Learning From the Jarawas
By Awake! correspondent in India
“YOUR blood pressure is too high, and your nerves are a wreck. Take a trip to a tropical island and relax!” If you are keyed up under the tensions and pressures of modern civilization, this might be just the advice you need. Even if not for medical reasons, who can resist such a tempting suggestion? So why not get away from it all by visiting the Andaman Islands, home of the Jarawas?
Andaman Islands? Jarawas? Don’t be embarrassed if you have never heard of them, for they are far off the beaten track of world tourism. If you look at a map, you will find the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, between India and Myanmar (formerly Burma). This archipelago, made up of some 300 islands, is now the land’s end of the Republic of India.
An Uncivilized People?
The islands are the home of four Negrito tribes—the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Sentinelese, and the Onges. The Negritos, meaning “little negroes,” are thought to be remnants of an ancient, dark-skinned, pygmy race that once inhabited most of Southeast Asia and Oceania. Because of their isolation, they have been called the purest remnants of “Stone Age man,” or, as Lieutenant Colebrook of the British Army, which once controlled the islands, put it, “the least civilised in the world.”
In 1858 when the British established a penal colony there, the Great Andamanese numbered in the thousands. Soon, the outsiders’ diseases—measles, syphilis, and others—along with opium addiction and alcoholism, devastated the tribesmen. Now only a few of them, all of mixed blood, remain on tiny Strait Island. The Onges suffered a similar fate.
For years the Jarawas and the Sentinelese resisted contact with, and exploitation by, outsiders. Their hostility succeeded in keeping them in isolation but also earned them the reputation of being uncivilized and bloodthirsty cannibals. Only a relatively few years ago, when officers of the anthropological department in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, tried to contact one of the tribal groups on North Sentinel Island, their launch was met with a shower of arrows, one piercing the leg of a photographer.
What made them so hostile? M. V. Portman, a British officer administering the islands at the end of the last century, remarked: “On our arrival the Jarawas were quiet and inoffensive towards us, nor did they ever disturb us, until we took to continuously molesting them by inciting the coastal Andamanese against them. After a few years of this disturbance, the life of the Jarawas became very hard and in retaliation they began to attack us. It was our fault if the Jarawas became hostile.”
The Jarawa Way of Life
The Jarawas are seminomadic. They live in groups of about 30, and a number of neighboring groups make up a tribe. Each group moves about within a well-defined boundary and does not trespass the territory of other groups. Living in a lush, tropical environment, they have no agriculture and maintain no domestic animals. Their livelihood depends on their bows, arrows, and spears—hunting and fishing.
It is part of their way of life that food is shared in common. So if someone in the group catches a turtle, everyone has turtle. If one catches a pig, everyone has pig. In their social order, there are no class distinctions with haves and have-nots. “The Jarawas could never be considered poor,” said one of the anthropological officers. “They have all their want in abundance.”
An unusual thing about the Jarawas is that they are among the few peoples around the world who do not know how to start a fire. They get their fire from burning forests ignited by lightning during the frequent thunderstorms. And they guard their fires carefully, keeping them burning and even carrying them along when they move.
A bane of modern civilization is the breakdown in moral values. “Among the Jarawas, there is no premarital sex,” said the officer quoted above. “Adultery is very rare. A guilty one would face strong social disapproval. He would feel so bad he would leave the community for some length of time before he would feel like returning.” Do people living in your “civilized” community have such a keen sense of morality?
Modern civilization is synonymous with high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and the like. The Jarawas are not plagued with such illnesses. Though small in stature—the men being not over five feet [1.5 m] tall and the women even shorter—they have been called “the most perfectly formed little beings in existence.” In their own environment, they seldom fall ill.
Though religion is not prominent in their lives, the Jarawas do have certain rituals regarding the dead. When someone dies, the body is buried, and the hut formerly occupied by the deceased is abandoned. After some months, the body is exhumed. The skull, or more often the lower jaw, is then worn by the next of kin. After some time, other relatives wear it in turn. This practice is considered a mark of respect for the dead one and is clearly connected with their ideas about the dead. The Jarawas believe that there is a soul, a carrier of life, that lives on in another world. They also believe that the soul still takes an interest in them, so they will not do anything that may annoy it.
A Home of Plenty
The Jarawas enjoy a home richly endowed. Among the many beautiful plants dressing the islands are the glorious orchids, some of them found only in these islands. In 1880, according to regional botanist Dr. N. P. Balakrishnan, some varieties of these orchids “like rare diamonds” were fetching “fabulous prices in England.”
Recently found on Sentinel Island by a German scientist, at the cost of a finger, is the robber crab. The Government Fisheries Department Exhibition at Port Blair, Andaman Islands, has had a display board description of the robber crab that claims: ‘Dangerous to coconut plantations. Climbs coconut trees. Plucks ripe fruit. Breaks open the shell with its formidable claws. Drinks the sweet water and eats the coconut flesh.’ Others, however, have questioned that this crab actually does all of this. While acknowledging that the crab climbs trees, critics say it only opens and eats damaged coconuts already on the ground.
What the Future Holds
Under the influence of modern civilization, will the Jarawas go the way of the Great Andamanese and the Onges—gradual decline and perhaps eventual extinction? Only time will tell. But for centuries before outsiders came, they had been taking care of their God-given home and making use of the provisions in an unselfish way. Theirs was, indeed, a simple, peaceful way of life. Can we learn something from the Jarawas?
[Picture on page 24]
This tree-climbing crab eats coconuts