The Bo Vanishes: Death of a Civilization

On a small island 750 miles off the coast of India, one woman's death marked the end of an ancient civilization.

Bao Sr was 85, as best she knew, when she died last week. She was the oldest surviving member of the Bo, an ancient, indigenous people who, together with nine other tribes, made up the Great Andamanese people of the Indian archipelagos.

They are believed to have lived on the Andaman Islands for as many as 65,000 years, with a family tree that traces its history to one of the oldest human cultures on earth.

VIDEO: Last member of the Bo tribe dies and so does their language.Play

There are now only 52 Bo remaining but none who speak the original language. Boa Sr was the last member fluent in the tribe's mother tongue.

"Her death is not just the death of one person, it is the death of a whole tribe and up to 65,000 years of history," said Miriam Ross of Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal people. "It is also a warning sign that the same fate could befall other tribes in other parts of the world."

Anvita Abbi, a linguistics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, spent five years studying Boa's way of life and language.

"The significance is immense," she said. "Language is not just a way of communicating. It is a viewfinder to an ancient world. Language is a representation of society and the pattern of human migration."

Abbi described a warm and happy woman who was exceedingly patient with her team of researchers as they worked to document everything they could about her to preserve history.

"We would keep asking about the same word again and again," she recalled. "She was very patient, she would never lose her temper, she wouldn't even say, 'I just told you that."

The British first arrived to colonize the Bo in 1858. At that time, the Great Andamanese numbered about 5,000. The vast majority were killed or died from disease transmitted by the colonizers.

In swiftly dwindling numbers, the remnants of the amalgamated tribe continued to live their way of life as much as possible in the archipelagos. At one point, the British forcibly resettled the Great Andamanese to a single island in order to "civilize" them. The tribe was moved into an "Andaman home" during which time 150 children were born. None of them lived beyond the age of 2.

Traditional Way of Bo Life

Boa Sr was born in the jungle and grew up living the traditional way of Bo life.

"She had a nice knowledge of the ecology, the names of birds, plants," Abbi said. "How they used to live and what they believed in."

But the Indian government moved the Bo and the Great Andamanese to a single island in the mid-1970s. The government provided a hut made of concrete floors and a tin roof, rations of food and a small pension. The Great Andamanese population has grown to 52 from 30 in 1970, according to Survival International, which, some people argue, is proof that resettlement had a positive effect.

But critics say that government assistance of any kind risks creating dependency that invariably leads to the dilution or even disappearance of the traditional way of life. The introduction of alcohol to tribal culture, for instance, has had a near-debilitating effect, observers say.

There are three more indigenous tribes struggling to survive in the Indian archipelagos; the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese.

The Sentinelese gained a fair amount of notoriety when, during the media attention that followed the 2004 Tsunami, tribesmen were seen shooting arrows at hovering helicopters. They are known for their fierce resistance to contact with all outsiders. They also live on one of the most remote islands.

For these reasons they have managed, more than any other tribe, to continue to live a traditional way of life.

The Jarawa have had a harder time. The Indian government had plans at one point to forcibly remove them from the island they inhabited to make way for logging. But because of pressure from activist organizations, the government instead enacted official policy in 2004 to protect the Jarawa and allow them to live their traditional way of life on their own land.

The Jarawa are now an estimated 320 strong. Their greatest threat comes from local people and Burmese immigrants who enter the Jarawa reserve to poach their animals.

The Onge are considered the most vulnerable. They number less than one hundred and have lost most of their land to logging and colonization. Activist organizations are hoping the Indian government will move to protect the Onge as it has the Jarawa and not move them as it moved the Bo.

Professor Abbi said Boa Sr always wanted to go home. "She missed the place she was born in and grew up," she said. "She missed her home. for every culture, there is no place like home."