Genetic evidence for origins of Ban Rajas (Kusunda/कुसुन्डा) of Nepal


Ban Rajas are peoples who have been living in Nepal since time immemorial. Today, only a very few Ban Rajas survive who mostly live in central Nepal and unfortunately very little is left of their culture. In addition, shamefully little is known about their origins. The Ban Rajas themselves believe that they are the descendants of Kusa (thus the name Kusunda), son of Rama and Sita of the Ramayana and are kings (rajas in Nepali) of the forest (ban in Nepali) where as the descendants of Kusa’s brother Lava, the Thakuris are the rulers of cultivated lands [2].

Many anthropological, linguistic, and morphological studies have suggested numerous and often biased hypothesis about the origins of the Ban Rajas of Nepal. While one group of anthropologists and linguists propose that Ban Rajas are Tibeto-Burman people, another set their colleagues argue that the Ban Rajas of Nepal are probably the remnants of the original population that came to the Himalayas from Africa and traveled south and populated Australia, New Zealand, and the Indo Pacific Islands. This controversy has lingered for over a century and will continue without progress unless the origins of the Ban Rajas is determined based on their DNA. Genetic studies can be used to compare Ban Rajas to nearby non-Ban Raja ethnicities. Additional human populations such as Africans, Central Asians, Australian Aborigines, and Indo Pacific Indigenous peoples can be included. If Ban Rajas are related to any of them their DNA would tell the story.

 As mentioned earlier, linguists offer contrasting explanations on Ban Rajas’ ancestry.  “On the basis of vocabulary, the Kusunda language does not appear to be related with any of the major language families of South Asia. However, it does share a feature common to other Tibeto-Burman languages of the Himalayas,” according to Johan Reinhard [1]. Based on the pronominalization, Reinhard proposed Kusunda probably belongs to Munda language family. Other two possible options he proposed were either Kusunda “borrowed pronominalization from Munda family at a later date” indicating “no relationship with the major language families” or Kusunda belongs to an archaic language group such as Burushaski and languages of the Caucasus from which Munda language might have borrowed pronominalization [1]. Munda language is currently spoken in North East India and is a branch of Austro-Asiatic language family. There have been a few other later attempts made to determine the origins of Kusundas. In contrast to Reinhard’s hypothesis, in a recent paper, Paul Whitehouse and team showed that the Kusunda language has many similarities to those that are in the Indo-Pacific family which remain in New Guinea and the islands that are around this area [3].

Linguistic controversy is ignited by the fact that Ban Rajas are morphologically distinct from their surrounding peoples as well. Ban Rajas have been described as, “…semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in jungles and forests, with a language that shows no similarities to surrounding languages” [4]. They somewhat resemble the Indo-Pacific people for they “have the same small, dark physical appearance.” These linguistic and morphological evidences suggest that the Ban Rajas are probably leftovers of the early humans who started their journey from Africa all the way to New Guinea and Australia [5].

Language is fluid entity and can travel form one place to another without the transfer of genes. For example, English is spoken in most parts of the world but the British did not settle all parts of the world where English is spoken today. Language, therefore, cannot be the absolute evidence to determine the origins of peoples. For the last few decades, DNA has been used to determine the origins of a particular group of people all around the world. All humans inherit the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from their mother and Y chromosome DNA from their father. Based on the similarities and differences between these two DNAs, geneticists can very effectively determine the maternal (mtDNA) and paternal (Y chromosomes) lineage of any present population.  The linguistic and morphological evidence available as of now are only suggestive evidence that Ban Rajas are remnants of “the first out-of-Africa migration that led to the initial peopling of Southeast Asia, New Guinea, and Australia” (Santa Fe Institute). Genetic studies can provide the conclusive evidence. If Ban Rajas are really the remnants of the original peoples who settled in Australia, it will revolutionize what we currently understand about human evolution. It will make the few remaining Ban Rajas a national treasure and the topic of discussion worldwide.

Although the anthropologic, linguistic, and morphological studies have incredibly enhanced our knowledge of Ban Rajas of Nepal, they have important limitations. The data presented by Reinhard and Toba is controversial as per evidences presented by B.K. Rana. Rana has found out that some of the words reported by Reinhard and Toba as Kusunda terms are not actually correct [7]. Also, Whitehouse agrees that the linguistic evidence is not conclusive enough and urges for genetic studies to be conducted. These limitations and depleting numbers of Ban Rajas suggest that there is a strong urgency to confirm the various hypotheses about their origins using high quality genetic methods of analysis such that the Ban Rajas who have been neglected for centuries have the potential to be recognized as the one of the most treasured peoples of the entire world. Moreover, such findings may revolutionize our understandings of human migration.

