Tag Archives: Nepali history

Could Rautes, Kusundas, Chepangs, Rajis or Tharus be the first peoples to colonize the Himalayas 7000 years ago?

Rautes: The last nomads of Nepal

This picture belongs to Kishore K. Sharma, an awesome Nepali photographer. Please do visit his blog by clicking on this picture to view more pictures of the Rautes.

History of Nepal, as taught in academic institutions, starts with Gopalavamshis, the so-called first rulers of Nepal, followed by Mahispalavamshis, Kiratis, Licchavis, Mallas, and Shahs in that order. However it only represents the political history of Nepal at its best. To understand history of Nepal in its completeness, one must learn about the history of the peoples of Nepal.

Human inhabitation of the Himalayan foothills, known as present day Nepal, predates the dawn of civilization and the Gopalavamshis because prehistoric stone tools of “Patu industry,” a non-agricultural Mesothilic culture unique to Nepal were recovered in Central Nepal[1]. Two distinct types of tools, the Patu tools resembling the 10-12 thousand years old Hoabinhian culture and another resembling 10-30 thousand years old culture in India highlight three important points about ancient Nepali history: first, modern day Nepal has been inhabited by humans since the Pleistocene; second, Nepal has been cosmopolitan even in the Mesolithic harboring Indian and South East Asian cultures, and finally, the Patu people had an unique cultural identity by the Mesolithic.

But what happened to the Patu people? It is curious that a few nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes live/until recently lived the Mesolithic lifestyle in central Nepal, where the “Patu industry” once existed. Could they be the descendants of the Mesothilic humans that developed the first Himalayan culture?

Kusundas (aka Myahak, Ban Rajas) and Chepangs (aka Prajas) are one of the highly marginalized tribes in Nepal. Until a few decades ago both these tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers. With forests gone, Kusundas were forced to desert their nomadic life and enter villages, which caused annihilation of their culture, traditions, and languages. Only a few Kusundas today, speak their native language. Like the Kusundas, Chepangs were also nomadic hunters and gatherers in central Nepal. Destruction of forests has forced Chepangs to adopt a semi-nomadic life in the non-yielding slopes of the Mahabharat range.

In addition to their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, linguistic and anthropological evidence suggest that Kusundas and Chepangs have been living in central Nepal since ancient times. Both the Kusundas and the Chepangs were officially first reported by B.H. Hodgson, a British naturalist and ethnologist in mid-nineteenth century, as “broken tribes” living nearly “in a state of nature” and carrying bows and arrows with no relationship with the rest of the “civilized races” of the country[2]. Later CJF Forbes found more plausible relationship between Chepangs and Khyens (Kiiyen) and Kumis of Arakan hills in Burma (Myanmar) and even concluded that Chepangs may have entered Nepal from the east [3]. Unlike Chepang, Kusunda language is difficult to classify as it similarities with various unrelated language groups such as Austro-Asiatic (Munda)[4], Tibeto-Burman, and even Indo-Pacific[5]. It is now widely recognized as a language isolate[6]: a language distinct from all other languages spoken in Nepal.

Although both Chepang and Kusunda languages seem to be unrelated to any other languages in Nepal, they appear to be linguistically closely related to each other (see Figure1). It is plausible that Chepangs and Kusundas have cohabited the Mahabharata hills and centuries of linguistic exchange may have resulted in their language similarities. Furthermore, anthropological evidence seems to corroborate the linguistic antiquity between these tribes, for example, both the Kusundas and the Chepangs have a folk legend according to which the Kusundas are the descendants of Kusa (thus the name Kusunda) and Chepangs are the descendants of Lava, both the sons of Rama and Sita of the Ramayana. Furthermore, interviews with Chepang traditional healers and medicine men revealed hundreds of plants used for diverse purposes and many of them were previously not documented.[7] The tremendous ethno-botanical knowledge of the Chepangs further substantiates their occupation of central Himalayas since ancient times for such knowledge of local flora can only be built with time. Hence, Kusundas and Chepangs, by virtue of their nomadic life styles and lack of linguistic affinities with any other languages of Nepal, may have inhabited the Himalayan foothills long before other ethnicities emigrated.

