Books Features

In the Land of the Naked People

By M&C News Jul 3, 2004, 12:51 GMT

Untouched by Modern Life...
Madhusree Mukerjee, a native of India, won a Guggenheim Fellowship to write The Land of Naked People. She had previously served on the board of editors of Scientific American.

Her book The Land of the Naked people has won many plaudits the Publishers Weekly called it  "An impassioned portrait of an ancient culture on the brink of vanishing." Ian Tattersall, author of Extinct Humans and curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History said "I love this book. It is a wonderfully readable, poignant account of a people who never stood a chance (and of the people who never gave it to them)."

In The Land of Naked People, Madhusree Mukerjee explores the debilitating effects of modernization and colonization on a group of isolated natives — perhaps the most secluded humans on the planet — living in a prehistoric "time capsule" on the Andaman Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, off the coast of India. What the author observed firsthand brings to mind the exploitation and cultural loss that has characterized the development of nearly all nations, but for the Adamanese it is happening in the present.

Mukerjee, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship to research this book, chronicles the lives of four tribes of Andamanese who were introduced to modern influences at different periods, from the Great Andamanese (the most assimilated group) to the Sentinelese (the least integrated).

As a result of her exceptional access to the remote islanders, Mukerjee is able to offer unprecedented insights into the effects of colonization on undeveloped civilizations. She reveals how outsiders (first the British, later the Indians) have taken precious land and introduced pollution and serious diseases (influenza, measles, and malaria) that have decimated the population, so that now only five hundred natives survive. More broadly, Mukerjee examines the persistence of harmful myths about "savages" and the perennially fraught relationship between light- and dark-skinned peoples.

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Combining anthropological findings with historical accounts and personal travel stories, Mukerjee's compelling and accessible narrative — with "an unusual, eclectic perspective," according to Library Journal — gives us a unique glimpse into a primeval, disappearing way of life. The Land of Naked People is the story of the Andamanese, but it is also the story of every culture that has ever had to adapt to encroachment by another. As Mukerjee comments in the attached interview, "The process I witnessed on the Andamans is part of the history of each one of us."

Photo Credit : Dave Freda

Q) How did you become interested in the Andamanese?

Growing up in India, I had heard of the Andaman Islands as the site of a notorious British prison where Indian freedom fighters had been incarcerated. Anyone who managed to escape was killed by natives who lived in the surrounding jungles. Years later, a friend mentioned that some of these "savages" still lived on one of these isolated islands, shooting arrows at boats that came too close. I had to find out what this was all about.

Q) Who are the Andamanese?

A) They are hunter-gatherers who have lived on the Andamans for at least fifty thousand years. They look unlike most other Asians, and much like African pygmies. Now, though, DNA studies tell us they are remnants of the very first humans in Asia. Seafarers of ancient times believed the Andamanese to be cannibals, because they killed most anyone who went ashore.

Q) How did the Andamanese live before they were contacted?

A) Very well, it seems. The islands and their shores had abundant food, and they had only to wade into the water to pick up clams or shoot coral fish with arrows. They were left alone by most outsiders. But there are ancient reports of the Andamanese having been sold into slavery, probably by Malay pirates who raided their islands. That might explain Andamanese hostility to outsiders.

Natural Beauty
Q) What changed with contact?

A) That's really what the book is about. For the Andamanese living on the main islands, where the British established a penal colony, contact meant defeat in war, loss of territory, and death by disease — the islanders had been so isolated for so long that they had no immunity to our diseases. In the mid-1800s their numbers were estimated at between five and eight thousand; now only forty-odd members of that group survive.

Those Andamanese who lived on more remote islands, or in dense interior forests, were less affected. Even in the 1990s one hostile tribe, the Jarawa, lived in jungles quite close to the main town, Port Blair, and would kill anyone who entered their territory. All the Andamanese taken together now number no more than five hundred, and only the one hundred or so living on their own island are relatively free.

Q) What, to you, was the most interesting thing about the Andamanese?

A) That they are pretty much like you and me. They look odd at first — few of us feel comfortable dressed only in ornaments — but you come to realize that their clothes and habits make sense, are a logical adaptation to their environment.

Most of all, it was fascinating to see the process by which the Andamanese were adapting to civilization, and the things they were giving up along the way — their material independence, their pride.

Q) What changes did you see between your first visit and your last?

A) I saw the Jarawa go from killing intruders to begging for handouts on the streets. From being phenomenally healthy — free of even the common cold — to dying of disease.

Q) What do you hope this book might achieve?

