Little People of the Andaman Islands

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At low tide at the end of each day, the Jarawa go in small groups to catch fish. The women use fishing nets and the men use bows and arrows (Image © Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)
By Jayanta Sarkar, Anthropological Survey of India
Additional Information Researchers at the Database for Indigenous Cultural Evolution, University of Missouri; Anvita Abbi, Professor of Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Survival International; authors of Andaman Beacon

The isolated tribes of the Andaman Islands – the Jarawa, Great Andamese, Onge and Sentinelese – are believed to have occupied the islands of the Indian Ocean for as long as 55,000 years. Today, approximately 400 members of the nomadic Jarawa tribe live in groups of 40 to 50 people.

Most Jarawa are tiny in size. The average height for adult men is just under 150 centimetres and for adult women, 137 centimetres. Their Palaeolithic technology dates back to ancient times, more than 40,000 years ago. In spite of their apparent simplicity, their tools are, in fact, suitably sophisticated and perfectly adapted to their nomadic hunter-gatherer way of life.

They make bows and arrows with which the men hunt wild pigs, monitor lizards and fish dwelling in coastal waters. They also fashion canoes, simple stone tools and various types of baskets, which are both beautiful and highly utilitarian. The women are responsible for gathering shellfish. The Jarawa also collect fruits, roots and honey from the forest.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, when Spain, Portugal and later Holland were exploring the islands of Southeast Asia, they frequently encountered “Stone Age tribes” of very small black people, which they called “Negritos”. Usually found on islands that were considered uninhabited, they would behave aggressively towards trespassers. Those who ventured out into inhabited lands would mostly be hiding in remote valleys and mountains, avoiding contact with the “bigger” people that dominated them.

A young hunter makes a rope for his bow from the stem of a wild plant (Image © Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)

These aboriginal inhabitants continue to exist in many areas of Southeast Asia, including the Andaman Islands. When Marco Polo returned from China aboard a Mongol trade ship near the end of the 13th century, he described the island group as “the land of the headhunters”. However, of the 12 tribes that used to thrive here, only four of them survive – including the diminutive yet feisty Jarawa. Their current territory includes the western portions of the South and Middle Andamans. The present population is estimated to be about 400.

A delicate charm permeates the unique culture of the Jarawa, beginning with the huts or settlements they reside in. Referred to as the chadda, each tiny abode measures a mere 0.9 metres high and can accommodate two or three individuals. Despite their build, the Jarawa diet consists of meat from large animals such as wild boar (Susscorfa andamanensis) and marine catfish (Arius thalassinus). However, the community abstains from the flesh of birds, known affectionately as noha in the Jarawa language.

To aid them in their daily activities, the Jarawa expertly craft nifty but powerful tools. Their bows, known as aao in the local tongue – instrumental in their hunting activities – are made of a light and extremely strong wood from the Sageraea elliptica tree, while their harpoon arrow, the tahowai khoab, is constructed with the use of iron, cane and areca wood (Arecca triandra). The towa remains the Jarawa’s signature tool, a knife that is used for cutting meat (mainly pork) into pieces. Fashioned into the shape of an arrowhead and measuring 10 to 15 centimetres, it can be conveniently fastened to the men’s kekad (chest guard) or tohe (waist guard).

Traditionally, the Jarawa tend to marry early, with unions generally occurring between adolescents. While they are strictly monogamous, subsequent marriages are common as a result of a comparatively low life expectancy in the past. For both genders, to mark the transition into adulthood, a special ceremony is held. As part of this ritual, boys are mandated to successfully hunt down a wild pig to offer to his kin. When girls reach puberty, a paste consisting of red clay, pig fat and gum is applied to the head, neck and face. For three days, she adheres to a number of restrictions before finally taking a bath that symbolically frees her. Both sons and daughters are renamed either during or after the ceremony.

A Jarawa man samples some honey (Image © Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sharp survival instincts have enabled these little people to triumph over the ravages of time and environmental threats. The smallest elements continue to play a critical role in their physical wellbeing. With no knowledge of modern medicine, the Jarawa rely heavily on their natural surroundings to treat illnesses. To battle cough and fever, they tie the leaf and stem of the Amomum aculeatum Roxb to their chest. The leaves of Myristica andamanica are used to stop bleeding, while the betel leaf, Piper betle, effectively kills pain. One study has found that the tribe possesses detailed knowledge of more than 150 plant and 350 animal species.

Unfortunately, modern encroachment has not spared the carefree lifestyle of the Jarawa. In 1990, the local authorities introduced their long-term plan to settle the Jarawa into two villages, prescribing them an economy based on fishery and suggesting that hunting and gathering be relegated to the rank of “sports”. Forced settlement has been highly detrimental for other tribes in the Andaman Islands; in 1998, a few tribe members were seen emerging from the forest for the first time, without their bows and arrows, to visit nearby towns.

Following a vigorous campaign by Survival International and several other organisations, the local authorities’ proposal was abandoned, and in 2004, a new policy was announced: the Jarawa would be allowed to choose their own future, and that outside intervention would be kept to a minimum. Despite these efforts, the Jarawa’s precarious situation has yet to be reversed, with threats such as poaching, tourism and commercial exploitation continuing to push them to the brink of extinction.

For more stunning stories and photographs from this issue, check out Asian Geographic Issue 110.

1 COMMENT

  1. You say men are responsible for hunting and women are responsible for collecting oysters, but according to the pictures they both of them , defend and collect food.

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