The Shompen People of Great Nicobar

Bibliography of the Shompen
An Indigenous People of Great Nicobar Island, Indian Ocean
Ethnographic Bibliographies no. 7


blue pin Landscape and Environment
blue pin Prehistory
blue pin Language
blue pin Lifestyle and Technology
blue pin Recent history
blue pin Bibliography


blue pin 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.

blue pin Prehistory

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.


blue pin Language

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.

blue pin Lifestyle and Technology

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.

blue pin Recent history

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


blue pin Agrawal, H. N.An Anthropological Study of the Shompens of Great Nicobar.Human Heredity 19.3 (1969): 312. Print.

blue pin 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.

blue pin 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.

blue pin 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.

blue pin 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.

blue pin 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.

blue pin Danda, Ajit K. “Indigenous Small Populations of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society 24 (1989): 85-99. Print.

blue pin Daniels, R. J. R.The Vanishing Aborigines of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.” Current Science 70.9 (1996): 775-776. Print.

blue pin Dinda, Amitava, and Sumitabha Chakraborty. “Forest, Canoe and Fishing: The Axle of Shompen Economy.” Portrait of Anthropological Research . Ed. Bagch Tilak and Mukhopadhyay Asok. Sarup & Sons, 2008. Web.

blue pin van Driem, George. ” The Shompen of Great Nicobar Island: New Linguistic and Genetic Data and the Austroasiatic Homeland Revisited.” Mother Tongue 13 (2008): 227-247. Print.

blue pin Elangaiyan, Rathinasabapathy, et al. Shompen-Hindi Bilingual Primer . Port Blair, 1995. Print.

blue pin Krishan, G. “Dermatoglyphics Study of the Shompen of Great Nicobar.” Acta Geneticae Medicae et Gemellologiae 26.2 (1977): 181-182. Print.

blue pin Lal, Parmanand. Great Nicobar Island: Study in Human Ecology. Calcutta: Anthropological Survey of India, 1977.

blue pin Man, E. H. “A Brief Account of the Nicobar Islanders, with Special Reference to the Inland Tribe of Great Nicobar.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 15 (1886): 428-451. Print.

blue pin Man, E. H. A Dictionary of the Central Nicobarese Language . London: W.H. Allen, 1889. Print.

blue pin Naidu, T. S.The Shompen Aboriginal Tribal Population and Problems of Survival in Great Nicobar Island.” Journal of Family Welfare 44.2 (1998): 59-66. Print.

blue pin Rao, V., et al. “A Profile of Demographic and Nutritional Status of Shompens: The Primitive Mongoloid Tribe of Great Nicobar.” Indian Journal of Community Medicine 1 (1998): 38. Web.

blue pin Rizvi, S. N. H. The Shompen: A Vanishing Tribe of the Great Nicobar Island. Kalkota: Seagull Books, 1990. Print.

blue pin Sharief, M. U. ” Ethnobotanical Studies of Shompens: A Critically Endangered and Degenerating Ethnic Community in Great Nicobar Island.” Current Science 93.11 (2007): 1623-1628. Web.

blue pin Shompen People. Wikipedia . Web.

blue pin Shompen Languages. Wikipedia . Web.

blue pin The Shompen People of Nicobar Islands. Youtube . Web.

blue pinTragedy of the Shompen.The Hindu 8 July 2007. Web.

blue pin 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.


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