Jarawa: a pre-agricultural people

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 Venkateswar (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 traveled 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 tribes people 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 tribes people 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 oral flora of Jarawa tribals could teach us so many things about our own lack of health. How much more there could be to learn.

A Beach in the Anthropocene

Walking on the beach, looking for odd sea creatures, I found that I was constantly shifting my angle of view so that I could take photos without including a lot of garbage. After some time I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t there an equally interesting story in the things I was trying to avoid? Take the featured photo: the tracks in the sand belong to molluscs and crabs, but the largest object there is a piece of long-lasting plastic garbage which has washed up from the ocean. It looked like a container of machine oil to me.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

You have probably read the same articles about garbage that I have, so you know about the continent sized floating islands of garbage in the middle of the world’s large oceans. The Andaman islands lie a little west of Myanmar, Thailand, Malayasia and Indonesia. As a result, garbage from these countries lands on the beaches of Andamans on their way to the Indian Ocean gyre. This is not a guess: it is the result of looking at innumerable labels on plastic garbage through a morning. You can verify it from the photos here.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman
Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

Garbage from India does not wash up in the Andamans. I guess that lands up either directly in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, or on the beaches of Lakshadeep and Sri Lanka. I grew up with romantic stories of messages in bottles found on beaches. Today the romance is gone; bottles are the most common man-made objects on a beach, as you can see from the photos above. The message that these bottles bring us are of the incredible waste that all couintries produce today.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

If the can of machine oil had an ambiguous origin, this gizmo almost certainly has come from a boat. Was it tossed overboard, or did it fall off because it was stowed carelessly? It does not really matter. It has come to rest on a bed of broken corals. By the time the corals weather down to the white sands of these beaches, they will have incorporated bits of this plastic. Even now, when we go for a swim we probably come out the water with bits of plastic clinging to us along with the sand.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

The kind of garbage you see in this photo is everywhere: bits of thermocol, little plastic containers. Industrial civilization produces them with such abandon that a little inattention on our parts can cause it to turn into a pollutant. Think of this for the moment: how often do you handle plastic packaging of any kind? Once every twenty minutes? Is it possible for you to be mindful of where every bit of the packaging you handled in one day has gone? Even with the best will in the world, you will not be able to answer "yes". That is the tragedy of the anthropocene.

Bitten by a radioactive mollusc?

It’s not very often than I hear The Family yelp. When she did, I tore myself away from the ghost crab I was trying to photograph to check on her. She was holding a long conical shell and looking very white. As I rushed up to her I remembered a friend of ours who was working on poisonous cone snails. Was she holding one?

Fortunately, she was not. The creature in the photo you see above had been startled when The Family picked it up from the beach, looked out and used its pincers to explore its surroundings. That’s when I heard the sound from its surroundings. Once we realized that it was not poisonous, I took a few photos before putting it back. It was the second day of Christmas.

Ghost crab, Neil Island, Andaman

Meanwhile the ghost crab (photo above) would have disappeared. I saw it first as something scurrying over the white sand at the edge of my vision. I looked around and couldn’t see it. But then it moved again as I was looking at it. It didn’t like my camera, and kept scuttling away. Eventually, as it rested on a little stone, I managed to get a photo. Even in the photo it is hard to see it clearly. I’ve enhanced the contrast to make it visible. I’m sure I can see ten legs, but how many eyes does it have, and where?

When you look at the photo above, you notice the holes in the stone. What makes them? Jessica had some answers: in a much colder sea there are creatures called rock borers (duh), piddocks, and sponges.

Piece of a sea sponge, Neil Island, Andaman

I would not have believed this about sea sponges. But on the third day of Christmas my niece got for me a sea sponge on a rock. We admired it together. The branching filaments of the sponge allow it to sample the water that flows through it, and filter out food. I noticed that the rock on which it grew was full of holes. As for piddocks, I only saw these bivalves the next day.

Gribble holes in wood, Neil Island, Andaman

On the fourth day of Christmas, The Family and I admired this large piece of driftwood we had to cross. The beautiful surface has been created by living creatures. In the waters around the Andaman islands, the wood borers are mainly molluscs called shipworms (family Teredinidae) and crustaceans called gribbles. It turns out that there is an immense scientific literature on these, because of the harm they do to wooden structures. However, many of the papers are on the biology and physiology of these creatures. One of the few things I learnt was that shipworms and gribbles eat wood, but piddocks just make holes where they can sit safely. In the photo above you can see a few shells lodges snugly in holes in the wood; these are probably piddocks. Eventually I came across a post which takes you deeper into the world of wood eaters in the sea.

