Two days after a tsunami thrashed the island where his ancestors have lived for tens of thousands of years, a lone tribesman stood naked on the beach and looked up at a hovering coast guard helicopter.
He then calmly took out his bow and shot an arrow toward the rescue chopper.
It was a signal the Sentinelese have sent out to the world for millennia: They want to be left alone. Officials believe that isolation — and ancient knowledge of signals in the wind and sea — combined to save the five indigenous tribes on the Indian archipelago of Andaman and Nicobar islands from the tsunami that hit southern Asian coastlines on Dec. 26.
The fate of the tribes, whose numbers have already dwindled naturally to less than 1,000, will only be known after officials complete a survey of their remote islands later in the week.
"They can smell the wind. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense, which we don't possess," said Ashish Roy, a local environmentalist and lawyer who has urged the courts to protect the tribes by preventing their contact with the outside world.
Anthropologists speculate that ancient knowledge of wind movement and the flight of birds may have saved the lives of many tribesmen, who seem to have fled the shores well before the waves could hit the coast, where they would typically be fishing at this time of the year.
The tribes live the most ancient, nomadic lifestyle known to man, frozen in their Paleolithic past. Many produce fire by rubbing stones. They fish and hunt with bow and arrow, and live in community huts of leaves and straw.
And they don't take kindly to intrusions.
An Indian coast guard commander, Anil Thapliyal, said he spotted the lone tribesman on Sentinel, a 23-square-mile island in the chain's lower reaches, on Dec. 28.
"There was a naked Sentinelese man," Thapliyal told The Associated Press. "He came out and shot an arrow at the helicopter."
The Sentinelese are fiercely protective of their coral reef-ringed terrain. They used to shoot arrows at government officials when they came ashore as the officials attempted to befriend them by placing gifts of coconuts, fruit and machetes on the beach.
The more than 500 islands across an 3,200 square mile island chain in the southern Bay of Bengal are a tropical paradise where one of the earliest visitors was seafarer Marco Polo. He called the atolls "the land of the head hunters." Roman geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus called the Andamans the "islands of the cannibals."
According to different estimates, there are only about 400 to 1,000 members alive today from the Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas, Sentinelese and Shompens. Some anthropological DNA studies indicate tribal generations may span back 70,000 years. They originated in Africa, migrating to India through Indonesia, anthropologists say.
After the tsunami, the 41 remaining Great Andamanese fled the submerged portion of their Strait Island, and 73 Onges fled their home to highland forests in Dugong Creek on the Little Andaman island, or Hut Bay, a government anthropologist said.
However, the fate of the others won't be known until the survey is completed, he said. The government reconnaissance mission will also assess how the ecosystem of their islands — most crucially, their water sources — has been damaged, and how that could change their lives.
The work might not be easy.
The Jarawas had armed clashes with authorities until the 1990s, killing several police officers. Relations grew so tense that once, in 1950, local authorities asked India's government to lend them a small aircraft to bomb their island, ostensibly to scare its inhabitants. The request was rejected.
Samir Acharya, head of the independent Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, said the Jarawas were peaceful until the British, and later the Indians, began encroaching on their habitat. British bullets killed thousands of bow-wielding Jarawas in May 1859.
But over the past few years, relations have improved and some friendly contacts have been made. The government has banned interaction with the tribes, and even taking their pictures is an offense. Many tribe members have visited Port Blair, capital of the Indian-administered territory, and a handful from tribes such as the Great Andamanese and Onges also work in government offices.
Outsiders are forbidden from visiting or interacting with the tribesmen because such contact has led in the past to alcoholism and communicable diseases among the natives, and sexual abuse of the women.
"They have often been sexually exploited by influential people. They give the tribal women ... sugar, a gift wrapped in a colored cloth that makes them happy, and that's it," said Roy, the lawyer.
One of the most famous local stories of a tribal man straddling both worlds is that of En-Mai, a Jarawa teenager brought to Port Blair in 1996 for medical treatment after he broke his leg. Six months later, he looked like any urban kid, in a T-shirt, denim jeans and a reversed baseball cap. But he is back on his island now, having shunned Western ways.
"He took to the ways ... out of a certain novelty," said Acharya. "It's like eating Chinese food on a weekend."
By Neelesh Misra
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