By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The peopling of India is a very contentious subject, no less then the theory of migration of the Meiteis to Manipur. While some colonial anthropologists hypothesised the migration of Tibetoburman-speaking Mongoloids from the East to the northeast of India, there were indigenous Mongoloid-looking people in central and south India,
In continuing my hypothesis I want to say that I am a theoretical relativist ie my knowledge is relative to the limited nature of my mind. As Einstein said, our theoretical concepts are free inventions of human mind. But I believe, there is a scientific method that leads to the discovery of truth, which may also be relative.
In looking for footprints of our Meitei ancestors all the way from Africa to Manipur it is fascinating to come across the recent finding of some artefacts, possibly belonging to the Old Stone Age (Paleolithic era), in three new caves in Manipur.
Palaeolithic is the period that makes most of the ancient human history. The period began about 2 million years ago and ended 20,000 years ago. Based on the sophistication of the stone tools historians have divided Stone Age into further (a) the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) and (b) the Neolithic (New Stone Age).
The “Out of Africa” hypothesis of human dispersal throughout the globe, and those human ancestors spread by the southern route through Arabia, and India, are now widely accepted.
Once they reached India, they split into two – one going overland through the Northeast land corridor, most probably through Manipur to Burma and the east; the other by the Southern coastal route to Australia, before modern humans made their way northwards into Europe.
The evidence from Arabia is still a bit disappointing. But a recent discovery of a Paleolithic site at Jebel Faya in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), dating to as old as 127,000 years ago, is thought to have involved human crossing of the Red Sea basin via the Strait of Bab al Mandab. However no characteristic hominin fossil remains have been discovered at this site to support the theory.
Before the recent discovery at Jebel Faya, a modern looking fossil remains associated with Middle Paleolithic industries at the Levanthine cave sites of Jebel Qafzeh and Skul, dating in the range of 130-90,000 years ago, were considered to be the first dispersal of early modern humans from Africa. Still the identity and human evolutionary significance of the Qafzeh/Skul populations remain less understood.
The possible genetic evidence or lack of it, of the expansion of early humans through the Northeast Corridor of India by the author, has been discussed in the previous paper – How did the Meitei come from Africa? This paper deals with the recent archaeological discoveries of any early human settlement in India as evidence of the “Out of Africa” model and the Southern route dispersal.
Though scarce, there is now some evidence in India about the arrival of Paleolithic human ancestors, though hominid fossils older than the Upper Pleistocene. A single cranium was discovered among the sediments of the Narmada valley in Madhya Pradesh (its age disputed). Another fossil hominid skull was also recovered from Hathnora, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh that is currently thought to be of Middle Pleistocene age (Sonalia and Biswas 1985).
A recent research published in 2009 by a team led by Michael Petraglia of the University of Oxford, suggested that some humans did live in India and they may have survived the hypothesized catastrophe on the Indian mainland after the TOBA volcanic ash fall.
The team discovered tools and human habitations from both before and after the eruption. However, human fossils have not been found from this period and nothing is known of the ethnicity of these early humans in India.
The excavation was at an open site at Jwalaparam, located in the Jurreru river valley of Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh in South India.
A massive volcano erupted in Sumatra in Indonesia about 74,000 years ago. The huge 1,000 km wide crater left by the eruption is now a massive lake TOBA. The eruption spewed out massive clouds of ash, and this ash has been found deep beneath the seabeds of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, as well as on the Indian subcontinent.
The square trench the archaeologists have dug up is to find out whether human beings have been living there and if they did, could they have survived the ashfall?
Dr Petralgia and Prof Ravi Korisettar of Karnatak University are quite convinced that the tools they have discovered with the Toba ash, dating to between 70,000 and 80,000 years ago, are indicative of anatomically modern humans.
At Jwalaparam some artefacts were found below the Toba tuff including 215 stone artefacts and a piece of striated ochre, stone tools made of limestone, quartzes, retouched bladed and a burin. They have been identified as Indian Middle Paleolithic. They have been dated by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) at 77,000+/- 6,000.
