Tuesday , 22 January 2019

The African Connection

Tensing Rodrigues

Though our goal is searching for African roots of konkani communities, we first look at other communities like tamil, because much research has happened in their case, and that may help us to know ‘what to look for’ and ‘where to look for it’. It is very likely that all communities that share the African link have some common legacies that they have acquired through that link. Therefore the research done on these communities can let us in on the distinctive markers of their African patrimony.  For instance, we have seen that common to African and tamil is a dance form which is very similar to konkani fugddi. Whether this could be a reliable marker of a common African ancestry, is a matter of further research.

A comparison of early agriculture among the tamil and in sub-Saharan Africa throws up striking similarities: for instance, the cultivation of finger millet (Eleusine coracana), that is ragi or nacni (nachnni) or gomde (gondde). Even the ways of cooking and consuming the grain are similar – the pot/porridge cuisine.  This is just one of the many crops that are common between sub-Saharan Africa and Tamilakam; the others are okra, cow peas, ground nuts, castor bean, Niger seed, jute, tamarind, silk cotton, sorghum, etc. [Winters, 2010: Y-Chromosome Evidence Of An African Origin Of Dravidian Agriculture, in International Journal of Genetics and Molecular Biology, Volume 2 (3), 30] According to Winters, even the nomenclature has similarities. But can these let us conclude about a movement of people from Africa to the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, or trace the tamil ethnicity to Africa? Others like Haaland, Boivin and Fuller are of the opinion that these crops could have come to India via trade somewhere around 4,000 to 2,000 BCE. [Fuller et al, 2009: Crops, Cattle And Commensals Across The Indian Ocean, in Études Océan Indien, 42-43; Fuller et al, 2011: Across the Indian Ocean: The Prehistoric Movement Of Plants And Animals, in Antiquity, 85; Haaland, 2011: Crops and Culture: Dispersal of African Millets to the Indian Subcontinent and its Cultural Consequences, in Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, volume 5] The similarity in agro climatic conditions between sub-Saharan Africa and Deccan – the semi-arid savanna, could have led to the adoption of these crops in India. But there is a hitch in the argument. The trade could have brought the crops to the trading ports in India, which according to these scholars were those which connected to the Harappan civilization. But these crops are more predominant in the Deccan and Tamilakam; the remains in the chalcolithic sites, as well as the current usage, bear a testimony to this. [Konkan – The Jigsaw Puzzle, January 29, 2017; The Tamarind Country, March 12, 2017] The Indo-Gangetic plain civilization which is the successor to the Harappan civilization, to this date is dominated by a ‘wheat/barley – oven/bread’ cuisine. The anomaly warrants an explanation. Fuller proposes two phases of trade: First, a northern route around 2000 BCE, in which goods moved via the Arabian Gulf into the north-western ports of India; second a mid-Indian Ocean route around late centuries BCE to early centuries CE, which connected to South India and thence to South-East [Fuller et al, 2009]

Trade can bring in new crops, and if these fit the agro-climatic conditions in the host region, they can flourish. But to expect the trade to alter the host community genetically is rather preposterous. For that to happen the African trading community coming into India had to be overwhelmingly large. Definitely the trade encounter could not populate a half of the Indian peninsula with genetically African population. Definitely the African connection of the tamil people has to be more ancient than the 4,000 BCE to 100 CE trade relations. But if the African crops came to India through earlier migrations, then these migrations have to be ordinarily after the sub-Saharan hunter gatherers settled down to farming.

We cannot rule out the possibility of emergence of communities with African descent as a result of trade between 4,000 BCE and 100 CE. They would definitely carry the African cultural and biological markers. But these communities would be small. For the African roots of tamil, we have to look elsewhere. What is definitely possible is that the community created by the early ‘Out of Africa’ episodes, interbred with the later African immigrants. Wells has found around Madurai genetic traces of the earliest Homo sapiens who came from Africa and was on its way to the further East. [Wells, 2003: Journey of Man (TV Movie), 52:01 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_R7MIz7tQI)] But this might not have been the first hominin to land in Tamilakam; some earlier species too might have made their way there; and evolved further. If we are to accept Wells hypothesis that the Homo sapiens was driven to seek a way out of Africa around 40,000 years ago by acute drought caused by the Ice Age, then there is sufficient reason to accept that the same reason might have driven some earlier hominin species too out of Africa; the Ice Age was coming from much before that. It is very likely that Homo sapiens were not alone to move out; it must have followed other animals in search of greener pastures; it was ultimately chasing prey that humans moved out. A long season of immigration and interbreeding, with endogamy in historic times, seems a more plausible explanation for the African roots of Tamilakam.

That some earlier hominin species too did indeed find their way to Tamilakam is evidenced by the excavations at Attirampakkam, a Palaeolithic site about 50 kilometres to the northwest of Chennai. The findings suggest that these hominin had already entered a Middle Palaeolithic culture phase around 3,85,000 years ago. They must have further evolved and interbred with the Homo sapiens who arrived later. The African link of the tamil, therefore, could be much older than the 4,000 BC trade relation, even older than the Madurai evidence.

The recent studies have thrown a wild card in the South and Southeast Asian genetics: that these populations harbour a small proportion of ancestry from an unknown extinct hominin – different from the Neanderthal and the Denisovan – which is absent in Europeans. [Mondal, 2016: Genomic Analysis of Andamanese Provides Insights Into Ancient Human Migration Into Asia And Adaptation, in Nature Genetics, Volume 48; Basu, 2016: Genomic Reconstruction Of The History Of Extant Populations Of India Reveals Five Distinct Ancestral Components And A Complex Structure, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1598] This hominin is predicted to have emerged from the African hominid stock over 300,000 years ago, inhabited South-East Asia and Australia around 60,000 years ago and later, before going extinct around 50,000 years ago. Could we call it the Homo attirampakkamensis?

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