By Kumar David –
If Lanka’s Tamils and Sinhalese are slaughtering each other like pathological morons don’t blame the genes. All the research material I could lay hands on supports the view that Sinhala-Tamil genetic mixing is large. I chased web-accessible research material and found that though there are differences, the degree of admixture was always described as large. Nowhere could I find the opposite view that admixture is small canvassed. One startling discovery was that Demalas are Sinhalayas, not the other way round! OK I’m dramatising to get your attention; let me explain.
We are accustomed to the story that testosterone laden Chola warriors discharged their overflow into the local gene pool, and that South Indian traders and workers in Colombo and the small towns in colonial times, were mischievous pailwans! The conventional view is that the Sinhalayas are presumed heavily impregnated by the Demalas. So you could have knocked me down with a feather to learn from a University of Delhi population geneticist Dr Gautum K Kshatriya, whose results to the best of my knowledge are unchallenged, that it’s the other way round. Ceylon Tamils, he says, overlap genetically 55% with Sinhalese, 28% with Bengalis, and only 17% with South Indian Tamils. Other studies found no significant differences in blood grouping, genetic markers and “single-nucleotide polymorphisms” between Ceylon Tamils and Sinhalese. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_studies_on_Sri_Lankan_Tamils
Genetic studies on the Sinhalese produced rather a welter of inconsistent results. Different techniques have been used and the results differ. ( A summary of the inconsistencies can be found here )
For example, the findings of one result indicate a 70% admixture of Sinhalese with South Indian Tamils and 25% with Bengalis. Two other research teams found 70% to 80% Bengali and only 16% South Indian Tamil admixture. However, these results do not contradict high Sinhalese content in the Ceylon Tamils. Admixture can be a one way street; Americans have plenty of Italian and Irish genes, but both these are short of each other’s as well as America’s potpourri genes. These results are also compatible with the 28% Bengali content of Ceylon Tamil genes. There is circularity in the numbers. For example what’s the meaning of saying A contains x% of B and y% of C, when B itself contains z% of C? I won’t complicate things by explaining how to untangle circularity.
Sibling rivalry turns lethal
Lanka’s best historians and anthropologists (Leslie Gunawardena, Gananath Obeysekara, Sudarshan Senaviratne and K. Indrapala) take the view that in prehistoric and early historical times the ancestors of the chaps we now call Sinhalese and Tamil were soaking in a common gene pool. They differentiated themselves culturally and linguistically, and started gouging out each other’s eyes less than two millennia, maybe only a millennium, ago. The story that ancient invasions and conflicts sour current ethnic relations is a myth. Cultural, commercial and religious links which determine people-to-people relationships have mostly been peaceful. There has been language replacement, not genocide scale population purging, notwithstanding incidence, from time to time, of what in modern parlance we call war crimes and small scale ethnic cleansing. Professor Indrapala says “Lanka and South India comprised a single region in which pre-historic people roamed; Tamils have been in the island since long ago”. Demelas are not outsiders; for 80% of the last 100,000 years this island and the Indian landmass were not separated by sea.
I despise fundamentalists whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Islamic or American, but it seems the world isn’t quite done with these Neanderthals. Bigots recoil at the thought that the ‘other’ is ‘them’; that Sinhalese is Tamil, and the reverse. Personally, I don’t give a fig if they’re all cross-bred mongrels. Let the evidence stand and let conclusions be drawn from study based on empirical fact. How cool if DNA evidence turns Prabaharan into a hela-basa Sinhalaya and Gota into a card-carrying Demala!
Equally, I agree that though the Sinhalese and Tamils were in ancient times stirred into a thick genetic soup, there has been injustice in historical times. Who says you can’t oppress people of the same gene pool – ask any worker? Who says that since linguistic, cultural or religious differentiations evolved less than two millennia ago, they can’t be the root of hatred and conflict now? What’s the genetic distance between Hutu and Tutsi, or Egyptian Muslim and North African Coptic? Our pooled past should, but does not, dissolve conflict. It is wrong to ease the fight against injustice because its origins are recent. The genome project isn’t going to tame ethnic, class or social conflict.
A materialist thesis
The upshot of this is that racial and religious conflict in Lanka has less to do with blood and gene and more with the pursuit of material benefits and grasping at opportunities. Cultural and religious loathing is corollary. True, true, the relative autonomy of human activity, and the role of free ideas, is no less important than bland materialism in the historical dialogue. However, that discourse would be far ranging and need more ink than I can afford at this point.
As supporting examples of my thesis I quote the 1956 renaissance and the LTTE phenomenon cum civil war. The emergence of a Sinhala-Buddhist petty bourgeois in rural society and its reach for a place in the sun was an event rooted in a maturing material and socio-economic process, but masked in the raiment of language and culture. The explosive materialisation of Tamil youth militancy was about resources, education and jobs; self-determination talk is a subsequent manifestation. I must have made enough enemies with these two paragraphs, so better cut short this topic for now.
Out of Africa II
Going further back, what does the record show? To get a perspective let us take a trip down an ancient lane to the migration of Homo Sapiens out of Africa. Our species, Homo Sapiens, evolved in Africa 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. Long before that, say a million years previously, a primitive hominid, Homo Erectus, descendent of creatures that split five million years prior from a line whose other branch led to the chimpanzee, crawled out of Africa. This is the Out of Africa-I thesis. Java Man and Peking Man are versions of Erectus. The chap knew to make fire and hunting implements but it’s unlikely he had language. Sapiens is not directly descended from either Erectus or the chimpanzee; the former is a primordial uncle. Our direct ancestor is another related chap; either Homo Rhodesiensis or Homo Habilis whose fossil records are sparse. Recent (October 2013) fossil findings in Georgia in the Caucuses have put this hominid (pre-Sapiens) taxonomy, but not the dates, into a bit of a spin.
Erectus disappeared leaving no descendents as of today. Neanderthals appeared in Europe 200,000 years ago and disappeared suddenly because our ancestors ate the buggers. They were late descendents of a branch of Erectus that wandered off into Europe during Out of Africa-I. This makes Neanderthals our tasty cousins, several times removed.
Now to the Out of Africa-II story. Homo Sapiens, modern man, raised his head in the Rift Valley, probably in Ethiopia, and was content to wander around Africa for nearly half of his time on the planet. Then, say 90,000 years ago (best estimate), one group or a cluster of groups, including 600 breeding females crossed the Red Sea, probably at the Bab el Mandeb Straits. They moved along the coast to the Indian subcontinent and then southern India say 70,000 years ago. The punch line of all this is that Veddhas, Demalas and Sinhalayas, it is apodictic, are all of this gene pool.
Pushing on was slow, but even at a one mile per year average migration-resettlement rate, they traversed the Malay Peninsula to New Guinea and reached Australia 50,000 years ago. Getting to Borneo and New Guinea would have been ok, thanks to several ice ages that made sea levels fall and land bridges show up. The final 200 mile sea crossing to Australia was tough, but they sure got there.
To back track for a moment, after crossing the Red Sea some early Sapiens groups turned towards the Sinai, Palestine and the Caucuses, then turned west to Anatolia and further into Europe. There we feasted on Neanderthals who disappeared mysteriously 30,000 years ago when the Cro-Magnon branch of our Homo Sapiens showed up. Hmm, then how did cannibalism work its way back to New Guinea and the South Sea Islands? Could these simple folk have acquired fancy gastronomic epicureanism from missionaries and imperialists? But come on; these cannibals are creed and yield gourmets!