Northeast News – Where did the Khasi people come from? Genetics tell the Story

by Guwahati_City

Glenn C Kharkongor

The greatest history book ever written is the one hidden in our DNA.

-Spencer Wells, Director, Genographic Project, National Geographic Society

India has a population of 1.43 billion, among which are around 123 million tribals, constituting 8.6% of the total population. Almost one-fourth of indigenous and tribal peoples in the world live in India.

Tribals are often referred to as adivasi, an assigned and catch-all term for all of the diverse tribal groups of India. The term literally means first inhabitants, acknowledging them as the original settlers of the subcontinent.  Evidence of tribal origins comes from a variety of sources, historical, linguistic, paleo-botany, and most recently by genetic studies.  Archaeological data is minimal in Northeast India, as this discipline has been taken up only recently in the region.

Few scholars have attempted to look at the available assemblage of studies, since academicians tend to be experts in one discipline. The recent burst of genetic studies, hitherto unavailable to historians, has not yet entered the history books. The eminent historian Romila Thapar and the journalist Tony Joseph have recently published books that attempt to bring the various disciplines together.

Austro-Asiatic Languages

Among the 220 odd tribes of Northeast India, only Khasis speak an Austro-Asiatic (AA) language, a family of languages generally considered to be the oldest in the region that stretches from the subcontinent to southeast Asia. ‘Austro’ is an adjective meaning ‘southern’. One of the major theories of the origin of the AA languages postulates a northeastern India locus.

Among the AA languages, Munda, in eastern India, predates the other languages. Subsequently a separation into the two main Austroasiatic subfamilies, Muṇḍa and Mon-Khmer took place, back in prehistory. The Khasi-Khmuic group of languages are part of the Mon-Khmer. The competing theory that the AA languages originated in Southeast Asia is partly based on the observation that the Mon-Khmer languages show greater diversity and spread in that region. This argument could be mitigated by the relative isolation of AA languages in India since they were later surrounded by dominant language groups which inhibited the spread of AA languages.

The evidence of the AA languages as the earliest in India is supported by a body of genetic studies that has explored the origin and migrations of the earliest inhabitants of India. While the linguistic and genetic evidence is not fully conclusive, there are several interesting pointers to the origin of the Khasis that have scientific credibility.

As an aside: the two main language groups in the Northeast are Tibeto-Burman, spoken by Garo, Bodo, and most of the Arunachal tribes, and Indo-European such as Assamese. There are no native speakers of Dravidian in the Northeast, another major language group of India.

Out of Africa and to India

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Homo sapiens originated in east Africa about 200,000 thousand years ago. Because of drought and search for food, a small band set out northwards. It has been estimated that only a small group, possibly as few as 150 people, crossed the Red Sea. Today at the Bab-el-Mandeb straits the Red Sea is about 12 miles (20 km) wide, but at that time sea levels were 70 metres lower (owing to glaciation) and the water body was much narrower. The group that crossed the Red Sea travelled along the coastal route of the Arabian Peninsula and then to India. They reached India about 66, 000 years ago, settling in east India. They are the ancestors of the Munda tribe.

This was the first major migration in the “Out of Africa” theory, which is the most widely accepted model of the geographic origin and early migration of Homo sapiens. This initial migration out of Africa was responsible for the eventual people of the world. From India, passing through the Northeast corridor, onward migrations travelled to East Asia, Southeast Asia and Australasia. Some groups moved northwards to China, Mongolia, and Siberia, eventually crossing the Bering Sea to North America. They were able to cross the seas during glacial maximums, when the sea levels were much lower and archipelagos such as Indonesia were one land mass. See Fig 1.


Fig 1: Human migration out of Africa (Wikimedia Commons)

The maps in our genes

Using genetics to track genealogies, the National Geographic Society set up the Genographic Project to study ancient ethnic communities. Material from genetic studies has been culled and compiled in a reader-friendly format on their website and anyone can get their DNA tested by sending in a vial with a smear of saliva.

According to their website, “When DNA is passed from one generation to the next, most of it is recombined by the processes that give each of us our individuality. But some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations, which become genetic markers. These markers allow geneticists to trace our common evolutionary timeline back many generations. The markers in our genes allow us to chart the ancient human migrations from Africa across the continents”. Through the aeons of time, the story continues to be transmitted through our genes.

