Monthly Archives: July 2006

Chhantyals: The Forgotton Miners of Nepal


Nepal was believed to be a common garden of four varnas and thirty six jaatis (ethnicities). Anthropologists and linguists have identified more than sixty eight ethnicities and seventy plus languages in Nepal. One of these ethnicities is Chhantyals who reside in the mountains and valleys of Myagdi, Baglung, Lumbini, and Mustang districts (Dhawalagiri Zone in the Western Developmental Region of Nepal). Chhantyals have their own culture, rituals, religion, traditions, and language. Although some anthropological research has been able to incorporate the Chhantyals, their origin is still a mystery. The population of Chhantyals is estimated to be around 15,000.

Although Chhantyals look ‘Mongoloid’ and speak Tibeto-Burman language, some believe that they are of Indo-European origins. However, it is possible that they had ancestors of both lineages. According to some anthropologists the Chhantyals came to the Himalayas of Nepal from Tibet about 1500 years ago. In the past Chhantyals (Chhanthyals) have been  miners of copper and once spread from Far-Western Developmental Region to the Western Developmental Region of Nepal.

There are not any scientific studies to suggest either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman origins of the Chhantyals; however, there are ample stories and folktales to tell their tale. According to one of them, Chhantyals used to live in the valley of Sinja (Jumla district of Karnali Zone in the Mid-Western Development Region of Nepal). There have been various official papers discovered indicating the existence of the Chhantyals in Myagdi since V.S. 1654 (1598 A.D.). Also, ancient coins, weapons, and metric tools indicate that Chhantyals were socially sophisticated people. The traditional potteries discovered in various villages indicate they were amateur potters as well. To quote the author regarding the glorious past of the Chhantyals:

Chhantyal nation was in existence before the Unification Campaign of His Majesty the great Prithivi Narayan Shah. As a separate principality they had reigned too. Three swords and a shield found at Kuine Khani Village, Myagdi vouch that Chhantyal was a Marshal Race.

Historically, Nepal consisted of various minute states and they used to battle against each other routinely. It is probable that Chhantyals once had their own kingdom. Various lost battles with other kings might have forced Chhantyals, the indigenous peoples of the Dhawalagiri Zone to move east. Those who reached Chhyantsu in Dhorpatan valley (Baglung Zone) became known as the Chhan Styal and later this name deteriorated to become Chhantyal.

Even though the folktales and stories give us a glimpse of the Chhanthyal history, they still do not indicate either Indo-European or Tibeto-Burman link. According to NEFIN.org, “as inhabitants of the Magrant region, the Chhantyal culture and habits resemble those of the Magars.” However, Mr. DB Gharabja Chhantyal indicate no association of Chhantylas to Magars. Sometimes scientists use domesticated plants and animals to track people’s ancient history. For example, a Polynesian scientist in Australia was trying to figure out where her ancestors came from using rats because the only way rats could have come to the islands was via the boats that brought her ancestors to the islands.

Unfortunately alternate ways of finding a clue about their past is to no avail because Chhantyals were nomadic and took farming only about half a century ago. Chhantyals were miners; since the twelfth century the Chhantyals have been mining copper ore and paying taxes to the Nepali government. Interestingly, they used no tools while mining; they would survey the area, taste the soil and rocks to pinpoint the exact location of the mine! Being miners they lived around the mines. Thus, the traditional Chhantyal villages in Myagdi and Baglung still have a suffix-“khani” meaning ‘mine’ in Nepali. Although traditional miners, they did not have the ownership of the mines but they were mere workers. The hard working Chhantyals used to mine for seven months per year beginning on the full moon day in Mangshir (November-December) and ending on full moon day of Jestha (May-June). There were a total of 44 mines in Baglung and Myagdi which were mined by the Chhantyals and Magars as well.

