An extinct race of Neanderthal-like humans populated the Tibetan plateau more than 100,000 years ago and passed on genes that help modern-day Sherpas survive at high altitudes, a ground-breaking new discovery suggests. A 160,000-year-old Denisovan jawbone unearthed in a cave in Xiahe, China, is the oldest hominid fossil ever found in the vast Himalayan region that has an average altitude of 4,500 metres (14,800ft). Until now physical evidence of Denisovans had only been known from fossils from a single cave site in Siberia. But traces of Denisovan DNA have been detected in present-day Asian, Australian and Melanesian populations, suggesting that they may have once been widespread.
A virtual reconstruction of the Denisovan jawbone that was found (Picture: Jean-Jacques Hublin/PA) Both Denisovans and their sister human sub-species, the Neanderthals, are known to have interbred with the ancestors of people living today. Most intriguingly, modern Sherpas and Tibetans appear to have inherited Denisovan genetic variants that help them cope with high altitudes. The new find suggests that they settled on the Tibetan plateau thousands of years before early modern humans, and the two groups later interbred. Baishiya Karst Cave, where the jawbone was discovered, is at an altitude of 3,280 metres (10,760 feet). A view of the cave where the bones were found (Picture: PA) Scientists were unable to find any DNA preserved in the fossil, but managed to extract proteins from one of the molars. Analysis showed that it was clearly Denisovan. Dr Dongju Zhang, from Lanzhou University in China’s Gansu province, who co-led the research, said: ‘Archaic hominins occupied the Tibetan plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and successfully adapted to high-altitude, low oxygen environments long before the regional arrival of modern Homo sapiens.’ The well-preserved jawbone is robust with very large molars, features shared by Denisovans and Neanderthals, according to the study reported in Nature journal. A heavy carbonate crust covering the fossil allowed scientists to date it to at least 160,000 years old. The oldest specimens from ‘Denisova Cave’ in Siberia are from a similar time period. However, the Siberian site is only 700 metres (2,296ft) above sea level. Modern day humans are not thought to have arrived on the Tibetan plateau until around 40,000 years ago. Sherpas in Nepal (Picture: Alex Brylov/Getty Images) Sherpas have lived in the Himalayas for at least 6,000 years. Studies have shown that they have developed a physiology similar to that of a fuel-efficient car. Their muscles get more mileage out of less oxygen than those of the average person. Sherpas have mitochondria – tiny rod-like power plants in cells – that are extra-efficient at using oxygen. While their red blood cell count is increased in thin mountain air, it remains below the point at which the blood thickens and strains the heart, causing altitude sickness. The Denisovan jawbone was originally discovered in 1980 by a local monk. He donated it to the sixth Gung-Thang Living Buddha, a Buddhist Lama, or teacher, who passed it to Lanzhou University.
“Who lived here?”, “when did they live here?”, “what culture did they have?” and “how did their culture change?” are just some of the questions posed by Prehistory and Archaeology of Northeast India, a book that probes the origins of human settlement, culture and ecology in North East India. Written by archaeologist Manjil Hazarika, it is a work of exhaustive research – the result of several years of digging, documenting and amalgamating the prehistoric remnants of the region.
The origin of humans in this part of the world has nearly always been shrouded in mystery. North East India, owing to its myriad climate and landscape-related factors have also always posed problems for archaeological research.ADVERTISEMENT
Often, anthropologists, who are partly interested in archaeology, prey on such predicaments to comment on the current demographic, ethnic and cultural patterns of populations. State evasion or tax resistance is one such highly popular refrain. The emergence of human societies and their cultures in North East India is promoted by a self-sufficient relationship that is deeply embedded in their natural environments. To that end, the debatable proposition of the inevitability of the present-day state and its territorial continuity seems to be a questionable and easy reduction. Nevertheless, the crux is: to what extent should North East India be considered a disconnected enclave or a facilitator in connected histories?