The Munda and Khasi

In a genetic study of 25 groups from different parts of the country conducted in 2007, blood samples of 1222 individuals from the major ethnolinguistic groups were tested. These included Indo-European, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and the three AA populations residing in India: Mundari, spoken by tribes in Central and Eastern India, Mon-Khmer, spoken by tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Khasi-Khmuic, represented by the Khasi in Northeast India. Ninety-two Khasis from the West Khasi Hills, East Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills and Ri-Bhoi in Meghalaya were tested. The primary institutes which conducted the study were the Indian Statistical Institute, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, both in Hyderabad.

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The authors concluded that, “Our results suggest a strong genetic link, not only among the Indian Austro-Asiatic populations but also with those of Southeast Asia…The results also indicate that the genetic O-M95 had originated in the Indian Austro-Asiatic populations about 65,000 years BP (Before Present) and carried it further to Southeast Asia via the Northeast Indian corridor. Our findings are consistent with the linguistic evidence, which suggests that the linguistic ancestors of the Austro-Asiatic populations originated in India and then migrated to Southeast Asia.

O-M95 is a gene entity which originated in the Munda and is found in India only among Austro-Asiatic populations, but now seen all over Southeast Asia. This strongly suggests that Austro-Asiatic populations of India are not only linguistically linked to Southeast Asian populations but also genetically associated. The tracking of gene entities leads to a calculation for TMRCA (time to the most recent common ancestor) which indicates that the Khasi appeared 57,000 years ago, 9000 years after the Munda. See Fig 2.

Fig 2: Present-day Austro-Asiatic groups and their routes of migration (BMC EvolBiol)

Some researchers have proposed that the initial entry of humans to East Asia took place via Central Asia to Northeast Asia, and thence to Southeast Asia and beyond. In this theory, it is postulated that Austro-Asiatic language speakers from Indochina travelled westwards to Meghalaya. However, the more convincing evidence is that the Khasi came from the West and subsequently some of them travelled eastwards to Indochina. There are groups of Mon-Khmer speakers along the way in other neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, altogether 169 such languages.

Another study conducted by geneticists at the Indian Statistical Institute concluded that, “Given that the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family is considered to be the oldest and spoken by certain tribes in India, Northeast India and Southeast Asia, we expect that the populations of this family from Northeast India should provide the genetic link between Indian and Southeast Asian populations. To test this hypothesis, we analysed DNA data of the eight groups (Bhoi, Maram, Lyngngam, Nongtrai, War Jaintia, War Khasi, Pnar and Khynriam, of the Khasi. The results suggest that the Khasi tribes represent a genetic continuity between the populations of South and Southeast Asia, thereby advocating that northeast India could have been a major corridor for the movement of populations from India to East/Southeast Asia.”

The authors of the study describe the Khasi tribe as providing the hitherto ‘missing link’ between the AA populations of the two regions and this phrase is highlighted in the title of the article.

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Other sources of evidence

Many studies have shown the prevalence of megalithic culture in various tribal groups in India. There are some striking similarities in the arrangements of stones and the purposes for which the megaliths are used. Even at present, in most of the Munda clans, they perform the ritual of secondary burial, for which a new megalithic structure is constructed to be used as a bone repository. The picture, Fig 3, was given to me by Ashok, Verrier Elwin’s son. The original picture is uncaptioned, so the tribe cannot be identified with certainty, but the similarity with Khasi megaliths is unmistakable.

Fig 3: Memorial stones at Dugeli, Bastar. Picture taken by Verrier Elwin in 1941.

The data from archaeology are more recent, but are mentioned to round off this discussion. Because of heavy rains and mountainous hillsides, archeological evidence is not easily preserved and may have been washed into the rivers and floodplains. Neolithic stone tools have been found at several locations in the Northeast.  In Meghalaya, stone implements have been found at several sites, including around Umiam-Barapani, including Sohbetpneng. A large ‘tool factory’ has been excavated at the foot of the Lum Diengiei hill slope with ‘unfinished’ and ‘unground’ tools. Recent excavations in the East Khasi Hills have been conducted by Marco Mitri and carbon dating from artefacts excavated by him have shown settlements from 1900 BC.

Newer studies in linguistics add more evidence. Michael Witzel, a professor of Indology and Sanskrit at Harvard University has compiled an etymology of the words in the Rig Veda. One of his discoveries is that approximately four per cent of the words in the Rigveda do not fit into Sanskrit word patterns but appear to be loan words from a language close to the Munda and Khasi languages.

In the last few years there has been a deluge of papers on genetic origins, not all in agreement. Because of their highly technical nature, the conclusions are sometimes difficult to decipher. Historians are not geneticists and geneticists are not historians and linguists are neither. These interdisciplinary gulfs are yet to be bridged in history textbooks. But a great deal of light has been shed on the origins and antiquity of the Khasis and other ethnic groups of the Northeast.

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