Until the late eighteenth century, the Andamanese culture, language, and genetics were preserved from outside influences by their fierce reaction to visitors, which included killing any shipwrecked foreigners, and by the remoteness of the islands. The various tribes and their mutually unintelligible languages thus are believed to have evolved on their own over millennia.
According to Chaubey and Endicott (2013), the Andaman Islands were settled less than 26,000 years ago, by people who were not direct descendants of the first migrants out of Africa. According to Wang et al. (2011),
...the Andaman archipelago was likely settled by modern humans from northeast India via the land-bridge which connected the Andaman archipelago and Myanmar around the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), a scenario in well agreement with the evidence from linguistic and palaeoclimate studies.
It was previously assumed that the Andaman ancestors were part of the initial Great Coastal Migration that was the first expansion of humanity out of Africa, via the Arabian peninsula, along the coastal regions of the Indian mainland and toward Southeast Asia, Japan, and Oceania. The Andamese were considered to be a pristine example of a hypothised Negrito population, which showed similar physical characteristics, and was supposed to have existed throughout southeast Asia. The existence of a specific Negrito-population is nowadays doubted. Their commonalities could be the result of evolutionary convergence and/or a shared history.
The Andamanese's protective isolation changed with the first British colonial presence and subsequent settlements, which proved disastrous for them. Lacking immunity against common diseases of the Eurasian mainland, the large Jarawa habitats on the southeastern regions of South Andaman Island likely were depopulated by disease within four years (1789–1793) of the initial British colonial settlement in 1789. Epidemics of pneumonia, measles and influenza spread rapidly and exacted heavy tolls, as did alcoholism. By 1875, the Andamanese were already "perilously close to extinction," yet attempts to contact, subdue and co-opt them continued unrelentingly. In 1888, the British government set in place a policy of "organized gift giving" that continued in varying forms until well into the 20th century.
There is evidence that some sections of the British Indian administration were working deliberately to annihilate the tribes. After the mid-19th century, British established penal colonies on the islands and an increasing numbers of mainland Indian and Karen settlers arrived, encroaching on former territories of the Andamanese. This accelerated the decline of the tribes.
Many Andamanese succumbed to British expeditions to avenge the killing of shipwrecked sailors. In the 1867 Andaman Islands Expedition, dozens of Onge were killed by British naval personnel following the death of shipwrecked sailors, which resulted in four Victoria Crosses for the British soldiers. In the 1940s, the Jarawa were bombed by Japanese forces for their hostility.
In 1974, a film crew and anthropologist Triloknath Pandit attempted friendly contact by leaving a tethered pig, some pots and pans, some fruit and toys on the beach at North Sentinel Island. One of the islanders shot the film director in the thigh with an arrow. The following year, European visitors were repulsed with arrows.
On 2 August 1981, the Hong Kong freighter ship Primrose grounded on the North Sentinel Island reef. A few days later, crewmen on the immobile vessel observed that small black men were carrying spears and arrows and building boats on the beach. The captain of the Primrose radioed for an urgent airdrop of firearms so the crew could defend themselves but did not receive them. Heavy seas kept the islanders away from the ship. After a week, the crew were rescued by an Indian navy helicopter.
On 4 January 1991, Indian scholar Triloknath Pandit made the first known friendly contact with the Sentinelese.
Until 1996, the Jarawa met most visitors with flying arrows. From time to time they attacked and killed poachers on the lands reserved to them by the Indian government. They also killed some workers building the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), which traverses Jarawa lands. One of the earliest peaceful contacts with the Jarawa occurred in 1996. Settlers found a teenage Jarawa boy named Emmei near Kadamtala town. The boy was immobilized with a broken foot. They took Emmei to a hospital where he received good care. Over several weeks, Emmei learned a few words of Hindi before returning to his jungle home. The following year, Jarawa individuals and small groups began appearing along roadsides and occasionally venturing into settlements to steal food. The ATR may have interfered with traditional Jarawa food sources.
The five major groups of Andamanese found by the European colonists were:Great Andamanese, traditionally of the Great Andaman archipelago but now living on Strait Island. Their population was 52 as of 2010.