A)I wanted to understand, and to help others explore, the process of colonization, which seems to be fundamentally the same no matter where it occurs.

I had hoped that I could call attention to the Andamanese in time to help them. I now fear it might be too late for the Jarawa. Still, I hope the book will inspire debate on how best to help the Andamanese cope with civilization, and spark enough sustained interest to put the best ideas into practice.

Q) Was being a woman an obstacle?

A) Once you are on the Andamans, you need permission to meet the natives. I didn't get permission to go on official contact trips to meet the Jarawa, because I am female. The senior officials didn't think a woman should meet the naked Jarawa. On the other hand, I was able to have intimate conversations with Andamanese women about things like sexual abuse by outsiders.

Q) How has working on this book affected you personally?

A) It has made me wonder to what extent the things I have — financial security, education, and so on — are derived from those who don't have these things. In India I belonged to an upper caste that had for thousands of years lorded it over the aboriginals, who were the original owners of the land. While I went to school and college, my bed was made and my vegetables chopped by servants who mostly came from the lower, defeated castes. Coming to the United States, I benefited from a society built on the bones of Native Americans. I think the process I witnessed on the Andamans is part of the history of each one of us.

Visiting the Islands

The Islands have recently become a popular tourist destination. During the year 2000 millenium celebrations many enthusiestic visitors paid thousands to witness the first sunrise of the new millenium. This was based on research by astronomers of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which came to the conclusion that if the millennium started at 0000 GMT, the first sunrise was at the small islands of Katchall in the Andamans at 0600 Indian time.

They are certainly a great place to relax and get away from it all. Though be sure to visit in the right season, since cyclones are not unknown. There are many travel companies who offer them as a destination.

As for the Jarawas, well the High Court in Calcutta ruled that no further outside interaction with them would be allowed. Since the risk to their lifestyle is too great. Though it is hard to see how they will survive, given rampant disease and the unstoppable nature of human spread.

The book The Land of the Naked People is published by Houghton Mifflin and available at all good book stores, as well as online at Amazon.

Read on to see excerpts from the book.


Angamanain is a very long island. The people are without a king, and are
Idolaters, and are no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of
this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes
likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a
quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody
that they can catch, if not of their own race.

So said Marco Polo after coasting by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in
1290. On his way home to Italy and immortality, he was dropping off a
Chinese princess in distant India to wed a king she’d never met. After his
ship left Sumatra, sailing past a spattering of small green hills in the ocean,
Marco Polo did not land. Had he done so, he might have learned more about
the dog-people; but by then, he’d learned something about self-preservation.

 To end up on the Andamans, one had to be singularly unlucky —
to be swept off course by contrary winds, or wrecked by a monsoon storm. A
long, delicate chain strung off the southern tip of Burma, and aligned north to
south as though on a longitude, the islands had long sheltered a race of
terrible reputation. “The people on this coast eat human flesh quite raw; their
complexion is black, their hair frizzled, their countenance and eyes frightful,
their feet are very large, and almost a cubit in length, and they go quite
naked,” related two Arabs in 850. “They have no sort of barks or other
vessels; if they had, they would seize and devour all the passengers they
could lay hands on.” Stories abounded of the savages dismembering and
roasting hapless sailors. “No one to this day has landed on the Andaman
where people are cannibals,” recorded the eleventh-century text Ajaibal-Hind.
One wonders who lived to tell the tales.

 Southward the archipelago gave way to the Nicobars, where lived
a far more peaceable people who offered coconuts to seafarers. Almost two
millennia ago, the Ten-Degree Channel separating the Andamans from the
Nicobars had become a popular route for ships laden with silk, grain,
elephants, slaves, and other merchandise to cross from India to Sumatra and
then on to China. Even so, many early scholars seem to have confused the
two island groups. Ptolemy wrote of the Andamans as Bazakata, derived
from the Sanskrit vivasakrata, meaning “stripped of clothes.” The name
Andaman conceivably came from nagnamanaba, Sanskrit for “naked man”;
the name Nicobar derived from nakkavaram, Tamil for “naked.” So both island
clusters were called the Land of Naked People, a Chinese variant, Ch’uuan-
wu, being no more helpfully translated as Testicle Display Country.

 The Andamanese intrigued all who sailed by, and not just by their
nudity and alleged ferocity: with their small, dark bodies and frizzy hair they
resembled Africans rather than Asians. “Some have supposed that a
Portuguese ship, early in the 16th century, laden with slaves from
Mozambique, had been cast on these shores, and that the present
Andamanese are the descendants of such as escaped drowning,” wrote
Michael Symes of His Majesty’s 76th Regiment of Great Britain upon visiting
the archipelago in 1795. Given the antiquity of legends about the inhabitants,
however, he guessed that Arab slave ships of earlier centuries might have
been the culprit.

