The eastern half of Wayanad is inhabited by the Kanarese-speaking tribes and the western half by Malayalam-speaking tribes. When the Nilgiri-Wayanad Plateau was being opened up by European planters, they found the country in the possession of a few landlords, chiefly Malayalees. The whole of the Wayanad area, until its cession to the East India Company by Tippu Sultan, was part of the dominion of the Raja of Kottayam.
The actual cultivators were the tribes, such as the Kurichiya, the Mullu Kurumba and the Chetti. During the chaotic days of early British occupation, tribal peasants lost their holdings to planters and their agents, getting little or no compensation. There are cases in which tribesmen who owned acres of jungle land had their properties confiscated just because they were not in a position to meet petty demands made by the revenue officials. With the creation of big pepper, cardamom and coffee estates, there was an influx of laborers from the plains into Wayanad. Petty merchants, money-lenders and labor- recruiting agents also came in and, with this influx of plains population into Wayanad, began the troubles of the aboriginals.
Of the seventeen or eighteen tribes of this area, some like the Kurichiyas, Paniyas, etc., number several thousands while others like the Uruli Kurumbars, Kadars, Uridavans, Pathiyans and Kattunayakans number only a few hundred and have been unable, on account of isolation and adverse conditions, to develop group life to any high level.
Since the introduction of European coffee cultivation into the Wayanad taluk, the jungle tribes who used to cultivate rice fields in that area have been attracted to the more profitable employment on coffee estates.