Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Our Fleeting Past

A little over a year ago, an 85-year-old woman named Boa Sr died on a remote chain of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Not just any woman. Boa Sr’s passing marked the death of one of the world’s oldest tribes and one of the world’s earliest languages.

In fact, Boa Sr was the last surviving member of the Great Andamanese, one of a group of 10 tribes believed to be the first descendents of early humans who migrated from Africa 70,000 years ago and arrived on the Andaman Islands around 65,000 years ago. Other groups migrated on to Australia and Indonesia, but in part because of their isolation, the handful of ancient tribes of the Andamans for the most part retained their way of life better than some.

Though they are part of Indian territory,
the Andaman and Nicobar islands are
geographically closer to Indonesia.
The cluster of 306 islands that make up the Indian territory of the Andaman and Nicobar islands northwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra has a fascinating history.

Back in 1857, the British housed a penal colony there to imprison Indian freedom fighters. The native tribesmen weren’t too happy about their new neighborhood prison. Within the first 10 months of its use, the natives killed a third of the convicts with arrows. At least 70 escaped prisoners disappeared without a trace. Later, with the help of friendly tribal guides, the British government used Indian prisoners from the mainland to clear forests. There were reports of violence, arson, and an exchange of gunfire and arrows from encounters with resisting tribes.

Fast forward 150 years, and this chain of gorgeous, remote islands is a microcosm of the extremes of our modern world. On the one hand, the Andaman and Nicobar islands have become a major source of ecotourism for the Indian government, with their stunning unspoiled beaches, majestic coral reefs, and tropical rainforests. Estimated to be less than a third of today’s local population, the tribes that remain are slowly becoming more open to contact with outsiders and new settlers to the islands. The Andamanese hunt and forage part of the time and come into the new settlements at others, learning a bit of the local Hindi dialect so they're able to communicate with the newcomers and eating rice and dal as they do.

The population of Andamanese and Nicobarese are diminishing though. The ones living on the reserves rely on wild pigs and potatoes, for example, but these resources are dwindling because of all the encroachment, some from the poor migrants from the coastal parts of India and mainly from the large, popular resorts that attract flocks of international tourists. The trend began much earlier though, most rampantly in the 19th century, when the natives began dying off after contracting diseases from the outsiders.

Today, there are only five remaining primitive tribes on these islands, with a combined population of fewer than 500. Of these, about half, from the Onge and Shompen tribes, live on island reserves and have started to open up to outsiders, even receiving government welfare.

The Indian government tried to befriend another tribe, the Jarawas, from the 1970s through the 1990s, with mixed results. They sent boatloads of “gifts” to initiate contact. Literally boatloads: they got as close as they could to the island by ship then pushed boats filled with bananas, coconuts, strips of cloth, metal pots, and nails in the direction of the Jarawas who came out to watch from the shore. The Jarawas accepted the gifts but just didn’t want to be friends. Their hostility towards outsiders has only recently started to lift. (According to one report, there hasn’t been a “random” killing in almost a year.)

The Sentinelese, on the other hand, are probably the world’s only Paleolithic people surviving today without contact from any outside group, including the other native tribes. The Sentinelese are very hostile and never leave their island. Following the 2004 earthquake off the coast of Indonesia and the ensuing devastating tsunamis, an Indian Coast Guard helicopter flew over as part of a reconnaissance mission and released this famous picture, at left, of the Sentinelese preparing to shoot arrows at it.

The Great Andamanese, from which Boa Sr hailed, was once thought to have the largest population of all of these tribes. When first discovered around 1789, they numbered about 10,000. By 1857, when the British built its prison, the tribesmen had dwindled to about 5,000, with about 10 distinct groups speaking their own languages. By 1970, the Indian government moved the remaining 24 Great Andamanese to a reserve on the tiny Strait Island near Port Blair. They multiplied to a whopping 41 by by 1999, and today, there are about 56.

While that sounds like an upward swing, consider Boa Sr. When the chief of her particular tribe died in 2005, she was one of only a few remaining elders, including her husband. Soon, she was the sole survivor of that tribe. And now, no speakers of the Bo language remain.

Here’s a recordingof Boa Sr speaking this now-lost language:

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