Archaeology and History - Early Settlements in the Andaman Islands
2002, published by Oxford University Press, New Delhi
pages i-xvi, 1-208 including bibliography and index, illustrations
in text (most black and white, a few colour)
priced at Rp1000
hard cover 14.5 x 22 cm (5-5/8 x 8-5/8 in)
ISBN 019 565 7926
The Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal have remained isolated from the outside world for a very long time and their enigmatic aboriginal people, known as Negrito, have fascinated anthropologists for centuries. The outside world only began to touch on the Andamanese islands seriously in 1857 when the British set up a penal colony there. The nature of such a colony does not encourage free intercourse so the islands remained isolated, if in a somewhat different way. When India gained independence in 1947 the islands became a Union Territory with an administration answerable directly to the Indian prime minister and a destination for vast numbers of refugee-settlers from all over the subcontinent. Neither the British nor the Indian administrations have done much for the aborigines, both trying to "lift them up" to what they thought of their respective "superior civilizations". The result of all this civilisatory uplifting has been a drop in the number of Andamanese Negritos from 7,500 people 150 years ago to less than 500 today. Only one of the original four major Andamanese groups, the totally inaccessible Sentineli, is still culturally intact but they are thought to number only around 150 and have recently been targeted for forcible removal with the view to "integration into Indian mainstream civilisation".
In this context the author's tendency to whine here and there about the ancient injustice of British rule in India jar a bit. After 50 years of Indian independence, the arrogant attitude of many British then shown towards Indians (rightly resented at the time) contrasts hardly at all with today's attitude of the Port Blair authorities towards their tribal fellow humans.
The Andaman aborigines and their origins are of great scientific interest. Although there has been much anthropological research over the past 150 years, very little archaeological work has been done. It is a depressing reflection on the islands' succeeding administrations that this book is only the second major work on the archaeology of the islands (the other one is Pratap C. Dutta's "The Great Andamanese Past and Present", 1978). As for today's archaeological situation in the islands, Cooper herself notes
It is indeed ironical that while bona fide researchers have to put up with endless bureaucratic hassles in order to obtain permits for undertaking excavations in the Andamans, the administration and the Archaeological Survey of India appear to be oblivious to the large-scale destruction of middens, in and around Port Blair, for the purpose of extracting lime. It is still a puzzle as to whether such criminal negligence is due to apathy or the fact that the authorities are unaware of the potential of middens as valuable repositories of an ancient culture.
Cooper first places the islands in the general context of the Bay of Bengal and its early communications networks. There follows an interesting discussion of the formation, erosion and general evolution of kitchen midden that is of more than local interest. There is also a valuable survey of known archaeological sites in the islands and a detailed description of the author's excavation of the Chauldari kitchen midden. The many C14 dates supplied at long last give a solid time frame to Andaman archaeology. The author has a special interest in "silent trade" and her observations on its in the prehistoric Andamans context are interesting.
It is a scientific truism that for every question answered, a dozen new questions spring up. One new question bought up by Cooper's dating of the oldest levels of the midden excavated is that they all seem to have started at roughly the same time: a little before 2000 years ago. Is this a statistical coincidence or did the Andamanese arrive in the islands only then? Cooper mentions the possibility that more ancient human traces, if there are any, would most likely be found in caves. She is right, but the only cave investigated so far did not bring to light evidence older than 1500 years. The question, therefore, remains tantalizingly unanswered and the possibility remains that older evidence is still hidden elsewhere in the islands, under water or in as yet unfound midden flattened by millennia of jungle growth.
Cooper interprets her evidence as an indication of the aborigines' late arrival in the islands. On her evidence, she is right to think so. However, DNA results published after her book has appeared, indicate an isolation of the Andamanese Negrito of more, perhaps much more, than 30,000 years. The conflicting results can only be settled by more evidence - an important and fascinating task for the future and one of interest to anyone interested in early human migrations.
Some of the material published in this book is reprinted from articles by Cooper over the years. It makes the book a little uneven for the reader but this does not detract from its value, especially since new material has also been added.
The book is well-written, well-illustrated and well-produced. Any self-respecting library with an interest in Southeast Asian prehistory and early human migrations should have a copy - or better, several.
The Andaman Association
Last changed 30 March 2006