Recently, genomics has been used to infer the demographic histories of human populations throughout the world. Analysis of Kusunda genome in a recent issue of Science[8] supports some of the linguistic evidence and indicates that Kusundas are related to Tibeto-Burman speaking North East-Asian populations such as Hezhens, Oroqens and Mongolians but are not related to the Australian or Papuan Aborigines and virtually unrelated to any of the human populations from East or South Asia. Remarkably, a Kusunda specific genetic component is evident; however, without further analysis it is difficult to determine whether this component is due to long period of population isolation or due to ancient age of the population.

Genetic and linguistic evidence argues that Kusundas are possibly the most ancient of Nepali populations. They , may have come into contact with Mundas and Burmese in Eastern Himalayan foothills in ancient times. Words burrowed from these languages may have remained in Kusunda language to date. However, more work is needed to determine whether the Kusunda specific genetic components are a result of recent inbreeding due to population isolation or whether they are archaic genome components due to Kusundas’ antiquity in the Himalayan foothills.

Although it is tempting to crown Kusundas as the eldest peoples of Nepal, other nomadic/semi-nomadic tribes of central Nepal cannot be ignored. Genetic analysis of Chepangs may show that they have also cohabited the Mahabharata hills for centuries. It is also noteworthy that many other tribes along with Kusundas and Chepangs may have inhabited central Nepal since ancient times. For example, the Tharus may be descendants of inhabitants of the Terai since the Paleolithic. Tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity within Tharus that spread throughout the Terai region attest their occupation of the land for centuries. However, it is interesting that there is little linguistic similarity between the Tharus and the hunter-gatherers of central Nepal suggesting that there may have been very little interactions between the populations of the hills and that of the plains. Furthermore, Rautes that are still nomadic and Rajis that recently gave up nomadic lifestyle may have resided in central Nepal before the advent of agriculture. Many more ethnicities of Nepal may have inhabited the Himalayan foothills since ancient times but little is known about them. Hence, it is really important to investigate the history of all the peoples of Nepal for accurate presentation of Nepali history and their origins as such studies are also interesting from the perspectives of human evolution. Himalayas are believed to have acted as a barrier for gene flow between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. However, the fertile Himalayan foothills with diverse flora and fauna may have been a Mesolithic melting pot for migrants from both the sides of the Himalayas since Mesolithic times. Understanding the origins and demographic histories of present tribes of Nepal may reveal novel aspects of ancient human dynamics in Asia.

In summary, there is abundant evidence that present day Nepal was inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic and a culture unique to Nepal existed by Mesolithic. It is possible that hunter-gatherer populations currently residing in central Nepal, such as Kusundas, Chepangs, Rautes, and Rajis may be the descendents of the Patu people that developed the first culture of Nepal some 7000 years ago. There is a dire need for additional archeological, anthropological, linguistic, and genomic studies to understand the ancient history of Nepal accurately.

[2] Hodgson, B. H. (1848) J. Asiat. Soc. Bengal 17 , 73–78

[3] Forbes, C. J. F. (1877) Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, New Series, Vol. 9,No. 2,  pp. 421-424

[4] Reinhard, J. & Toba, T. (1970) A Preliminary Linguistic Analysis and Vocabulary of the Kusunda Language (Summer Institute of Linguistics, Kirtipur, Nepal).

[5] Whitehouse et al. (2004) Kusunda: An Indo-Pacific language in Nepal. PNAS Vol. 101,No. 15, pp. 5692-5695

[6] Watters, D. (2005) Notes on Kusunda grammar (a language isolate of Nepal). Kathmandu: National Foundation for the Development of Indigenous Nationalities.

[7] Rijal A. 2011. Surviving on knowledge: ethnobotany of Chepang community from midhills of Nepal. Ethnobotany Res Appl 9:181-215.

