The Burmese frontier of Bengal

I am reading Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. In it, he mentions the legends and oral history of some Burmese that much of Bengal was once inhabited by people like the modern Burmese: Buddhist, and East Asian in appearance.

I don’t know what to think about these sorts of memories, but after spending a day (for various reasons) looking at mtDNA (direct maternal) and Y (direct paternal) ancestry in various groups: I am more and more convinced it is plausible that much of Bengal was inhabited by a Tibeto-Burman people.

The reason is that in Bangladesh it looks to be that ~10% of the mtDNA and ~10% of the Y chromosomes are East Asian. This is in line with the genome-wide ancestry. To the west and south of Bengal, there are peoples with even more East Asian ancestry, the various Munda tribes. But these groups have a different profile. 30% of their ancestry is East Asian. But 60% of their Y chromosomes are East Asian, while 0% of their mtDNA is East Asian.

One thing we know about the Munda is that they speak Austro-Asiatic languages. Genetically their East Asian component seems to have mixed with people deeply related to the Andaman Islanders, before mixing again with a people with affinities to South Indian tribal people. Additionally, the Munda have almost no “steppe” affinity.  This is curious because this occurs only among some South Indian tribal groups. Even among non-Indo-Aryan South Indian populations, such as the Reddy of Andhara Pradesh, there is some steppe ancestry.

Genetically it seems that the earliest mixing of East Asian and “indigenous” ancestry in the Munda dates to the period between 4,000 and 4,500 years ago. I am now open to the possibility that the Munda arrived in the Indian subcontinent via the Bay of Bengal. And that the northern Munda languages are actually expansions from a southern expanse.

In any case, the situation in Bengal seems to be different. If there were Munda in Bengal, they didn’t leave much of an imprint from what I can tell. The admixture into the Bangladeshi genomes dates to about 1,500 years ago. Rather than an intrusion of Tibeto-Burman people into the plains of Bengal, this may indicate an expansion of Indo-Aryan agriculturalists into the lands of slash and burn Tibeto-Burman agriculturalists.

40 Replies to “The Burmese frontier of Bengal”

  1. Any idea about the mongoloid ethnic minorities (specially the ones living in Chittagong Hill Tracts) of Bangladesh? It is often claimed that they are indigenous people of Bangladesh. There are also sayings that they came to Bangladesh a few hundred years ago from east asia. I dont know which claim is true.

    Are these mongoloid groups genetically distinct from each other?

    A Buddhist religious leader of Myanmar once declared that Bangladesh needs to be made buddhist Burmese majority again.

    There has been a few bloody tensions between Bengalis and CHT mongoloid minorities of which most Bangladeshis are probably unaware. Bangladesh is also doing nothing at all to make them assimilate into the mainstream Bengali community. Bangladesh can use imposing Bangla language and use conversion to Islam (which will ultimately lead to conversion to the Bengali culture) with the help of missionaries as a tactic to help them assimilate. Otherwise, separatism may lead to severe conflicts and the western world will take advantage.

    1. “Are these mongoloid groups genetically distinct from each other?”

      Burmese are genetically ~1/4th Bengali. So all Tibeto-Burman speaking tribes in Chittagong hill tracts might be even more Bengali shifted.

      “Bangladesh can use imposing Bangla language and use conversion to Islam (which will ultimately lead to conversion to the Bengali culture) with the help of missionaries as a tactic to help them assimilate.”

      No there’s no need for such auld tactic, diplomacy is the best solution if tension rises for some reason. People of all faith are equally Bangladeshi and have the right to practice their traditions and religions. The hill people can understand and speak Bengali quite well, Chakma people already speak an Indo Aryan language. You probably know, a few years back a tribal girl from Rangamati became viral uploading the song “Alo” by singer Tahsan.
      https://youtu.be/kJiMa1YgrCk

      I appreciate the original singer did visit her in Rangamati.
      https://youtu.be/Wh-CQye7SEg

      1. Of course they are equally Bangladeshi but they still dont speak Bangla as their main language. Bangla can be made their 1st language by means of primary educational institutions. (USA imposes English on immigrants this way, so this process is successful).
        I’ve seen several Baruas in my life. Baruas already speak bangla language and many of them are dont even look mongoloid.

        There is some separatism in CHT(there have been armed struggles in the past). This separatism will not exist if they become completely Bengali and do not form separate endogamous community.

        And by conversion, i meant peaceful conversion, the strategy that white western missonaries use.

        So all these mongoloid groups genetically belong to same cluster?