Extensive mining and the Nepal-East India war changed the lives of the Chhantyals. The war began in V.S. 1872 (1816 A.D.) and every household was required to send at least one person to be in the military. However, the Chhantyals were excused for mining purposes. They could voluntarily apply for the army but it was not mandatory. Also in V.S.1970 (1914 A.D.) the Rana Regime imposed land tax on Chhantyals who were only required to pay taxes on copper. By then, most of the copper from the mines had been extracted and the mines were not very productive. In addition to the taxes on little copper they could mine, the land taxes laws imposed by the government pushed the Chhantyals into desperate poverty in no time. Although they were excused of the copper tax by the Rana Regime in V.S. 1981 (1925 A.D.), their conditions did not change much.

Even though the Chhanthals were primarily miners, they were also involved in petty agriculture and gatherers. They gave up mining and took agriculture (and animal husbandry) as their major profession only after V.S. 2018 (1962 A.D.). However, since the limited land they owned was around the mines and was not very fertile, agriculture was also not able to liberate them from poverty. During the Nepal-East India War, the Nepalis demonstrated their bravery and dedication; as a result they were recruited in the British Army after the Sugauli treaty in V.S. 1872 (1816 V.S.). Since the Chhantyals were not one of those who served in the war, they were not recruited by the British. Thus, the Chhanthyal men started changing their surnames names to serve in the British Army. Thus those who got richer and educated ended up discarding their names and those who remain today are only the poor ones in various remote corners of
Nepal (there are a handful educated and high-position Chhantyals).

There have been occasions when scientists have used religion to trace lineage. Like many indigenous peoples, Chhantyals are also traditionally nature worshippers. They worship natural resources such as hills, springs and their ancestors’ spirits. They also offer animal sacrifices to their deities. They also have Jhankris (shamans) who are believed to be very powerful and cure people with their power and local herbs. They later took Hinduism and Buddhism. They are not many studies done on Chhantyal religion but the chances of finding a link to their ancestral population using their religion is minute.

It is unfortunate that the Chhantyals do not have alphabets, therefore, all their history has been orally passed down from their ancestors. They do use Devanagiri script, the same that Nepali uses now. Even though NEFIN.org indicates that Chhantyal language called Chhantyal Kham is related to Thakali, Tamu (Gurung) and Tamang languages, the data provided by Mr. DB Gharabja Chhanthyal shows no association with Magar, Thakali, Tamu (Gurung), Tibetan, Tamang, or Chinese. The similarities in language could be a fact or some words could simply have been borrowed from these languages because these clans live close by. Whereas, some also believe Chhantyal “culture resembles that of Magars,” NEFIN indicates that Chhantyals of Bhalamja clan consider Kusundas as their ancestors. It was not clear to me with the reading materials available whether they are linguistically closer to Tibeto-Burmans or the Indo-Europeans.

At present, Chhantyals are indigenous peoples of Nepal but it is not known where they came from and when. There seems to be a few assumptions regarding their origins but none seem to present undisputable evidence about where their ancestors came from.

(All the materials in this article were taken from a book Khyoma “(Chhantyal Bhjasama Saathiharu)” by Mr. Dil Bahadur Gharabja Chhantyal and other sources such as www.nefin.org were also referred.)

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The Journey of Man: According to Spencer Wells

“This is not a book on human origins. Rather it is about the journey we have taken as a species, from our birthplace in Africa to the far corners of the earth, and from the earliest evidence of fully modern humans to the present day—and beyond.”

It is likely we all have been asked, “Where do we come from?” by one of our sons and daughters or nieces and nephews. We all have also given an answer to the child and we all know where we come from in the hospital. But where do we really come from? We have genealogies that describe the ‘roots’ of our families but then they too stop at a point in history. Where did that first dude in our families come from? More importantly, where did humans come from?

Two most popular theories of Human evolution are “Out of Africa theory” and “Multiregional Origins theory.” The former contends that humans evolved in Africa then spread around the world. Due to adaptations to various climates the modern humans look different in various parts of the world. The latter argues that humans evolved form previously existing hominids in various parts of the world and thus, the morphological difference.