The Ban Rajas reside in Gorkha, Kaski, Rolpa, Dang, Pyuthan and Tanahu districts of Nepal. Various reports and stories have reported that Ban Rajas are currently living in these areas. According to the National Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, the Ban Rajas reside in jungles of Dhading, Gorkha, Tanahu, Kaski and Makwanpur to the districts of the Midwestern Region. According to the Nepal Population Reports 2002 the total number of Ban Rajas (Kusundas) existing are 164.  

More on Genetic study of Kusundas can be found in my new article here: http://wp.me/p1jtD-dT

References:

1.      A PRELIMINARY LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS AND VOCABULARY OF THE KUSUNDA LANGUAGE (1970) by Johan Reinhard (University of Vienna) and Tim Toba (Summer Institute of Linguistics,Tribhuvan University, Nepal)

2.      Languages of the Himalayas, Volume One (2001) by George van Driem, ISBN 9004103902, (Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands)

3.      Whitehouse, Paul, Timothy Usher, Merrit Ruhlen, and William S. Y. Yang. “Kusunda: An Indo-Pacific language in Nepal.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America
. 2004. 30 Apr. 2006           <http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content/full/101/15/5692>.

4.      Santa Fe Institute. Evolution of Human Languages. Database Construction for World Language Families. 30 Apr. 2006 < http://ehl.santafe.edu/ruhlen.htm>.

5.      McWhorter, John. “Can Relationships Between Languages be Determined Alter 80,000 Years?” Language Log. 10 Jun. 2004. 30 Apr. 2006 <http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001037.html&gt;.

6.      Thangaraj, Kumarasamy, Lalji Singh, Alla G. Reddy, V. Raghavendra Rao, Subhash C. Sehgal, Peter A. Underhill, Melanie Pierson, Ian G. Frame, and Erika Hagelberg. Genetic Affinities of the Andaman Islanders, a Vanishing Human Population. 26 Nov. 2002. Cell Press. 5 May. 2006 < http://hpgl.stanford.edu/publications/CB_2002_p1-18.pdf>.

7.      B. K. Rana. New Materials on Kusunda Language (Presented to the Fourth Round Table International Conference on Ethnogenesis of South and Central Asia, Harvard University,
Cambridge MA, USA.  May 11 – 13, 2002 ). http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~witzel/kusunda.htm

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14 Comments

Filed under Anthropology, Human Evolution, Nepal

14 responses to “Genetic evidence for origins of Ban Rajas (Kusunda/कुसुन्डा) of Nepal

  1. Pingback: Reamins of Kush in Africa « Mentavolution

  2. we should encourage people to actually have their dna submitted to the genographic project. It uses both the Y-chromosome (for men) and mitochondrial DNA (for women) to create a map of haplotypes and subtypes for people all around the world and across time.
    The test is expensive for people from nepal ($99.00 per test). But I’m sure there are ways to come up with that money or to negotiate some kind of submission method which is cheaper.

    -Regards
    Lapax

  3. Nepaliaashish

    Thats true…there is a genographic project and it is great to have a project like that but there are questions about ethics…if DNA were to be submitted to a database who would use it and for what purposes.
    Currently there are few ethical procedures that need to be followed and academic researchers do follow all the guidelines…but if a company gets their hands on the database, it can use it for its own profit without giving anything back to the people.
    Besides, I am not a big fan of National Geographic because as far as I know, they made Honey Hunters, a documentary featuring an indigenous tribe of Nepal and despite the fact that they have copyrighted the documentary, they have not given any portion of the proceeds to the people, according to my understanding.

  4. The genographic project is as concerned as you and I are about the identity and ethics aspect of dna collection. If you go to their faq pages, they actually tell you how the evidence is collected. They try to do it as anonymously as possible. If there is a better way than how they’re doing it, I’m sure they’re open to making it even more possible.

    As far as the workings of National Geographic goes, I do not have particular opinions about their brand of ethics. When the honey hunters was made, it was a different era, there was no open source or creative commons, law and the public was completely behind intellectual property and licensing laws. The money made from honey hunters was earned and spent, a big portion of it probably by the author, director and producer (of the book and the documentary). If someone were to plead their case and articulate to the producers properly how one could help the honey hunters using the documentary, they may be more than amenable to the idea, dunno. :)

  5. Yes thats true that when the Honey Hunters was made it was a different era but I am not sure whether they distribute profit to the people even now…they do give some money to participants but most of it goes to the folks who make the movie. I am not saying that the movie makers should do it for free but I believe there should be a lot of follow up done after the movie comes out…the movie is made to educate the world about amazing things in the most rural parts of the world and once the world knows about it, the movie makers should invest time and efforts to raise money or bring programs to develop or sustain the very things that they showed in the movie…just my opinion.
    Besides the whole genographic thing is now getting some heat from scientists because only mitochondrial DNA (used to determine maternal lineage) and Ychromosome (paternal lineage) are not enough and sometimes can be misleading. So, increasing number of scientists are moving towars autosomal (nuclear) DNA. But I guess if we have a DNA bank we can use the DNAs in future to do more tests using autosomal DNA. However, the access to it becomes a question.
    So, for the genographic project, I guess we first need to reach a consensus on the same three things that we discuss all the time:

    1. Existance of Info: Having a large DNA database
    2. Access of info: Who and How can the info be accessed by interested parties? Do companies have access to it? How about interested scientists who were not involved in collecting DNA?
    3. Use of info: Can the results be patented and used for pharmacutical purposes? What prevents companies to start making billion dollar molecules based on results derived using the DNAs of people? Who will be the watch dogs?

