The less known Shompens of Great Nicobar Island

The Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) has come up with the first authentic demographic database of the Shompen tribe — one of the least known particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The study is the result of over 40 days of intensive fieldwork undertaken by AnSI researchers in the Great Nicobar Island. One of the most significant findings is that contrary to the earlier belief that Shompens are a homogeneous tribe, the study revealed that the group is heterogeneous with even differences in their dialect (the spoken language is known as Shompenese).

During the study, the researchers came across 78 members of the tribe. Anthropologists say the Shompen population could be between 200 and 300. “The Shompens are primarily hunter-gatherers and also practise a little bit of horticulture and pig rearing,” Amit Kumar Ghosh, Research Associate of AnSI, who was part of the research team, told The Hindu.

The researchers found that Pandanus (a tropical plant found in the islands), whose fruits resemble the woody pineapple, is the staple food of the Shompens. Mr. Ghosh said that hunting of wild pigs, monkeys, monitor lizards and sometimes pythons are common among the tribe.

Geographically, the tribe can be classified into four different groups depending on their location in the Great Nicobar Island — namely north-eastern, western, southern and central groups.

However, in these different locations, there are different subgroups based on their relationship within the tribe, group dynamics, appearance and the spoken language.

Different groups of Shompens have developed different levels of symbiotic relationship — particularly a barter system with the Great Nicobarese who are coastal dwellers and categorised as a Scheduled Tribe and others who have settled on the island.

Fewer women

M. Sasikumar, Deputy Director of AnSI and Head of Office, Andamans and Nicobar Centre, said that one of the unique aspects revealed in the study is that compared to the number of men in the Shompen tribe, there are fewer women. Many adult men were found not to have a partner.

“Marriage by capturing women from different groups and sub-groups is one of the customs of the Shompen society. This custom of marriage by capture may be one of the reasons for the mutual hostilities between different groups,” the researchers said.

What makes the Shompens distinct from the four other PVTGs of Andaman and Nicobar Islands — Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Onges and Sentinelese — is that they are the only tribe in the region with Mongoloid features. The other PVTGs have Negroid features.

Anthropologists are of the opinion that the understanding and knowledge about Shompens is still scanty and more scientific research is required. The recently issued Andaman and Nicobar Islands Shompen Policy, 2015, admits this fact and reasserts that there is a “need to address various gaps in our understanding of this somewhat less known community”.

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2021 10:47:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/kolkata/shompens-men-outnumber-women/article7827582.ece

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