New Delhi - An Indian anthropologist was recently approached by some woodcutters in the Andaman Islands who make amulets from the bones of tiger and deer for witchcraft. This time, they asked the anthropologist for a human bone.
Not any human bone would do. The woodsmen wanted a Jarawa bone. Smeared with mud and armed with bows and arrows, the Jarawa are fierce and almost invisible Stone Age tribesmen who stalk the Andaman rain forests. "The woodsmen think the Jarawa are powerful and strong people, and they wanted to use their bones for rituals," said Triloki Pandit, a retired director at the Anthropological Survey of India who has stripped himself naked and gone into the jungle to befriend the Jarawa.
These days, it is more likely a Jarawa would end up with a trophy bone taken from a woodcutter, if the Jarawa so desired.
Loggers who went into the Jarawa's leafy domain recently with armed forest wardens strayed into an ambush. They found themselves under attack by a war party of 100 Jarawa slinging arrows. Camouflaged, the Jarawa were practically invisible in the dense foliage. Forest wardens tried to drive them off with gunfire, but the Jarawa were undeterred. Two loggers were killed and three wardens captured. Grabbing the same axes that the loggers had intended to use to fell the Jarawas' trees, the tribesmen then hacked off their captives' hands before vanishing into the jungle.
"The Jarawa are like cobras," explained Mr Pandit. "They'll only attack when threatened. It's not in their ethos to destroy. The Jarawa will only kill habitual intruders."
Samir Acharya of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology in Port Blair recalled an incident in which the Jarawa tracked an enemy to his village. "This was a notorious fellow who had gone and burnt down some Jarawa huts. The Jarawa went to his village, dragged him out and killed him. They could easily have murdered everyone in the village, but they didn't. They only wanted the man who'd done them harm," he said.
For more than 1,000 years, sea voyagers have given this island chain in the Bay of Bengal a wide berth because the Jarawa and the other Andaman tribesmen were thought to be cannibals. A ninth century Muslim wrote of the Andamanese: "Their feet are a cubit in length and they delighted in human flesh which they tore up almost like wild beasts and devoured raw."
The British were the first outsiders to settle the Andaman Islands, arriving in the mid 19th century. They turned it into a penal colony for Indian mutineers. Over the years, three of the Andaman tribes have become subdued, but the Jarawa and the Sentinelese have violently resisted attempts to colonise …