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Ancient Tribes Touched By Tsunami

As one of the first Coast Guard helicopters with relief supplies for the tsunami victims slowed over the Indian Andaman and Nicobar islands to assess the damage, a lone tribesman sent a message from below: leave us alone.

The lone Sentinelese man stood naked on the beach and shot a bow-strung arrow at the helicopter.

The Sentinelese are one of five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago, and one of perhaps hundreds affected by the massive waves of last month's tsunami. The tribes' stories are vignettes of survival amidst massive destruction. In some cases, the disaster foraged ties to urban neighbors, but in others it highlighted the tribespeople's unique intuitive ties to nature that urban dwellers seem to lack.

As the tsunami's death toll tops 150,000, just one of the 200 Moken living on Thailand's South Surin Island perished in the tsunami, and the ancestors of an ancient South Indian island tribe all survived when their king instructed them to rush up nearby mountains.

The story of the people of Poompuhar is a tale with the opposite end — last month's tsunami killed almost 200 of their tribesmembers. But the natural disaster might have uncovered an important part of their ancient history.

For generations, the people of Poompuhar have spoken of the days when their sleepy fishing town was the capital of a powerful kingdom, and traders came from Rome, Greece and Egypt to deal in pearls and silk. Then, more than 1,500 years ago, it was gone. The thriving town, according to ancient Tamil-language texts, was "kodalkol" — "swallowed by the sea."

Perhaps, archaeologists and historians thought, the seawater had gradually risen. Or, some think now, perhaps it was something else.

"Now I know," said Murugaiyan, a 38-year-old fisherman whose family has long talked of the vanished kingdom. "It must have been another tsunami."

Thailand's Moken tribe — a small community of fishermen whose elders ordered a hilltop evacuation just before the tsunami hit — is rebuilding on a nearby beach. The Moken, more commonly known as sea gypsies, believe their old home is cursed because they mistakenly left behind a handicapped boy.

One boy was the only tribe member to die in the waves, which killed 5,300 in Thailand alone.

Rescuers are transporting the remaining Great Andamanese tribespeople to Port Blair, India, after they fled the coastline for higher ground before the tsunami struck their forest homeland. The last few dozen remaining members of the ancient indigenous tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands said they raced up a mountain to escape a devastating tsunami — and avoid extinction.

The tribe was once the largest in the region with an estimated population of 10,000 in 1789. The government says only 43 Great Andamanese remain. The tribal king put the number at 50, 10 of whom are his children.

"No one was hurt. Everyone is all right," Jiroki, the king of the Great Andamanese tribe, said from a hospital in Port Blair, the capital of the Indian-administered territories.

Other tribes from the South Indian archipelago saw their land flushed over by waves and saved kinsfolk with varying degrees of success.

According to varying estimates, there are only 400 to 1,000 members alive today from the Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Onges, Sentinelese and Shompens. Some anthropological DNA studies indicate the generations may have spanned back 70,000 years. They originated in Africa and migrated to India through Indonesia, anthropologists say.

Government officials and anthropologists believe that ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the indigenous tribes from the tsunami.

And, as for the fate of the Sentinelese tribe, whose representative shot an arrow at a relief helicopter, Officials believe that isolation — and ancient knowledge of signals in the wind and sea — combined to save the five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar islands. Some are, however, still refusing relief, but seem to be reclaiming their connection with the land, despite the sweeping change in geography.

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