Saturday, February 6, 2010
David Knowles Writer / AOL News
(Feb. 5) – Marking the end of a language and an entire people, the last member of the Bo, an ancient tribe that lived in the Andaman Islands, has died.
When Boa Sr, as she was known, died last week, she was believed to be about 85 years old. Her husband had died years beforehand, and Boa, whose name means "land" or "earth" in the Bo language, had no children.
When Boa Sr, the last member of the Bo tribe of the Andaman Islands, died last week, the Bo language died along with her.
"She was the only person who spoke Bo," Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at India's Jawaharlal National University, told The Times of London. "At times, she felt very isolated and lonely as she had no one to talk to in her own language."
The Bo are believed to have first come to the Andaman Islands – located roughly 850 miles off India's east coast in the Bay of Bengal – 65,000 years ago. Bo was one of at least 10 pre-colonial languages spoken on the islands.
According to Survival International, an advocacy group for native peoples throughout the world, the Bo were one of the oldest surviving human cultures on earth.
Of the thousands of Great Andamanese who once inhabited the islands, only 52 people are still alive today. But Boa Sr, who also spoke a local dialect of Hindi as well as the amalgam language called Great Andamanese, was the last of her particular tribe.
"After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years," Abbi told the BBC.
The following footage, courtesy of CNN, was recorded over the last few years of Boa's life by Abbi and represents the some of the last recorded utterances and song in Bo.
The Bos' Downfall
In 1858, when the British decided to colonize the Andaman Islands and use them as a penal colony, they estimated that 5,000 Great Andamanese lived there.
"At first, the British didn't notice any difference between the tribes," said Sophie Grig, senior campaigner at Survival International.
But in 1879, a British officer named M.V. Portman was appointed officer in charge of the Andamanese, and after years of attempting to acclimate them to life as British subjects, Portman wrote "A Manual of the Andamanese Languages," which distinguished the differences among tribal languages.
Portman's own obituary, which appeared in The Times on Feb. 22, 1935, reads:
In many parts of the islands the natives were still either ferocious enemies or at best half-tamed; and his work consisted in making contact with them and very gradually bringing them to recognize the value of British rule.
But colonization proved ruinous for the tribes of the Andamans, including the Bo, with large numbers decimated by measles and syphilis brought to the islands by foreigners. Many of those who were left gravitated to alcohol, another import to the islands, as a way of seeking solace.
"When people are dispossessed from their land and their way of life, they often turn to alcohol," Grig said. "It's not surprising, and it was very much true in the case of the Bo."
In 1970 the Indian government began relocating the Bo to a settlement of concrete row houses on Strait Island. Boa Sr was moved in 1978, and Abbi said she often said that she missed her old life in the jungle.
"What's important is that we learn from this lesson and do everything we can to protect the remaining tribes like the Jarawa and the Sentinelese, who are still there and remain threatened," Grig said.
Now kept in a protective quarantine by the Indian government, the Sentinelese received worldwide attention in 2004, when they were filmed running out of the jungle firing arrows at passing helicopters shortly after the Asian tsunami killed thousands on the Andaman and Nicobar island chains.
Abbi argues that preventing the extinction of other Andamanese languages is crucial if we hope to expand our understanding of how language in the region evolved over time.
"It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times," Abbi told the BBC.
But the death of a language also has other implications.
"A language contains the memories and experiences, everything that explains and encapsulates a way of life," Grig said. "It's sad for the entire world."
Filed under: World
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