IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Arrow-wielding survivors emerge from forest

A Sentinel tribal man aims with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter flying over the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, India
A Sentinel tribal man aims with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over the island for a survey of the damage caused by the tsunami in India's remote Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, on Dec. 28. Indian Coast Guard via Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Members of the ancient Jarawa tribe emerged Thursday from their forest habitat for the first time since the Dec. 26 tsunami rocked the isolated Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and in rare interaction with outsiders, said all 250 tribe members survived.

“We are all safe after the earthquake. We are in the forest in Balughat,” Ashu, an arrow-wielding Jarawa, said in broken Hindi and through an interpreter in a restricted forest area in the northern reaches of South Andaman island.

According to varying estimates, there are only about 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.

Seven Jarawa men — wearing only underwear and amulets on their arms — emerged from the forest to meet with government and police officials to say they had all fled to the forest and survived.

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

“They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we don’t possess,” said Ashish Roy, a local environmentalist and lawyer who has called on the courts to protect the tribes by preventing their contact with the outside world.

The tribes live the most ancient, nomadic lifestyle known to man, frozen in their Paleolithic past. Many produce fire by rubbing stones, fish and hunt with bow and arrow and live in leaf and straw community huts. And they don’t take kindly to intrusions.

Anil Thapliyal, a commander in the Indian coast guard, said he spotted the lone tribesman on the island of Sentinel, a 23-square-mile key, on Dec. 28.

“There was a naked Sentinelese man,” Thapliyal told The Associated Press. “He came out and shot an arrow at the helicopter.”

It appears that many tribesman fled the shores well before the waves hit the coast, where they would typically be fishing at this time of year.

After the tsunami, local officials spotted 41 Great Andamanese — out of 43 in a 2001 Indian census — who had fled the submerged portion of their Strait Island. They also reported seeing 73 Onges — out of 98 in the census — who fled to highland forests in Dugong Creek on the Little Andaman island, or Hut Bay, a government anthropologist said.

However, the fate of the other tribes won’t be known until officials complete a survey of the remote islands this week, he said. The government reconnaissance mission will also assess how the ecosystem — most crucially, the water sources — has been damaged.

'Land of the head hunters'
Taking surveys of these people is dangerous work.

The more than 500 islands across a 3,200-square mile chain in the southern reaches of the Bay of Bengal appear at first glance to be a tropical paradise. But even one of the earliest visitors, Marco Polo, called the atols “the land of the head hunters.” Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus called the Andamans the “islands of the cannibals.”

The Sentinelese are fiercely protective of their coral reef-ringed terrain. They used to shoot arrows at government officials who came ashore and offered gifts of coconuts, fruit and machetes on the beach.

The Jarawas had armed clashes with authorities until the 1990s, killing several police officers.

Samir Acharya, head of the independent Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, said the Jarawas were peaceful until the British, and later the Indians, began encroaching on their territory. British bullets killed thousands of bow-wielding Jarawas in 1859.

Over the past few years, however, relations have improved. The government has banned interaction with the tribes, and even taking their pictures is an offense. Many tribe members have visited Port Blair, capital of the Indian-administered territory, and a few Great Andamanese and Onges work in government offices.

Outsiders are forbidden from interacting with the tribesmen because such contact has led in the past to alcoholism and disease among the islanders, and sexual abuse of local women.

“They have often been sexually exploited by influential people — they give the tribal women ... sugar, a gift wrapped in a colored cloth that makes them happy, and that’s it,” said Roy.

One of the most celebrated stories of a tribal man straddling both worlds is that of En-Mai, a Jarawa teenager brought to Port Blair in 1996 after he broke his leg. Six months later, he looked like any urban kid, in a T-shirt, denim jeans and a reversed baseball cap. But he is back on his island now, having shunned Western ways.