Hazarika argues that early movements of people through North East India have been recorded only since the late Pleistocene or Early Holocene period. Due to dense forests, hilly terrain, heavy rainfall and harsh climatic conditions, this area was unfavourable for humans during the Pleistocene. But he claims that this region is one of the principal geographic corridors for faunal migrations between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia.
Unfortunately, this has never figured in theoretical discussions on early hominid dispersals because North East India has been considered as a geographical barrier for early flux of hominids from Africa to South East and East Asia via the Indian subcontinent in the Early and Middle Pleistocene. Some scholars still suggest a tentative route of such a population movement through the North East Indian corridor. One of them, Marwick, proposes the possibility of a coastal route for the initial migration of hominids into South East Asia from West Asia along the coast of South Asia and Burma. In the prehistoric times, according to scholars, there might have been potentially two entry routes to the Indian subcontinent – Afghanistan and Pakistan in the North West and Burma in the North East. The region, thus, reflects a major human and faunal corridor between India and South East Asia at least.
Based on archaeological evidences of diverse stone-related industries, potteries and celts found in different parts of North East India, Hazarika suggests that human culture in this entire region is often associated with the Neolithic time zone though many argue about mixed evidences of Paleolithic traces. The Neolithic is an important time frame for North East India given the many changes in culture that occurred during this transitional period. This shift from food procurement to food production was solely based on the local domestication of plants and animals, rather than knowledge imported from neighbouring regions. Hence, the popular term “Neolithic Revolution” aptly suits this stage.ADVERTISEMENT
However, there is virtually no evidence of any Chalcolithic, Bronze or Iron Age in the North East Indian context, Hazarika writes. Excavations at several early farming sites in the Gangetic plain have shown a steady cultural development, with both Neolithic and Chalcolithic characteristics culminating in the formation of state by the middle of the first millennium BCE. This cultural development, also designated as the Iron Age, was supported by extensive cultivation of rice, development of irrigation facilities and production of surplus agricultural products in the fertile plains of the Ganges.
But the Brahmaputra valley witnessed the first formation of state only from the middle of the first millennium CE onwards, clearly after a gap of a millennium with the Ganges. In Assam, prominent political and cultural centres emerged only from the fourth to fifth century onwards. The reason behind the absence of subsequent cultural developmental stages from Neolithic to the emergence of states or kingdoms is yet to be addressed for this region, the author states.
It is often surmised that fluvial predominance might have led to a habitat shift from the plains to the hills during this interim period. Not to mention the complex relationship of man and acidic soil in the lowland areas. There is also the possibility of losing many probable archaeological sites of the missing stages due to frequent changes in the Brahmaputra’s course during the flood season and heavy erosion.
Rice and beyond
Rice has a deep ancestry in the North Eastern region, visible and embedded in the culture, life and economy of the inhabitants. The crop has been crucial in the economic development of societies in different environmental and cultural contexts. The environmental scientist TT Chang recognises the area between North India and the Pacific coast of Vietnam and southern China to be the origin of rice agriculture.ADVERTISEMENT
The origin of rice still remains a puzzle due to the complex evolutionary dynamics of rice cultivars and their wild progenitors. The closest wild relatives of cultivated rice are identified as Oryza nivara and Oryza rufipogon, found primarily in South East Asia and India. Hazarika writes that rice is one of the most widely cultivated crops in the region since the early Neolithic times. It has shaped the culture and diet of the people occupying a large part of the Asian landmass and can also be considered the root of civilisation in these areas.
In North East India, rice is not only the staple food – the extended influences of the crop can be found in local festivals, rituals, dance, songs and folklore. Preparation of rice beer as a common cultural practice is widely found among a large number of ethnic groups like the Dimasas, the Kacharis, the Ahoms, the Mishings, the Bodos, the Khasis and the Angamis. Most festivals and rituals in the North East have an agricultural basis akin to the cultivation of rice. For example, Bihu, the most important festival cycle of Assam has a three-tier celebration during a year, duly matched with the three stages of the agricultural cycle of the sali rice farming system.