Jarawa of Great Andaman, now estimated 250 to 400
Jangil or Rutland Jarawa of Rutland Island, extinct
Onge of Little Andaman, fewer than 100
Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island, estimated to be 100 to 200
Jarawa and Onge are dominated by y-dna haplogroup D which is native to the Andamanese.
By the end of the eighteenth century, there were an estimated 5,000 Great Andamanese living on Great Andaman. Altogether they comprised ten distinct tribes with different languages. The population quickly dwindled to 600 in 1901 and to 19 by 1961. It has increased slowly after that, following their move to a reservation on Strait Island. As of 2010, the population was 52, representing a mix of the former tribes.
The Jarawa originally inhabited southeastern Jarawa Island and have migrated to the west coast of Great Andaman in the wake of the Great Andamanese. The Onge once lived throughout Little Andaman and now are confined to two reservations on the island. The Jangil, who originally inhabited Rutland Island, were extinct by 1931; the last individual was sighted in 1907. Only the Sentinelese are still living in their original homeland on North Sentinel Island, largely undisturbed, and have fiercely resisted all attempts at contact.
The tribe members of the Jarawa tribe focused on traditional knowledge. Traditional knowledge was a huge part of their culture. This referred to those who learned through observations and experiences when it came to identifying the relationship between different organisms and environmental resource areas. Their way of life is interwoven with the traditional knowledge of a group.
The Andamanese languages are considered to be the fifth language family of India, following the Indo-European, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, and Sino-Tibetan.
While some connections have been tentatively proposed with other language families, the consensus view is currently that Andamanese languages form a separate language family — or rather, two unrelated linguistic families: Greater Andamanese and Ongan.
Until contact, the Andamanese were strict hunter-gatherers. They did not practice cultivation, and lived off hunting indigenous pigs, fishing, and gathering. Their only weapons were the bow, adzes, and wooden harpoons. Besides the aboriginal people of Tasmania, the Andamanese were the only people who in the nineteenth century knew no method of making fire. They instead carefully preserved embers in hollowed-out trees from fires caused by lightning strikes. They are known as Chadda.
The men wore girdles made of hibiscus fiber which carried useful tools and weapons for when they went hunting. The women on the other hand wore a tribal dress containing leaves that were held by a belt. Majority of them had painted bodies as well. They usually slept on leaves as well, or mats and had either permanent or temporary habitation among the tribes. All habitations were man built. For hunting, different types of methods were used. They survived over thousands of years by hunting and gathering. They made spears, bows, arrows...etc., specific to what they were hunting. The designing of the various weapons and tools show how their levels of excellence in skill, craftsmanship and creativity were.
Some of the tribe members were credited to having super natural powers. They were called oko-pai-ad, which meant dreamer. They were thought to have an influence on the members of the tribe and would bring misfortune to those who did not believed in their abilities. Traditional knowledge practitioners were the ones who helped with healthcare. The medicine that was used to cure illnesses were herbal most of the time. Various types of medicinal plants were used by the islanders.77 total traditional knowledge practitioners were identified and 132 medicinal plants were used. the members of the tribes found various ways to use leaves in their everyday lives including clothing, medicine, and to sleep on.
Negritos, specifically Andamanese, are grouped together by phenotype features. Three physical features that distinguish the Andaman islanders include: skin colour, hair, and stature. Those of the Andaman islands have dark skin, are short in stature, and have "frizzy" hair. These physical features are shared with Melanesians and believed to have been retained from the early dispersing Homo sapiens.
The frizzy hair is considered polygenic because it is the one phenotype feature that has not changed. The skin color and stature can vary within a population. Therefore, hair characterization is very important in identifying the Andaman islanders. The stature of the people within the population has changed over time, a relatively short time. Scientists believe the variation in stature can be contributed to about 200 gene loci that influence height. Similarly, variation in skin color can be contributed to the great number of gene loci that affect the expression of that phenotype. The isolation of the Andamanese people is what has kept the variation in phenotype within the population low. The craniometric study of the Andamanese people is almost the same as that of the South Asians. Therefore, the only way to distinguish between South Asians and Andamanese people is by comparing their stature, skin color, and hair.
