The Munda as upland rice cultivators

I’m reading Ben Keirnan’s Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present. I picked it up mostly because over half the book does not consist of the history of the Vietnam War (a major failing I’ve noticed with books which are histories of Vietnam, as opposed to histories of Vietnamese-American relations).

The section on Austro-Asiatic languages (Vietnamese is one) has something of relevance to the “Munda question”. But before that, let me review a few things.

Until very recently many historians and prehistorians of India have suggested that the Munda people, who speak very distinctive dialects related to the Austro-Asiatic languages of Southeast Asia, are the primal people. That is, they are the aboriginals. The original adivasis.

I do not believe that this case is tenable. Because I am a geneticist, I make this judgment on genetic grounds. Chaubey et al., Population Genetic Structure in Indian Austroasiatic Speakers: The Role of Landscape Barriers and Sex-Specific Admixture, reveals what we know about the genome-wide patterns in the Munda.

1) They are highly enriched for East Asian ancestry compared to other South Asians.

2) Many Munda males carry a haplogroup, O-K18 (once O2a), that is very common in Southeast Asia, especially Austro-Asiatic groups. Additionally, it is more diverse in Southeast Asia. The Munda O-K18 branch seems to be a side shoot from the broader Southeast Asian tree.

3) The Munda mtDNA, defining the maternal line, is uniformly South Asian. This is in contrast to the situation with Bengalis, who have East Asia Y and mtDNA. This indicates that the Munda migration was heavily male-mediated.

4) The Munda carry mutations in genes that are associated with recent selective sweeps in East Asians (e.g., on the EDAR locus). Though this may be a parallelism, it’s unlikely. Rather, it is through shared common descent that this occurs.

The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia has a graph which shows population relationships and gene flow that illustrates important aspects of the Munda ethnogenesis (Juang below):

AASI in this model = Ancient Ancestral South Indians. These are very distantly related to Andaman Islanders, Australo-Melanesian Southeast Asians, and more distantly to eastern Eurasians generally. They are likely aboriginal people to South Asia, with no West Eurasian ancestry.

The model above indicates that an East Asian (Austro-Asiatic) population encountered an AASI population and produced a daughter population. Then, that daughter population mixed with an ASI population, ASI being an old and stable mix of West Eurasian Iranian farmer (~25%) and AASI (75%).

This means two things for the Munda. First, they are very AASI enriched. This is obvious in any analysis. And, their West Eurasian ancestry is almost all Iranian farmer and not steppe. This is totally not surprising either. Using more naive model-based clustering Munda samples always seem to lack the components which are most easily adduced to be Indo-Aryan. They have very low frequencies of Y haplogroup R1a1a-Z93.

Let’s take a step back now. The fact that the Austro-Asiatic males arrived when there were unmixed AASI indicates that this was somewhat early. There are no unmixed AASI on the Indian subcontinent today. When we reach the Iron Age, by 500 BCE it is clear that Indo-Aryan society had pushed at least to Bihar. This component would bring steppe ancestry, as well as mixing into any remnant AASI.

So when could the Austro-Asiatics have arrived at the earliest? Two papers with extensive ancient DNA, Ancient genomes document multiple
waves of migratin in Southeast Asian prehistory
and The prehistoric peopling of Southeast Asia give us a good sense. It seems that the expansion of Austro-Asiatic farmers dates to about 4,000 years ago. That is when the transition seems to occur in northern Vietnam.

One thing that is also evident: the East Asian gene flow into the Munda seems to come from northern Austro-Asiatic groups in Thailand, not the southern branch which resulted in the people of the Nicobar Islands and was eventually submerged by Austronesians. On a final note, a site in northern Burma yielded an individual who was clearly Tibeto-Burman, and not Austro-Asiatic, 3,000 years ago. So even at that date mainland Southeast Asia was heterogeneous.

But, considering that there is no evidence of Tibeto-Burman ancestry Munda, whose Austro-Asiatic ancestry seems to have come through Burma through a mainland route (as opposed to up from maritime Southeast Asia), I think one should push the date of their arrival before 1000 BCE. With the expansion of farming in mainland Southeast Asia at around ~4,000 years ago, that puts the arrival of a distinctive Munda culture in South Asia to between 2000BCE and 1000 BCE. It is entirely reasonable that during this period there were unmixed AASI in eastern South Asia, though the admixture graph may also be picking up assimilation Austro-Melanesian ancestry in southern China/Southeast Asia.