 Today, scientists believe that the Andamanese directly descend
from early humans who colonized mainland and southeastern Asia perhaps
fifty thousand years ago. These forebears, likely the first Homo sapiens in
Asia, were elsewhere overwhelmed by later arrivals.

 Some encounters surely contributed to the islanders’ abiding
distrust of foreigners. In 1694, Alexander Hamilton, a ship’s captain, met a
forty-year-old Andamanese in Sumatra who’d been sold into slavery as a boy
but was freed by his dying master. The first outsider to leave a detailed
account of the archipelago, surveyor John Ritchie, noted in 1771 that the
islanders knew of guns and feared them; twenty years later a French
merchant vessel was reported to be offering Andamanese slaves for sale. In
the early nineteenth century such slaves were a regular part of the tribute
paid by the raja of Keddah (in present-day Malaysia) to the king of Siam.

 The wary natives took from the outside world only the fragments of
shipwrecks: the nuts and bolts that washed up on their shores and which
they hammered into arrowheads. Although the islands lay on a busy trade
route connecting two great civilizations, India and China—and so were at the
center of the world, one might say—they remained almost entirely untouched
until modern times.

 To this day, a hundred-odd individuals survive on tiny North
Sentinel Island, repelling with bows and six-foot-long arrows all boats that
approach. They may be the most isolated humans on earth.

On my first visit to the Andamans in 1995, I was entranced. It’s the light I
remember best of all, a clear golden glow filling the sky and touching the
leaves with glitter. My father (for I went with him, my mother, and my niece)
walked over hills and swam over reefs, miraculously cured of his
asthma. “There is an air of peace and restfulness,” I wrote in a letter to a
friend. One beach in particular—strewn with soft white sand, shaded by
towering green trees, and lapped by water as clear and blue as the innards of
a gemstone—I recall as though from a dream, so ethereal that I felt the gods
must steal down to play there.

 I did not know then how deep my involvement with the islands
would become or how much the Andamanese would teach me. I had grown
up in Calcutta, some seven hundred fifty miles to the north of the Andamans;
I knew where they lay on a map but little else. (Calcutta is now spelled
Kolkata, but throughout this book I use the old spelling.) In the early 1900s,
Calcutta had been home to some fiery young men who sought to rid India of
British colonizers by violent means. Most of these freedom fighters
(terrorists, to the British) were captured before they could hurt anyone and
sentenced to life on the Andamans. I read of their hardships and of their
being killed by savages in the islands’ forests when they escaped from jail.
Indians knew the Andamans as Kalapani, across the waters of death.

 As a teenager, I met a dashing adventurer who’d traveled from
Calcutta to the Andamans in a rowboat. His accounts thrilled me, as did
other stories that drifted by, of beautiful corals, wild jungles, and unexplored
islands. Many years later, after I’d come to the United States to study
physics and metamorphosed into a science writer in New York City, I
decided to visit the islands as a tourist. At the time a journalist friend in India
mentioned that some of those “savages” still survived alone on an island,
threatening anyone who sought to land.

 Disbelieving, I read whatever I could about the Andamanese.
Those still isolated as Stone Age hunter-gatherers used bone, wood, or iron
acquired from shipwrecks—not stone—to tip their arrows. They had their own
languages, which seemed unlike any other. They shot fish and pigs with
bows and arrows, believed that birds talk to the spirits, couldn’t make fire but
kept it forever burning in their huts, didn’t have words for numbers greater
than two, adored children, and laughed a lot. In short, they lived in a time
capsule that preserved the ways of our prehistoric ancestors.

 I made use of that trip to interview scientists and officials, learning
enough about the Andamans to write a short piece in Scientific American,
where I worked. In 1858 British colonists had established a penal settlement
on South Andaman at Port Blair, now a sizable town where my family and I
spent most of our visit. “No doubt was felt as to our right to occupy [the
islands],” stated colonial administrator Maurice Vidal Portman in his two-
volume 1899 tract, A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese. Their
inhabitants were so dreaded, he went on to explain, that no other nation had
bothered to claim the Andamans. The islanders, who had other ideas about
sovereignty, led raids into the settlement. But Port Blair spread fast,
consuming the jungle around it.

