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The Death Of Boa Sr

February 8, 2010

Indigenous men on Great Andaman in largely traditional dress, photographed in 1875. Public domain image.

The Andaman Islands, for those of you as geographically challenged as yours truly, are an archipelago lying in the Bay of Bengal between India and Burma. They are administered by India, and have a large Indian population, but their original inhabitants were a group of isolated peoples whose modern descendants apparently number only about 1,000.

These Andamanese have been a perennial source of fascination for anthropologists, since they appear to be in some sense a relic of the earliest dispersals of biologically modern Homo sapiens out of Africa. Humanity began to expand out of the dark continent several tens of thousands of years ago, with some migrants spreading along the shores of the Indian Ocean to eventually reach southeast Asia and Australia. At some point, members of this ancient migration arrived on the Andaman Islands and stayed.

Physically, the modern Andamanese are small, dark people with anatomical resemblances to Africans, Papuans and Australian Aborigines. As the Oxford zoologist and anthropologist John Kingdon explained at some length in his book Self-Made Man,their traditional culture involved hunting and gathering. Despite having some reasonably sophisticated technology, like bows and arrows, they had no ability to make their own fire and had to rely on saving hot embers from accidental forest fires and the like. Kingdon concluded:

The self-sufficiency of their economy makes it unlikely that the Andamanese had lost skills through forms of cultural stranding or trauma. The absence of fire-making, of sailing boats, of man-made salt, of any form of cultivation, and the uniqueness of their language, all point to the maintenance of an ancient way of life by a relict population.

Kingdon should perhaps have written “the uniqueness of their languages”. There are several different groups whose traditional languages are mutually incomprehensible, and I decided to write about the Andamanese because one of those languages, Bo, has just gone extinct. The last fluent speaker, an old woman known as Boa Sr, died recently at the age of around 85. Only 52 indigenous people now remain on the whole of Great Andaman, an island cluster within thelarger archipelago, and none of them are Bo.

David Shariatmadari, in the Guardian, warns against making too much of the disappearance of the Bo language. For one thing, he thinks Bo should not be described as one of the world’s oldest languages, because all languages evolve: the languages of the modern Andamanese can hardly be considered identical to those of the first prehistoric colonists. This is certainly true, but it is equally true that Andamanese languages might well – like Andamanese cultures – have preserved some genuinely ancient features through their long isolation.

Shariatmadari is also disinclined to see language as an important psychological influence:

Neither do I buy the idea that the language we speak determines the way we think. If that were the case, you’d worry that each language extinction might mean the loss of a unique way of seeing the world. This is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and it’s fun, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

I think this assertion, too, is at best debatable. I suppose it depends on what he means by “a unique way of seeing the world”. Specific languages may not dictate entire modes of thought, but they certainly suggest some interpretations of reality and discourage others. To take a rather trivial example, as a palaeontologist (and thus a type of biologist) I have a casual but long-standing interest in names of animals in different languages. Last summer, while doing fieldwork in Inner Mongolia, I learned that the Mandarin word for “owl” is “māo tóu yīng” – literally “cat-head eagle”. (This in turn allowed me to work out that the Hooters in Beijing calls itself “American Owl Restaurant” in Chinese, but that’s another story.) The comparison would never have occurred to me otherwise, but now I have to concede that the heads of owls really do look rather catlike in comparison to those of other predatory birds. So there we have a small but valid insight, woven into the basic vocabulary of a specific language. Whatever similar insights were woven into Bo are now pretty much gone, or at least confined to dusty academic literature, and that impoverishes us all.

The awkwardly named “UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” lists 88 endangered languages (including two extinct ones) in Canada, from Aivilingmiutut to Woods Cree. Each of those languages will have insights woven into its structure as well, and saving the ones that can still be saved strikes me as a very worthwhile cause. Unfortunately, it would be wildly optimistic to dream of saving them all.

Here is a very short clip of Boa Sr singing in Bo about a falling tree, a theme that strikes me as sadly appropriate:

8 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    February 18, 2010 11:57 am


    I suppose in discussing the benefits of technology, or anything else, there’s always going to be tension between what’s good for an individual human, an individual country, and humanity as a whole (not to mention other possible levels). Nuclear bombs are arguably bad for humanity, but they’re good for an individual country facing a military threat. In my opinion, idealistic plans for “saving the planet” – or even just improving it – often founder precisely because they don’t adequately consider the interests of entities below the “whole of humanity” level.

