Saturday, May 18, 2024
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Origins of the Khasis: The Puzzle Solved

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By Bhogtoram Mawroh

I thank Glenn Kharkongor for his letter to the editor, for it allows us to discuss more about the Austro-asiatic speaking population to which the Khasi belong. Before we go into that, I would like to highlight a comment where he stated that I had said that “65,000 years ago, the Out of Africa migrants reached India… and then moved across the Indian subcontinent into southeast Asia, east Asia, and Australia,” but I failed to identify them. He believes that they were probably the proto-Munda, the first settlers in India, from whom the Khasi later arose, about 10,000 years later. I am sorry to say, but I feel that Glenn Kharkongor hasn’t read the book yet because that group, i.e., the Out of Africa migrants, has been identified with the Onge from Andaman and Nicobar Islands, who are what we can call the ‘First Indians’. The following statement from the book has been reproduced for the benefit of all: We know that the Onge in the Andaman Islands are descendants of the original OoA (Out of Africa) migrants who may have mixed less with other groups.
Still, I do hope that Glenn Kharkongor reads the book because I believe it will answer many questions that will interest him. I do agree with him that these are complicated questions, but Tony Joseph has done a good job of trying to lucidly explain the history of the subcontinent in a manner that I feel would be really helpful to all. The book, however, did in fact acknowledge that more work needs to be done on the Austro-asiatic and Tibeto-Burma populations, more so on the latter. But there is no doubt that the argument made by Glenn Kharkongor about the westward origin of the Austroasiatic (including the Khasis) has been refuted, at least as evidence stands today. I am going to cite scientific articles published in peer-reviewed journals, one of which was actually cited in the book itself, but the others were not. Hopefully, this will help us understand something about our own history (i.e., the Khasi) and our impact on the subcontinent.
Austro-asiatic is the eighth largest language family in the world in terms of the number of native speakers and is spoken in southern parts of Asia—in Vietnam and Cambodia as the main official languages and in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia as the first language of many minority groups. Two major extant branches of the Austroasiatic language tree are Munda in eastern, northeastern, and central India and Khasi-Aslian, which stretches from the Meghalaya in the northeast of the subcontinent to the Nicobars, Malay Peninsula, and Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia. For a long time, there was a debate about the origin of the language family: whether it arose in Southeast Asia and then spread to South Asia during the Neolithic period or whether it had pre-Neolithic origins in South Asia and then dispersed to the east.
Glenn Kharkongor argues for the second option, and it would be a reasonable position to take, but that has changed after Gyaneshwer Chaubey and his colleagues published their 2011 paper, ‘Population Genetic Structure in Indian Austroasiatic Speakers: The Role of Landscape Barriers and Sex-Specific Admixture’ which finally laid the argument to rest. The paper found that the Indian Austroasiatic speakers have high frequencies of Y chromosome haplogroup O2a (occurs frequently both among Indian and southeast Asian Austroasiatic speakers), which was found to have significantly higher diversity and coalescent time (the time when the genetic lineages within a population shared a common ancestor) of 17–28 thousand years ago in Southeast Asia, strongly supporting Southeast Asian origin, followed by more recent dispersal(s) to India.
Then, in 2015, Xiaoming Zhang and his colleagues published their paper, ‘Y-chromosome diversity suggests southern origin and Paleolithic backwave migration of Austroasiatic speakers from eastern Asia to the Indian subcontinent’, which built on the work done by Gyaneshwer Chaubey and colleagues in their 2011 paper. Their own analysis showed that the O2a1-M95 lineage (the genetic signature of the Austroasiatic population) initially originated in the southern part of eastern Asia (Southern China) among the Daic-speaking populations around 20–40 thousand years ago, followed by a southward dispersal to the heartland of Mainland Southeast Asia around 16 thousand years ago, and then a westward migration to India around 10 thousand years ago.