This is where Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present comes in: the author suggests that the early Austro-Asiatic farmers were dry-land rice farmers who occupied uplands. The reason being that reconstructed Austro-Asiatic common words for rice culture is indicative of dry-land practices, with later wet-rice terminology often being borrowings from Tai and Austronesians.

I don’t know enough Indian archaeology and agricultural history to comment further, but, a visual inspection of where Munda are concentrated does suggest upland farming….


18 thoughts on “The Munda as upland rice cultivators”

  1. Your narrative is very solid.

    Are you aware of any archaeological evidence from the pertinent parts of South Asia in the 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE time period?

    It would be nice if someone could do some Baysean analysis of the genetic data that was also informed by the interdisciplinary data in the way that your post does in a qualitative manner.

    It would also be interesting to know if anyone has made a linguistic effort to identify an indigenous substrate in the Munda languages related to other Austro-Asiatic languages as they have attempted to do for Sanskrit. It would be very interesting indeed if the substrate elements in Munda languages and Sanskrit overlapped. Perhaps the lexical data the causes linguists Michael Witzel to describe the substrate in Vedic Sanskrit as “Para-Munda” are really evidence of a shared substrate in Vedic Sanskrit and Munda languages. It ought to be possible, in principle, to confirm or reject this theory by comparing the Munda languages linguistically to the most similar languages to the Munda languages in the Austro-Asiatic language family.

    There is, of course, room to argue philosophically if a population that has such a high percentage of AASI and so much apparently autochthonous mtDNA should really be properly described as purely non-aboriginal, even though the Munda do have lots of Southeast Asian introgression and have been very deeply influenced by their paternal linguistic and food production cultural inheritance. This is pretty much the opposite of how one would tend to characterize people with significant aboriginal/indigenous ancestry who are admixed with more recently arriving populations in North America and Australia even when their ancestral aboriginal/indigenous language is extinct or moribund.

    1. Many Adivasis were experts in Sanskrit. Were they bilingual (or multilingual)?

      The most famous Adivasi composed text is the Valmiki Ramayana. I don’t think the Valmiki Ramayana that we have today is the one that existed long ago. Many Hindus believe that the Valmiki Ramayana was edited over a period of thousands of years. If this is so, wouldn’t this complicate:

      “linguistic effort to identify an indigenous substrate in the Munda languages related to other Austro-Asiatic languages as they have attempted to do for Sanskrit. It would be very interesting indeed if the substrate elements in Munda languages and Sanskrit overlapped. Perhaps the lexical data the causes linguists Michael Witzel to describe the substrate in Vedic Sanskrit as “Para-Munda” are really evidence of a shared substrate in Vedic Sanskrit and Munda languages. It ought to be possible, in principle, to confirm or reject this theory by comparing the Munda languages linguistically to the most similar languages to the Munda languages in the Austro-Asiatic language family.”

      Or are the Adivasi different from Munda?

  2. Sorry for this stupid question. What is the connection between Munda and Adivasi?

    Adivasi appear repeatedly in many Bharatiya scriptures and texts. For example among the most famous Adivasi divine saints in the Ramayana are:
    –Valmiki (yup one of the most important characters in and the author of the Valmiki Ramayana)

    They clearly come from very ancient and advanced Jatis (ancestral lineages.)

    I would note that people often switched Varnas. Valmiki becoming a Brahmin for example. Or Dasharata’s and Rama’s famous minister, the masterful atheist chaarvaaka Jaabaali–who was given the sacred thread and transformed from Shudra to Brahmin by one of the most famous saints of the east, Gautama. We shouldn’t forget that not only did they convert from their birth Varna to Brahmin–but their entire Jati lineage descendants also became Brahmin Varna (aside from the bad apples that would be thrown out of Brahmin Varna . . . people were commonly removed from their birth Varna).

    For this reason, some Adivasis were Brahmin Varna in ancient times.

    As an aside several of the greatest spiritual masters of Sanathana Dharma were Chaarvaaka saints. Including Brihaspati, the chief Guru of the Devas (God’s) in Hinduism. Brihaspati is also the planet Jupiter.