Although “Out of Africa theory” is accepted by most scientists today, “Multiregional Origins theory” was also popular in the past. Carl von Linneus, who innovated binomial system of nomenclature (Genus and species names), like Darwin, also recognized that all humans belong to the same species. However, he added sub-classifications based on morphological differences of humans; for example, an African was named Homo sapiens afer. This system of classification was adored by the American proslavery lobby to justify the brutality of the slaves in the United States. Although multiregional theory was discarded by scientists and church (because it conflicted with Adam and Eve), there were anthropologists and archeologists who believed in it and a few still do. Such beliefs also led to popularity of Eugenics, which attempted to “improve the gene pool of humanity through the selective breeding of ‘fit’ individuals.” Proponents of eugenics were involved in forced sterilization of ‘unfit’ individuals in the US and principles of eugenics also resulted in “systematic extermination of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and other supposedly inferior groups by the Nazis in the 1940s.”

History teaches us that classification of humans based solely on morphology (appearance) can be misleading. Before 1900, anthropologists and archeologists were concentrating on morphological and linguistic differences but a huge leap in science was taken in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, who discovered blood groups. Classification of humans using blood groups was “the first demonstration of biochemical diversity among living humans.” Diverse frequencies of blood groups among different peoples from all around the world including the Egyptian mummies verified a peek of human diversity. Using the blood groups data, it was discovered that “the majority of the genetic differences in humans were found within populations” and a small difference was found among populations. In 1930s, scientists took one step further by discovering that proteins can act as molecular time clocks. By observing hemoglobin in various animals they discovered that the closer the animals were, the more identical their hemoglobin was. Proteins are encoded by DNA (genes) and it would be best to study DNA itself to study variation. But it was not possible to study DNA in their times due to lack of such technology.

Science develops very fast and scientists did not have to wait for very long to start analyzing the DNA. In 1980s, Professor Allan Wilson of University of California, Berkeley was one of the pioneers to adopt molecular biology techniques to study DNA. There are two types of DNA in our cells, we have our chromosomes inside the nucleus and there is mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) in mitochondrias outside of nucleus. Since one has to account for recombination in nuclear DNA, Wilson was very clever to use mitochondrial DNA to study variation in humans. Mitochondrial genome exists in only one copy and thus there is no recombination but it has more polymorphism (variations) per length of DNA. They sampled many individuals from around the world and reached the following conclusion-“All these mtDNA stems from one woman who is postulated to have lived about 200,000 years ago, probably in Africa.” This woman is known as Mitochondrial Eve. This does not mean that Mitochondrial Eve was the only female alive at that time. It means that there were many females but it was only her descendents that made it to present the descendents of other females died out. The “Out of Africa theory” was born.

It is not only our mtDNA that takes us to Africa in search of our ancestors. Other genes such as beta-globin, CD4, and Chromosome 21 all direct us to African ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA is used to identify out maternal lineage only because we inherit our mitochondrias only from our mother. Conversely, another chromosome in our nuclear genome, Y chromosome, tells us the story of our paternal lineage. It was the innovative peoples in the laboratory of Cvalli-Sforza at Stanford who figured out a way to analyze polymorphisms in Y chromosome and dated the Y chromosome Adam to be 59,000 years old, much younger than the mitochondrial Eve! Does that mean men evolved alter than women? No. It just means that all present day men are derived from the same man living 59,000 years ago and the men before him had descendants who did not make it to the present days. The astonishing fact is that humans were still in
Africa until 60,000 years ago!

There are so many peoples living in Asia and Indonesia is the fossil factory because every now and then we hear about some new fossils being discovered in Java. Then why Africa? Archeological expeditions have discovered lots of fossils in Africa not only of modern man but also of earlier hominids dating millions of years ago. In addition, some fossils are also the links between earlier hominids and modern humans. Also, modern Africans are genetically more diverse than people anywhere else. Combine these facts and we may conclude that our species evolved out of Africa. Also, it is important to understand that Africans are not less evolved than us. The modern Africans are as evolved as any other modern humans. In addition to mtDNA and Y chromosomes, there are other evidences that lead scientists to return to Africa in search of our ancestors. Linguists believe that one of the earliest languages spoken by humans consisted of clicks-clacks and the only people living today who speak the click-clack language are the San peoples of south-western Africa. Thus Linguistic, mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosomes suggest that San peoples “represent a direct link back to our earliest human ancestors.”

