OGRABRAJ, India — The police on South Andaman Island know what to do when members of the isolated Jarawa tribe venture into the villages that surround them, hoping to snatch rice and other prized goods, like cookies, bananas or, for some reason, red garments.
The policy is to send the Jarawas back into the 775 square kilometres of forest that has been set aside for the tribe, where they are expected to survive by hunting and gathering, as they have for millenniums. Inspector Rizwan Hassan, whose precinct includes a “buffer zone” beside the tribe’s reserve, is under clear orders: to interfere as little as possible in the traditional life of the tribe, which India prizes as the last remnant of a Paleolithic-era civilization.
This did not prepare him for the criminal complaint that was registered at his station in November. A 5-month-old baby was dead, and witnesses came forward willingly, leaving the police, for the first time in history, confronting the prospect of arresting a Jarawa on suspicion of murder.
The Jarawas, whom one geneticist described as “arguably the most enigmatic people on our planet,” are believed to have migrated from Africa around 50,000 years ago. They are very dark-skinned, small in stature and until 1998 lived in complete cultural isolation, shooting outsiders with steel-tipped arrows if they came too near.
After the tribe made peace with its neighbors, India took steps to minimize contact between the Jarawas and the world that surrounds them, hoping to avoid the catastrophes that befell aboriginal people in other countries, like the United States and Australia, when settlers passed on germs and alcohol.
Nevertheless, contact is occurring. Outreach workers visit the tribe’s camps, and Jarawas receive medical treatment in isolation wards at hospitals. Poachers strike up illicit relationships with members of thetribe, trading food for help in harvesting crabs or fish….