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The origins of the Andaman Islanders: local myth and archaeological evidence.

A place named Wot-a-emi has been associated by the Andaman Islanders with the origins of their ancestors. How does this myth square with archaeological findings?


Since 1984, archaeological investigations in the Andamans have brought to light numerous shell middens as well as a cave site (Cooper 1985; 1990a; 1990b); 16 radiocarbon determinations have yielded valuable insights into the history of cultural traditions in the Bay of Bengal.

As the origins of the Andaman Islanders remain unresolved, we must take into account local myths that provide clues which could be examined archaeologically. Fortunately, the anthropological literature on the Andamans abounds in myths concerning the socioreligious beliefs of the indigenous population (Man 1878; 1883; Radcliffe-Brown 1909; 1922), among which the beliefs surrounding Wot-a-emi are of particular interest to us.

Wot-a-emi: the myth

The first mention of this place was made by Man (1878a: 106) who referred to it as 'Wota-Emida'. Supposed to have been the scene of 'creation', it was located 'somewhere on the south-east corner of Middle Andaman' (Man 1878a: 106). A stone at this spot was reputed to display indecipherable hieroglyphics that were engraved by Tawmoda, the first man. Man (1878b: 455) subsequently saw

a large piece of sandstone, perhaps 30" in diameter, situated on the shore of a large shallow sheet of water which is enclosed almost entirely by the closely adjoining island and the mainland, and the wonderful inscription consisted of nothing more or less than deep incisions caused apparently by the action of the sea ...

This myth was further elucidated by the Puchikwar group of Andaman Islanders interviewed by Radcliffe-Brown (1909: 261-2). According to the Puchikwar, Ta Patie, the first islander, lived at Wot-a-emi, while Biliku, a mythical being associated with the northeast monsoon, resided at Tol-loko-tima across the strait. The ancestors had no fire at that time, but Biliku made a fire for himself from the wood of the 'Parat' tree. While Biliku was asleep, Luratut, the kingfisher, stole some fire, whereupon Biliku awoke and hurled a lighted brand at Luratut, and burnt him. However, Luratut managed to convey the fire to the people at Wot-a-emi. Notwithstanding other versions of this tale, there seems to be a general consensus regarding the transformation of the kingfisher into a man after the loss of his tail and wings.

Location of the mythical site

In its geographical location, Wot-a-emi represents a large sandy patch on the northeastern tip of Baratang Island. As Tol-loko-tima is situated in the northeast, Man (1883: 150) surmised that the source of fire would most probably have been the Barren Island volcano, about 100 km to the east of Baratang Island, which had last erupted in 1789 (Pascoe 1964: 1871) and again as recently as 1991. When the author visited Barren Island in 1992, the volcano was still spewing ash and smoke. However, as Tolloko-tima is a mythical place, it need not necessarily have been identified with Barren Island; rather, it was probably regarded by the Andaman Islanders as the general direction from which both the northeast monsoon and the source of fire derived. The Islanders probably did not know of the existence of Barren Island in view of their apparent inability to venture far from the coast in their flimsy outrigger canoes (Man 1883: 368). It seems that, if fire was initially obtained from Barren Island, the event did not take place within the memory of the Islanders questioned by Man and Radcliffe-Brown, but may have occurred in the distant past and was subsequently incorporated into local myth.

When some of the South and Middle Andamanese were able to visit Barren Island in a station steamer, they called it 'molatarchona' (literally, Smoke Island), in allusion to the smoke which is almost always seen rising from the volcano, and which they accounted for as due to a fire which 'puluga' kindled (Man 1883: 99). Of course, 'puluga' is none other than Biliku, and this instance demonstrates how beliefs can be reinforced and perpetuated.

Ancient encampments

Shell middens, ubiquitous in the Andamans, were, prior to the sharp decline in the local population during the last 150 years, generally associated with camping grounds that were more or less permanently occupied (Man 1883: 105; Cipriani 1954: 69).

Middens often served as convenient platforms on which camps could be established, as reported by Cipriani (1966: 80) and Cooper (1985: 32) with reference to Onge settlements on Little Andaman Island. Towards the end of the last century, a similar site was discovered at Wota-a-emi by Lapicque (1894: 362-3). The large midden sloped towards the sea; the other side, facing inland, was composed of earth (Lapicque 1894: 362). The mound surface formed a circular platform, along the periphery of which stood the remains of huts, which appeared to have been abandoned less than two years before their discovery by Lapicque (1894: 362). Among the artefacts recovered from the surface of the site were bones, shells and the bases of glass bottles from which flakes had been removed (Lapicque 1894: 362-3). Flakes from bottles substituted for stone flakes which were traditionally used for scarification and shaving (Man 1883: 380; Radcliffe-Brown 1922: 445). The glass bottles had obviously been obtained from the British penal settlement at Port Blair.

