Friday, May 24, 2024
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History of the sub-continent and the place of the Khasis in it

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

In a response to one of my previous articles, Salil Gewali (letter dated 17 April 2024) has termed my claim that Hinduism is foreign to India a false speculation and accused me of spreading a false narrative. I am not surprised by the reaction, but my claim is not based on personal opinion but on work that others have done on linguistics, genetics, and archaeology in relation to the history of the subcontinent. What I will do is to share the chronology as given in the 2018 book ‘Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From’ by Tony Joseph. I have taken it verbatim from the book while adding a few extra findings on the Khasis based on some recent work.
300,000 years: The age of the earliest remains of a modern human, Homo sapiens (they were one of the many species that had evolved from a common ancestor), ever found – in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, about fifty kilometres from the city of Safi in Morocco.
180,000 years: The age of the earliest modern human fossil found outside of Africa – at a rock shelter in Misliya in north Israel (undivided Palestine).
70,000 years ago: Geneticists calculate that the earliest successful Out of Africa (OoA) migration happened around this time. This migration was termed ‘successful’ because these migrants are the ancestors of all of today’s non-African populations (Earlier modern humans outside of Africa have not left a lineage that is detectable today.) The Out of Africa migrants 70,000 years ago are likely to have taken the Southern Route that would have brought them from Africa (specifically, from modern-day Eritrea and Djibouti) into Asia (modern-day Yemen) through Bab el Mandeb at the southern tip of the Red Sea.
65,000 years ago: The OoA migrants reached India and are faced with a robust population of archaic humans. They perhaps take both an inland sub-Himalayan route and a coastal route, to keep themselves out of the way of other Homo species in the subcontinent who dominated central and southern India, and then move across the Indian subcontinent into southeast Asia, east Asia and Australia.
60,000–40,000 years ago: The descendants of the OoA migrants populate central Asia and Europe over this period. 40,000 years ago: Neanderthals go extinct in Europe, with the Iberian peninsula in south-western Europe (modern-day Portugal and Spain) being their last refuge and stand. Modern humans still carry some amount of Neanderthal DNA in them suggesting that there must have been interbreeding between the different Homo species in the past.
45,000–20,000 years ago: The First Indians (identified today with the Onge tribe found in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), the descendants of the OoA migrants in the subcontinent, started using Microlithic technology, and their population increased dramatically in central and eastern India. South Asia becomes the place where ‘most of humanity’ lives. Modern humans move into what would have been long-established refuges of other Homo species in southern and central India.
16,000 years ago (14,000 BCE): Modern humans reach the Americas, the last major continent to be settled in by modern humans, after crossing Beringia, the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. This migration gave birth to the present Native American population found in the Americas.
7000 BCE: In a village that is today called Mehrgarh, at the foot of the Bolan Hills in Balochistan (present day Pakistan), a new agricultural settlement begins that would ultimately become one of the largest habitations of its period between the Indus and the Mediterranean.
7000–3000 BCE: Migration of Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region to south Asia leads to their mixing with the descendants of the First Indians sometime during this period. Geneticists estimate the mixing to have taken place at least by 4700 BCE to 3000 BCE. These Iranian agriculturists are said to have spoken a language that is closely related to modern-day Dravidian languages. They are also the people who will later go on and establish the Indus Valley Civilization.
7000–2600 BCE: The Mehrgarh site shows evidence for cultivation of barley and wheat, and increasing consumption of domesticated animals. The site was abandoned somewhere between 2600 BCE and 2000 BCE. By then agricultural settlements had spread all across north-western India – in the Indus and Ghaggar–Hakra river valleys and in Gujarat.
7000 BCE: From around this period there is evidence for rice harvesting and sedentary settlement at Lahuradewa in the Sant Kabir Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh in the Upper Ganga plain. The chronology of transition from harvesting wild rice to cultivating domesticated rice is not yet certain, but Lahuradewa indicates experiments in agriculture were taking place at several places in south Asia around the same time and that Mehrgarh was not an isolated case.
5500–2600 BCE: The Early Harappan era, which witnesses early agricultural settlements growing into towns with their own unique styles, such as Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi in India and Banawali and Rahman Dheri in Pakistan.
3700–1500 BCE: Evidence of early agriculture starts to appear in different parts of India – eastern Rajasthan, southern India, the Vindhya region of central India, eastern India and the Swat valley of Kashmir.
