Birds of The Great Andamanese (Names, Classification and Culture)

Item Code: NAR971
Author: Anvita Abbi, Satish Pande
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780198072621
Pages: 238 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Other Details 8.50 X 5.50 inch
Weight 510 gm
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Book Description

This invaluable monograph on the ethno-ornithological knowledge of the Great Andamanese represents the results of the fruitful collaboration of two internationally known scholars, an ornithologist (Dr. Satish Pande) and a comparative linguist (Dr. Anvita Abbi). Their work is the first systematic ethnobiological study of a moribund language on the verge of extinction. Further, the documentation provided here gains even greater significance given that Great Andamanese, a language comprised of the sole remaining speakers of four indigenous languages (Jero [Jeru], Sare [Cari], Bo, and Khora), constitutes a new linguistic family of India. Given the unique nature of conducting urgent fieldwork on a disappearing language, Drs. Pande and Abbi’s research serves as a model for future investigations on other rapidly vanishing languages in the world.

The book includes detailed ethnoornithological descriptions of 104 bird species using photographs of birds confirmed to occur in the region according to published field guides as stimuli. Species observed in their natural habitat during the course of the research were also included when possible. Identifications of all species were crosschecked with at least one other informant and, as a further data control procedure, species that do not occur in the area were also presented as part of the stimulus materials, all of which were reported as "not seen". Finally, those species with questionable identifications were not included in the monograph.

Much attention is given to the Great Andamanese folk system of ornithological classification and nomenclature which, in the main, is seen to conform to the general principles of ethnobiological classification found in many other traditional societies. The authors provide insightful discussion on the linguistic, morphological, and behavioral/ecological principles that underlie bird names, including onomatopoeia, sound-size symbolism, significance of color and other relevant characters used to recognize species in natural settings.

Full species descriptions make up the major portion of the book. Species are presented in phylogenetic order and include common name, scientific name, Great Anadamanese name, in both IPA and Romanization orthography. Indigenous names are given linguistic morphological analysis, the constituents of which often provide insights on some relevant morphological character or ecological feature of the named species. Helpful ornithological and ethnornithological descriptions of each species are systematically included, along with species distribution, habitat, food choice, occurrence, and conservation status. Finally, numerous color photographs and drawings, often three or more per species--a feature that makes the book a fine field guide to complement the ethno biological details of the book.

Drs. Pande and Abbi have produced a remarkable document, one that serves as a sad reminder of the great scientific and cultural loss that occurs with the extinction of a major portion of the world’s remaining indigenous languages in the coming decades.


The Bay Islands or Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, in the Bay of Bengal (06°45’N to 13°30’N and 92°20’E to 93°56’E) extend over 800 km from north to south and have an approximate landmass of 8,429 km? (Saldanha 1989; Tikedar 1984). These are truly oceanic islands, never having been connected to the mainland during Pleistocene glaciations (Ripley & Beehler 1989). The Bay Islands comprise 324 large and small islands and are broadly divisible into three groups:

1. Andaman group: The entire area of the Andaman Islands is made up of island clusters. From north to south, the various islands are North Andaman, Middle Andaman, South Andaman, Baratang, Ritchie Archipelago, North and South Sentinel and Little Andaman. The first five large main islands are collectively called the Great Andamans. The close proximity of these islands gives a picture of practically one island, a fact that unfortunately motivated the government to build the Andaman Grand Trunk road, which robbed the tribes of their basic resources due to rampant deforestation. Little Andaman lies 65 km from South Andaman.

2. Nicobar group: Consists of Great Nicobar, Little Nicobar, Nancowry group of islands and Car Nicobar group of islands.

3. Volcanic island group: Consists of Narcondam Island - a long dormant volcano, and Barren Island - a live volcano.

The first two groups are separated by the turbulent Ten-Degree Channel, which is 150 km wide and about 400 fathoms (731.52 m) deep, while the Duncan Passage separates Little Andaman from the Great Andaman group.

The islands are summits or ‘camel’s backs’ of the submerged oceanic mountains, with coral deposits on some islands. From the north, the mountains are continuations of the Naga and Lushai Hills and Arakan Yoma through Cape Negrais of Myanmar. In the south, they are festoons of Achin Head of Sumatra, Indonesia (Srinivasan 1986). The northernmost island of the Andaman Islands is at a distance of 900 km southeast of the confluence of the Hooghly river and Bay of Bengal in West Bengal but merely at a distance of 193.12 km south of Cape Negrais in Myanmar (Burma). The southernmost point of India, the Pygmalion Point of Great Nicobar (now submerged since the tsunami in 2004), is 1,330 km from southern India, but only 144 km from Achin Head, Sumatra.