 At its center rose the imposing red-brick Cellular Jail, so called
because of its rows of solitary cells, radiating outward from a central tower
like the arms of an octopus. The cells had small windows that overlooked the
sea but were too high to see out of. We met a freedom fighter in his nineties
who remembered the bulbuli birds that would fly in and out of those slits, for
days his only view of the world outside. This prison in paradise is now a
museum, displaying among the sackcloth and fetters a roster of famous
political prisoners, mostly Bengalis like myself. I found myself oddly moved
by the list. “They gave their lives so we could make a mess of our country,” I
mused in the letter to my friend.

 The British overlords lived on tiny, nearby Ross Island, now
covered with picturesque ruins of brick buildings, ripped apart and then held
aloft by the intricately twining roots of huge fig trees. Arched doorways that
led to nowhere framed the stunning ocean. “This must have been a charming
little town at one point,” I noted. “Bakery, market, oceanside houses, church,
even a hospital, and the inevitable cemetery.” I couldn’t make out the tennis
courts or the nine-hole golf course where the expatriates had whiled away
their postings; the ballroom, I later learned, was demolished during the
Japanese reign in World War II. From beneath the coconut tree where I sat
writing my letter, I could see the tower of the Cellular Jail across the water.
Doubtless the overseers signaled to Ross Island in times of trouble.

 Ross was abandoned in 1942, just before the Japanese arrived. It
was a short but memorable occupation. The invaders murdered many
inhabitants, most of them the descendants of ex-convicts who’d settled on
the Andamans. The Japanese constructed feverishly, building an airstrip and
thousands of bunkers along the periphery of the Great Andamans—the
South, Middle, and North Andaman Islands—to repel the Allies who were on
the seas. They also allowed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali
firebrand who’d recruited a ragtag army to fight the British, to plant an Indian

 At the end of World War II the British returned, but two years
later, in 1947, left for good, handing the Andamans over to newly free India.
The ex-colony then had a colony of its own, which it promptly used for
dumping refugees from various mainland conflicts. Since independence the
population had grown nine times, a zoologist told me. The crowding was
threatening to exterminate the Andamanese.

 Early administrators of the settlement had grouped the aboriginals
into four categories. Some ten tribes, altogether between five and eight
thousand souls, occupied most of the Great Andamans and their adjacent
small islands; they had borne the brunt of the British occupation. These so-
called Great Andamanese were at war with the elusive Jarawa, guessed to
number about six hundred, who sheltered in the dense western forests of
South Andaman. Seven hundred or so Onge tribal members lived on Little
Andaman, a not-so-little island farther south, and perhaps a hundred
Sentinelese—no one knew what else to call them—roamed the eighteen
square miles that compose North Sentinel, off by itself to the west.

 The Andaman islanders were the “most carefully tended and
petted” of the “races of savages,” British administrator Portman had
commented. But by the end of the nineteenth century, syphilis, measles,
influenza, and other ailments introduced by outsiders had driven the Great
Andamanese to the brink of extinction. Having been isolated for thousands of
years, the islanders had no resistance to the killer diseases that thrive in the
relatively dense populations of agricultural societies. In the late 1960s the
survivors were collected on tiny Strait Island to the east of Middle Andaman.
A local paper recently noted their population rising to thirty-seven, “with Smt.
Surmai, wife of tribal Chief Jaraki, delivering a male child on Jan. 16, 1995.”
They were the most assimilated of the aboriginals, eating boiled rice, wearing
Indian clothes, speaking Hindi, and living in wooden cottages. The
government’s policy was to give them the “fruits of modern civilization” without
destroying their culture, said the director of tribal welfare, whom I met in his
little wooden office perched on the side of a hill.

 Next to fall were the Onge. In the 1960s and 1970s, Indian
authorities resettled thousands of families of expatriates from what is now
Bangladesh on Little Andaman, leveling vast tracts of forest to make room for
fields. A hundred or so of the Onge were still alive. The government had
constructed huts in the hope of making the tribe stationary, so that it would
be easier to deliver the dole they needed now that the jungle no longer
sustained them. They insisted on nomadic ways, however, and spent much
of their time hunting and fishing. “On the files their income level has
increased,” commented the director, who was new to his job, “but they have
no zest for life.” He envisaged teaching the children soccer and volleyball to
dissipate their obvious “sadness and depression.”

