In the wake of the tsunami, there was abundant amateur video of the disaster coming from tourist hotspots, like Phuket, Thailand.
But some of the villages and islands in the path of the devastating wave are home to primitive tribes and indigenous groups so isolated that contact was only being made on Wednesday, days after the disaster. Anthropologists worry that the tsunami could be the final blow to some cultures that were already thought to be endangered.
“My suspicion is that we may be seeing … perhaps as many as three or four different nations (specific indigenous populations) that would be completely wiped out,” says Dr. Rudolph Ryser, chairman of the U.S.-based Center for World Indigenous Studies.
He notes that tiny islands that dot the west coast of Sumatra and the east coast of India are so close to the epicenter of the earthquake that they would have been hit within minutes. Many have no high ground to provide refuge.
“One question that I’m asking is whether those islands are even there now,” says Ryser.
“The entire geography of some parts of these islands has changed,” said territory police chief S.B. Deol. “Where there was one island before, we now see two. In one place, a tree stands alone in the middle of the ocean.”
Among the places where the toll was especially high was the Andaman and Nicobar island chains. All of the islands in the chain have yet to be visited by rescuers. The territory, stretching north from the earthquake epicenter, is ruled by India, but populated by a variety of distinct tribes.
Among them are the Sentinelese, a hunter-gatherer society that has lived in almost complete isolation from modern society on the tiny North Sentinel Island due west of Port Blair, the chain’s capital. Even before the disaster, the population of this Stone-Age tribe, which some anthropologists have called the last undiscovered people, was estimated at only 100-200. They have remained hostile to outside interference, so very little is known about their culture.
The Sentinelese are one of the Andaman’s lingering Negrito tribes — peoples who appear more African than Indian and have already dwindled to the edge of extinction. Other shrinking tribes such as the Nicobarese and the Shompens derive from Mongoloid stock, and live primarily in the Nicobar chain.
Surviving on coconuts
On the island of Car Nicobar, dazed Nicobarese tribespeople emerged from the trees as the army pushed into the interior.
Andaman and Nicobar administration relief chief Puneel Goel said 6,000 of the 30,000 people living on the island of Car Nicobar, also the site of the air force base, were feared dead.
Staring blankly, drawn, exhausted and barely speaking, they show little emotion or relief at the arrival of the first help after three days of living mainly on coconuts and camping on the tiny island’s only high ground.
“Everything is gone. We have nothing left, not even a slipper,” said Nathan, a 56-year-old father of eight.
“One in every five inhabitants in the entire Nicobar group of islands is either dead, injured or missing,” said territory police chief S.B. Deol. At least 50,000 people live in the Nicobars, at the southern end of the chain.
“The situation in some of the islands we managed to establish contact with is indeed very, very grim. People have been living on coconuts ... and the coconuts are not going to last forever. We need to reach food urgently to these people.”
On the Andaman and Nicobar island of Chowra on Tuesday, rescuers found 500 survivors out of 1,500 residents, the territory’s deputy police chief, C. Vasudeva Rao, told Reuters.
“We thought the entire island was washed away. But we found 500 survivors,” he said.
No contact has yet been made with two neighboring isles, home to a combined population of 7,000.
“We are fearing the worst in these islands. We have heard nothing from them,” Rao said. “We have no information.”
Little high ground
Most of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are uninhabited, but many of the roughly three dozen have no high ground to escape a tsunami. They are also several days’ sailing from help.
The tsunami, triggered by a massive undersea earthquake off nearby Indonesia, has killed tens of thousands of people.
“I would not be at all surprised that we will be on 100,000 (deaths) when we know what has happened on the Andaman and Nicobar islands,” Peter Rees of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in Geneva.
Dozens of aftershocks continue to hit the islands. Residents terrified the tremors could trigger more giant waves are living on high ground or sleeping on mattresses in the streets of the capital, Port Blair.
Reuters contributed to this article.