The close proximity of these islands to one another gives a look of overlapping landmass on the map. The population of the Andamans was 314,239 in 2001, and is today estimated to be around 400,000.

The capital city of the Andaman Islands is Port Blair, which is located in the south of the islands at a distance of 1,255 km from Kolkata. The numerous islands and islets are surrounded by coral reefs and deep blue water. Several islands are breathtakingly beautiful. There is no river, but some perennial streams and waterfalls inside the thick jungles provide fresh drinking water to the tribes. The islands are marked by indented harbours and thick mangroves along the coastline.

Topography and climate of the islands

The soil cover of the Bay Islands is thin, acidic and comprises alluvial, diluvial, clay and sandy types. The climate is tropical and moist with 300 cm annual rainfall, over 80% humidity and temperatures varying from 23°C to 31°C (State Statistical Bureau, 1989). Typhoons occur during the southwest monsoon and thunderstorms during summer. The weather is less oppressive from December to February. Heavy rainfall and high humidity are prevalent in the Andaman Islands. It rains heavily most of the year, though the period between December and March witnesses only moderate rain. The area is known for violent thunderstorms during the wet southwest monsoon from mid-May to September. It was thought that major sea storms rarely hit the Andaman Islands, but the recent tsunami showed otherwise. Most of the Andaman Islands are the peaks of a drowned mountain range and are not of coral origin, though one finds an abundance of coral reefs and mangrove swamps. Geologically, the Andamans and Nicobars represent the highest peaks of the underwater mountain range, which is itself an extension of the Arakan range in Burma and the Sumatran Barisan ranges to the south. The islands lie parallel to a geological fault line to the east, crossing the Andaman Sea from north to south. The line indicates where two tectonic plates, the Eurasian and the Indo-Australian, lay rubbing against each other. The slipping of the two plates leading to tsunami waves can be visualized from the following images.


Foraying into a lost world would have the element of the unpredictable and the frightening, but also the charming and the picturesque. But that would be to only touch the tip of the iceberg. The plethora of qualities and idiosyncrasies as we journeyed through the Great Andamans left us in an inexplicable awe.

In 2008, with the support of the Indian Coast Guard, I and my team members of Ela Foundation, Pune, conducted the ornithological survey of the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago or the Bay Islands. Vice-Admiral Manohar P. Awati, AVSM (retired), was instrumental in making the survey possible. We visited several islands from the northernmost Narcondam Island to the southernmost Great Nicobar Island, sailing in the Coast Guard ships in a single lap. Much before that, Prof. Anvita Abbi was interacting with the indigenous Great Andamanese people to understand their language in the ethno-linguistic perspective. Fate brought us together and in 2009 we jointly surveyed the South and Middle Andaman Islands, but now for the ethno-ornithological-linguistic aspects of the island avifauna as was seen by the Great Andamanese people.

Our first-hand surveys exposed us to the great blue sea, the turbulent Ten Degree channel, beautiful and unhabited pristine beaches, serpentine creeks lined with dense mangroves and alive with crocodiles, dangerous tall evergreen forests swarming with biting insects and colourful scary and poisonous reptiles, damp climate, windy conditions, unpredictable weather, tropical storms that come with deafening lightning, the harsh afternoon sun and hooting nights with unpolluted darkness. Living in nature's mysteries -- most of them hostile -- were a tribal people who have amazingly flourished for more than 70,000 years, but are now fighting to stay alive after coming in contact with modern society. We photographed about a hundred species of birds, a task which tried all our field skills and patience and demanded our ornithological expertise. Some species were photographed for the first time ever. We have presented in our book these high-quality colour photographs of wild birds taken in the natural habitats, so that the readers may be able to connect the ethno-ornithological descriptions with actual birds. I am particularly greatful to Niranjan Sant for his excellent photographs. We also commissioned artists to recreate some important moments from the lost world in which the Great Andamanese once flourished. I am indebted to Prof. Luisa Maffi and Prof. Brent Berlin for their appreciation of this work. Their forewords will attract the attention of the linguists, ethnobiologists, ornithologists and decision makers to the rich culture of the Great Amdamanese.

