Ancient dialect extinct after last speaker dies

PORT BLAIR, India Fri Feb 5, 2010 11:48am EST

PORT BLAIR, India (Reuters) - One of the world's oldest dialects, which traces its origins to tens of thousands of years ago, has become extinct after the last person to speak it died on a remote Indian island.

Boa Sr, the 85-year-old last speaker of "Bo," was the oldest member of the Great Andamanese tribe, R.C. Kar, deputy director of Tribal Health in Andaman, told Reuters on Friday.

She died last week in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were hit by a devastating tsunami in 2004.

"With the death of Boa Sr and the extinction of the Bo language, a unique part of human society is now just a memory," said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, an organization that supports tribes worldwide.

"Boa's loss is a bleak reminder that we must not allow this to happen to the other tribes of the Andaman Islands," he said in a statement.

Kar said Bo was one of the ten dialects used by the Great Andamanese tribe.

According to Survival International, there are now only 52 members surviving members of the tribe, which is thought to have lived on the Andaman Islands for as many as 65,000 years, making them descendants of one of the oldest cultures in the world.

The Great Andamanese had the biggest population of all the island tribes until the early 20th century.

Originally 10 distinct tribes, the Great Andamanese were 5,000-strong when the British colonized the Andaman Islands in 1858. Most were killed or died of diseases brought by the colonizers, Surival International said.

The surviving Great Andamanese depend largely on the Indian government for handouts and alcohol abuse is rife.

The cluster of more than 550 Andaman and Nicobar islands, of which only about three dozen are inhabited, are home to six tribes of Mongoloid and African origin, who have lived there for thousands of years.

The current home of the Great Andamanese is Strait Island, a small island of Middle Andaman Region.

(Editing by Matthias Williams and Miral Fahmy)

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