 Because of their enmity with the Great Andamanese—and
everyone else—the Jarawa had been spared the devastating epidemics of the
nineteenth century. Squeezed into shrinking forests on the western coasts of
South and Middle Andaman, they still defended their remaining territory with
vehemence. In January 1995, just two months before my visit, they’d shot a
pregnant settler with an arrow and killed a calf. At the same time,
anthropologists and officials had for decades been landing on some Jarawa
beaches to offer food, iron pieces, and red cloth. (The Jarawa wore no
clothes, but drew thread with which they made ornaments.) “When you go
there, the Jarawa don’t carry weapons,” said the director. “They light a fire to
signal it is safe to land.” The “contact mission” would last for a few hours. The
naked Jarawa—who were physically exuberant—danced with joy over their
presents, sat on the laps of the visitors, pinched their paunches, or claimed
piggyback rides. The whole time a boatload of plainclothes policemen with
hidden guns hovered near the shore.

 Mercifully, neither the British nor the Indians found a reason to
colonize North Sentinel. Its inhabitants saw ships and boats in the sea, and
helicopters and planes in the sky, but otherwise lived free of outside influence.
 In 1995 I spent all of an afternoon and evening pleading with one
official after another, seeking permission to join a Jarawa contact mission
leaving that night. I explained my credentials to skeptical anthropologists and
seemingly sympathetic administrators, who sent me on to someone else.
The Andamanese were so vulnerable to germs and harmful influences, I was
told, that all visitors had to be minutely scrutinized. Around nine p.m. I ran
uphill, sweat-drenched, to the gorgeous bungalow of the lieutenant governor,
the islands’ chief administrator and the final arbiter of who would get on the
boat. The guard turned me away.

 The next morning someone called with an offer to take me to the
Jarawa forest. The trip was illegal and probably dangerous as well, so I
declined. Now I wonder if I shouldn’t have taken the chance. “This is a gold
mine for anyone with curiosity,” I wrote to my friend. So many questions
seemed to have no answers. How did a people who looked like Pygmies
happen to be in Asia? How did they get here, given that their boats are not
adequate for long ocean journeys? How did someone living in the Stone Age
view our world, with its ships and helicopters?

What intrigued me the most, perhaps, was the last question — allowing that
many of us accustomed to the information age also find technology amazing.
In my view the four groups of Andamanese, having encountered outsiders at
different times, provided a clear-cut experiment displaying the stages by
which a dominant culture subsumes a marginal one—stages played out in
virtually every corner of the globe. But over the years the islanders came to
reveal themselves as individuals, personable and poignantly clear-eyed as to
the trap in which fate had flung them. My initially dispassionate, scientific
interest was transformed by a vivid personal sympathy. I began to feel that in
their experience lay shades of my own past.

 Starting around four thousand years ago, waves of horse-borne
invaders and pastoral migrants, speaking an Indo-Aryan language and
wielding iron implements, pushed into India from the northwest. Their
civilization came to bloom along the fertile riverbanks of the Indus and the
Ganges, beating back the aboriginals. Many of the latter retreated to
mountaintops, deserts, and inaccessible forests, there to hide forgotten—
until modern India found a use for their remote homes, for mines, dams, and
timber, and banished them once again, this time to the slums and
shantytowns of cities. Others were inducted into a caste system, which
reserved the most menial and distasteful jobs for the defeated — rendering
them useful while ensuring they could never rise to threaten the rulers.

 I couldn’t help wondering if the aboriginals of eastern India — my
ancestors—might be connected with the Andaman islanders. The Great
Andamanese believed that before a spirit enters a woman’s womb to become
a child, it lives in a fig tree; curiously, fig trees are worshipped throughout
India as givers of fertility. If you sneezed, an islander might have asked, “Who
is thinking of you?”—just as a Bengali asks if something goes down the
wrong way and you cough. Shaving the head was a common funeral rite in
their culture and in mine; animals, to them, were intriguing and powerful, just
as they still remain to most Indians. Such links will forever remain
unexplored, for they’re too flimsy to tease apart; another hurdle is the number
and variety of Indian tribes, whose home ranges once formed an intricately
patterned patchwork laid over much of the map.

 In this ancient hierarchy, the British fit in easily: their skin, whiter
than that of the purest Brahmins, attested to their right to the top of the heap.
When they left, many of their policies, especially toward the tribes, made
sense to the new rulers. Indian administrators and academics, trained by
imperialists, were insulated from winds of change blowing abroad: the infant
nation’s poverty, the sheer cost of Western books and journals, and distrust
of most things foreign saw to that. As a result, policies toward the
Andamanese remained substantially the same for most of the century and
have shown progress only now that it’s almost too late.
 Just five hundred or so islanders still survive, and their lives are
changing fast. Their tale is one of conflict with outsiders such as me.

Copyright © 2003 by Madhusree Mukerjee. Reprinted by permission of
Houghton Mifflin Company.


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