2600–1900 BCE: The Mature Harappan period, which sees many sites being newly built or rebuilt, and many existing sites being abandoned. There is also a visible and higher level of standardization across the region, with a common script, seals, motifs and weights. The transition from the Early Harappan to the Mature Harappan phase happened over four or five generations, or 100 to 150 years.
2300–1700 BCE: The period of the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), a civilization centred on the Oxus river (also called Amu Darya) and covering today’s northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan. The BMAC had close trade and cultural relations with the Harappan Civilization.
2100 BCE: A southward migration of pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe, towards the southern central Asian regions that would today be called Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The migrants make an impact on the BMAC, but mostly bypass it and move towards south Asia throughout the second millennium BCE, as listed below (2000–1000 BCE). These are the migrants who later will be known as the Aryans.
2000 BCE: Two major waves of migrations with their origin in China – after it had gone through the farming revolution and the resultant population surge – reshaped south-east Asia. The first one brings Austroasiatic languages, new plants and a new variety of rice to India after 2000 BCE. The Khasis belong to this group, and based on recent research, they must have arrived in the North East around 5000–6000 years ago, which is earlier than this date. Linguistic evidence also suggests the War Amwi, the oldest Khasi language from which other Khasi languages emerged, separated from Palaung (the most closely related group of Austroasiatic languages found in today Myanmar) more than 4000 years ago. This means that the separation of the group today known as Khasi from the Palaung must have happened before 2000 BCE, giving it time to emerge as a distinct group. But the 2000 BCE date matches with the emergence of Munda, who are a mixed population of an earlier group already residing in the sub-continent, descendants of the Harappan population (Dravidian), closely connected to the First Indians, and the new arrivals from Southeast Asia, i.e., groups that are related to the Khasis. This explains the genetic and linguistic connection between the Khasis and the Munda. Since the Austroasiatic migration took place from the east, this lag in time between the Khasi and Munda makes sense, as the Khasis would have arrived first in the North East and then in central India, where, after centuries, if not more, of mixing with the local population, a distinct Munda population emerged. The current President, Droupadi Murmu, is from a particular clan of the Sathal, a central Indian tribe, who are part of the large Munda family. Some of the important individuals in this group also include Jaipal Singh Munda, who, along with Rev. JJM Nichols Roy, was the architect of the Fifth and Sixth Schedules. The contribution of the Khasis is not limited to the modern period. As mentioned earlier, domestication of rice had been attempted at Lahuradewa around 7000 BCE. This rice belongs to the indica subspecies of Oryza sativa, while another subspecies that was domesticated in the Yangtze Valley of China is japonica. The unlocking of the full potential of rice cultivation in India, however, required hybridization of indica with japonica, and it appears to have happened around 2000 BCE, which is the same as the period of arrival of Austroasiatic-language speakers from Southeast Asia. This means a group whose descendants today can be identified with the Khasi and Munda must have brought the japonica subspecies from their original home in southern China and mixed it with the variety found in Lahuradewa, creating the modern indica subspecies, which today is the staple food of the entire sub-continent.
2000–1000 BCE: Multiple waves of Steppe pastoralist migrants from central Asia into south Asia, bringing Indo-European languages and new religious and cultural practices. The language brought was an early version of Sanskrit, and the new religion was an early form of Hinduism with gods like Indra, Agni, Varuna, and the Asvins, as well as cultural practices like the social divisions of classes, which later morphed into the varna system.
1900–1300 BCE: The Late Harappan period that sees the decline and eventual disappearance of the Harappan Civilization, primarily due to the effects of a long drought that affected civilizations in west Asia, Egypt and China as well. This period of great drought has become an important point in the geological history of Earth and is known as the Meghalayan Age, named after Meghalaya where the stalagmite was found, which is used to mark out its years. And now here we are. I would suggest the readers buy the book and read the details of the chronology described above. While reading the book, note down the sources that Tony Joseph uses for his arguments. If possible, please go and read the original sources as well. Also, if you have friends or family who are working in the field of ancient history, archeology, or linguistics, discuss with them the current consensus to judge claims being made by me, Salil Gewali, or anyone else. Ultimately, in the end, it doesn’t matter what our personal beliefs are; facts are facts. In the meantime, don’t believe me or anyone, but make up your own mind. Happy reading.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organisation or institution)

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