Faces in the Trees

Searching for the Jarawa in the North Adamans

By / February 2016

The Andaman Islands sit in lonely isolation off the coast of India, in the Andaman Sea. Few outsiders had ever stepped foot on the islands until British traders and officials arrived in the mid-nineteenth century. These first visitors made a stunning discovery. The islands were populated by prehistoric tribes, many of them dating to the Stone Age.

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that most of these tribal peoples were not of Asian origin. They were African. Completely and indisputably African. No one had any idea where they had come from or when they had arrived.

Over the next 150 years, the majority of the indigenous population died from newly introduced diseases. Most of the survivors were, in turn, “civilized” by the British colonizers. But three of the tribes were either so violent, or lived in such isolation on remote islands and in deep jungles, that the settlers avoided them all together.

As a result, the Andamans remain home to some of the least contacted hunter-gatherer societies on earth, neolithic people living in 21st-century Asia. The largest of these tribes are the Jarawa, maybe 600 strong, who inhabit a long swath of impenetrable rain forest in the central Andamans.

There is only one way to cross Jarawa territory, in a military-led convoy down a slim, decaying road. Hacked out of the jungle in 1997, the construction of this “highway” was the controversial means by which this primitive tribe had its first contact with the outside world.

Activists raged against the incursion as a threat to indigenous culture. Jarawa tribesmen attacked road workers with arrows and spears. Even so, progress eventually won the day. Soldiers arrived, construction continued, and the road was built.

Nowadays, attacks on passing vehicles have subsided, but a heavy police presence remains in place on each end of the forest. Their primary function is to keep outsiders out and the Jarawa in. Each day, four convoys travel across the forest, making the two-hour trip from the Baratang ferry crossing in the north to the southern checkpoint and back.

My friend and I had passed this way once before. We’d been the only foreigners on a public bus headed to Mayabunder, a settlement in the northern Andamans. Bubbling over with anticipation and curiosity, I couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse of these forgotten forest people. But it was not to be.

A monsoon had unleashed its full fury on the islands, drowning the jungle in torrents of rain. Desperately I searched, my face pressed against the wet, grimy window of the rocking bus. I began to imagine that I could see faces in the trees. But no one was out there.

The jungle was a wall, silent, impenetrable. Every dripping vine and twisting trunk closed ranks. Beyond a few narrow paths cutting through the tangle, there had been no signs of human kind.

Now I was back, returning south along the road to Port Blair, the islands’ little capital. This would be my last chance to catch a glimpse of the Jarawa, my last opportunity to travel back in time. After huddling in the shade for the better part of an hour, the driver finally called us back onto the rusting bus.

The other passengers hurriedly woofed down the remnants of coconut curry they had bought from a harassed-looking man who kept coughing on the open pot. Soldiers shouldered their rifles and the last of the lorries that had come over on the ferry lined up to depart. The convoy was ready to go.

Once again, I could feel excitement rising in my stomach. The weather had cleared, the sun was shining, and we were firmly ensconced in the first seat of the first vehicle in the convoy, just behind the driver. If we were ever to spot the Jarawa, surely now would be the time.

A guard hopped up into the bus, sat down in a jump seat at the front, laid his weapon across his lap, and stared at us with hawkish intensity. The authorities were highly suspicious of foreign visitors. Posted everywhere were dire warnings about interacting with or even photographing the Jarawa.

A couple of British tourists had captured the Jarawa on video in 2015 and posted the footage online. As a result, the government closed the road to non-residents for six months, causing huge disruptions and headaches for the transport authority. The vigilant guard, seated five feet away, was not about to let similar shenanigans go down on his watch. The bus choked and shuttered, and we were on our way.

The jungle’s mood was starkly different that it had been on our previous incursion. Gone was the dark and foreboding forest of sinister boughs and choking vines. The trees swayed and shimmered in the breeze. There were bright flowers all around. But we didn’t stop to appreciate them. We rolled on, deeper and deeper into Jarawa territory, searching for the faces in the trees.

And there they were. A woman and four children, the youngsters completely naked, swinging sticks in the balmy air. The woman had a piece of fabric wrapped around her waist, and a necklace of smooth stones around her long, graceful neck. Fully upright, she may have been five feet tall.

The entire group looked as if they had just arrived from East Africa, and had immediately thrown off their clothes. There was nothing remotely Asian about these people. I was transfixed.

As the bus approached, the children ceased their play and stared. The woman spoke sternly to them. Just as they passed beneath our window, inches from my face, the entire group turned, took one step, and the jungle swallowed them whole.  I turned excitedly to my friend and noticed that the hawkish soldier was standing, making sure we were behaving ourselves. I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile and turned back to the blur of scenery outside.

That first sighting seemed to break the ice. One lumbering mile later, we rounded a bend and startled a large, mixed group of male and female Jarawa. They were lounging in the shade around the feet of a tall, proud woman, who stood erect. She held her ground as the convoy bore down on her, forcing the bus to yield to her will. The driver had no choice but to ease to a crawl and edge around her as she stared defiantly at the curious faces, slack-jawed and gaping behind grimy glass.

A moment later we came upon a pair of young women toting a log. They trailed two burly men, all gristle and knots, stalking up the middle of the road. One of the men was naked. He carried a spear. The other was clad in some type of loin cloth, a clutch of arrows slung on his back and a bow at his side. The naked man shooed the women into the brush and raged at the bus as we passed. He continued yelling at the convoy until he was lost to me around the bend.

We had seen fifteen Jarawa total. Even the Indians who resided in these islands and made this trip with regularity commented on these remarkable numbers. Half an hour later we made the southern checkpoint. The soldier quietly disembarked.

For the rest of the day, we spoke of nothing but the Jarawa, parsing every detail of what we had seen and speculating about their lives and future. If I’m honest, a part of me felt guilty for the gawking and the staring. I felt a bit like I had been on a human safari in a nature reserve. But the rest of me thrilled at the opportunity to glimpse an ancient culture, even if it was only though a bus window. For how much longer would this even be possible, I wondered. How many more years would this tribe persevere?

A week earlier, an injured Jarawa man had hobbled out of the jungle and been taken to a government hospital in Port Blair. After the shocks and horrors of civilization had worn off, and a few days of medicine had taken effect, he began to communicate with the Indian staff.

He was insatiably curious. He marveled at technology, the convenience and advantages of modernity dawning across his brow. “This is a good thing,” he said. “I will tell them. Others will come.”


Chris Watts, an EthnoTraveler editor, lives and writes in India. For his last piece, he traveled to the Greek island of Naxos, the legendary birth place of Zeus.