        1. in SE asia one reason ‘hill-tribes’ convert to christianity is that it preserves their ethnic identity. so you have pinpointed the issue. karens in burma often assimilate to bamar identity if they are buddhist. not so if xtian.

          but theravada buddhism is probably a robust enough religion to resist conversion. the christian success was with ‘animist’ tribes. they failed with tribes which were adherents to buddhism across southeast asia (or islam in maritime southeast asian).

        2. “I’ve seen several Baruas in my life. Baruas already speak bangla language and many of them are dont even look mongoloid.”
          I don’t think Baruas are of Tibeto-Burman stock; They might be Bengali with additional east Asian admixture. Razib detected a Chittagong individual scoring 25-30% east Asian, the individual could be a Barua. Does Barua community have many east Asian looking individuals? I only know about two popular Barua singers, Partho Barua and Nishita Barua.
          https://youtu.be/P6r_CTJE2bo
          Partho’s look is intermediate between Bengali and Marma tribal while Nishita looks fully Bengali.
          “So all these mongoloid groups genetically belong to same cluster?”
          I think so, Outside Chittagong hill tracts Khasi/Garo tribes from Mymensingh/Sylhet are slightly more south Asian shifted.

          1. “Does Barua community have many east Asian looking individuals?”

            Yes i have a barua friend. His family looks completely mongoloid. His father is a dark skinned mongoloid. The rest are all fair skinned.
            I have also seen baruas who look completely bengali and also baruas who look like Partho barua. I have also seen a barua who could probably pass for pakistani.

            May be the mongoloid looking baruas are people who were previously CHT tribals and who recently started speaking bangla…idk

  2. If I got this correct, Indo-Aryans only spread into Bengal proper around 500 AD? How does this square with Magadha (quite close to Bengal) being the center of Indo-Aryan civilization since before Buddha’s time (~6th century BC)? What was the Aryan/Burman frontier like and what were the barriers preventing the settlement/invasion of Bengal? And how come none of the Mauryan or Gupta sources have anything to say about this?

    (Seems like the genetics here raise more questions than they answer?)

    1. The centre of Indo-Aryan culture moved Eastwards, once Ajatshatru became the biggest gangetic power and conquered Bihar. And in turn his capital became the Indo-Aryan capital

      I dont think Magadha pre Ajatshatru was that important.

      1. Saurav

        Alone she went forth from the house, desiring the joy of independent life; unrecognized she joined a caravan travelling to the Magadha country.
        http://mahavamsa.org/mahavamsa/original-version/06-coming-vijaya/

        Chandragupta, Bindusara and Asoka.
        Probably more detail than you might find in ancient Indian text.

        Be it known, that two hundred and eighteen years had passed from the nibbana of the Master unto Asoka’s consecration. (Dates for Asoka)
        Asoka left the government of Ujjeni conferred on him by his father, and came to Pupphapura,13 and when he had made himself master of the city, after his father’s death, he caused his eldest brother to be slain and took on himself the sovereignty in the splendid city.

        http://mahavamsa.org/mahavamsa/original-version/05-third-council/

  3. @Numinous
    Indian scriptures do mention the Bengal region being filled with wild churlish tribes, which I so far assumed were Austro-Asiatic Mundas. The region did get Sanskritized rather late, although 500 AD seems too late. The Mauryas used the Ganges all the way down to its mouth at the Bay of Bengal as a trade route, and created trading settlements along the way, because Maurya and Sunga coins have been found in Bengal. What the population of the interior comprised, I do not know.

  4. @Numinous
    I can’t think of Indian sources but the 1st century AD ‘Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’ mentions a tribe of men with ‘short bodies and broad, flat faces’ coming from the interiors to trade at the sea port of the Ganges. The Periplus is a little vague about this region though.

  5. the 500 AD value is pretty wild. i would’t believe it, but i’ve replicated it with the BEB data in rolloff. otoh, these methods often pick up the latest admixture, though this one is a strong one. there isn’t a necessity that the admixture occurs in its current area.

    the indo-aryans could already be there and tibeto-burmans moved into the area later. idk.

    the munda arriavl through ne india makes sense. but i now lean to the maritime hypothesis. sea voyage from SE asia

    1. The area that’s now Bangladesh wasn’t fully settled until the Islamic period, wasn’t it? Is it so crazy for it to have been Tibeto-Burman in 500AD? That doesn’t preclude western Bengal being Aryan for a long time by then.

  6. as noted above, most of the tribal ppl already speak bengali. and groups like the chakma are highly attached to theravada buddhism. converting them is not going to be easy. would have been easier to assimilate them to bengali hinduism. as it is the chakma have triggered a theravada renassaince among the small native bengali barua buddhist community.