I think these were more interesting than partridges, turtle doves, French hens and calling birds. And no, The Family still hasn’t developed a mollusc sense.

The private life of a star

We walked out into a bed of dead corals at sunset, meaning to walk to a point where the corals were alive. The tide was coming in, and we had little time. But I got distracted. There were tentacles waving below the surface of the water. When I looked closer I saw a strange starfish, climbing up a submerged stone using all five tentacles around its round body.

Once I knew what to look for I could see them everywhere. They would usually have a bolt hole where they would retreat to hide or feed. Feeding consisted of pushing a couple of tentacles out of its cave and agitating the water around it. Presumably this enabled them to catch tiny organisms floating in the water. It looked like a child stuffing her mouth while out picking blueberries.

Crawling cowrie!

Not being able to get into the water during my vacation meant that I prowled the beaches with my camera prying into the private lives of every visitor. One of my interesting encounters was with a cowrie. I’ve handled these shells now and then. When I was a child, I used to like the small white ones.Cowrie keeps a watch on me in Neil Island, Andaman I saw one lying on the beach, and I moved to pick it up. Then it moved!

It scurried across the sand, pushing itself with its claws. I tried to take a photo. As I moved the camera towards it, it hunkered down. The claws disappeared into the shell. I could see its eye stalks waving uncertainly (photo to the right, above). I drew back, waiting to see what it would do.

After some waiting, it decided to start moving again. Its claws came out, and it pushed itself rapidly across the sand with them. I brought my camera forward, and it scurried. The eyestalks remained on the camera, as I drew back and took the featured photo.

The defensive action of molluscs is to hunker down, and withdraw from the world. I found it interesting, that this one was curious enough to keep its eyes out.

Are you safe on the beach?

The beaches of Neil and Havelock islands are fringed with coral reefs. They damp wave action close to beaches, and moderate rip tides. Swimming is fairly safe. Elsewhere, such as in Wandoor beach, I saw nets to mark out areas which are safe for swimming. Wandoor also had a couple of lifeguards watching the swimmers.

The main swimming beach in Neil Island is Bharatpur beach: a long and shallow beach which opens out into coral reefs. This is a busy beach, with swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving and boating. I saw a few lifeguards walking up and down the beach. It was low tide, and people were walking really far out in the shallow beach. It did not seem like lifeguards would be able to keep watch on such a scattered crowd. When I asked a snorkelling instructor about this, he said that all the instructors also keep a watch.

At other beaches the number of people was very small. The beautiful Sitapur beach is rocky, and there seemed to be only one natural pool where you can swim. There was a lifeguard’s shack, with a tyre tube hanging on a pole. As you can see from the photo, it is possible to keep an eye on the whole beach from there.

I did not look for a lifeguard on Lakshmanpur beach. This fills up at sunset with visitors out to take photos of the setting sun. I could see lots of families with children in the shallows, standing in ankle deep water with cameras. There were no swimmers. One child splashed out up to his neck, and was hauled back by his grandfather. Family groups are good for safety.

What’s walking on the beach

When you walk on the fine white sandy beaches of Neil Island, you come across a few spots which look like a bone yard. These are the remnants of dead corals. When you look at these heaps, they seem to be in movement. Is it real? You have to look closer to make sure you are not seeing things. Then you see that there is indeed movement. Crawling through the bones of the island is life that seems to have emerged from the sea to walk on land.

The geology of paradise

Ritchie’s archipelago lies a little east of Port Blair. This group of islands includes Havelock and Neil Islands, often considered to have some of the best beaches in the world. The white sand beaches, the clear water and the warm sunshine seem appropriate to the quiet lifestyle of the locals. I could imagine myself settling down to months of slow life here.

Coral boneyard, Laxmanpur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

Walking along the soft sand one occasionally comes across patches of rubble like the one you see in the photo above. They are pieces of broken coral, the bones of the sea, piled up in these little boneyards. When I saw them I began to wonder about the geological processes which form these little bits of paradise. Although coral reefs are spread across the world, their total area is about that of the state of Maharashtra. In terms of area, this is one part in a thousand of the world’s oceans, but it contains a fourth of all ocean life!

