How members of ancient tribe survived tsunami

Associated Press

Jirkatang, January 7:

Armed with bows and arrows, seven men from the ancient Jarawa tribe came out of the forest for the first time since India’s isolated Andaman and Nicobar islands were shaken by an earthquake and battered by a tsunami. In a rare meeting with outsiders, the men said that all 250 members of the tribe escaped inland and were surviving on coconuts. “We are all safe after the earthquake. We are in the forest in Balughat,” said one of the men, Ashu.

Even though the Jarawas sometimes meet with local officials to receive government-funded supplies, the tribe is wary of visitors. “My world is in the forest,” Ashu said in broken Hindi through an interpreter in a restricted forest area at the northern end of South Andaman Island. “Your world is outside. We don’t like outsiders.” Anthropologists estimate the island’s more primitive tribes of Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Onges, Sentinelese and Shompens have dwindled to only 400 from 1,000 people. Most of the territory’s 350,000 people are members of the larger Nicobarese tribe and ethnic Indians.

Some DNA studies indicate the tribes’ ancestors may have left Africa 70,000 years ago and passed through what is now Indonesia before settling on these islands, scientists say.

Government officials and anthropologists have speculated ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the indigenous tribes from the tsunami that killed 901 people and left 5,914 missing on the islands. But Ashu and his companions refused to talk about how they avoided the devastating waves. The seven Jarawa men — wearing only underwear and amulets — emerged from the forest to come to a government outpost for the interview.

Ashu, who said he was in his early 20s, gave his name and those of three others of his tribe as Danna, Lah and Tawai. Like many south Indians, they use only one name. They stopped the photographer from taking pictures. “We fall sick if we are photographed,” Ashu said. In the past, tourists who have tried to take photographs have had their cameras smashed by tribesmen.

Ashu showed off his bow, arrows and a metal box containing ash with which he smears his face and forehead during ceremonies. He gestured with his hands and asked for “khamma” —water in the dialect used by the Jarawas — and drank from a bottle offered him.

When asked what they typically eat, Ashu said pork and fish killed with arrows. “And we like honey.” He added, “We prefer to eat green and roasted bananas. Ripe bananas make us sick.” The Jarawas didn’t have any contact with government authorities until 1996. A year later, tribesmen stormed a police outpost and killed a guard with arrows. But relations with police have calmed.” Relations with townspeople seem more prickly. Ethnic Indians are wary of the Jarawas and both sides remain as far apart as they were nearly a decade ago when mutual contact was first made.

Ethnic prejudice is evident. When asked whether tribes people live near town, an Indian shopkeeper, Muthuswamy, sniffed: “Jarawas don’t live here. Only humans.”