Artefacts found above the Toba tuff, dated by OSL to 74,000+/-6,000 BP, contained 108 stone artefacts of limestone, chert, chalcedony and quartzite blades representing the Middle Paleolithic. The evidence points to the survival of some people after the catastrophe.
The archaeologists believe that the evidence collected from the Jwalparam Ash
deposits support the theory of ancient human migration from Africa to India and the Southern dispersal route. It links to the evidence from Qafzeh and Skul caves (c. 90-115,000). The inference is that the site is the settlement of early humans despite the findings of lithic materials, generally associated with modern humans.
The findings at ‘locality 9’ seem to point to old Paleolithic habitation dated to c. 35,000 years ago. They include some human remains, limestone, bone beads and vegetables. A large quantity of red ochre was recovered from ‘Stratum c’.
That was dated between 11.000 –15,000 years ago – the Middle Paleolithic Age.
The evidence supporting this theory known as the Southern Dispersal Route includes the similarities in the finding of stone tools and symbolic behaviours of Middle Paleolithic Age, at the South African Howersons Port Still bay sites such as Blombos cave and Klasies River caves, and sites such as Mumba Rockshelter in Tanzania, Enkapune Ya Mutoin Kenya, Jawalaparam in India and Batadomba-lena in Sri Lanka.
Further, the appearance in Australia of 40,000-year-old sites occupied by modern humans such as Lake Mungo and Devil’s Lair, and of Niah Cave on the island of Borneo, and genetic studies which support the colonisation of South Asia by Africans are contributory evidence to the Southern Dispersal route.
In this hypothesis, India (South Asia) holds a unique position that offers the opportunity to study many tribal communities all over India, whose patterns of artefact production and land use have some similarities to the Paleolithic archaeological period.
As discussed in my previous articles and my book, and reinforced by the hypothesis, first posited by Kingdon, advanced by Lahr and Foley, and lately by geneticists and archaeologists, the dispersal through ‘mainland India’ and through the northeast corridor as well as by the ‘southern coastal route’ the findings are thought to be responsible for the colonisation of Southeast Asia and Australia.
There are hardly and fossil and archaeological evidence to support these routes of expansion. However, the theory is supported by mtDNA analyses of some aboriginal populations of Southeast Asia and Australia. For example: Macaulay et al recently identified mtDNA (M21 and M22) in their Malaysian sample. Earlier, Thangaraj et al discovered mtDNA (M31) among indigenous Andamanese tribe.
The recent news of the discovery of possibly Middle Paleolithic 27 stone tools and other artefacts such as charcoal, fragmented pots, bones and sea snails from three new caves – Phuikon caves near Sajik Tampak in the Chandel District of Manipur in March 2012 by a combined team of Archaeological Survey of India, Manipur University and the DM College, lends support to my theory that the Meitei came from Africa.
Reasons why the occupiers of these caves in Manipur could have been Meitei ancestors are based on:
(1) The “Out of Africa” model of dispersal is from west to east.
(2) The lack of records or fossil findings of the origin of the Meitei or their immigration to Manipur from anywhere in the east.
(3) The evidence of migration into Manipur of the Tibetoburman-speaking tribal peoples as late as 10,000 years ago (Gangumai Kabui –History of Manipur, 1991).
(4) Mitochondrial DNA studies among the northeast tribal populations of India by Richard Cordeaux, 2002 found no mainland Indian genetic signature among them except the Khasis. Meitei DNA was not studied.
(5) The role of migration stories in the construction of Naga Identity by Marion Wettstein, 2008.
(6) Finding of archaeological material in the Imphal valley of Napaching.
(7) Certain qualities and characteristics that make the Meiteis a unique cultural and political entity.
(7) Non-Tibetoburman nature of Meitei language.
Conclusion: as in the mathematical process of permutation and combination ie as in all basic probability, after counting the number of ways specific things can happen, and comparing that number to the total number of possibilities, it is thus likely that the occupiers in the three Palaeolithic era caves were the Meitei ancestors.