The Origins of the Andaman Islanders: Local Myth and Archaeological Evidence

By Cooper, Zarine | Antiquity, June 1993 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Andaman Islanders: Local Myth and Archaeological Evidence


Cooper, Zarine, Antiquity


A place named Wot-a-emi has been associated by the Andaman Islanders with the origins of their ancestors. How does this myth square with archaeological findings?

Introduction

Since 1984, archaeological investigations in the Andamans have brought to light numerous shell middens as well as a cave site (Cooper 1985; 1990a; 1990b); 16 radiocarbon determinations have yielded valuable insights into the history of cultural traditions in the Bay of Bengal.

As the origins of the Andaman Islanders remain unresolved, we must take into account local myths that provide clues which could be examined archaeologically. Fortunately, the anthropological literature on the Andamans abounds in myths concerning the socioreligious beliefs of the indigenous population (Man 1878; 1883; Radcliffe-Brown 1909; 1922), among which the beliefs surrounding Wot-a-emi are of particular interest to us.

Wot-a-emi: the myth

The first mention of this place was made by Man (1878a: 106) who referred to it as 'Wota-Emida'. Supposed to have been the scene of 'creation', it was located 'somewhere on the south-east corner of Middle Andaman' (Man 1878a: 106). A stone at this spot was reputed to display indecipherable hieroglyphics that were engraved by Tawmoda, the first man. Man (1878b: 455) subsequently saw

a large piece of sandstone, perhaps 30" in diameter, situated on the shore of a large shallow sheet of water which is enclosed almost entirely by the closely adjoining island and the mainland, and the wonderful inscription consisted of nothing more or less than deep incisions caused apparently by the action of the sea ...

This myth was further elucidated by the Puchikwar group of Andaman Islanders interviewed by Radcliffe-Brown (1909: 261-2). According to the Puchikwar, Ta Patie, the first islander, lived at Wot-a-emi, while Biliku, a mythical being associated with the northeast monsoon, resided at Tol-loko-tima across the strait. The ancestors had no fire at that time, but Biliku made a fire for himself from the wood of the 'Parat' tree. While Biliku was asleep, Luratut, the kingfisher, stole some fire, whereupon Biliku awoke and hurled a lighted brand at Luratut, and burnt him. However, Luratut managed to convey the fire to the people at Wot-a-emi. Notwithstanding other versions of this tale, there seems to be a general consensus regarding the transformation of the kingfisher into a man after the loss of his tail and wings.

Location of the mythical site

In its geographical location, Wot-a-emi represents a large sandy patch on the northeastern tip of Baratang Island. As Tol-loko-tima is situated in the northeast, Man (1883: 150) surmised that the source of fire would most probably have been the Barren Island volcano, about 100 km to the east of Baratang Island, which had last erupted in 1789 (Pascoe 1964: 1871) and again as recently as 1991. When the author visited Barren Island in 1992, the volcano was still spewing ash and smoke. However, as Tolloko-tima is a mythical place, it need not necessarily have been identified with Barren Island; rather, it was probably regarded by the Andaman Islanders as the general direction from which both the northeast monsoon and the source of fire derived. The Islanders probably did not know of the existence of Barren Island in view of their apparent inability to venture far from the coast in their flimsy outrigger canoes (Man 1883: 368). It seems that, if fire was initially obtained from Barren Island, the event did not take place within the memory of the Islanders questioned by Man and Radcliffe-Brown, but may have occurred in the distant past and was subsequently incorporated into local myth.

When some of the South and Middle Andamanese were able to visit Barren Island in a station steamer, they called it 'molatarchona' (literally, Smoke Island), in allusion to the smoke which is almost always seen rising from the volcano, and which they accounted for as due to a fire which 'puluga' kindled (Man 1883: 99).

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