    My statement about lowering population, reducing carbon emissions and uninventing the internet was a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but the main point is that we’ve already made the gradual transition from a small, hunting-gathering, technologically primitive global population to a large, industrialised, relatively technologically sophisticated one. I’m skeptical that we’ll ever go back except possibly through such drastic mechanisms as pestilence and war. Having a smaller population sounds like a great idea, but actually making the population smaller would involve a painful period in which there were too few young and middle-aged adults to support large cohorts of older people. The West is presently avoiding this only through mass immigration, but that brings problems of its own and clearly wouldn’t work on a global scale anyway. Furthermore, reducing the population in a peaceful and semi-organised way would be a radical new concept in itself. Has any society other than China, which is in the very early stages of the process, ever deliberately attempted this?

    Similarly, a serious reduction in carbon emissions will require either massive technological change or a radical reorganisation of our economy to cope with shrinkage (i.e. reduced economic activity) instead of growth. Either route would be a novel one. And even if we did reduce the global population and cut our carbon emissions, we’d still be living in a technological and politically complex age characterised by an unstable and warmer climate (as a result of all the carbon we’ve poured into the atmosphere already). It’s hard to see how traditional knowledge could be that much help under such circumstances.

    About the food system. I suppose the best things about traditional agriculture were that it left a lot of control in the hands of individual farmers (as opposed to faceless multinational corporations) and that it maintained a lot of strains and varieties of each domestic species, buffering the system against diseases and environmental disturbances. It would be good to recapture these advantages, but they will need to be balanced against the very real benefits that come with centralisation and mass production. As usual, I think traditional knowledge may offer some good ideas that could serve as starting points, but the solutions we eventually come up with won’t look much like traditional ones. For example, genetic engineering does exactly the same thing as traditional breeding, but more quickly and precisely. It would be madness not to take advantage of the possibilities, but the trick will be making them work for farmers and the public as well as for corporations.

  2. Adam Fritz permalink*
    February 12, 2010 10:07 am

    I am skeptical of treating all ancient cultures as nature loving ideals to be emulated (they aren’t), but have to disagree with you on the notion that only new ideas and technologies can save Western society. Many earlier cultures have been just as if not more unsustainable than Western culture. The proof in this is that they no longer exist. We should also learn from them, so we don’t repeat their mistakes. The biggest difference today is that our culture is growing so fast that it is not leaving any room for other cultural experiments to take root for a chance to survive in a post-Western culture world (whenever that happens).

    Perhaps my biggest concern with Western cultural assumptions is the notion of progress. That new ideas and technologies are not only inevitable, but inevitably better than what took place before them. Better and worse is an entirely subjective judgement, and the only true measure is whether they enable a culture to survive longer than the alternatives (quality of life is irrelevant if you don’t last too long). Only ancient cultures still alive today can lay any legitimate claim to their success on the sustainability measure. Those are ideas worth looking at (especially since much of the traditional knowledge contained in their languages and oral histories are still very new and relevant to Western culture enthusiasts).

    • corsullivan permalink*
      February 15, 2010 7:54 am

      In theory, I agree completely about the subjectivity of “better” and “worse”. In practice, people are often largely unanimous about which of two available technologies represents the better alternative. Cars have such an enormous range of practical advantages over horse-drawn carriages that it seems perverse to deny that cars are fundamentally better. Nuclear bombs are better than crossbows – maybe not for humanity as a whole, but certainly for any individual nation with a list of enemies.

      New technologies are quite likely to be better than old ones in this practical sense, since new technologies are invented by starting with old ones and trying to work out how to improve or replace them. Of course a new technology sometimes has to be abandoned because it had drawbacks that were not originally apparent, but that just means the next advance will have to come later and by a different route. I’m much less convinced regarding the general superiority of newer systems of political and social organisation, but it’s at least clear that technologically advanced nations of tens of millions of people (to say nothing of China, with well over a billion) would be impossible to run on the same principles as neolithic tribes of a few dozen.

      It’s an extension of this last point that makes me think the West will need entirely new ideas, as opposed to imports from other cultures. Western civilisation is now facing a set of challenges – some unique, some shared with other modern civilisations – that are historically unprecedented. No culture has ever had the chance to come up with a proven formula for dealing with them. Unless we conspire to return the world to an earlier state in which the population was much smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere was much lower, and the internet was barely a gleam in some forward-looking computer scientist’s eye, we’re going to have to accept that we’re well into uncharted territory and act accordingly.

      Our own traditions, as well as those of other cultures, can certainly provide abundant inspiration and occasional nudges in the right direction. If this is all you’re asserting, then I’m happy to agree. And I’m certainly not saying that we should embrace change for its own sake or latch onto every passing fad as The Shape of Things to Come. But I do think the toolkit we’ll need to develop over the coming decades will have to contain a lot of outright novelties, some of which are likely to seem pretty disturbing at first glance.

