Print edition : April 24, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

THE ethnobotanical knowledge of the Onge tribal community is staggering. Italian anthropologist Lidio Cipriani, who studied the community in the 1950s, was among the first of many experts to acknowledge this Onge heritage. He wrote in 1966: "In their continual search for food the Onges have acquired botanical and zoological knowledge which seems almost innate, and they know of properties in plants and animals of which we are quite unaware. Nearly every day on Little Andaman I came across this. I had only to draw a rough sketch of an animal and they knew at once where it could be found; it was only thanks to them that I was able to find the various amphibia, which subsequently proved to be new species."

Among the best-known examples of Onge knowledge is the method Onges use to extract honey from the hives of the giant rock bee. In order to ward off the bees, they use the leaves of a plant, which they call 'tonjoghe' (Orphea katshalica). To quote Cipriani again: "...the juice of a certain plant they call tonjoghe... has the power of deterring bees, and this knowledge (which) has been handed down from generation to generation, is applied with delightful simplicity...There are bushes of tonjoghe everywhere...the Onges simply grab a handful of leaves and stuff them into the mouth. With some vigorous chewing they are quickly reduced to a greenish pulp, which is smeared all over the body...another huge mouthful is chewed on the way up and spat at the bees to make sure that they will be deterred... the bees fly away from the comb without stinging and the honey can be cut out..." causing harm neither to the collector of honey nor to the bees.

Disregarding such knowledge, attempts are made to impart modern technology to the Onge people. A few years ago the Fisheries Department posted a fisheries inspector and two fishermen at Dugong Creek to teach Onges modern methods of fishing. The fishermen admitted later that they had much to learn from the tribal community about fishing in the waters of the island.

More recently, a controversy erupted when senior researchers from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) tried to patent a discovery that would probably lead to a cure for cerebral malaria. The issue attracted international attention. The source of the medicine in question is a plant that the Onge use to treat fever and stomach disorders.

The size and nature of the wealth that lies in the island home of the Onge people are largely unknown. What is more important is that if the present situation continues, the Onge people may not survive for too long and with them will go a huge bank of invaluable knowledge.

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