Last week, several major news sources reported on the passing of Boa Sr, the only surviving member of the Bo tribe of the Andaman islands and the last speaker of the group’s native language. To be sure, the loss of human life is an unfortunate (yet inevitable) part of our corporeal existence; in this case, however, we are forced to mourn something even greater than a single individual.
Boa Sr, 85, was a descendant of one of the oldest human cultures on earth. Anthropologists believe that the Bo, one of ten distinct Great Andamanese tribes, had lived in the islands for up to 65,000 years. (To put this in perspective, archaeological evidence shows early modern humans occupying the Iberian Peninsula only as recently as ~30,000 years.) Though Boa Sr and the Andaman islanders had experienced Western contact with the modern world and were very likely influenced by generations of anthropologists conducting fieldwork among them, it must be said that the Bo tribe were truly an indigenous ancient culture. Boa Sr’s death marks the tragic extinction of this pre-Neolithic human population.
Furthermore, for 30-40 years Boa Sr was the only speaker of her tribe’s language, also called Bo. Her husband and children already gone, one can only imagine the utter disconnect with the world Boa Sr must have felt with no one else whom spoke her native tongue. Unfortunately, linguists will now only be able to study this language from the few final recordings that Boa Sr left for us.
Why should the death of a single woman from a remote Indian island affect all of human culture? First, as mentioned, the Bo tribe is extinct. Their identity is now written into the pages of human history, and rather then serving as a modern-day window into how our species might have lived over 600 centuries ago, we can now only read outsider ethnographic accounts of their former life ways. Second, Boa Sr’s passing marks the end of an important indigenous knowledge base–the myths, ritual and social practices, and songs of this cultural group–as told in the group’s native language. Whilst our understanding and appreciation of Bo culture is greatly improved by the recent work of Survival International (SI) and the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (VOGA) project, the loss of Bo language “means that a unique part of human society is now just a memory” (SI Director S. Corry). Some aspects of Bo heritage will forever be lost in translation. Lastly, humankind’s cultural heritage is damaged by the extinction of one indigenous group in that it is a veritable omen for the future of similar marginalized communities. It helps to study them; but it helps even more to aid them. Really, in many of these cases, the best humanitarian aid is minimal intervention. What do you think?
Take a minute to listen to Boa Sr’s account of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It is hauntingly beautiful.