The indigenous people who inhabit the lush, verdant rain forests of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal have made the islands their home for at least the past 2,000 years. Over the centuries, the Andaman Islanders have been a subject of both fascination and dread, often being portrayed as brutish cannibals. The 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, for instance, recorded in accounts of his travels a story he heard of the “dog-headed” inhabitants of the islands. More recently, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, an Andaman Islander appears as a villain, complete with “murderous darts” and a “face [that] was enough to give a man a sleepless night.”

These creative flights of fancy aside, the history and culture of the Andamanese continue to intrigue visitors to the islands, as well as anthropologists such as myself. Between 450 and 500 indigenous people still live on the islands, the last representatives of the dwindling population of Negrito people in south Asia. The Andaman Islanders followed the traditional way of life of these people—one of seminomadic hunter-gatherer-fishers—well into the 19th century, when British colonists arrived and began to take over the islands.

Despite intrusions, however, some islanders have managed to hold on to many of their traditional customs. Indeed, even now, one group remains extraordinarily isolated and hostile to any outsiders, defending its territory with potentially deadly force. But the influence of occupation, first British and now Indian, has taken its toll. The number of Andaman Islanders has dropped precipitously over the past two centuries, down from an estimated average of 5,000 islanders living throughout the archipelago in the middle of the 19th century.

At present, only four tribes live on the islands—the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. Yet scholars believe that at one time, some 12 distinct linguistic and separate territorial groups inhabited the islands. Time is running out for the last representatives of aboriginal Andamanese culture. In hopes of learning more about the islanders—their past, present and future—I spent some 18 months on the islands between 1989 and 1993, living primarily with members of the Onge tribe.

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