During his visit, Lapicque (1894: 363) also found a recently abandoned encampment at the mouth of Homfray Strait, a little north of Wot-a-emi. The huts were again arranged in a circle on a hillock, the top of which had been levelled for this purpose.

Steps, leading to the water's edge, had been cut into the sides of the hillock and were reinforced by bamboos. Shells lay scattered on the floor of the encampment and along the sides of the hillock (Lapicque 1894: 363).

The alignment of huts in a roughly oval pattern was characteristic of semi-permanent villages in the Andamans (Man 1883: 106; Radcliffe-Brown 1922: 32); similar shelters are still constructed by the Onge on Little Andaman Island (Cooper in press).

Archaeological evidence

A survey in 1989 relocated the midden at Wot-a-emi, as reported by Lapicque a hundred years ago. True to his description, the midden faces the sea, though the huts standing over it have long since disappeared. The 2.7-m high mound rests on a rocky platform; the lower deposits along its southern edge, level with the head of the man shown in FIGURE 2, are being steadily washed away by tidal waters. Shells and other material on the mound surface, which is almost hidden by a mass of vegetation, are slipping over the edge and breaking away in large chunks. The original north-south length of the site must, therefore, have exceeded its recent measurement of 22 m.

The basal layer was scraped, and a sample of calcified shells, belonging mostly to spider conches and clams, was removed for radiocarbon dating, the age result being 1530|+ or -~70 years b.p. (BS-843).


Contrary to expectations, this date does not enhance the antiquity of human occupation in the Andamans. Instead, it closely matches the ages of other sites on and around Baratang Island.

Hava Beel Cave

Perhaps the most important site on Baratang Island is the large limestone cave (42 m long, 9.3 m wide), named after the 'hava beel' ('White-nest' swiftlet (Collocalia fuciphaga inexpectata Hume) (Ali & Ripley 1983: 267)). Among the favourite nesting-places of this bird are the caves and caverns of the Andaman Islands. As the nests constitute a highly valued delicacy in Southeast Asia, the Andamans have always attracted Malays, Burmese and Chinese visitors who are known to have been well-acquainted with Hava Beel, which was originally referred to as the 'Middle Strait cave' (Portman 1899: 346). The strait separates the islands of Baratang and Middle Andaman.

It was not just the fascinating history of this site which prompted its excavation, but the report that it was a Jarawa encampment till as recently as the 1950s. Today, the Jarawa (numbering only about 200 individuals) are among the few surviving groups of Andaman Islanders.

A 2-m wide and 4.4-m deep trench exposed, to a depth of 3.5 m, lenses of dark organic matter deposited on a clay pellet matrix.

Further, younger, organic material seems to have been translocated chemically down the profile to be deposited on the original material (John Head pers. comm.).

Lumps of resin were recovered from the first metre of deposit below the surface. A small sample was tentatively identified by Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy as from a tree of the genus Dipterocarp (R. Gianno pers. comm.).

However, it is possible that the sample is of the tree Canarium euphyllum, the resin of which is used by the Andaman Islanders to make torches.

The absence from the deposits of pottery, faunal remains or stone and bone tools suggests that the main encampment was located outside the cave; a shell-midden is located about 100 m away. While it is possible that the Jarawa occupied the cave for short periods of time, one cannot rule out the possibility that it was more frequently visited by the Malay and Burmese collectors of swiftlets' nests.

The middens at Beehive Hill and Chauldari

The basal date of 1540|+ or -~110 b.p. for Hava Beel cave compares well with the ages of the middens at Wot-a-emi as well as at Beehive Hill and Yerata Nala in Middle Andaman Island.

The apparent contemporaneity of these sites not only reduces the importance of Wot-a-emi as an ancestral abode, but highlights the disparity between archaeological facts and mythical 'reality'.