At first, the dental morphology of the Andamanese was in the middle between African and South Asian. Further study suggests that the dental morphology is Sundadont in pattern; therefore most similar to the dental morphology of South Asians.
When comparing dental morphology the focus is on overall size and tooth shape. To measure the size and shape, Penrose's size and shape statistic is used. To calculate tooth size, the sum of the tooth area is taken. Factor analysis is applied to tooth size to achieve tooth shape. Results have shown that tooth size of Andaman islanders is closest to the tooth size of Chinese and Japanese people . Therefore, the indodont dental morphology of the Andamanese indicates a retention of dental morphology from Southeast Asians in early-mid Holocene.
The Andaman islanders are characterized by their small bodies and gracile skeleton. Additionally they have a narrow bi-iliac breadth and short upper limbs. The craniometric studies suggest that the Andamanese are most similar to African in terms of the craniology. The small body size of the Andamanese results in a high surface area to mass ratio, low rate of metabolism, and less heat produced. This is a great adaptation in a hot environment.
Genetic analysis, both of nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA provide information about the origins of the Andamese. The Andaman islanders have similar dental morphology to South Asians. The Andamanese are most genetically similar to the Malaysian Negrito tribe.
The Andamese show a very small genetic variation, which is indicative of populations that have experienced a population bottleneck and then developed in isolation for a long period. An allele has been discovered among the Jarawas that is found nowhere else in the world. Overall, the Andamanese showed closest relations with other Asian populations. The Nicobarese also were observed to share close genetic relations with adjacent Indo-Mongoloid populations of Northeast India. Bulbeck (2013) likewise noted that the Andamanese's nuclear DNA clusters with that of other Andamanese Islanders, as they carry Haplogroup D and maternal M (mtDNA) unique to their own.
The use of single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) shows the genomes of Andamanese people to be closest to those of South Asians. This suggests a relation between Andaman islanders and South Asians. Analysis of mtDNA, which is inherited exclusively by maternal descent, confirms the above results. All Onge belong to M32 mtDNA, subgroup of M which is unique to Onge people. While parental Y-DNA is exclusively Haplogroup D.
All Andamanese belong to MtDNA M and Y-DNA Haplogroup D, which expanded at the late Pleistocene.
Reich et al. (2009) reckon that the Andamanese split from mainland Asia 1,700 generations ago. Andamanese are the only South Asian population in the study that lacked any Ancestral North Indian admixture.
The male Y-chromosome in humans is inherited exclusively through paternal descent. Male Onges and Jarawas almost exclusively belong to Haplogroup D-M174. The clade is most common today in Tibet and Japan, with its highest frequencies worldwide in the Pumi population of southwestern China (70.2%) and the Ainu people of Japan. On the Indian mainland, it has been observed at low frequencies among Tibeto-Burman speakers. Andamanese males were found to carry five different binary D haplotypes, all of which had previously been observed on the Indian subcontinent, in Southeast Asia and Melanesia.
However, male Great Andamanese do not appear to carry . A low resolution study suggests that they belong to haplogroups K, L, O and P1 (P-M45). While haplogroup D is undoubtedly older than these paternal lineages, they are also thought to have been in South and Southeast Asia since ancient times and that may have included Great Andaman.
Analysis of mtDNA, which is inherited exclusively by maternal descent, confirms the above results. All Andamanese belong to M31 and M32 mtDNA, subgroup of M which is unique to Andamanese people. The analysis of 20 coding regions in 20 samples of ancient Andamanese people and 12 samples of modern Indian populations changed the topology of the two lineages in South Asians. The data received suggests an M31a lineage in South Asians. This supports the genetic connection between South Asians and Andamanese people, which dates back to about 30kya. Other mainland specific subgroup of M is distributed in the Asia, where it represents 60% of all maternal lineages. According to Endicott et al. (2002), this haplogroup originated with the earliest settlers of India during the coastal migration that brought the ancestors of the Andamanese to the Indian mainland, the Andaman Islands, and farther afield to Southeast Asia.
Unlike some Negrito populations of Southeast Asia, Andaman Islanders have been found to have no Denisovan ancestry.