HUT BAY, India—When the water in the creek suddenly ran out to sea on the morning of Dec. 26, the aboriginal Onge tribe knew the evil spirits were up to no good.
They scattered pig and turtle skulls around their settlement and hurled stones toward the ocean. Hurriedly gathering their baskets, bows and arrows, they then fled into the jungle, bearing amulets of ancestral bones for protection.
Minutes later, the tsunami that left nearly 300,000 people dead or missing in the Indian Ocean region slammed into their tribal reserve in India's remote Andaman islands. All 96 Onge survived, even as residents of the nearby town of Hut Bay perished.
The Onge (pronounced OHN-ghee) lived while so many others didn't because of their innate understanding of how nature works.
While tourists on a morning swim in Thailand didn't know what was happening when they suddenly found themselves standing on exposed seabed, and fishermen in Sri Lanka ran out to pick up flapping fish stranded by the receding tide, the Onge knew that the disappearing water meant danger.
"The water went away very quickly, and, like breathing in and out of the body, the sea water had to come back very rapidly and in a big way," Totanagey, an Onge man, explained to anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya.
"We saw the water and knew that more land would soon become covered with sea, and angry spirits would descend down to hunt us away," the 60-something man said, according to Pandya's transcription of his notes. "But our ancestral spirits would come down to help us if we stayed together and carried our ancestral bones with us to ensure assistance from the good spirits."
The Onge are one of four Andamanese tribes that researchers believe may have migrated from Africa during the Stone Age, some 30,000 to 60,000 years ago. Black-skinned and short in stature, the tribes lived in isolation for millennia. Now, the surviving Onge live on two reserves on Little Andaman island.
The reserves are off-limits to outsiders, but Pandya, who's been studying the tribe since he researched them in 1983 for his doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago, received government permission to visit them shortly after the tsunami.
He found that the Onge, who hunt boar with bows and arrows, reacted immediately to what was going on, guided by their concepts of evil spirits.
Pandya said the Onge don't know that an earthquake triggered the tsunami. But knowing that the creek rises and falls with the tide, the Onge suspected that the extreme fall in the creek presaged a great flood. In their thinking, evil spirits cause floods by taking huge boulders out of the stars and throwing them at the sea.
"Just like the stone chucked by a kid in a pool of water, some water rises and a splash is made," Totanagey told Pandya, a professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology in Ghandinagar, India.
When the Onge fled, they threw rocks at the evil spirits, so the spirits would look for them where they'd thrown the rocks, instead of pursuing them into the jungle.
The pig and turtle skulls, which they keep in their homes, were scattered around the settlement as fake evidence of a recent hunt, a ploy to make the spirits think the people were still around.
The Onge knew they'd succeeded in warding off the evil spirits eight days after the tsunami, when an Onge woman gave birth to a baby girl in a camp for tsunami survivors. Not only had they survived, their number had grown to 97.
(Moritsugu is a special correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI
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