Thursday, November 1, 2007

Immortalising the Andaman Tribes

What I am pasting below is a compilation of a very interesting discussion on the, a egroup dedicated to issues of the A&N islands. It is obviously a very controversial topic and opinions in the matter are bound to be polarised and the following posts show.


Immortalising vanishing tribes
Pallava Bagla
Friday, October 26, 2007 (Hyderabad)
Indian scientists have been trying to preserve the genetic lines of the country's fast vanishing ethnic tribes in the hope that even if the tribes get wiped out their unique genetic material could still be available as human heritage to search for medical cures.

But the scientists seem to have hit a real roadblock and are unable to get blood samples from the hunter-gatherer tribes of the Andaman islands. India is home to over 500 tribes, of which 70 are classed as primitive. But none of them are as endangered as the Jarawas, the Onges and the Sentinelese, known to be the world's oldest inhabitants after humans migrated from Africa.

In the Andaman islands, the Jarawas number only 200, living north of Port Blair. The Onges are down to double digit figures and the Sentinelese, who resist any contact with outsiders, are believed to number only 250.

These tribes could soon be extinct as their homes are slowly being encroached upon by today's civilization. But modern day biology has a way of immortalising them. Dr Lalji Singh, who pioneered DNA finger printing in India, and helped crack the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case wants to save this unique human heritage.

His laboratory has blood samples of over 100 tribes and 11,000 individuals preserved for posterity. He wants access to the vanishing tribes to collect their blood samples but red tape is holding him back.''We are desperately trying through the Government of India to provide us permission to collect the blood samples in such a manner that the day we collect the sample we arrange its transportation by air to CCMB where we have fully established the procedure to develop transformed cell lines and we can immortalize them for sure.

''Since last two years we are waiting for permission from the government and have the money sanctioned for making the film but have not got permission from local authorities to collect blood samples,'' said Dr Lalji Singh, Director, Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology.

In mainland India where tribes have faced a similar fate science has come to their rescue. By collecting blood samples and processing them scientists have created immortal cell lines. Even if the tribals get extinct, at least their hereditary material is safe.


Madhusree Mukherjee


I can’tt be the only one who finds the tone of this piece extraordinarily offensive. In what

sense does an immortal cell line come to the rescue of a tribe? Is that all there is to a people and their extraordinary complexity? Can any sane person imagine that a bunch of cells in a petri dish even remotely approximates a human being, let alone an entire tribe and its culture? And what about the individuals, their lives, their loves, their dreams, their futures? We take away their land, their means of survival, we kill them off and appropriate their genetic information for our use... and call that a rescue?

I never thought I'd say this, but thank heavens for the red tape that keeps Lalji Singh from rescuing the Andamanese.


Couldn't agree more. It seems Lalji and CCMB has a tendency to go after
these outlandish schemes, whether for funding or publicity or other reasons,
I remember the cheetah cloning project that hit the headlines some years
ago, no idea at what stage that is now...
neither the andamanese or the cheetah would be better off, as long as the
forces that destroyed and are destroying their habitat are checked... the
millions these projects would cost would be better poured into protection!

Ashish fernandes


I too feel that the so called biological Science wallas are quite pretentious as ones who can save. Lalji and his group has had the samples already worked upon along with bunch of others who have added to the genetic knowledge and often the samples have been collected in dubious manners. Not to forget being stolen from museums. And ofcourse now ASI has it's own set up to work with genetic material right in Port Blair. I think that the Administration has taken a right step by not letting things just push the agenda of certain kind of science. In fact what and how have they been proactive in relating to the problems of the A&N tribes beyond doing sample and data collection. Has the knowledge increased for all? Has it contributed to the policies? In fact it is a shame that even the AAJVS has not been monitored but atleast in it's lathargey has kept some science wallas away. Often we tend to describe the existence of problems but we never focus on and debate the possible
I am happy that Madhushree feels the way I do too.

Vishvajit Pandya.


To protect Andamanese requires first to protect and preserve their living land, to respect their living culture, lifestyle and more importantly their indegenous Identity. I do not think any precise molecular biological analysis of the cells of the Andamanese can help in protecting them from the threats of modernisation and cultural invasion.

Santosh Sahoo

Conservation Himalayas


Madushree Mukherji has raised the only correct issue involved. One surely wants to know how does genetic code save a tribe? Till now tribes were thought of as museum specimens. With the advent of genome they are being reduced to sequence of bases in some lab. The genome research may be useful from anthroplogical point of view in tracing the movements of people but let us not think that this is tool to save the tribes.

Sushil Joshi


I agree. What's particularly pathetic is that the reporter apparently didn't bother switching on their critical thinking, simply reporting the hype as news. I am also suspicious of the ASI genetic lab recently reported. Are these genes going to be collected, patented and sold to some multinational when they turn out to have a commercially viable health benefit?

Neil Tangri


hallo madhushree and others,
i was just looking through the mails and i was furious to read that a advanced DNA lab has been established by ASI . and then that CCMB is looking for blood samples of the hunter gatherer tribes of Andaman to save the genetic lineage of these adivasi communities even if they are destroyed! really good to read your mail and those of others who also feel indignant about all this politics of hightech science.

all this once again brings up the question, to defend the remaining hunter gatherer communities and to stop genocide and destruction globally dont we have to confront civilisation as such with all its toxic ideology ?

warm greetings

shankar narayanan


Dear Friends,

Can there be anything more vicious than a group of scientists wanting to examine blood of tribes to "save them from extinction"? Had they been suffering from some mysterious ailments this might have been order, but this? It is a cruel joke. The question is, what can be done other than expressing our anger on the 'net?

Lavkumar Khachar.


Lets be clear about one thing. Andaman tribals are going extinct, not because ASI has set up a lab to study their DNA, but because of the refusal of the A & N Administration to follow their own guidelines.
A little DNA sampling from some museum is not going to make any difference of the survival or otherwise, of these tribals. And I, for one, would be fascinated by any light shed on where these people originated from. ASI is to be commended and not slandered for making this effort.

In despair,

Rauf Ali

PS You can start flaming me now.

I agree with Mr Rauf on this one. Who said that tribes will be killed to extract blood sample from them? It is going to open a new world of scientific and anthropological study. Can anyone shed light on how the DNA study will make the tribals extinct.



I am not ASI man myself but criticism of ASI in this matter seems to be point less .. can any one dare say that ASI has powers to protect the tribes over and above the Govt ?..We need to understand roles played by each agency .. and lastly Why the Moderator is not able to clarify these for the benefit of all, it is difficult to understand ..

Narayan, Port Blair


Dear friends,

A few years ago at the Inter-governmental meeting of Biodiversity Convention - a preliminary run up to RIO Summit ( I was representing an Aian NGO there) - an imposing American native Indian NGO delegate from one of South American countries stood up and pointed out that a clandestine operation by US government agency had taken blood samples from his tribal community without informing them why the sample were taken from them or even taking their consent. He suspected that the samples were to do some secret experiments to develop drugs form certain qualities in the serum to treat AIDS and /or cancer. He was clearly apprehensive that IPR was being violated by US ( which was not a signatory to Convention at that time) As usual there was no response from the large US delegation present !




I agree with Rauf too. I too would be delighted if any one can throw some light on the antecedents of this tribe. ASI has been trying for years to get this underway and Iam glad its finally in place.

Lima Rosalind


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