“YOUR blood pressure is too high and your nerves are wrecked. Take a trip to a tropical island and relax!” If you’re nervous under the stresses and pressures of modern civilization, this might be the advice you need. Even if it’s 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? jarawa? Don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never heard of them, as they are so far off the beaten path 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 end of the land of the Republic of India.

An uncivilized people?

The islands are home to four Negrito tribes: the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Sentinelese, and the Onge. The Negritos, meaning “little blacks,” are believed 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 British Army Lieutenant Colebrook, who once controlled the islands, put it, “the least civilized in the world.”

In 1858, when the British established a penal colony there, the Great Andamanese numbered in the thousands. Soon, diseases from outsiders, measles, syphilis, and others, along with opium addiction and alcoholism, devastated the tribesmen. Now only a few of them, all mestizos, remain on the small Isla del Estrecho. The Onges suffered a similar fate.

For years, the Jarawa and Sentinelese resisted contact and exploitation by outsiders. Their hostility managed to keep them isolated, but it also earned them a reputation as uncivilized and bloodthirsty cannibals. Relatively a few years ago, when officers from the anthropology department in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, attempted to contact one of the tribal groups on North Sentinel Island, their launch was met with a hail of arrows, one piercing the legacy of a photographer

What made them so hostile? MV Portman, a British official who administered the islands at the turn of the last century, commented: “On our arrival the Jarawa were quiet and harmless to us, never bothering us, until we began to bother them continually by inciting the coastal people.” Andamanese against them. After a few years of this disturbance, life for the Jarawas became very hard and in retaliation they began to attack us. It was our fault if the Jarawa turned hostile.”

The Jarawa way of life

The Jarawa are semi-nomadic. They live in groups of about 30, and several neighboring groups form a tribe. Each group moves within a well-defined boundary and does not trespass on the territory of other groups. They live in a lush tropical environment, have no agriculture, and have 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 a turtle. If one catches a pig, everyone has a pig. In their social order, there are no class distinctions with rich and poor. “The Jarawa could never be considered poor,” said one of the anthropologist officers. “They have all their needs in abundance.”

One unusual thing about the Jarawa is that they are among the few people in the world who do not know how to light a fire. They get their fire from burning forests ignited by lightning during frequent thunderstorms. And they guard their fires carefully, keeping them burning and even taking them with them when they move.

A nightmare of modern civilization is the breakdown of moral values. “Among the Jarawa there is no pre-marital sex,” said the official quoted above. “Adultery is very rare. A culprit would face strong social disapproval. He would feel so bad that he would leave the community for a while before feeling like coming back.” 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 Jarawa are not plagued by such diseases. Though small in stature, the males do not exceed five feet [1.5 m] tall and women even shorter, they have been called “the most perfectly formed little beings that exist”. In their own environment, they rarely get sick.

Although religion is not prominent in their lives, the Jarawa have certain rituals regarding the dead. When someone dies, the body is buried and the cabin previously occupied by the deceased is abandoned. After a few months, the body is exhumed. The nearest relative uses the skull, or more often the lower jaw. After a while, other relatives use it in turn. This practice is considered a sign of respect for the dead and is clearly connected to their ideas about the dead. The Jarawa believe that there is a soul, the bearer of life, that lives in another world. They also believe that the soul still cares for them, so they won’t do anything that might upset it.

a home of abundance

The Jarawa enjoy a richly endowed home. Among the many beautiful plants that dress the islands are the glorious orchids, some of which are found only on these islands. By 1880, according to regional botanist Dr. NP Balakrishnan, some varieties of these orchids “like rare diamonds” fetched “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 in Port Blair, Andaman Islands, has had an exhibition board description of the robber crab reading: ‘Dangerous to coconut plantations. Climb the coconut trees. Plucks ripe fruits. Cracks the shell with its formidable claws. Drink the sweet water and eat the meat of the coconut. Others, however, have questioned whether this crab actually does all of this. While they acknowledge 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 Jarawa follow the path of the Great Andamanese and Onge’s gradual decline and perhaps eventual extinction? Only time will tell. But for centuries before the strangers arrived, they had been caring for their God-given home and using the provisions selflessly. Theirs was, in fact, a simple and peaceful way of life. Can we learn something from the Jarawa?