Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lessons from the Andaman Islands

This website is a good online resource for news of the effects of the mind-boggling Asian tsunami on the tiny Andaman islands, home to one of the world's only remaining completely independent indigenous peoples.

These islands have seen a permanent rearrangement of their geography - one island has, in several instances, become two or even three; Katchall is, at this point, still more than 50% submerged, "and geologists fear much of it may have been eaten away by the sea."

But what's most interesting - though completely understandable - are the survival numbers of some of the most remote tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, quoted here from an news update:

The 270 Jarawa, who lived in complete isolation until recently, appear to
have escaped unharmed. They almost certainly were living in the forest when the
tsunami struck.

Most of the Onge, who live in two government-built settlements, fled to
high ground as the sea level fell, and so survived. Their awareness of the ocean
and its movements has been accumulated over 60,000 years of inhabiting the

Reports from overflights of Sentinel Island, home of the most isolated
of all the tribes, the Sentinelese, indicate that many have been seen on the
beaches. The Sentinelese fired arrows at the helicopter overhead. However,
confident assertions by the authorities that all the Sentinelese have been
accounted for are premature, as no-one has any idea of their population
(estimates range from 50 - 250), and landing on the island is impossible.

No reliable reports have yet been received on the fate of the 41 Great
Andamanese, but early indications are that they have survived more or less

Similarly, there has been no reliable information on the fate of the
380-strong Shompen, an isolated tribe of Great Nicobar Island.

Join this with this story of a tiny village near Banda Aceh, where most of the population survived because of an ancient folktale handed down by the fishermen warning that when the sea recedes quickly and suddenly, you should seek high ground as it will return in a massive wave. Which, of course, it did. In an age in which we're constantly handed technology as the answer to all problems, in which gadgets and tools are replacing traditions and knowledge more quickly than we're able to assess what these changes mean, it seems a healthy reminder that our ancestors lived hundreds of thousands of lives and died hundreds of thousands of deaths to bring us these lessons. The locations, traditions, stories of all our ancestry have been kept as sacred for hundreds of generations for a reason - just because we may have forgotten those reasons, doesn't make them any less important. Some day, it will all come back a thousandfold.


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