    Gautama–another of the greatest saints of Sanathana Dharma–is also connected to Chaarvaaka. Gautama founded the Nyaya darshana of Sanathana Dharma (10 Darshanas or philosophies in Hinduism, including Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya/Yoga, Purna Mimamsa/Vedanta, Chaarvaaka, Ajivika, Vaishesika).


    What is the connection between “Munda” DNA and Adivasi Jati DNA?


    Arya is a common word in Sanskrit, Pali and Avestan. It refers to a person of nobility, character and spirituality. Of these I think nobility is rarely understood by modern people. Nobility refers to kingly and queenly people. Vivekananda would be an example. Washington had nobility qualities in an American context.

    Arya is a cultural or civilizational term rather than a Jati (ancestry) term. For example caucasions who join Hinduism/Buddhism/Jainism and spiritually evolve might be called Arya. Why do some academics use “Arya” in the context of Jati, ancestry and DNA? What is true is that some Jatis are correlated with Arya. But these are not the same thing.

    1. I saw this. Are all these tribes Mundas “AND” Adivasis. Is “Adivasi” a subset within the superset of “Mundas”. The opposite. Or are they correlated groups with large overlaps but large differences?

      1. it’s a bureaucratic label. i don’t put much stock in it.

        but all mundas are adivasis (at least ethnic groups). but not all adivasis are mundas. some are dravidian (e.g., gonds). some are indo-aryan (e.g., bhils).

        1. Thanks for clarifying. Are Valmiki, Shabari and Matanga considered Munda? Would their Jatis be considered Munda?

          Most traditional Hindu/Buddhist/Jain scholars are completely unfamiliar with Munda. I am unfamiliar too.

          Until recently the traditional scholars were also unfamiliar with the concept of Dravidian. They are still confused about what it means. Is Dravidian a one for one mapping of ancient Tamil culture or something else?

          1. AnAnji

            AdivAsi=/= Indigenous (by genetics) or aboriginals. It refers to those jaatis who at least up until colonial times maintained hunter gatherer lifestyle. So it is more an nomenclature based on the lifestyle being “aadi” or original, than their bloodlines being original. VanvAsi is also a term that was often used as it meant literally forest dweller.

            Some of the black Africans that came recently during Islamic slave trade are classified as AdivAsi in Gujarat and Karnataka because some essentially became maroon-like and took to Indian jungles.

            Genetically and anthropologically there will be AdivAsi groups in different regions with older or newer genetic inputs.

        2. Razib, are the Khasi a sub branch of the Munda even though they are tibeto burmese shifted. Are they in fact a branch of Munda that have mixed with tibeto Birman groups in Bangladesh?

  3. Related abstract from ISBA 2018 –

    Though I don’t think it has much to add, I was intrigued by the mention of “The AAs are sparsely distributed in North-East, East and Central India and in many countries of SEA, often as isolated small population groups. Aphorism among linguists and archeologists link the presence of the AAs with the spread of rice cultivation ~10,000 YBP, yet many AAs across the entire Indian peninsula and SEA remain predominantly hunter-gatherers.”

    Assuming connection of AA expansion with rice agriculture, not a specific HG toolkit / strategy (based on the adna+y argument), it seems like this adoption of HG by “many” groups could represent a shift in strategy from neolithic groups which ran into difficulty continuing with planting, or otherwise found foraging a superior strategy, and had enough foraging skills left to allow that to remain viable?

    Does presence of Sino-Tibetan hunter gatherers also support that this is a reasonably common failure mode of agricultural expansion – e.g–Raute_languages?

    (Some argument about that similar problems extending agriculture into Northern Europe led Neolithic British farmers, for’ex, to adopt a mostly foraging / hunting subsistence economy, pre-Bell Beaker migration to British Isles).

  4. I don’t know enough Indian archaeology and agricultural history to comment further, but, a visual inspection of where Munda are concentrated does suggest upland farming….

    Yes, the Mundas are certainly associated with upland dry rice farming. Below is a very interesting paper related to this subject –

    The above paper argues that the aus variety of rice, which is now increasingly if not absolutely, accepted as an independently domesticated variety of rice, was probably domesticated on the SE Indian highlands, in those very regions where the Munda reside.

    That the aus rice is borne out of an independent domestication of rice is supported by this following study –

    But the question then arises – did the Munda bring the dry upland rice farming from SE Asia or did they learn it in South Asia ?