      • Adam Fritz permalink*
        February 17, 2010 9:06 am

        I think we agree in that other cultural traditions should be regarded as sources of “inspiration and nudges in the right direction” (along with general appreciation for their own sake). I also think we hold different assumptions on how Western culture should approach solving the problem of trying to survive (which this discussion has turned to).

        Maybe I am reading your asides wrong, but to my view it appears that whenever you casually mention an alternative viewpoint you are actually throwing aside the key points worth highlighting. For example:

        “Nuclear bombs are better than crossbows – maybe not for humanity as a whole”.
        Arguing that nuclear arms are “better” without a serious consideration of their impact on humanity as a whole (to me) misses the whole point of the argument. The subjectivity of better or worse depends on what metrics you are using to judge them. Since we are discussing the ability of our culture to survive in the long term, I would think the impact of technology on humanity as a whole would be an important consideration. Same goes for the long term impact of driving cars over other forms of transport. Of course it could be argued that the technology itself isn’t the culprit, but rather how it is used (or how many people use it). So the real problem may not be the technology itself, but rather the fact that there are way too many people to have a happy balance with nature. Which brings me to another aside of yours:

        “Unless we conspire to return the world to an earlier state in which the population was much smaller, the amount of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere was much lower, and the internet was barely a gleam in some forward-looking computer scientist’s eye”
        Unless I am reading you wrong, it would appear that you are completely writing these ideas off as not worth serious contemplation. Getting rid of the internet aside, the other two ideas are actually very relevant prescriptions for increasing the longevity of our culture. It wouldn’t be easy, and may not be possible, but in my mind trying to make these two things happen are the only possible solution to the mess we have gotten ourselves into. The alternative solution that technology will somehow save us through great new innovations we have never thought of before seems to me to be more of a belief system than an actual plan to change course towards sustainability. In technology we trust.

        I think the area where these divergent points of view really come to ground is in the food system. The pro-tech side point towards advances in genetic engineering and other innovations and say they see a future where we will not only be able to feed the world but also produce energy resources through agriculture that will allow us to keep on consuming and living the lives we in the West have become accustomed to. Those on the pro-nature side point towards millennia of small scale organic agriculture systems used by all cultures including our own fairly successfully, and say that the secret to sustainability is to become more attuned to where our food comes from and manage our population levels by only growing what we need. The first route may buy us some more time, but in my mind the second is the only path towards potential sustainability. Time will tell which path (or paths) we choose.

  3. February 8, 2010 4:28 pm

    Really fascinating piece – thanks for this. I remember reading about the
    Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in undergrad, but the concept didn’t really impact me until I read an obituary-style biography in the Economist of a woman who had died somewhere in South Asia who also was the last speaker of a now-dead language…. and imagined what it would be like for her to try to describe an abstract emotion in her native tongue, only to realize that there was no one left to understand it. Now, whenever I hear academic hypotheses that deride Sapir-Whorf style sensitivities to this type of language-based cultural obsolescence, I wonder what these elderly individuals — who have actually personally experienced the death of their own language and the culture, concepts and descriptions that came with it — would have to say about it all.

    • Adam Fritz permalink*
      February 11, 2010 9:06 am

      Great post on a great cause! Wade Davis’s recent Massey Lectures on the topic (The Wayfinders) should be compulsory reading. Ancient cultures are the only examples of how human societies can live sustainably on this planet. Since our own culture is on a seemingly inevitable path towards self-destruction we should be looking to these cultures for ideas on how to ensure our own survival rather than facilitating their decline through land degradation and cultural assimilation.

      • corsullivan permalink*
        February 11, 2010 12:48 pm

        As committed as I am to the idea of cultural survival, I’m a little skeptical of the concept of ancient cultures as models of sustainability. Some of them, including the Andamanese, definitely took steps to conserve specific resources, but there are also plenty of historical examples of peoples that we now think of as indigenous (Maoris in New Zealand, for instance) arriving in a new area only to begin wiping out species and altering the ecosystem beyond recognition. I suspect that the process often stopped only when technological or organisational limitations made further havoc impractical, resulting in a new equilibrium between humans and the local environment. I don’t dispute that we can learn a lot from other cultures, but in my opinion sustaining Western civilisation in anything like its current form will require ideas and technologies that are genuinely new to humanity, rooted in scientific knowledge that no other culture has ever had access to.


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