PREFACE—Ethnic Origins: Tracing our Human Roots
The pictures of the Muria and Maria people of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh, India, as seen through the lens of Ahmed Ali, are a window into the distant past. They show us an ancient world with a simple way of life which is now threatened by modernization and fast disappearing. They are a visual record of communities in their own territories, surviving without extraneous help and unaffected by modern medical knowledge and the science of economics. The subjects of the photographs appear refreshingly innocent, serene and untroubled. Is this a result of their gene pools having been isolated from those of other communities?
Nobody yet knows when and from where these tribes came to India, how they reached Bastar and what led them to settle down there. We can only speculate about it; whilst modern physics and biology provide new ways of looking back into the past, we also have the benefit of Ahmed Ali’s camera on the one hand, and on the other of DNA technology.
A recent study employing DNA technology (Sengupta et al 2007) on 20 Muria Gonds identifies them as among the earliest settlers in India, with a 40-30 thousand year old marker, and presumably they have been living all that time in the same way and in the same territory, without any extraneous influence either cultural or genetic. DNA technology is a recently developed and more exact tool in the biological sciences that has revolutionized the whole field of biology and medicine. This revolution has also helped population geneticists to make a break-through in working out how the human species has migrated and come to occupy the whole world.
Each cell of our body (except enucleated mature red blood cells and sperms and eggs) possesses the whole complement of a given person’s genetic material (in other words their genome or DNA). It has long been known that each one of us receives 50% of our genetic make-up from our father’s genome and 50% from our mother’s genome. Yet this is not the whole picture for while true in the case of the ‘autosomal chromosomes’ it is not true of the ‘sex chromosomes’. It was discovered that the female sex chromosome ‘X’ is passed on from mothers to both sons and daughters and the ‘Y’ chromosome from fathers to sons only. Further there is another type of DNA called mitochondrial DNA which is passed on intact only from mothers to both sons and daughters (since the middle piece of the sperm having the mitochondria does not enter into the egg during the fertilization process), while the ‘Y’ chromosome DNA is passed on only from fathers to sons. The last mentioned DNAs (mitochondrial DNA and non-recombining portions of ‘Y’ normally remain unchanged, but occasionally they do acquire mutations through a random and chance process, and these accumulated changes are passed on to following generations, thus providing markers for lineages. Population geneticists have made use of these markers to trace the inheritance of these mutations and thereby the migratory history of various populations and communities, their fission and fusion, around the world. It is this approach that has identified the people in Ahmed Ali’s photographs of Bastar as likely to be descended from the most ancient settlers in India.
The science of DNA technology has now made it clear that everybody around the world has “a common ancestor in Africa, who lived some 120,000 to 200,000 years ago”. A few groups of these nomadic people, pressed by climatic changes and curiosity to explore the world, left Africa some 70 - 50,000 years ago, migrating into the Middle East and on from there through India and South East Asia to Australia, and into China, Central Asia, Europe and the New World. Those who reached India would have travelled at different times along the coast through what is now the Middle East and Pakistan, or could have arrived much later by various land or sea routes. The first groups to reach the Indus Valley would have been hunter-gatherers and only there would some of them have started to grow crops and taken to a settled way of life. Some of the earlier migrants into India however would have moved deep into the land mass where they would have remained isolated from other communities, increased in numbers, and may have become the ancestors of many tribal people such as the Gonds.
Many questions on human evolution and migration remain unanswered, and there is much more research and thinking to be done. The genetic make-up of tribal communities like the Gonds is particularly significant for portraying ancient migrations into India. As with Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands, geographical isolation in earlier times and present-day sympatric isolation resulting from cultural evolution, provide us with a gold-mine for genetic studies to better understand various evolutionary principles. Photographs such as Ahmed Ali’s and the ones in Edgar Thurston’s ‘Castes and Tribes of India’ contribute to the studies from an aesthetic point of view and are of great interest as they were taken before the disappearance of various traditional ways of dressing and other cultural codes that are nowadays being superseded by modern customs.
The DNA of Indian tribal communities and other isolated populations of the world may help in solving a bigger puzzle of how genes evolve to cope with changing environments and the impact of infectious diseases. These markers reflect the space and culture that have separated each community; yet science has also revealed that a tiny DNA genome connects all of us into a single human species. Thus we need to learn to admire Nature and the GOD (Generator of Diversity) responsible for the evolution of our species. During the 120,000 years of evolution of Modern Man, he has been able to communicate by means of language only for the past ten thousand years, and to read and write only for a couple of thousand years. Even today there are many languages and dialects (mostly spoken by tribals) which are without script and written forms. It is therefore the bounden duty of the ‘civilized’ world to help these marginalized ancient populations in Africa, India and other parts of the world to enjoy the fruits of civilization and the modern world. The picturesque depiction of the Muria and Maria Gonds of Bastar through the lens of Ahmed Ali can serve to show these ancient cultures to the world so that they can be given the kind of help they need.
Prof. R. M. Pitchappan, Ph.D.,F.A.Sc., F.A.M.S.,
Professor Emeritus & Regional Director-’Genographic-India’
Dept. of Immunology, School of Biological Sciences,
Madurai Kamraj University, Madurai