Why did humans migrate out of Africa in the first place? It is not true that humans were the first to migrate out of Africa, other hominids before modern humans had stepped in Asia and Europe. However, it was the more intelligent modern man that was able to persist and eventually be the sole owners of the world. The theory of ‘the Great Leap Forward’ proposes that tools, art (conceptual thought), and exploitation of food resources caused major changes in Human behaviour and language was the force behind it. Africa once used to harbor plenty of flora and fauna. There were lots of animals to hunt and the person who could speak and make tools to hunt was able to hunt efficiently and feed his family. He would also mate more women and have more children. When his children grew up, they were smarter than others and they would produce more children. This way in a few generations, the clan would be mostly the descendants of that one man who was able to speak and use tools. Although humans were getting smarter, the climate change in Africa due to the Ice Age 70,000 years ago made life harsh. When humans found it increasingly hard to survive, a few started to take off from their homeland to a nearby area in search of food and water. Gradually they went farther and farther until they conquered the farthest corners of the globe.

Now we understood that humans migrated out of Africa in search of food but how did they manage to reach various parts of the world? There are two proposed routes of migration out of Africa–the inland route and the coastal route. The inland route led humans to the Middle East 50,000 years ago and then to central Asia 35,000 years ago. Due to the Ice Age, the Sahara started expanding in Africa about 70,000 years ago but retracted around 50,000 years ago allowing a gateway to open along the Red Sea. Thus,
Sahara might have acted as “hominid ‘pump’” sustaining human populations in winter but turning into “uninhabitable desert, forcing human emigration” in summer. Once the humans reached the Middle East, they were trapped there because the Sahara reached its driest between 40,000-20,000 years ago. Also, the moisture rich habitat of the Middle East offered a healthy habitat with plenty of food and water resources to humans who had already developed language and used stone tools. From there, it was an easy path for them to wander into central Asia and Mongolia.

From the Middle East, humans gradually entered Asia. In Asia they reached the Pamir Knot (present day Tajikistan) after crossing Hindu Kush only to encounter the barrier that no human had encountered hitherto—the Himalayas and the Tien Shan mountains. The Himalayas was conquered only in the 20th Century by Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay with the aid of modern tools. There was no way our ancestors could have conquered these giant mountains. As a result, they split. One group moved southward into the Indian Subcontinent and the other went northward into Central Asia. According to Y chromosomes studies, our ancestors reached India around 30,000 years ago and central Asia 35,000 years ago using the land route. As the temperature decreased due to the ice age in the northern globe, the humans who went northward form the Hindu Kush had to adapt to the increasing cold. However, the availability of animals for hunting ensured their survival. In China, the two populations that diverged in
Africa, the ones that took the Coastal route and the latter that took the inland route met later. Although humans reached India 30,000 years ago via the land route, the coastal immigrants had reached the Indian soil much earlier (50,000-60,000 years ago). The remnants of this migration are still found in Andaman Islands and in various relict tribes across Asia. Even the Australian Aborigines share the so called ‘Negroid’ features with the Africans. The inland route populated Northern India while the coastal route populated the southern India. The coastal route seems to be the most ancient population that migrated out of Africa and reached Australia through India and South Asia. And later (within last 10,000 years) they moved up north through eastern Chinese coastland and south-eastern Siberian eventually ending up in
North America.

