult and remote terrain on the thickly forested stretches of Great Nicobar, 540 kms by sea from Port Blair, making it extremely difficult to establish contact.

On unconfirmed reports in Great Andaman that unlike the Onges and the Great Andamanese, the Shompens who have so far shunned the civilised world, were keen to receive medical help now, he said IRC personnel were trying to verify them.

"We cannot act on the basis of heresy, we need to pursue some definite leads about them" he said. On whether the IRC had the requisite apparatus for thermo-imaging to help locate survivors in dense jungles, Lt Gen Thakur said Great Nicobar is just 90 miles from Sumatra, the epicentre of the 9-plus quake of December 26.

The Shompens traditionally put out to sea early in the morning in their canoes and return before the sun gets hot. The timing of the tsunami could have made them vulnerable as the giant waves could have smashed their boats to smithereens.
But these primitive tribes have been gifted with a rare power of sensing disaster which might have prevented them from setting out on that fateful morning.
The Shompens roughly number between 150 and 200 but there has been no headcount in view of the inhospitable terrain they live in, and difficulties in making contact.

The Andaman & Nicobar tribals came into first direct contact with the rest of world when the British occupied the islands in the late 19th century. The Negrito tribe living in the Andamans are perhaps the most ancient race on the planet. Some of their traits resemble those practised in the Stone Age.

According to an overseas researcher who has done a study of DNA fingerprints of the Andaman tribes, the antiquity of the aboriginals is anywhere between 30,000 and 70,000 years.This has not been confirmed even though other studies later somewhat concur.

There are more than 200 limestone caves in the Andamans and anyone who has migrated to fresh pastures would normally take shelter in the caves first. Since human ancestors were cave-dwellers, the deposits on these caves have not been studied properly to arrive at a confirmed period of antiquity.

As for the status of the lighthouse at Indira Point, Lt Gen Thakur pointed out that while five scientists working there when the Tsunami struck were still missing, the lighthouse itself has not been totally damaged.

"Even though it is still under five feet of water, batteries for the light have been charged and they are working. Relatives of the scientists accompanied Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Campbell Bay on Saturday in search of them. But they returned heart-broken," Lt Gen Thakur said.

Indira Point (formerly Pygamillion Point) is the southern most tip of the country. The towering lighthouse serves as a major maritime guide for various naval ships and aircraft.

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