Williams: Cultural extinction on the Andamans

Dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, bandicoots … an entire tribe of human beings? It's always unsettling when an entire species of animal goes extinct, but that's natural. Survival of the fittest, right?

A complete tribe of humans, culture and language included, disappearing from the face of the planet, however, is definitely more than a little bit unnerving.

When a woman by the name of Boa Sr died last week at approximately 85 years old, she took the language and culture of the Bo tribe with her. The Bo have lived on the Andaman Islands, approximately 750 miles off the coast of India, for around 65,000 years, making them one of the oldest cultures on earth.

Sr outlived her husband and children and therefore was the only person that spoke the native language of the Bo, also called Bo, at the time of her death. She also spoke a local dialect of Hindi.

In an obituary for Sr on the Web site for the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese project, a representative said that there was "a very fast erosion of [the] indigenous knowledge base, that we all are helplessly witnessing." According to CNN, activists groups like Survival International are "expressing alarm over her [Sr's] death."

How did this happen? We live in a world where we have all the resources in the world necessary to record and translate a language, how did Sr fall through the cracks? Andaman Island authorities have placed at least five other island tribes on a list of vulnerable indigenous peoples. Endangered species lists should be for animals, not people.

All of those "alarmed activists" were either too lazy to take the necessary time to talk to Sr, or didn't really see a problem with the language and the culture of the Bo tribe permanently disappearing. This woman was alive for 30 to 40 years after her relatives died, and she spoke Hindi. Recording and translating the ancient language was most certainly possible.

Unfortunately, the first situation that came to mind when I read about this involved Donut Delites, a doughnut shop in Rochester that went out of business a couple years ago. Nobody bothered to support the business while it was still functioning, but once it announced that it was closing, you would have thought that the place was the center of the pastry universe.

Donut Delites couldn't keep up with Dunkin' Donuts just like the Bo succumbed to colonial British prisoners decades ago. Where do we draw the line, as a human race, between allowing competition to do its thing and preserving diversity? Hopefully, everyone recognizes the difference between a doughnut store, or even a saber-toothed tiger, and a linguistically and culturally unique tribe of people.

Moral of the story? Don't take anything for granted and go out of your way to support what you appreciate. Complaining after something is irreversibly gone is pointless. I don't expect Bo 101 to be in the course catalogue any time soon, but any eradication of culture or language, no matter how old or isolated, is a loss to humanity.