Although coastal migrants reached Americas 10,000 years ago, they were not the first to get there. The first Americans were the Siberians who shared their ancestors with the Europeans. Before 1997 people believed that Europeans descended from Neanderthals, an early branch of hominids that diverged from our common ancestor about 250,000 years ago. However, analysis of mtDNA of Neanderthals demonstrated that “Neanderthal was not the direct ancestor of modern humans. Rather, Neanderthals represented a local population of archaic hominids who were later replaced by Homo sapiens—with no detectable admixture.” The ancestors to the modern Europeans probably reached Europe 30,000 years ago. Although it seems logical to assume that humans moved to the Middle East from Africa and then to Europe, it was not the case. The ancestors of the Europeans come form the small population that went to Pamir Knot (Tajikistan) after splitting in the Hindu Kush. This date is also supported by the fact that Neanderthals vaporized at about the same time from Europe and ‘Aurignacian stone tools’ started appearing. Finally, humans did manage to reach Europe through the Middle East but only about 10,000 years ago.

The ancestors of humans that led to populate Europe also gave rise to the ancestors of the Siberians who occupied the Asian Arctic about 20,000 years ago. It did take humans to adapt culturally to conquer the extreme of Siberia. However, Siberia was not where humans stopped. Archeological findings have suggested a relationship between Siberians and Native Americans. Nuclear and mtDNA analysis validated that humans entered North America through the Bering Strait about 10,000-15,000 years go. Once they reached the grasslands of North America, their population grew exponentially aided by abundance of food and water and much warmer climate. In no time (about 1,000 years) the humans had reached the tip of
South America. However, Siberians were not the only immigrants to reach Americas. Linguistic and Genetic results demonstrate that the Coastal migrants also reached North Americas after the Siberians. These newcomers came through Northern China to south-eastern Siberia and then to North America by boat.

Thus, in mere 40,000 years, humans had reached the farthest corners of the world. They had conquered deserts, oceans, mountains, and even the freezing arctic. Although this may not be the answer our children are expecting, but it is definitely something we ought to know. Hey, after all, we are connected one way or another.

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Who exactly was Hanuman?

Hinduism is very colorful because of all the saints, fairies, and mystical creatures. To the devoted Hindus, all gods seem to be real living beings that once existed or even do exist today in one form or another. For the atheists, they are mere fiction. For me, they are neither. I believe religion and science are separate entities. While science is driven by logic (brains), religion is driven by faith (heart). When all logic fails, I tend to lean towards religion, not because I believe god will come and help but because halting for a bit and praying helps me calm down, gather my senses, and tackle the issue with a clear mind. Besides, I need something powerful in front of which I can remain humble.

Hinduism like any other ancient religion is just an amalgam of philosophy, experiments, and experiences that have been passed down the generations in written or oral form. However, twists and turns have been added in course of time and thus has resulted in its current form. One of my favourite characters in Hinduism is the Hanuman of Ramayana. Hanuman is believed to be “the monkey god”, an incarnation of Shiva, the mightiest of the Holy Trinity. The mighty Hanuman as a child is believed to have swallowed the sun and later became Rama’s dearest. He is believed to have set Lanka on fire and played a significant role in Rama’s army to defeat Ravana of Lanka who had terrorized the entire world.

Did Hanuman really exist or was he just a creation of Balmiki’s mind? If he was just a creation of Balmiki’s mind, why did he choose a monkey for such divine purpose to assist Rama? Hindu religion does offer other even surprising examples of animals serving gods. For example, the heaviest gods of all, Ganesha rides on a mouse. But mouse does not serve any real purpose in any of the stories. So, instead of picking an army of tigers and panthers to defeat a demonic army who had conquered the entire universe, why would anyone pick monkeys? What if monkeys did help Rama on his quest?

When I say monkeys, I do not mean the mischievous Rhesus monkeys that terrorize the pilgrims in Hindu temples. I mean Homo erectus. Recently, Homo erectus fossils were found in Narmada valley (Madhya Pradesh) in India that dated about 0.2-0.7mya. But it was of a short adult (size of modern African Pygmies). The clavicle bone found suggests “a short and stocky Middle Pleistocene hominid with a mediolaterally narrow and anteroposteriorly deep thorax and with well-developed shoulder and neck musculature. Notwithstanding the great variability in clavicle size and shape due to ethnicity, sex and laterality, it is still quite likely that tropical condition in Central India during the Middle Pleistocene favoured a relatively short and stocky hominid” (Sankhyan AR.). However, “the Narmada calvaria possesses some unique anatomical features, perhaps because the specimen reflects the incoherent classificatory condition of the genus Homo” (Kennedy KA, Sonakia A, Chiment J, Verma KK).