[8] Rasmussen, M. et al. (2011) An Aboriginal Australian Genome Reveals Separate Human Dispersals into Asia. Science Vol. 334, No. 6052, pp.94-98


Filed under Anthropology, Evolution, Human Evolution, My Life My Thoughts, Nepal

Ancient history of Nepal: A Raw Draft #1

Being a Nepali I always wondered about the History of Ancient Nepal. As I began reading, I realized that most accounts of the history of Nepal are incomplete. This incompleteness probably may have historically resulted due to rulers preventing historians writing about the glorious days of their predecessors and due to lack of materials in ancient Nepal.

I want to highlight though, not being a historian myself, my knowledge of historical accounts related to Nepal is not that deep. However, having grown up in Nepal, I know that at least when we were in schools (SLC batch 1998) we were taught limited history and we were taught that Nepal was a fragmented state before Prithvi Narayan Shah united it into modern Nepal. Many historians subscribe this thought. However it is important, especially in today’s context where Nepal is being divided into ethnic states, to understand the pre-Shah history of Nepal. Who ruled Nepal before the Shahs? When did Nepal as a state begin? When did the peoples of Nepal come to Nepal? Who were the first peoples of Nepal?

In this blog post, I seek to find answers to these questions. I will update this post as I find more materials and I request readers to advise me and correct me where I am wrong. I hope that by making my effort open to public at its nascent I will have more opportunities to reach those that are knowledgeable about the ancient history of Nepal and I sincerely hope that readers will kindly support my endeavor by showering me with constructive criticism, suggestions, and advice.

Nepal as a state emerged in its present for only in the late eighteenth century when the small hill kingdom of Gorkha, some eighty miles west Kathmandu, brought much of the Himalayan foothills and an adjoining strip of the North Indian plain under its control, and the kingdom’s Shah dynasty moved its court to the Kathmandu Valley.

The above quote is from John Whelpton’s A History of Nepal (Cambridge University Press, 2005). This resonates well with the historical accounts provided by other sources such as Nepal Home Page. The more I read about the history of Nepal, the more I realize that the works of Iman Singh Chemjong is not incorporated in works of historians such as Whelpton. According to Iman Singh Chemjong,

According to Wikipedia where book of Rishikesh Shaha is cited, Nepal was inhabited by the “gopālavaṃśi or “Cowherd family”, whose names often end in -gupta and are said to have ruled for some 491 years. They are said to have been followed by the mahaiṣapālavaṃśa or “Buffalo-herder Dynasty”, established by an Indian Rajput named Bhul Singh.” This also resonates well with that we were taught in high school. Wikipedia suggests that Kiratis, “who may have arrived from the west to the Kathmandu valley…ruled for about 1225 years (800 BCE-300 CE), their reign had a total of 29 kings during that time. Their first king was Elam; also known as Yalambar, who is referenced in the epic Mahabharata.” However, this account contradicts with another post in Wikipedia, The history of Limbuwan where it is argued that “First people to live permanently and calling Limbuwan home was the Kirant people”. However, peoples of Limbuwan came from Assam in the West and Kirantis as referenced above came form the West. Also, the time period when Yalamber’s people ruled Nepal (800-300 BCE) and the time period when Bhauiputahang Dynasty of Limbuwan ruled Nepal (580 BC) overlap. This suggests that parts of Nepal was populated by Kiranti of the West around 800 BCE which were then joined by Limbu peoples of the East some 300 years later. Thus, ‘Kirants’ today refer to both these populations in the past. Also, Wikipedia suggests Limbuwan existed with Bhauiputahang Dynasty but Iman Singh Chemjong’s Kirantkalin Vijaypurko Sankshipta Itihaasa (1975) suggests that the regions ruled by the Kirants was only called Limbuwan after the ten Shan Mokwan leaders came victorious over the Kirati kings around 550 AD.

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Filed under Anthropology, Nepal