  5. Razib,

    Another topic that is worth looking into is the origin of the AASI.

    The Narasimhan et al team argues that it separated from its East Eurasian counterparts atleast 47 YBP. But that is also around the same time when West Eurasians and East Eurasians separated.

    So how do we decide that there was specifically an East Eurasian AASI population in South Asia that mixed with incoming West Eurasians ? Is it not possible that the origins of West Eurasians itself is centered around South Asia ?

    I find the following passages from Poznick et al 2016 study quite relevant,

    We saw a notable increase in the number of lineages outside Africa ~50–55 kya, perhaps reflecting the geographical expansion and differentiation of Eurasian populations as they settled the vast expanse of these continents…

    …Three new features of the phylogeny underscore the importance of South and Southeast Asia as likely locations where lineages currently distributed throughout Eurasia first diversified (Supplementary Note).

    First, we observed in a Vietnamese individual a rare F lineage that is an outgroup for the rest of the megahaplogroup (Fig. 1 and Supplementary Fig. 14b). The sequence for this individual includes the derived allele for 147 SNVs shared by and specific to the 857 F chromosomes in our sample, but the lineage split off from the rest of the group ~55 kya. This finding enabled us to define a new mega- group, GHIJK-M3658, whose subclades include the vast majority of the world’s non-African males.

    Second, we identified in 12 South Asian individuals a new clade, here designated H0, that split from the rest of haplogroup H ~51 kya (Supplementary Fig. 14b). This new structure highlights the ancient diversity within the haplogroup and requires a more inclusive redefinition using, for example, the deeper SNV M2713, a G>A mutation at 6,855,809 bp in the GRCh37 reference. Third, a lineage carried by a South Asian Telugu individual, HG03742, enabled us to refine early differentiation within the K2a clade ~50 kya (Fig. 1 and Supplementary Figs. 14d and 15). Using the high resolving power of the SNVs in our phylogeny, we determined that this lineage split off from the branch leading to haplogroups N and O (NO) not long after the ancestors of two individuals with well-known ancient DNA (aDNA) sequences did. Ust’-Ishim9 and Oase1 (ref. 16) lived, respectively, in western Siberia 43–47 kya and in Romania 37–42 kya. The Y chromosomes of these individuals join that of HG03742 in sharing with haplogroup NO the derived T allele at M2308 (GRCh37 Y: 7,690,182 bp), and the modern sample shares just four additional mutations with the NO clade.

    They classify Ust’-Ishim as K2a* and the Telugu man as K2a* – basal to all NO lineages.

    Often Ust’-Ishim is treated as equally basal to all Eurasians. Besides the closely related Telugu sample to this basal Ust’-Ishim, the above passage from Poznick et al clearly highlights the importance of South – SE Asia for the expansion & spread of Eurasian lineages around 50 Kya. This is incidentally also the period around when, as per Narasimhan et al, AASI separated from Onge & Ancient Papuans.

    In our fitted admixture graph, AASI, Onge, and AncientPapuan (a hypothesized ancestral population to modern Papuans, prior to Denisovan admixture) are a clade with respect to Nicobarese, representing the East Eurasian ancestry that plausibly dispersed with the Austroasiatic language expansion, and indigenous Chinese groups. The split between AASI, Onge, AncientPapuan is modeled as nearly a trifurcation. It seems probable that the split between AASI and AncientPapuan occurred prior to modern humans reaching Sahul (the ancient continent uniting Australia and New Guinea). Radiocarbon dating shows this is unlikely to be much more recently than 47,000 years before present

    Ydna K2b incidentally is divided into K2b1 – restricted to the Oceanians, SE Asians and Papuans, while K2b2 is ydna P which is ancestral to ydna R & Q. So it appears that the split between AASI and Australasians, SE Asians, Onge took place around the same time the ancestral Eurasian lineages split off.

    In all of this where does the West Eurasian origins fit in ? Could it be that it has a shared origin with the AASI in South Asia ? I think this is a real possibility but it would also mean that there was probably no pure AASI to begin with.

    The basal nature of South Asia for West Eurasian origins is also exemplified by the presence of large no of mtDNA R lineages in South Asia which are basal to most of the West Eurasian mtDNA.