Rocks on Sitapur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

Our understanding of coral islands such as Neil and Havelock comes from Darwin, the master of careful scrutiny and understanding. He figured that such islands are volcanic. In the shallows around these new islands corals begin to accumulate. As the volcanic cone subsides, the corals grow upwards and outwards in the shallow waters.Corals around Neil Island, Andaman If their upward growth keeps pace with the sinking of the island, then eventually they form the wonderful reefs we saw around the islands (there is a brain coral at the bottom of the photo on the right). Too slow, and they would become drowned reefs. The volcanic rocks which supported the initial growth are also visible around these islands, as you can see in the photo above. The coral reef system is young, only about ten thousand years old.

Dead coral, Bharatpur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

The Andaman islands have been through a geological catastrophe about a decade ago. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake which generated a devastating tsunami was centred near these islands. You can see its devastating effects on the coral ecosystem even today. The sea bed rose by almost a meter, popping a large area of corals above the water and killing them. The great diversity that one sees in scuba dives off the coast of these islands is a fraction of what was there even as recently as 2001. Coral reefs are also sensitive to a variety of easily avoidable man-made perturbations: dumping of untreated organic waste such as sewage and chemicals from agricultural runoffs and even sunscreen. A little awareness for the next few decades would be enough to let this ecosystem recover.

Two Postcards from Paradise

First Postcard

We had a harrowing morning trying to get tickets on the ferry to Neil Island, but we’re here at last. I had breakfast at our hotel and went to sleep. After lunch I went to the beach. Its a couple of kilometres of white sand, glowing in the sun. The tide was out, and I could see little pools in the rocks where birds were feeding. I wish I hadn’t put that long slash on my calf. I’m supposed to stay out of the water for a week, and I’ll be back in Mumbai by then. The weather is perfect, and I plan to walk right around the island, if that is possible. You would have loved it here.

Laxmanpur beach, Neil Island, Andaman

Second Postcard

We’d a great ferry ride from Port Blair to the island just after sunrise. Nice and cool. I stood up on the deck and spotted dolphins. Grumpy Old Man went to sleep after breakfast. I walked over to the beach. The water is crystal clear. Blue turns to green when the water comes in over the sand. White collared kingfishers and Pacific reef egrets were fishing in deep pools between corals. I waded out to one and got wet. The water’s warm and comfortable. It gets quite hot in the afternoon. Grumpy Old Man’s gone for a walk in the heat. I’m sitting under the trees, enjoying the cool breeze. You would have loved it here.

Buying fish on a coral island

Farmers and fisher-folk going door to door, selling their produce or catch, was a common sight when I was a child. Direct marketing has had a comeback in recent times, with cooperatives of farmers bringing trucks of produce into cities directly to apartment buildings. On the beach destination of Neil Island in the Andaman archipelago, I saw a fisher man going door to door with an enormous fish (photo above). I don’t now what fish that is: the size of a large surmai, but neither surmai (a.k.a. king fish, or seer) nor tuna.

Fish on sale in Neil Island, Andaman

There were surprises in the fish market as well. As we passed the scrupulously clean fish market on an auto, a fisherman called out to the driver. He’d saved a large fish head for him. The auto driver bought it, and my aunt asked him how it is cooked at home. It turned out that they both had the same dish in mind: fish head cooked with lauki (bottle gourd). Meanwhile I’d had a look at what was on sale. Among the usually silvery pile of fish were others coloured a strange stippled brown. I asked for the names, but none of them rang a bell. The larger, lippy, fish was probably the tasty silver jack which I’d eaten grilled a couple of nights before. This is not the thing that Google recognizes as silver jack. Many of the fish were just called jungli-this or jungli-that (meaning wild). The fishermen were Bengali settlers, and they had just named the unfamiliar fish according to which of the familiar fish of the Bengal coast they reminded them of.

Fish in the market in Neil Island, Andaman

The fish market was in the centre of the island, and I passed it several times a day. The next time I looked in the catch was from the reefs around the island. The colourful schools of fish we’d seen darting among the corals were edible! Of course they would be; it was my assumption that they were just aquarium fish for display. The yellow fish with blue stripes had been pointed out as banana fish: clearly another made up name, since Japanese Manga was not very common on the island. I’d seen the red fish with blue and brown dots, but hadn’t bothered to ask what it was called. Clearly, a fish market in a coral island is much more colourful than a fish market in Mumbai.