Could it be possible that there were Homo erectus in India that co-existed with the modern humans? It is possible that early humans encountered these archaic humans and told stories to their kids. The stories became myths then myths became legends. May be there were year old legends that Valmiki had heard of, those of  monkey men that with lots of hair, projected mouth, and looking like monkeys. May be Valmiki resurrected this age old legend as Hanuman and his people that extended from South of India to Indonesia, which strikingly was also the range of Homo erectus! Just a thought.

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नेपाली कान्छो

A few weks ago, I had a wonderful opportunity to Mcee in “Ma-Ha Night,” a fundraiser for a Nepali hospital organized by the kings of comedy, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya along with their team. Following was the poem I wrote an recited to introduce myself and was recieved by a huge applaud!

आज बिहान जुरुक्क उठेर उत्तरतिर हेरें भन्या त
पुर्व पो रहेछ,
फुल्चोकीको डांडा देख्या जस्तो लग्याथ्यो
फ्रेमोन्ट्  हिल्स पो परेछ ।

दाउरा सुरुवाल खोज्दा खोज्दै…

दाउरा सुरुवाल खोज्दा खोज्दै…
सुट र टाई मात्रै पो भेटिन्छ,
नेपाली टोपी त कता हो कता
पोनी-टेल नै आईसकेछ ।

झसङै भएँ …
लौ न मा त अम्रिकन भएछु कि क्या हो?
लौ न मा त अम्रिकन भएछु कि क्या हो?
तर होइन रैछ ।

फुल्चोकीको डाँडाको सट्टा फ्रेमोन्ट् हिल्ल्स नै देखेपनी,
दाउरा सुरुवाल को ठाउँमा सुट र टाई नै लाए पनि,
पोनी टेल अली लामै भए पनि,
मेरो मन त अझै  नेपाली नै रैछ ।

मेरो मन त हजुर अझै  नेपाली नै रैछ …
अम्रिकन ड्युड् जस्तो देखिएपनी,
यो  आशिष  त  नेपाली  कान्छो नै रैछ,
नेपाली  कान्छो नै रैछ ।।

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Human Race: One or Many?

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is my first post.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with my brother about Human diversity and it ended with discussions on the most popular topic in Human diversity-race. I had never expected to discuss such a topic after a couple of pitchers of beer at a bar. Although the R word is considered politically incorrect, it is probably one of the most discussed topics even today. Even without beer, it is important that we understand what race is all about.

To understand race, we need to consider the origin of the word itself. The concept of race does exist in biology but it is really vague. Race in biology is defined as individuals of the same species and subspecies but are distinct and genetic and morphological differences. On this basis, biologically, humans could be divided into races. However, there are at least two problems. First, the whole concept of  sub-species and races is not defined. Species, in theory, refers to individuals that cannot produce fertile offspring. Speciation occurs by reproductive isolation. But subspecies and race are not well defined and hence fluid.

Second problem with race is that it was popularized not by biologists but by the society. Darwin believed that we all probably come from Africa. Biologically speaking there is one human species for, according to the Darwinian concept, as long as two fertile individuals can interbreed to produce fertile child, they cannot be considered two species.  The concept of race is the outcome of human history. When ancient travelers and sailors started the system of slavery, the slaves usually looked different. Based on morphology and so called ‘lack of culture’ and in the name of ‘civilization’ many peoples have suffered. Race was one way of justifying the injustice on the suppressed by the suppressors.

There is no human race in science. Humans are intelligent and social creatures and our strength is to accept differences among us. We now know that Neanderthals and even Homo erectus lived along with humans for thousands of years. It is probable that humans lived with them in peace but unfortunately, the other hominids were not able to keep up with technologically advanced modern humans. If our ancestors lived with various species of humans, why can we not live in harmony amongst ourselves, besides we all are global citizens…or at least moving towards being one.

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