The paper by Xiaoming Zhang and colleagues also refers to the 2015 paper ‘A late Neolithic expansion of Y chromosomal haplogroup O2a1-M95 from east to west’ by Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and colleagues, which also came to the same conclusion in that it also favored an east-to-west migration of Austroasiatic speakers. The only difference was the date of the arrival of Austroasiatic speakers in India. Xiaoming Zhang and colleagues put that date at around 10,000 years ago, while Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and colleagues have arrived at 5.7±0.3 thousand years ago for Laos, 5.2±0.6 thousand years ago for the North East (Khasi), and 4.3±0.2 thousand years ago for East India (Munda). Finally, there is the 2019 paper by Kai Kai Tätte and colleagues, ‘The genetic legacy of continental scale admixture in Indian Austroasiatic speakers’. They calculated the admixture between the South Asian (Dravidian speakers from Kerala) and South East Asian (Lao people from Laos) to be around 2000–3800 years ago, which is closer to the date given by Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and colleagues. The admixture group here mentioned is the Munda.
The details are still being worked out, but there are certain points that have become very clear. Firstly, the debate regarding the origin of the Austroasiatic language family (along with its speakers) has been settled, with Southeast Asia being identified as the source from which the people and the language first arose. Secondly, following this, an east-west migration of the Austroasiatic language-speaking people has also been confirmed, with the date of arrival declining as one goes from east to west. Therefore, groups that are identified today with the Khasi would have arrived earlier, with some continuing into East India and coming into contact with the local native population (Dravidians), giving rise to the Munda population. The only issue that now remains is the dates, which ranged from 10,000 years ago to 6,000 years ago. Here, rice could play an important role in settling that debate.
Since rice cultivation has been closely associated with the Austroasiatic language, the dates must be connected to the arrival of the crop, particularly Oryza sativa japonica, into the subcontinent. On this point, there’s a 2014 paper by Briana L. Gross and Zhijun Zhao titled ‘Archaeological and Genetic Insights into the Origins of Domesticated Rice’ that argues that, while there seems to have been an independent origin for the cultivation of ancestral Oryza sativa indica or proto-indica rice taking place in the Ganges plains, the plant was completely domesticated only when the domesticated japonica arrived from China and hybridized with it around 4,000 years ago. The 2015 paper by Xiaoming Zhang and colleagues identified the original home of the Austroasiatic as southern China, which matches the drainage area of the Yangtze River, which was proposed by Briana L. Gross and Zhijun Zhao as being the location where domestication of Oryza sativa japonica happened around 8000 years ago. Rice has a very important ritual significance for the Khasi, and I recollect somewhere about a Pnar folktale of how rice was brought from the forest and domesticated. I will be grateful if any Pnar person were to confirm this folktale since I can’t seem to find it anymore.
Here it will be useful to mention the 2013 paper ‘A Lexicostatistical Study of the Khasian Languages: Khasi, Pnar, Lyngngam, and War’ by K. S. Nagaraja, Paul Sidwell, and Simon Greenhill also give the date when War (the oldest of all Khasi languages) diverged from Palaung (closest relative to the Khasi language found today in Myanmar) to around 4000 years ago. These dates match those given by Ganesh Prasad Arunkumar and Kai Tätte and the dates of hybridization of Oryza sativa indica with Oryza sativa japonica as given by Briana L. Gross and Zhijun Zhao. Tony Joseph also makes the same case in his book ‘The Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and where they came from’.
The search for more details about the story of the Austroasiatic people, i.e., Khasi and Munda, is not yet over. There is a need to understand more about how it happened and how it changed the subcontinent. What is clear, though, based on current evidence, is that they arrived quite early and much before the Indo-Aryan-speaking group from Central Asia, making them an indigenous group along with the Dravidians. The date is still important, though, because their arrival puts them very close to the mature period of the Harrapan or Indus Valley civilization. It is interesting to imagine that some of the people (today identified with the Khasi and Munda) might have lived as residents in those urban centers or maybe stayed on the periphery, possibly trading with Harappans. It is such a fascinating speculation, and at the moment, it is only a speculation without any evidence. But what is clear is that when anyone in the subcontinent were to eat their rice as part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner, do remember to thank the Khasi and Munda for it.
(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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