Bibliography of the Shompen
An Indigenous People of Great Nicobar Island, Indian Ocean
Ethnographic Bibliographies no. 7
Landscape and Environment
The Shompen people live in the interior of Great Nicobar Island, one of the Nicobar Islands situated between India and Thailand, in the Indian Ocean. They number about 300 (2001), and are one of the least-understood and researched people in the world. They tend to avoid contact with outsiders, and their environment is so challenging that few people enter their densely-forested habitat. However, the Shompen are coming under increased pressure from new settlers on Great Nicobar, and their future survival is uncertain. The population suffers from low fertility and genetic diversity, and their problems are aggravated by paternalistic and misguided policies by local authorities. A new road through the center of the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve has opened up the interior of the island to illegal logging and intrusions by local Indian settlers.
The Shompen were never numerous, and there is genetic evidence of inbreeding and population bottlenecks among them. That the Shompens’ isolation was not complete is proven by the presence of Portuguese and Malay loan words in their language. The earliest reference to the existence of the Shompen dates from 1831 and the first recorded visit of an outsider to them of 1846. The Nicobaris living on Great Nicobar call the Shompen Shamhap. Indeed, “Shompen” may be a British mispronounciation of that name. The Shompen have no common name for themselves: those living on the western side of the island call themselves Kalay, those in the eastern part Keyet – with each group calling the other Buavela.
According to George Weber, the Shompen have different origins from the most Nicobarese , although both groups have Mongolid ancestry. The ancestral Shompen came to Great Nicobar from Sumatra, more than 10,000 years ago. The Nicobarese, on the other hand, came from the east, from mainland southeast Asia many thousands of years later. There is some genetic and linguistic evidence that the two groups mixed to a limited extent. A peculiarity of the Shompen discovered in 1967 was that all of 55 individuals then screened turned out to have blood group O in the ABOsystem. Unlike some isolated populations of Southest Asia, the Shompen are not negrito.
The nature of the Shompen languages is very problematic. There may be 2 languages, possibly unrelated. The most recent research by Roger Blench and Paul Sidwell demonstrate that Shompen is an Austroasiatic or Mon-Khmer language, though they suggest that it might constitute a distinct branch of that family. The closest relative may be a language called North Aslian.
The Shompen practice a hunter-gatherer subsistence economy. In keeping with the tropical climate of the islands, traditional attire includes only clothing below the waist. Decoration is limited for men, consisting of bead necklaces and armbands. Women wear a knee-length skirt of bark cloth, occasionally with a shawl of bark cloth covering the shoulders. Decorations include bamboo ear plugs, bead necklaces and armbands of bamboo. The Shompen probably learned to make and use bows from the Nicobaris. The main weapons are the bow and arrow. They do not use quivers but carry arrows by hand. A man usually carries a bow, spear, hatchet, knife and fire drill.
The Shompen are a hunter-gatherer subsistence people, hunting wild game such as pigs, birds and small animals while foraging for fruits and forest foods. They also keep pigs and farm yams, roots, vegetables, and tobacco.The huts are built to house 4 people, and villages are made up of 4 to 5 families. Once a child is grown enough, he makes his own hut. The lowland Shompen build their huts on stilts and the walls are made of woven material on a wood frame and the roof of thatched palm fronds, and the structure is raised on stilts. The highland Shompen build their houses on the ground, and are made of the same materials as the raised houses. The interior is covered with mats, with sleeping mats on one end and tools and utensils hung on the walls and rafters. Cooking is done outside.
In the late 1980s, the Shompens were living in ten groups, ranging in size from 2 to 22 individuals, scattered across the interior of the island. Populations have declined gradually since that time, and may have reached the point of extinction. The major problems are the burgeoning population of outsiders, the renovation and continued construction of the East-West road through the heart of the Shompen reserve, and the free food and other items being given to the Shompen by the government. Because of their isolated way of life in the interior of the island, the Shompens were largely protected from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that devastated the coastal regions inhabited by the Nicobarese and the Indian population.
A Shompen family
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Arora, K. ” Sustainable Management of Tropical Forest through Indigenous Knowledge: A Case Study of Shompens of Great Nicobar Island.” Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge 9.3 (2010): 551-561. Print.
Awaradi, S. A. “People of the Wood Age: Crafts and Material Culture of the Shompen of the Great Nicobar Island.” Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society 24 (1989): 149-162. Print.
Blench, Roger. ” The Language of the Shom Pen: A Language Isolate in the Nicobar Islands.” Mother Tongue: Journal of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory 12 (2007): 179-202. Print.
Blench, Roger, and Paul Sidwell. ” Is Shom Pen a Distinct Branch? ” Austroasiatic Studies: Papers from ICAAL 4 . Ed. Sophana Srichampa and Paul Sidwell. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2011. Print.
Chattopadhyay, Subhash C., and Asok K. Mukhopadhyay. The Language of the Shompen of Great Nicobar: A Preliminary Appraisal. Kolkata: Anthropological Survey of India, 2003. Print.
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Trivedi, Rajni, et al. ” Molecular Insights into the Origins of the Shompen, a Declining Population of the Nicobar Archipelago.” Journal of Human Genetics 51.3 (March 2006): 217-226. Print.