Ancient Jarawa tribe survives tsunami

JIRKATANG, India -- Armed with bows and arrows, seven men from the ancient Jarawa tribe came out of the forest Thursday for the first time since India's isolated Anadaman and Nicobar islands were shaken by an earthquake and battered by a tsunami.

In a rare meeting with outsiders, the men said all 250 members of the tribe escaped inland and were surviving on coconuts.

"We are all safe after the earthquake. We are in the forest in Balughat," said one of the men, Ashu.

Even though the Jarawas sometimes meet with local officials to receive government-funded supplies, the tribe is wary of visitors.

"My world is in the forest," Ashu said in broken Hindi through an interpreter in a restricted forest area at the northern end of South Andaman Island. "Your world is outside. We don't like people from outside."

Anthropologists estimate the island's more primitive tribes of Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Onges, Sentinelese and Shompens have dwindled to only 400 to 1,000 people. Most of the territory's 350,000 people are members of the larger Nicobarese tribe and ethnic Indians.

Some DNA studies indicate the tribes' ancestors may have left Africa 70,000 years ago and passed through what is now Indonesia before settling on these islands, scientists say.

Government officials and anthropologists have speculated ancient knowledge of the movement of wind, sea and birds may have saved the indigenous tribes from the tsunami that killed 901 people and left 5,914 missing on the islands.

But Ashu and his companions refused to talk about how they avoided the devastating waves.

The seven Jarawa men -- wearing only underwear and amulets -- emerged from the forest to meet at this outpost with government officials, who were accompanied by two reporters and a photographer for The Associated Press.

Ashu, who said he was in his early 20s, gave his name and those of three others of his tribe as Danna, Lah and Tawai. Like many south Indians, they use only one name.

The men stopped the AP photographer from taking pictures. "We fall sick if we are photographed," Ashu said. In the past, tourists who have tried to take photographs have had their cameras smashed by tribesmen.

Ashu showed off his bow, arrows and a metal box containing ash with which he smears his face and forehead during ceremonies.

He gestured with his hands and asked for "khamma" -- water in the dialect used by the Jarawas -- and drank from a bottle offered to him.

When asked what they typically eat, Ashu said pork and fish killed with arrows. "And we like honey."

He said tourists sometimes throw packages of cookies from buses, adding: "We don't like when tourists throw things at us. They should give it to our hands."

Plus, packaged food upsets their stomachs, he said. "We prefer to eat green and roasted bananas. Ripe bananas make us sick."

The Jarawas didn't have any contact with government authorities until 1996. A year later, tribesmen stormed a police outpost and killed a guard with arrows. But relations with police have calmed, said an officer, who called the Jarawas "good friends."

Relations with townspeople seem more prickly. Ethnic Indians expressed wariness of their neighbors from the forest, and both sides remain as far apart as they were nearly a decade ago when contact with the tribe was first made.

During the height of summer, when water holes dry up, Jarawas often come into town looking for water. Their presence frightens some villagers, and police sometimes are called in to persuade the tribesmen to leave.

Ethnic prejudice is evident. When asked whether tribespeople live near town, an Indian shopkeeper, Muthuswamy, sniffed: "Jarawas don't live here. Only humans."

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