In addition to rice, North East India is also home to the cultivated species of bananas known by their genus name, Musa. One of the chief plants to be grown widely in the hilly tracts of North East India by slash-and-burn cultivators, the Musa is a multifarious crop utilised as medicine, fruit, beverage, fibre for cloth, dye and fuel. It has recently been found that edible bananas originated from the hybridisation of two wild Musa species and it is believed that the region stretching across Assam, Burma, Siam and Indochina is the source of this banana species.
North East India, above all, played a crucial role in the early domestication of several animal species. Some of these include cattle, yak, mithun, banteng and buffalo. The Indian bison, also known as gaur, is widely distributed in the Himalayan foothills, from the Narayani River through North Bengal to the Siang River in the Mishmi Hills, the hill tracts of Chittagong, Mizo Hills, Manipur and the Meghalaya plateau.ADVERTISEMENT
Buffalos and bullocks are common domestic animals in Assam. These animals are used for ploughing, threshing and transporting goods, the horn of the buffalo is used for making the pepa (flute), which is an essential musical instrument that is played during Bihu. Likewise, possessing a mithun is considered a prosperous sign for many ethnic tribal groups in Arunachal Pradesh. The animal species is also used as a marriage gift and also sacrificed at cultural ceremonies and rituals.
An early agricultural model
Slash-and-burn, shifting, swidden or jhum cultivation is the most common and ancient agriculture practice in the tropical hilly regions of North East India. It has been argued that this system of farming was widely practiced among the hill communities of Asia, Africa and Latin America since the Neolithic period. In the context of North East India, however, the archaeologist TC Sharma claims that an agricultural practice almost similar to shifting cultivation was prevalent during the Neolithic period.
This kind of agriculture ideally suits the relationship between man and his environment at altitudes above the flood plains. Jhum, an agricultural practice of the uplands, is more importantly the basis of subsistence farming that enables maintenance of social stability and an eco-cultural identity among highland peoples. It has overwhelmingly influenced population mobility, material culture and settlement patterns among the hill peoples of North East India. This is quite contrary to what many anthropologists would simply reduce as modern-day tax evasion stratagems. The term “jhum” is an Assamese word, although there are other local terms used by farmers in other parts of the region. Most significantly, archaeological data also affirms that the practice of shifting cultivation stands out as a distinct transitional stage between nomadic hunting-gathering and sedentary agriculture, a decisive step in the evolution of agriculture and modern land husbandry.
What is important, nonetheless, is the relation of this region with the idea of the state. From archaeological evidence, Hazarika concludes that the earliest state formation in the region was not necessarily, as often thought, due to the inflow of Indo-Europeans into Assam, but as a result of intermittent trade between India and today’s China. The Chinese emissary, Zhang Qian, during his visit to Bactria in 127 BCE noticed bamboo and textiles from Southwestern China being sold in the local market. These objects were purportedly brought to eastern India via Yunnan and Burma and finally reached northern India and Afghanistan.ADVERTISEMENT
By considering historical and archaeological sources, scholars have also emphasised the Assam-Burma pathway as facilitating movement in ancient times. Chances abound that there may have been trade routes linking the Mauryan capital Pataliputra with southern China through the Brahmaputra valley and the Bhamo area of north Burma. Archaeological sources further speculate that the Indian Ocean trade network passed through the Assam valley overland to Yunnan at the beginning of the Common Era.
There is undoubtedly ample evidence to lay claim upon the fact that the North East Indian region has never been an isolated backwater even during prehistoric times. To perceive life, culture and politics of the region in terms of just Euro-centric dogmas would simply be facile. By opening the region to other histories and social trajectories, this book undeniably validates that North East India is a potent thread in interwoven histories.