  6. Tilak Shrestha

    I would like to appreciate the scientific effort made to reveal the story behind origin & dispersal of Kusunda in Nepal. The funny side of story is that Nepalese scientists are not made involve and made aware of such scintific study. There are now biotech policy and biosafety policy in Nepal, but no body seems to bother to take permission for sample collection and abide the Nepal govt. law. So I would like to draw attention with the following comments:

    1-Any Genographic project should take permission from Nepal governent for Kusunda evolution study
    2- Nepalese concerned scintists must be involved in such research project
    3- Research outcome & publication should be made available with ease and equal credit basis
    4- Making MOU with non scientific institution of University in Nepal and piracy of blood samples without MOU and without govt permission should be discouraged.
    So now who will be the watch dog now?

  7. Tilak ji just wanted to clarify things a bit.
    Awareness:
    I am just wondering how you came to conclusions that Nepali scientists are not “made aware of such scientific study.” I am a Nepali and I was involved. In addition. there is a Professor and a lingiust from Tribhuvan University who is also involved. Once the research findings are published, all the names will be published too.
    Second, you mentioned that there are policies in Nepal it would be great if you could mention it here such that people can be educated on them in future. As far as I know, there are policies for health research which is handled by NHRC but there are no policies regarding non health related studies. As far as this study is concerned, permission were taken from Nepal Govt. and it was done in collaboration with the Linguistic Department of T.U. Thus it was not illegal.
    As far as the issues you raised, I believe I have answered the first two. The research outcome and publication will be made public and people who helped us, Nepalis and non-Nepalis will be acknowledged where required. A summary of the results may be submitted to major Nepali Newspapers for publication for the ease of concerned and enthusiastic Nepalis.
    I am glad that you are concerned and appreciative of such research and raised valid points. We, the Nepalis need to be the watchdogs for our own people and make sure that no research that hurts Nepal and Nepalis is being conducted. Hope to hear more from you in near future.
    ~cheers

  8. Two new studies show why some people are more attractive for members of the opposite sex than others.

    The University of Florida, Florida State University found that physically attractive people almost instantly attract the attention of the interlocutor, sobesednitsy with them, literally, it is difficult to make eye. This conclusion was reached by a series of psychological experiments, which were determined by the people who believe in sending the first seconds after the acquaintance. Here, a curious feature: single, unmarried experimental preferred to look at the guys, beauty opposite sex, and family, people most often by representatives of their sex.

    The authors believe that this feature developed a behavior as a result of the evolution: a man trying to find a decent pair to acquire offspring. If this is resolved, he wondered potential rivals. Detailed information about this magazine will be published Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    In turn, a joint study of the Rockefeller University, Rockefeller University and Duke University, Duke University in North Carolina revealed that women are perceived differently by men smell. During experiments studied the perception of women one of the ingredients of male pheromone-androstenona smell, which is contained in urine or sweat.

    The results were startling: women are part of this repugnant odor, and the other part is very attractive, resembling the smell of vanilla, and the third group have not felt any smell. The authors argue that the reason is that the differences in the receptor responsible for the olfactory system, from different people are different.

    It has long been proven that mammals (including human) odor is one way of attracting the attention of representatives of the opposite sex. A detailed article about the journal Nature will publish.

  9. Sayed Asif Mahmud

    Dear Sir, I am Sayed Asif Mahmud, a Bangladeshi Photojournalism student. I am A
    student of Pathshala, The South Asian Institute of Photography. We have a
    collaboration program with the Oslo University College and we are going to
    Nepal in January, 2010. Each student have to work on a reportage project
    there.

    I am interested to portray the Kusunda people there. According to some references they are ‘probably the most endangered species of the aboriginal
    ethnic groups of Nepal’. I got Interesting and fruitful information from the
    website (http://www.nefin.org.np/indigenous-nationalities/hill-in/42) as
    well as from your blog. But I need
    more information to work on this project. Can you help me about this
    purpose. If you are kind enough to help me, please mail me at
    sayed.asif.mahmud@gmail.com. There will be the opportunity of further
    discussion if you are interested. I hope it will be an important
    documentation of the community.

    With Regards,

    Asif

  10. Sayed, I hope you got my email. I look forward to talk to you further.

  11. Pingback: Gyani Maiya Sen – last native speaker of Kusunda? « Living Languages

  12. Pingback: Kusunda | Language Learning System

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