Jarawa: a pre-agricultural people

Mangroves between South and Middle Andaman Islands

The Andaman groups of islands were perhaps first settled by humanity around 26000 years ago, at the peak of the ice age. At that time it was connected to Myanmar by land bridges. After the end of the ice age, when the seas rose, these islands were cut off. This story is currently supported by genetic data. Contact with the rest of humanity came again when imperial British soldiers settled in Andaman in 1789. Within four years influenza, measles and pneumonia wiped out about 90% of the population. The Japanese bombed the islands in 1943, targeting the native population. In the early years of the Indian republic conflict with tribals continued.

As I have suggested previously, it is probable that some disease was introduced among the coastal groups by Lieutenant Colebrooke and Blair’s first settlement in 1789, resulting in a marked reduction of their population. The four years that the British occupied their initial site on the south-east of South Andaman were sufficient to have decimated the coastal populations of the groups referred to as Jarawa by the Aka-bea-da.
Sita Vekateswar (2004)

Of the 13 linguistic groups found in the 19th century, only the Jarawa, Onge and North Sentinelese survive. The Indian republic now respects the wishes of the Jarawa and North Sentinelese people to be left alone. It was estimated in 2003 that there are less than 100 of each tribe left.

We travelled north from Port Blair along the Andaman Trunk Road, passing through the Jarawa reserve forest. In order to minimize impact on the tribals, vehicles are only allowed in a small number of convoys at fixed times of the day. Vehicles are supposed to maintain a constant speed, and stay within eye sight of the one in front. The Jarawa people live in a pre-agricultural state. The Family and I were talking about what it might mean not to have agriculture. The first thing we thought of was the relative lack of surplus food. At home we store very little meat and fish. Most of the food that we store at home are grains, sugar, vegetables and fruits, spices. If we had no agriculture, we probably would not store food. Then would we store anything else at home? If we did not store anything, would we have an economy?

Our first view of a group of Jarawa tribals came as a surprise. We saw a man and a woman with a child next to the road. They were short and slender, but extremely muscular, dark skinned, and with curly dark brown or black hair. We had earlier discussed whether or not to photograph any Jarawa people we saw, and agreed that we would extend to them the same courtesy that we would to any other person: no portraits unless we could, in principle, ask their permission. Since we knew that we had no common language, this meant that we would not take photos. It turned out, in any case, that photography was forbidden, The woman had on a cotton gown, the child had shorts and a t-shirt. All three wore head bands made of tree bark, which seemed to be decorated. Senthil, who was driving, explained that if Jarawas come to a hospital, then they have the option of taking clothes. The group was angry, and the man shook a spear at us. We later found that the reason was that the car in front of us had slowed down, and one person had taken several photos of the group.

We find various of the features of Jarawa art duplicated in known non-iconic Pleistocene and Early Holocene traditions, despite the significant differences in the media used and the very sporadic nature of the archaeological record.
M. Sreenathan, V.R. Rao and R.G. Bednarik (2008)

We were surprised by the number of tribals we saw: more than ten. We saw in passing a Jarawa woman making something out of tree bark, probably the head and waist decorations that they wear. There are papers on Jarawa art available in journals. We heard that they have metals now, and they make arrowheads out of them. In about four hours of driving along the road we saw ten of the Jarawas. That is a significant fraction of the tribe’s population. This is perhaps a very strong indication that the tribal culture has been badly disrupted by continuing contact with outside. We saw an Indian man in black uniform inside the jungle, perhaps one of the anthropologists who live and work with Jarawas. So contact with the Jarawas continues. Clothing, attempts to teach them Hindi, and trying to get youngsters to school, are among the cultural pressures that still remain.

It is said that the normal diet of the Jarawa hunter gatherers consists of fish, wild pigs, and turtles, fruits, roots, tubers and honey. The Family reminded me of the effect of the agricultural revolution on changes in human oral bacteria: a very recent discovery. It seems that our dental and oral bacteria changed after the invention of agriculture in order to accommodate the new human diet. She speculated that the Jarawa oral bacteria could be very different, and much more healthy. This could also be a reason that the tribals fall ill if they switch their diets to a modern industrial-agricultural diet.

There is so much human diversity to be preserved here! Just a study of the mouth of Jarawa tribals could teach us so many things about our own lack of health. How much more there could be to learn.

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Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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