    1. I think this whole West vs East Eurasian split is a model necessitated by having to explain the modern as well as ancient European populations, mainly due to the ANE input… but I suspect for South Asia the OOA has a continuity and the West/East+South really breaks down into a tremendous level of granularity and not macro level West vs East. As such AASI would be the westernmost East Eurasian and this Iranian farmer is the easternmost West Eurasian.

      I think if we get something of the type of a category like Punjab Hunter Gatherer and another category like Bengal Hunter Gatherer and a category like Andhra Hunter Gatherer (just throwing these out as hypothetical aDNA), we can really see what is really this Iranian farmer impact or is it just continuity that we aren’t capturing right now due to modeling AASI as Onge. Similarly it will give insight on the AustroAsiatic migrations.

      Otherwise, I am sold on lack of steppe in IVC and InPe. Similar test would be necessary though with older aDNA to hash out these wheat and rice farmer movements.

  6. Very informative and interesting, Razib Khan. Thanks for all your work here.

    In your article, you stated: “When we reach the Iron Age, by 500 BCE it is clear that Indo-Aryan society had pushed at least to Bihar.”

    As a Buddhist, I’m extremely interested in the arrival of Indo-European languages to Bihar and Nepal. Buddha was born around the 563 BC, and he spoke an Indo-European language. He gave at least 9 sermons on the caste system. Because of his acute interest in talking about that societal ill, I’m convinced that the caste system was a new phenomenon in his part of the world, and one that wasn’t canonical yet. Perhaps he was aware of a newer immigrant people who subjugated his own ethnic group, and he lamented on their practices, sort of like when people in South African taught against the unfair practices of the Indo-Europeans (i.e. the Dutch and British) who immigrated and subjugated the Zulu/Bantu/Swazi/etc.

    Moreover, he speaks somewhat derisively against the Brahmins: He once said that “Brahmins are good memorizers because they’re bad meditators.” He said other things, and most important, he seems to feel like an outsider to their world views.

    Anyways, I personally believe that Buddha was: (1) aware of his people’s ethnic differences in his area. (2) In seeing how the Brahmins were hereditary clergy class – a very powerful role at that time, indeed – that he felt that this was unfair, and he internalized his own hereditary political position as being unfair as well.

    Do you have any information, or could you point me in the right direction, on when IE languages spread to Bihar/Nepal? I’m interested in correlating the arrival of IE languages to Nepal/Bihar, and how this event could have shaped Buddha’s views on racism.

    1. Harry P, welcome to Brown Pundits. Can you share the texts of Buddha you have read? As far as I know, virtually all of Buddha’s Arhant and Bodhi Sattva devotees and disciples were Brahmins. Buddha’s comments about Brahmins are frequently made by Brahmins and great Hindu saints–which makes Buddha’s comments mainstream.

      At Buddha’s time people did switch between Varnas; both as individuals and as entire Jatis.

      “Brahmins were hereditary clergy class” . . . technically all Brahmin children are born Shudra and by their study and sadhana (spiritual practice) they have to earn Brahmin Varna. However by his time some corruption and cronyism was starting to creep in. People were being promoted to Brahmin who were unqualified.

      “aware of his people’s ethnic differences in his area” I know of no evidence that Buddha cared about ethnicity. Buddha treated all life alike based on everything I know.

      Buddha almost never spoke on Rajneeti (politics) and rejected temporal life. Buddha was what in the east would be called a Jnaana Margi. He sought the truth alone. Buddha also revealed many secrets in the open. And forced an opening of the various different secret Hindu schools and scriptures. Buddha also encouraged leaving the world or the equivalent of Sanyasa.

      As far as I know Buddha never criticized Vedas or God. Buddha inspired devotees to break all concepts, even very good and spiritual ones. This is a common teaching in Hinduism. We “assume” there is a God at the beginning and then later we break the God (or split God) and seek the truth. Buddha didn’t bother with the first part and sought the truth alone. Shunya meaning no thing. Something beyond description.

      Have you read about Buddha’s many past lives? Buddha said he was Kapila in a prior life. Kapila is the founder of Samkhya philosophy (darshana). Samkhya philosophy is the superset that includes the subschool of Yoga (applied Samkhya I think). This may be one reason Buddhists praise Samkhya. Samkhya also didn’t assume the existence of personal God or impersonal God.

      I would be very interested in your take on the comment section here:


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