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Andaman Islanders

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51dqYKA64vL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_ The Andamanese are unique in the world in that they are a South Asian people who are known to have maintained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle down to the present day uninterrupted. Literally every other South Asian population has evidence of mixture with West Eurasian groups in the last 10,000 years, with the typical South Asian being about an even mix of West Eurasian, and an indigenous population with roots in the subcontinent that go back to the Pleistocene. It would be false to say that the Andamanese are ancestors of modern Indians. First, they’re not an ancient people, but a modern population. Second, the last common ancestors between mainland Indians and Andamanese probably date to the Pleistocene, on the order of ~20,000 years ago or so. They are genetically important because they allow researchers to make inferences about Indian populations which no longer exist without mixture with West Eurasians. But, they are no more ancient or pure than any other group of people in the world.

With that, this article in The New York Times strikes me as tragic, and exposes a lacunae in the ideals of universal morality that most moderns espouse, A Killing Tests India’s Protection of an Aboriginal Culture. The gist is that the Jarawa people, who are to some extent presumed an uncontacted tribe which is left to its own devices, have a tradition of killing infants born to widows and those of mixed-race (presumably fathered by non-Jarawa men). The authorities on the island have generally looked the other way when these babies were were killed, but recently the death of a 5 month old by drowning has prompted authorities to begin an investigation into the murder.

Here’s an important section:

Even before the police heard of the baby’s killing, the authorities on South Andaman Island were struggling with the question of whether to allow the Jarawas, who are classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group,” more access to the world outside their reserve.

The top official on the Andaman Islands, Lt. Gov. A. K. Singh, said that upon taking up his post in 2013, he had encountered two schools of thought. One, held by officials and academics on the left, he said, was that “any contact of the primitive tribe with modern civilization has been detrimental.”

The other school questioned how the government could deny the tribe the benefits of modern life. “Mankind has progressed by leaps and bounds,” Mr. Singh said. “Are they to remain in that state? Have we given them the choice?”

Zubair Ahmed, a journalist, said the policy of minimizing interaction with the Jarawas had run into a problem: Members of the tribe are curious about what surrounds them.

“We have seen them coming out, coming out on their own,” Mr. Ahmed said. “You cannot push them back inside the forest. They want to have a phone. They want to ride in a vehicle.”

nihms137159f4 First, the Jarawa uniqueness is not in their genetics, but in their culture. The reality is that these children don’t need to be killed to maintain cultural integrity, since they are going to be raised in their mother’s culture in any case. Nepal is 80% Hindu, but far less than 80% of its genetic character is typically South Asian (specifically, there’s a lot of Tibetan/Himalayan ancestry in many Hindu groups, including among Nepalese Brahmins). The Jarawa are not that genetically unique; they are descended from an African population that left ~50,000 years ago, just like all non-Africans are. They’re not really pure, as such, but simply isolated and moderately unique. If genetics was so important they should all get genotyped or sequenced before they are assimilated, which seems inevitable.

Second, if you really care about maintaining a reserve of Andamanese uniqueness the Jarawa are not what you want. As is noted above, and highlighted in The Land of the Naked People, the indigenous people of the Andamans are attracted to modern ways just like every other group in the world. When they encounter sugar and alcohol, they’re drawn to them, though as hunter-gatherers their morbidity is often very high. And in any case, the Sentinelese are a truly isolated people, not cohabitating in the same land as settlers from the mainland. The absorption of the Jarawa would not be that consequential with that taken into consideration.

Finally, passages like this illustrate why liberal universalism (and institutional ethical religions) became ‘a thing’, so to speak:

Others go further, saying the state has no business interfering in the tribe’s tradition of killing children of mixed blood.

“Such things were usually ignored,” said Samir Acharya, an activist with the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology. “I think they have the right to maintain the purity of their race. If they decide such a child should be wasted, let them do it.”

The Jarawa are humans, and as humans they should be subject to laws. They are not a nation-state, and live within India. Because of their vulnerability to diseases, as well as their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there is great danger in integrating them into the modern world. But it is their right as humans if they so choose. And, as humans they are also subject to the same bans on activities such as infanticide.

• Category: Race/Ethnicity, Science • Tags: Andaman Islanders 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"