Boa, an 85-year-old Andamanese, the last living member of an ancient tribe, died on Republic Day.
By one estimate, it happened 70,000 years ago. From what we now call Africa, men and women walked in groups, crossing over to Asia and then making their way towards India and Southeast Asia. Some of them took an overland bridge that connected Myanmar to a cluster of land jutting out of the Bay of Bengal. They settled there, hunting game and gathering edible plants and roots. When the oceans ran over the bridge, these people, short and black like their African ancestors, remained in isolation, cut off from the world. They did not want the world. They greeted sailors, seeking shelter in storms or shipwrecked or looking for fresh water for ships, with arrows. When they knew the enemy was stronger, they retreated into the jungles and waited patiently until the strangers left.
They might have continued to live this way if it were not for the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857. The British, searching for the perfect jail to imprison the mutineers, rediscovered the islands. Some Andamanese tribes were forced to turn friendly, a few remained unrelentingly hostile. The friendly ones became the first to perish by way of epidemics. The Aka-Bo were one of the last tribes to be discovered. By the time the British came to know of them, their numbers were already very low.
In 1858, the total population of those who spoke Bo was 200, by the 1901 census it was 48. When they saw their numbers going down because of strange ailments, the Bo solution to preserve the species was to kill every tribe member who showed any symptoms. According to George Weber, a Swiss businessman and scholar of tribal traditions, and president of the Andaman Association, a group that promotes scientific study of Negrito and other remnant tribes in Asia, “Such drastic methods did not help them survive in the long run but may explain why their numbers actually increased between the 1901 and 1911 censuses (from 48 to 62).” By 1931, they were down to six. On 26 January this year, Republic Day, the Bo tribe became extinct with the death of Boa, a woman who was just over four feet tall, Negrito black in complexion and had extraordinarily full buttocks. She was around 85 years old, and with her another ancient story ended.
Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics from JNU, has written books and a number of papers on the Andamanese and their language. She was one of the few who had interacted with Boa (pronounced as in boa constrictor.). “Boa’s death represents both the extinction of a language and the end of a tribe,” she says. “The family of languages, of which Bo spoke one, are some of the oldest languages of the world because the Andamanese are considered by geneticists as the last remains of the pre-neolithic (the new stone age, which began 10,000 BC) homo sapiens. Since they were isolated and not in contact with outsiders, the language must be very old and I do find the structures very unique.”
Boa’s life began in Maya Bunder, an island north of the Andaman. In 1968, the Indian government collected the surviving tribes and put them all in Strait Island, a six-hour speed boat ride from Port Blair. The dialects of these tribes in Strait Island are now collectively called Great Andamanese. Less than 50 speak Great Andamanese today. Many tribals have switched to Hindi. Boa was special, as professor Abbi, who met her in Strait Island, realised, because she was one of the seven elders who knew the original languages (there are only four now). “These languages were very akin to each other. It’s like if you put Bhojpuri, Hindi and Mythili speakers on an island, they will understand each other,” says Abbi.
Dr Alok Das, former pro-vice chancellor of Singhania University in Rajasthan, was at the time part of Abbi’s research team. He spent 10 to 15 days in Strait Island. One of the things that struck him about Boa was a characteristic of her body called Steatopygia (wide bottom). It’s a feature modern humans don’t have but in prehistory it was a useful condition—the fat could be used to survive when the environment did not provide enough food. Boa’s father was from the Jeru tribe and her mother a Bo. “She herself actually claimed to be from the Jeru tribe. That she was a Bo is something we inferred after talking with her. She was the only person to turn to for any linguistic query,” says Das.
Soon after the tsunami in 2005, Das recorded a narrative by her. “Sit in one place and do not move…The eldest told us, the Earth would part, don’t run away or move,” she spoke into the recorder. But when the tsunami struck, Boa decided that common sense was better than listening to ancestors. She climbed a tree, says Das.
One of the things that struck Abbi about Boa was her full-throated laughter, which was louder than the laugh of anyone else in the community. And then there was also her conception of beauty. Boa thought the Andamanese were the most beautiful looking people on earth because they were dark and their hair was curly. Fair people, to her, looked like skinned animals. Abbi told her that there was a cream that promised to make people fair and sold in millions. Boa’s response was, “I wish they had a cream that makes people dark.”
Boa was conscious that she represented something that was going to be extinct. “The first time I went she was not sure what I was doing. But later, even when she was sick, she would say, ‘poocho poocho.’ I would play back her own recordings to her and she would say, ‘hum mar jaega to phir log tumhara records sunke hamara pata karega’ (When I die, people will know me only through your records.),” says Abbi.
Boa was wistful about her original home, Maya Bunder. “When she had a pain in her stomach, she would say, had I been in Maya Bunder, I would have applied a particular matti and it would have cured me. She missed thick forests and some kind of tuber she used to gather,” says Abbi. Her daily routine was to cook lunch and then nap in the afternoon. She would then go around the island and meet people. Or in the evenings, people would come to meet her and they would chat sitting in the verandah and then she would cook. “They are very bored people that way. They don’t do anything. And they don’t do any art or craft unlike central Indian tribes. Strait Island has no animals other than deer. They did hardly any hunting,” says Abbi.
Dr Das found her soft and polite. “She would use that expression isshh when she spoke. I found it very feminine,” he says. With no children, Boa cared for the children of others in the community as her own and they reciprocated. Once Abbi, noticing that her feet were bare, gave her a pair of slippers. Three days later, it was missing from her feet. She had given it to a young girl who was going to Port Blair. But her love didn’t stop her from being critical of the young for not learning their ancestral languages and songs.
The last time that Abbi met her, Boa, as was her wont, asked for money. “She said, ‘Government gives me very little, how can I survive.’ If what I gave was not enough, she would ask for more. But she was a little helpless. She would hide it in her blouse and say don’t tell anybody.”
Once when Das asked her why her community’s numbers were dwindling, her reply was, “You young men are a spoilt lot. Always drinking. You don’t make enough love to your women.”
Boa was named when she was still in her mother’s womb. That was a tribal tradition, a reason why Boa, like all other Bo names, is a unisex name. It meant earth.