By: Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The title may be shocking. Perhaps my choice of title bespeaks an unattractive scepticism.
But isn’t all scientific discoveries that were once thought to be in the realm of God shocking?
Natural disasters as are now happening in the north of Japan were once considered to be the wrath of God. Now the theory of “plate tectonics” explains.
The Japanese mega earthquake on March 11 2011 and the resulting Tsunami have been caused by movements of earth’s two tectonic plates – the Asian plate and the Pacific plate gliding towards each other and one pushing the other down under.
It happened two days after warnings that the movement of the moon – the so called “supermoon” (big moon) coming closure to earth than at anytime since 1992 – just 221,567 miles away and its gravitational pull will cause chaos to earth. The earthquake at the bottom of the sea caused the massive Tsunami waves, 10 m high rushing towards the land at the speed of a jetfighter plane.
To the shifting goalposts of the illusory origin of the Meitei I would like to add another shift with a new persuasion pitch aimed at the like-minded scientific folks to look together at the sequencing of Meitei genome in order to discover the facts of our ancestral origin.
I have a hypothesis that introduces to the reader that the Meitei might have originally come from Africa. Breakthroughs in science are all about trumping probabilities. At the least, it will reveal a more scientific aspect of Meitei genealogy.
The depth of our collective history of Meiteis has countless stories and traditions. Folk
traditions, notoriously, have a way of getting into history in stable identity. Hindsight has not robbed Meitei history of much of its mystery and wonders and we have to find the ending. We are now nearer to finding the answers we have been looking for, with analysis and deduction.
In days gone by, a handful of colonial officials wrote our ethnographies, in which they always included a guesswork description of the migratory origin of the tribes of northeast India. In the absence of records, colonial and missionary observers searched for stories of migration as a substitute.
The origin of the Meitei has so far been in the wilderness time as we continued to skim the shallow surface of our history. However, the missing link of Meitei evolution will be found in the foreseeable future by decoding the full sequence of DNA of the Meitei genome. That will reveal backward, the Meitei origin from Africa in a specific texture of time, place and circumstance.
The plumbline of truth points to new genetic evidence that all the tribal populations of Manipur (Meiteis excluded), and other tribal peoples of the northeast of India except the Khasis are related to the Southeast Asian populations and that their language is Tibeto-Burman.
The arrival of Tibeto-Burman speaking Mongoloids to Manipur is around 1,000 BCE, but the finding of Neolithic tools at Napachik is around 2,000 BCE (Gangumei Kabui, History of Manipur p53).
From the prehistory of the Meitei there is minor historical evidence that the proto-Meitei Poireiton and other six clans first settled in the hill caves of Manipur.
There is definite identifiability that the artefacts discovered in the surrounding hill caves, such as Kanghu and Hundung in Ukhrul; Machi in Chandel; Tharon in Tamenglong, were used by Meitei ancestors towards the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age ( a period marked by great fluctuations in temperature) dating back 20,000 years.
The discovery of Stone Age artefacts at Napachik (1981) in Wangu village, Bishnupur district (O K Singh, Stone Age Archaeology of Manipur pp 66, 67) is corroborating evidence to support the Meitei settlement in the Imphal plain during the Stone Age.
Meiteis do not speak Tibeto-Burman, but Meitei Lon, which is a language isolate ie a natural language with no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages (Matisoff, Bradley, Van Driem).
Given the available evidence cited above, there could be no blood relationship between the Meitei and other native tribes of Manipur. In scientific terms, there is no genotypic relationship though phenotypically similar.
My scientific hypothesis is not just a passionate epistemological contemplation but explores the implications of DNA sequencing of the people of north, south and northeast India, but for some unknown reason the Meitei have always been excluded. Without giving a laundry list they found that all the tribal peoples of Manipur are genetically related to the peoples of Southeast Asia but not to the Meitei.
On the critical question of the ancestral Meitei population, the last group from which every one of us alive today descended, we need to look at the evolution of human species, beginning with Australopithecus and continuing with Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens were the immediate ancestors of modern man.
Based on the phylogenetic and DNA sequence studies of our earliest human ancestors (including the human tapeworm) from northeast Africa (“Out of Africa model”) my hypothetical perspective gives direction and resonance to the probable direct African origin of the Meitei.
Reputable geneticists all over the world including the Chinese, describe how the first humans from Africa, after their exodus 50,000 years ago reached India and the northeast India, and how they expanded through this narrow land corridor to the east (Manipur).
Human evolution is characterised by a number of changes such as morphological, developmental, physiological and behavioural, which have taken place since the division between the last common ancestor of humans and the chimpanzees, 5 million years ago after a severe drought in Africa.
‘Anatomically modern humans’ or archaic humans (Homo sapiens) first appeared in the fossil records 200,000 years ago in Ethiopia (northeast Africa). When the ‘modern humans’ (Homo sapiens sapiens – subspecies of Homo sapiens) replaced the archaic humans, the human gene pool was split into three main branches: African, Asian, and European. Each branch followed a new separate evolutionary path.
Geneticists now can trace the movements of our ancestors who left northeast Africa numbering only 150 and entered Arabia 50,000 years ago. They also can trace how within a few thousand years, their descendants, the Homo sapiens (wise man) destroyed the early
hominoid (more like a human) species – Neanderthals, who left Africa many thousand years previously and settled in Europe; and Homo erectus (standing man) in Asia.
Based on a study of Y chromosomes, Su et al (2002) have contended that after the proto-Tibeto-Burman people left their homeland in the Yellow River, the Baric branch moved southward and peopled the northeastern Indian region after crossing the Himalayas. These Tibeto-Burman speakers entered India through the northeastern corridor. The Dravidian tribals were possibly widespread throughout India before the arrival of the Indo-European speaking people, but retreated to southern India to avoid dominance.
As the Meitei do not speak Tibeto-Burman they could not have come to Manipur from China.
Genetic differentiation is believed to have started on the human population in the upper Palaeolithic Age. It is generally estimated that ancestral humans evolved into contemporary physical appearance about 200,000 years ago.
Indian scientists – Kumar et al from Hyderabad in collaboration with the Department of Anthropology, North Eastern Hill University at Shillong (2007) studied the Y chromosome of the Khasi population and found evidence suggesting a common paternal heritage of Austro-Asiatic populations of India with those of the Southeast.
Following the ‘Out of Africa model’, early humans arrived in India via Arabia, where they split into two. One travelled along the coastlines of southern Asia- to Australia and China. The other expanded along the land route of northeast India to Southeast Asia and Europe.
The land route passed through Manipur where a small population separated and stayed. The Darwinian view of the evolution of diversity is that populations begin to diverge when they have the chance to be geographically separated.
It is generally agreed that the first migrations from Africa expanded towards South East Asia and East Asia more than 40,000 years ago, through a unique narrow passageway of Northeast India (Neil and Roychoudhury 1993; Cavalli-Sforza, Mennozi, and Piazza 1994; Lahr and Foley 1994; Cann 2001).
It is suggested that after the end of the Last Ice Age, as the weather in the northern hemisphere warmed up, the water in the valley of Manipur dried up leaving only a few low-lying areas as lakes, such as Yaralpat, Lamhelpat etc, the proto-Meitei descended to the plain from the surrounding hills in droves at different times of their choosing.
Natural selection acts solely by accumulating slight, successive, favourable variations (Darwin). Though the accuracy of any phylogenetic tree is questionable the Meitei are genetically isolated groups of people.
What deserves special attention in the autochthonous state of the Meitei is their divergence in culture and values.
The writer is based in the UK