More a cradle than a refuge

From The Kathmandu Post (14 February, 2014)

A linguist’s views on the prehistoric habitation of the Himalaya and the Nepali language need discussion

A reader responded to this writer’s last column (‘Country on Auto-Pilot’, January 31, Page 6) suggesting that it was delusional, with the optimism on national prospects following the November 19 elections completely out of order: “The entire article is a day-dream and detached from the grim reality of the country.”

There were some others who too refused to accept the contention that the country is poised to emerge from the doldrums of nearly two decades. Mentally, I took recourse to my belief that weakness in comparative study (contemporary and historical) of other societies—including Thailand and Ukraine as we speak—helps maintain the Kathmandu intelligentsia’s unyielding cynicism.

It was against this backdrop that I was happily taken aback by the unabashed enthusiasm for Nepali society shown by linguist George van Driem, speaking at a seminar at New Delhi’s Jamia Milia University on Tuesday. Based in Bern, Switzerland, Prof van Driem has been studying Nepal and its indigenous languages for some three decades. He is also an expert on the prehistory of Asia’s peoples, taking support from the fields of genetics and linguistics to archaeology, palaeo-botany, palaeo-climatology and anthropology. His comments at Jamia pointed to a deeper explanation for the resilience of Nepali society against the interminable manhandling by its rulers.

Prof van Driem, a Rolex Fellowship awardee and a Pokhara hang-glider, was profuse in his praise for the vibrancy of mid-hill Nepali culture as made possible by Nepali/Khas Kura. With his background in phylo-geography (historical processes explaining the distribution of populations), van Driem raises the curtain of our prehistory when he states that the mid-montane Nepal was a funnelling point for the habitation of East and Southeast Asia.

Comfortable tongue

Nepali is of course the dominant and domineering, state-backed language of Nepal and it has received much disparagement since the democratic opening of 1990—mainly for its role in the weakening of other languages and dialects. Against that backdrop, and not in contradiction or denial of that reality, van Driem suggests that Nepali is a singular language for the way it has managed to ‘mediate mid-hill culture’.

Says van Driem: “The Nepali language is uniquely robust and vibrant, capable of commanding all domains of discourse from the scientific to political. People find it easy to use because of its great expressive power. It is resilient and adaptable, and once you adopt it, it embraces you. It is not a ‘creolised’ language whose grammar is streamlined, as with Bahasa Indonesia or even Hindi. The grammar is organic and naturally evolving even as it becomes the lingua franca of a good part of the Himalayan region.”

Thus goes the suggestion, the resilience of the Nepali polity amidst so much uncertainty may be explained in part by the link language being an effective tool for communication. The underlying cheerfulness that van Driem detects in Nepal despite everyone trying to convince him that it is not there may be linked to the ability of diverse communities to communicate through a comfortable, adaptable tongue.

The professor likens Nepal to Holland and France among the countries of Europe, where there is pride in the spoken culture. He seeks to prove his point about adaptability with references to how tribal children in the Indian Northeast take easily to Nepali folk songs, a restaurant in Boston’s Harvard Square with Nepali waiters where the Latino co-workers communicate in Nepali and how the language is seeping into the culture of Hong Kong.

Hope and passage

According to van Driem, the study of historical linguistics, ethnological phylo-geography and genetic data indicates that the midhill Himalaya was vital in the prehistoric peopling of Asia. Our mid-montane region was a kind of a welcoming homeland as well as a bridge for the spread of population to the Asia-Pacific from China to New Zealand.

In fact, says the professor, possibly half of today’s humankind traces its origins to migration around 75,000 years ago through the Himalayan corridor: “This place was not a refuge for people fleeing from elsewhere, instead it was a cradle and a bridge, a region of ethno-genesis.”

When our earliest ancestors (the ‘anatomically modern’ humans) left the Rift Valley of Africa and arrived in the Levant, a significant branch travelled eastward and found their way to the Himalayan slopes. Here, the climate was good and the epidemiology welcoming, with absence of plains-specific pathogens. It is interesting to think that the ancestors of most of today’s people of East and Southeast Asia—and perhaps even those who went on to inhabit North and South America—crossed the Brahmaputra eastward.

There should be archaeological evidence to prove this line of thinking, I said to the Prof van Driem. He answered that, tragically, the one researcher doing extended archaeological work on Nepal’s prehistory from the Early Palaeolithic to the Neolithic is no more.

Gudrun Corvinus was a pioneering palaeo-anthropologist who was part of the original team that discovered the bones of the upright human ancestor ‘Lucy’ in Ethiopia. She contributed greatly to South Asian human evolutionary studies and Old World paleo-anthropology. In Nepal, her work was concentrated in the Dang Valley’s Chure (Siwalik) tract, where she spent many years working alone with her Nepali helpers for company.

The Maoist insurgency left her feeling insecure and she moved to Pune in India. On January 1, 2006, the 72-year-old Gudrun Corvinus was murdered at her home even as she was putting the finishing touches to a book on her Nepal research. Her brutal killing removed from the scene a scientist who would have helped us gain deeper understanding of the present times with the help of prehistory.

Out of Mongolia

Which brings us to the question whether the most recent work on genetics and paleo-anthropology has bearing on the matter of indigeneity, the ‘son of the soil’ discussion that has buffeted the polity this past decade. Right off, van Driem answers that the proposition that many ethnic groups of the Himalaya originated in present-day Mongolia is not supported by evidence.

More than two centuries ago, he says, a little-traveled German named Christoph Meiners (1747-1810) came up with the categorisation of the world population by race, including ‘Mongolian’. Says van Driem, “There is little likelihood that the ancestors of Nepali citizens with almond eyes and golden complexion came from Mongolia, and the movement may actually have been the other way. ‘Kiranti’ is much more useful to describe these ethnic communities, a term also used in the ancient Sanskrit texts.”

The professor says that Nepalis of all skin tones have every reason to be proud of the diversity that deep and recent history has gifted their country, as evident in the very DNA of the citizens. “Nepal is larger than China when you take into account the genetic distance between the population groups, between the Bahun and Dalit, the Limbu and Kusunda, and so on.”

For all the exciting and possibly contentious suggestions made by van Driem, it would be a fine idea to invite him from Bern to Kathmandu to discuss the peopling of Nepal with students, activists and his peers. That could also be a time to organise a memorial for the late Gudrun Corvinus.

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