Tag Archives: Kusunda

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
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New Materials on Kusunda Language: BK Rana

Noteworthy:The article has been edited. Strike out text represents my opinions.

( Presented to the Fourth Round Table International Conference on Ethnogenesis of South and Central Asia, Harvard University, Cambridge MA, USA.May 11 – 13, 2002 )

General Background

  • The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal is extremely rich and complex in cultural as well as linguistic diversity. Kusunda is one of the ethnic groups of Nepal whose language and culture is believed to be precious to the students of ethnology.
  • Kusundas are also known as one of the indigenous peoples of Nepal. They feel embarrassed being introduced as the Kusundas. Therefore, they seem to have shifted to other languages and cultures apparently leaving an impression of their extinction. Their tribal name is myahq -‘king of forests’. Now though, times have changed and Kusundas take pride in being Kusundas. I met with 17 Kusundas in February 2007 in Dang and they were not embarrassed at all.
  • British Resident Representative to Nepal, Brian H. Hodgson said about Kusundas that “they were generally supposed to be autochthones, or primitive inhabitants of the country, were near to what is usually called the state of nature as anything in human shape can well be, deemed very precious by all the real students of ethnology.Their origin, condition and character are, in truth, ethnic facts of high value, as proving how tribes may be dislocated and deteriorated during the great transitional eras of society” (Hodgson 1857). This information is brief and sketchy and demands more research regarding the Kusunda origins.

Kusunda Ethnicity and Population

  • Kusundas are also called Banarajas – Kings of the forests, because they used to live in the forests, called themselves *myahak[1] had a kind of taxation system over Rautes[2]. Kusundas were Kings and Rautes were their subjects. Generally Rautes run away if they happen to see a Kusunda from a distance.
  • 7 Kusundas, in the central and mid-western hills of Nepal, are believed to be ethnically pure by origin. There are few other Kusundas of mixed origin; including them the Kusunda population in Nepal will not exceed fifty in total[3].
  • Both ‘Banaraja’ and ‘Kusunda’ are names given to the ‘myahq peoples’ (Kusundas) by other communities. Kusundas are also said to be the offspring of ‘Kusha’– Rama’s second son born from ‘kusha grass’ in Valmiki’s Cottage. This story is well depicted in The Ramayana. Chepangs[4] also believe they are the offspring of Sita’s first son Lohari or Lava who is also very famous in the Ramayana. Lohari and Kushari were two sons of Sita. Later Lohari and Kushari became rivals. Then the Kusundas and Chepangs began to liveseparately. Some of the Chepang cognates have some similarity with that of Kusunda’s. Both Kusunda and Chepangs are found in the hills of Nepal.

Kusunda Language

  • Kusunda language has been cited as a dead language. But it is not completely dead yet there are still a few survivors who can communicate in Kusunda language. Professor David Watters has already constructed Kusunda grammar.

 

  • Kusunda culture is nonexistent now. But, there is their language which, originated in the Sino-Tibetan area;or it could be an earlier language in this area. There are some who believe present Kusunda cognates might be Tibeto-Burman borrowings. If it is to be believed, then Kusunda will be a ‘barren’ language without its own cognates for objects such as: *ing (sun), *ngsa (fish), *uyu (blood),*gepan (language), *un (trail), *langhai (village), *suta (thread), *mucha (banana), *kakchi (crab), *tu (snake), etc. So, it is a matter of thorough research.
  • Robert Shafer (1954) was the first scholar to notice Kusunda as a language isolate. Professor H. Fleming as well as most other linguists also believe that this is a language isolate. Yet, it may also be argued that Indo-European, Tibeto-Burman as well as other languages also shared with Kusunda.
  • It is a matter of serious study as to what is the genesis of Kusunda language in the Himalayas.

Reinhard-Toba Data:

  • John Reinhard and Sueyoshi Toba also worked on Kusunda some 32 years ago. Their data are the primary data recorded by Reinhard from the field, which were later analyzed by Toba in Kathmandu. But, the latter had not been able to see and speak with the Kusundas in person.Both of them were non-native researchers. I have found a number redundant data in Reinhard-Toba lists, nevertheless, it is a scientifically accomplished work. Reinhard has honestly admitted “this (Kusunda analysis) unfortunately was based on very little data, is incomplete and contains several errors; significant variants obtained from different informants have been listed. Several of these terms could not be checked and therefore the list should not be considered definitive” Reinhard (1976). Therefore, there are also some inevitable redundancies.

Similarities with Other Languages

  • Having found some sorts of similarities with a few indigenous languages of the Tibeto-Burman family, Kusundas probably originated in the Sino-Tibetan area. Kusunda *mahi (water buffalo) and *mai(mother) are similar to Central Magar mahi and mai, with the same meanings; cf. also Sanskrit mahisha. Kusunda mai is quite close to Sanskrit *maataa meaning ‘mother’. Some other Tibeto-Burman linguistic communities also have ‘mai’ for mother. In the same manner Kusunda and Magar say suta for ‘thread’ and its Prakrit is sutta and in Sanskritit is suutra.
  • Some linguists differ with my view on the origin of Kusunda. They believe that Kusunda is a language isolate – not sharing recent common origin with any languages. But my recent findings confirm that Kusunda has noticeable affinities with a number of indigenous languages spoken across northern belt of Nepal. Therefore, it is possible that this language originated in the Sino-Tibetan area and other major language families also shared with it.

(Full article can be obtained from the link above.)

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Reamins of Kush in Africa

What exactly does Kush mean to you? Probably Hindu god Rama’s son if you are a Hindu. And how about Kerma? May be misspelled Karma. But these two words have completely different meanings to archaeologists. A recently published article in The New York Times reports Kush, currently in Egypt, was an ancient kingdom that stretched 750 plus mile in Africa and its capital was Kerma. The Kushite kingdom has been dated back to around second millennium B.C.

 Not only are Kush and Kerma both Hindu terms but they also kind of resonate with an age-old story told in Nepal. The Kusundas of Nepal used to be nomadic until just a few decades ago. According to their story, they originated from Kush, one of the twin sons of Rama who was made the king of the forests. Could it be that once exiled, Kush and his army headed east, reached Egypt and established the kingdom of Kush?  The idea of Kush establishing a kingdom after his own name in Egypt is bizarre; however, Hindu supremacists may hold it true unless proven false. Even scientific evidence can be quoted–among the geneticists, it is a very well known fact that humans moved out of Africa to various parts of the world including India and later, they moved into Africa from India as well.  

Although based on the linguistic similarities one might contend that Hindus of India established Kushite kingdom, the chances of this hypothesis being true are very limited. Yet, my curiosity still lingers what can explain the similarities between an ancient African kingdom and a Hindu god?

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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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