Further proof of this has been provided by the 4.5-m high shell-midden at Chauldari in South Andaman Island. This site, in no way connected with legends or myths concerning the origins of the Andaman Islanders, has been dated to 2280|+ or -~90 b.p. (BS-599) (for details see Cooper 1990a). At this, the oldest excavated midden in the Andaman Archipelago, all the exposed layers of the site yielded bones of Sus scrofa. This is at variance with the late appearance of pig in Beehive Hill midden, which led Cipriani (1966: 66-73) to hypothesize that pigs were introduced to the Andamans fairly recently. To Heine-Geldern (1963) this discovery seemed to corroborate the Andamanese legend, by which pigs originally had no ears and noses, and were therefore easily caught. Subsequently, Chena-elewadi, the wife of Tomo (the first man), enabled the pigs to see and to hear, after which they ran wild in the forest. Both Heine-Geldern and Cipriani interpreted this legend as indicating that pigs were introduced into the Andamans as domesticates, which later became feral. Abdulali (1962: 281-3) has also discussed the possible derivation of the Andamanese pig from a semi-domesticated breed that originated in the Nicobars, where some domesticated animals may have become feral.

The question needs to be reconsidered, since 118 (73.24%) of the pig bones from the Chauldari midden were recovered from the lower levels, from 2.3 m to 4 m. Moreover, the putative existence of two varieties of pig, a short-snouted and a long-snouted, that has been attributed to the gradation of forms between the local wild pig and the domesticated breed (Abdulali 1962: 283), has been discounted by the analysis of pig bones from Chauldari. The size differences observed in this collection can be attributed to differences in age and/or sex, not to the presence of two breeds (Cooper 1990b: 100).

Cipriani (1966: 75) also suggested, from the Beehive Hill, evidence, that 'pottery arrived in the Andamans at the same time as the pig'. Once again, these findings have not been supported by the evidence from Chauldari, where pottery occurs in the lowest layers.

The technique of coil construction employed in the manufacture of Andaman pots (Man 1883: 374-5; Radcliffe-Brown 1922: 473) appears a cruder version of a similar process still practised on the island of Chowra in the Nicobars. Our studies have led us to hypothesize that, perhaps 2000 years ago, the Andaman Islanders acquired the knowledge of pottery-making through trade or barter with the Nicobarese (Cooper & Raghavan 1989). The eventual realization by the Andaman Islanders that coil building permitted the utilization of less plastic clay, and the fact that pots served only a basic utilitarian purpose, may have led to a certain indifference with regard to the selection of clay and its preparation (Cooper & Raghavan 1989). This may explain the increasing coarseness of ware, in the course of time, evident at the Chauldari and Beehive Hill middens.


The archaeological data does not substantiate the myth which identifies Wot-a-emi as the place that is associated with the origins of the Andaman Islanders. The occurrence of several sites, in the surrounding area, of a similar age suggests that the initial colonization of the Andamans took place more or less simultaneously in a number of islands. Whether this indicates rapid settlement by a large group of people is yet to be determined. Further, a larger number of sites on South Andaman Island need to be dated in order to ascertain whether they are as ancient as the midden at Chauldari and whether the southern islands of the archipelago were the first to be colonized.

Since the Hoabinhian culture in Sumatra and Malaysia is not older than 10,000 years (Bellwood 1985: 162), the Andamans may not have been colonized during the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago, even though lower sea-levels would have reduced, considerably, the distance between North Andaman Island and southern Burma, which today are separated by less than 300 km.

The clues afforded by the Andaman origin myth, even if they have led to negative results, help in bringing specific archaeological problems, such as the origins of the Andaman Islanders, into sharper focus. Moreover, they enable the archaeological record to be viewed from the perspective of those responsible for creating it, thus offering a socio-religious dimension that widens the scope for interpreting the past. The knowledge that certain locales were imbued with mystery alters their significance for the archaeologist. Magico-religious beliefs, although not leaving behind tangible traces of their existence, would indicate where communal gatherings may have taken place, thereby perpetuating the significance of local myths and ensuring the continuation of age-old traditions.

Acknowledgements. Field work was initially supported by the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council, Bombay, and subsequently by the Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi. The results were analysed and written up with support from the Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi. The author is indebted to these organizations for the opportunity to work in the Andaman Islands.

For providing radiocarbon dates special thanks are extended to Dr G. Rajagopalan of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany in Lucknow, Dr John Head of the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory of the Australian National University in Canberra and Dr Sheela Kusumgar of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.

Finally, I thank Dr Rosemary Gianno from the Conservation Analytical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington (DC), for analysing a resin sample from Hava Beel cave.


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MAN, E.H. 1878a. The Andaman Islands, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 7: 105-9.

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ZARINE COOPER, Department of Archaeology, Deccan College, Pune 411 006, India.
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Author:Cooper, Zarine
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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