The hypnotic magic that drew us to the remote islands was the birds. We quickly realized that the birds are more often heard than seen, and when they fleetingly reveal themselves, they are perched upon the top of tall trees or in poorly-lit dense vegetation amidst entwining climbers and lianas. When the mere sighting of birds is so difficult, one can only imagine how trying it is to study their ecology. As many as 28 of the around 250 or so birds of the Bay Islands are endemic residents. Modern science does not know much about any of these endemics as they cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. The unexplored terrain, damp and extreme weather, inhospitable conditions, diseases, dense jungles and logistics -- all pose formidable problems even to the present-day ornithologist equipped with ultra-modern technology. For appreciation of the indigenous Great Andamanese culture, their life should be viewed in this perspective.

This hunter-and-gatherer society survived in the forests through knowledge that they accumulated about their surroundings. They ventured into the sea for their staple source of food such as fish, turtles and dugong. They went into the jungles to hunt small reptiles and mammals like rodents and pigs. They climbed trees to gather honey and fruits, and dug out tubers and roots. Birds hardly supplied them their required food because they were very difficult to hunt. M.V. Portman, the British officer who presented a historical overview of the tribes inhabiting the Bay Islands, confirms this when he wrote in 1899, ‘There are plenty of birds if one could only shoot them’. Therefore, if the Great Andamanese have good knowledge about plants in the forests whose products they consume, and animals of the sea and the jungles that they hunt and eat, one may not be surprised. But birds are different. They looked at birds in a non-utilitarian perspective, with a sense of awe, admiration and innate curiosity.

In this work, we explore the depth of avian knowledge of the Great Andamanese, by studying their attitude towards birds, by subjecting the indigenous bird names meticulously gathered by Prof. Anvita Abbi, to morphological analysis to get an idea about the thought process behind nomenclature. We also look at the folk system of bird classification to explore the guiding principles. As in all traditional non-literate societies around the globe, the more salient birds are recognized and named on the basis of biological properties (shape, size, form, colour, body parts) and ecology and behavior (habitat, food, call, reproduction). However, the indigenous people have also correlated birds with their own sphere of experience and their way of life. They have named birds by comparing them to other animate or inanimate objects. They also relate birds and their colours and sounds with augury, omen and spirits and consider that their dead ancestors become birds and live in the trees and sky. There are striking similarities of perception between the people of the totally isolated Great Andamanese culture and the people of several other temporally and spatially widely separated tribal societies from South America, North America, South-East Asia and Australia, with which they have never interacted. The only linking thread is that all these people are humans. Many researchers, including cognitive psychologists, biologists and linguistic anthropologists, have looked at these complex issues. On several aspects, we agree with Prof. Brent Berlin who has spent a lifetime in the exploration of interrelations between human beings and the cognitive world full of other biological species, especially with his ideas about the principles of ethnobiological nomenclature and classification that are supported by evidence from several traditional societies around the world.

Our modern society did not have much knowledge about the Great Andamanese culture. The Andamanese tribes were stigmatized as primitive cannibals since ancient times. A window to this neglected culture opened when Prof. Abbi presented the vast linguistic database from several years of meticulous and scientific linguistic research. Her phenomenal hard work, persistence and a deep urge to fathom the unknown have given us an opportunity to understand how the Great Andamanese looked at the world around them. I am particularly grateful to Prof. Abbi because she so spontaneously shared her understanding and insights with me. This multidisciplinary work of linguistic and ornithological collaboration has culminated in the first ethno-ornithological research from India and has uniquely focused on the Great Andamanese culture. We have enjoyed every moment of our work and have experienced moments of total awe when confronted with the knowledge of this deep society. Because the Great Andamanese were isolated for over 70,000 years from modern society, we get here a unique opportunity of understanding how human beings think when isolated from the rest of the world. Today, we neither care nor even wonder about how we think. Essentially and broadly, our present work is a search to fathom the complex human thought process. Individually, it is exploring one’s own self, by looking at ourselves, in the reflection of the Great Andamanese, as if in a mirror, because we are all humans. Today, because of the rapid advances in information technology, all knowledge is transferred at a breathtaking speed. The pace and breadth of knowledge accumulation and transfer is so swift that what could have earlier taken generations is now possible in a few days, if not with the click of a mouse. Today, keeping pace with knowledge is more difficult than gaining or transferring it to anyone, needy or otherwise. Because modern society immensely benefits from social security, and because individuals take family level protection for granted, individuals are sadly becoming more self-centred and are losing their sense of social responsibilities. Any knowledge is taken for granted. Most people do not feel the need to acquire new knowledge, leave alone explore new avenues.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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