    1. Baruas speak bengali as their 1st language. So baruas are bengali. Many baruas dont even look mongoloid. I have personally known several Baruas.

      Other groups may speak Bangla as 2nd or 3rd language in some cases but many cannot speak Bangla which makes it difficult for them to assimilate and which is also a barrier for them to receive higher education.

      The theravada renaissance is a probably a tactic to unite different mongoloid groups in CHT since a common doctrine unites people for a greater cause. Remember, religion itself is never the main issue and it is just the part of a tactic.

      Promoting Hinduism will not work because there are separate castes in hinduism. Chakmas may even form an endogamous Chakma caste, who knows lol.

      Western missionaries (of course they have a geopolitical goal, and their goal is not religious) have already been successful in CHT. So, converting them wont be difficult if we use the British tactic of giving a lot of financial help to convert people.

      I think there are mainly 2 types of mongoloids in Bangladesh: fair skinned (like manipuris of Sylhet,chakma etc), dark skinned(may be khasia or garo)

      1. Promoting Hinduism will not work because there are separate castes in hinduism. Chakmas may even form an endogamous Chakma caste, who knows lol.

        they can assimilate into preexistent castes like the tai ahom did.

        in orrisa some brahmins carry O2a Y. they were paternally munda then. in the west bengal kayastha paper there ppl who are kayastha who have tibeto-burman paternal and maternal lineages!

        1. A country becomes weaker if there are different endogamous groups because tribalism is a part of human nature.

          A country will be much more stable if there is only 1 major endogamous group i.e. if the country is an ethnostate. Bangladesh is a rare example of a perfect ethnostate in south asia.

          A problem about converting to hinduism is that they will form an endogamous community and they can preserve their language and ethnicity like Ahoms did.
          Also,Orthodox hinduism most probably discourage conversion to hinduism. And, converts are usually placed at the lower levels of caste hierarchy. (I read it in a book which contained hindu family laws) But again, the idea regarding hinduism may vary a lot from person to person and things dont always work according to rules.

          They can still eat pork and alcohol initially even after conversion to Islam bcz ppl usually dont follow religion fully. Also their offsprings will gradually become full bengali by mixing with mainstream bengalis and they will slowly give up those food habits.

          Vast majority of followers of any religion most probably ignore religious rules to the greatest extent and only practise a certain part of a religion (for example, for muslims: only praying,fasting and giving poor-tax ). Plus, in many cases religious identity like “muslim”,”hindu”or “christian” is just a label. So, conversion will not affect their personal lives that much. OTOH,they may be benefited by “converting” if they are given financial help for being “converted”.

          1. A country will be much more stable if there is only 1 major endogamous group i.e. if the country is an ethnostate. Bangladesh is a rare example of a perfect ethnostate in south asia.

            you just said it. bangladesh is *already and ethnostate*

            i mean, it’s the “land of bengalis.” i see now great concern about 1 to 2% of the population. these people mostly are shifting to bengali anyhow.

            the big chasm in bangladesh is going to be btwn secularizing and those who became more islamic.

      2. “Promoting Hinduism will not work because there are separate castes in hinduism. Chakmas may even form an endogamous Chakma caste, who knows lol.”

        I would say precisely because of the that reason Hinduism could work. We already have a historical precedent to it . The Ahoms, the very last major entrant to Hinduism. They are today declared as OBCs in India.

      3. “I think there are mainly 2 types of mongoloids in Bangladesh: fair skinned (like manipuris of Sylhet,chakma etc), dark skinned(may be khasia or garo)”

        Both Chakma/Manipuri and Khasi/Garo have similar skin tone imo. Bangladesh under 19 women football team have some players from both Chakma and Garo/Khasi community:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxu2pLyIxas
        If you watch the match(link above), Four players in the starting XI are tribals, jersey N1 and N6 are both Chakma, N1 looks darker than N6; N2 and N15 could be Garo or Khasi I know they are from Mymensingh. Interestingly N2 has a muslim name, that means there are converted muslim among Garo/Khasi.

          1. You can see the line up at 4:33, and it’s showing Mosammat Khatun.
            This team is impressive given all players are from very poor families, more interestingly 70% of players hail from the same village of Dhobaura Upazila of Mymensingh. Both Bengali Muslims and Garo tribals live next to each other there.

  7. Razib, what can you tell us about the Khasi? Did they split from a common ancestor of the Photo-Munda? Did they too enter NE India via the Maritime Pathway hypothesis?

  8. https://twitter.com/nirajrai3/status/1200405366921580544?s=21

    ”Collected human skeleton remains of probably first Indians who have migrated to Bali, Java and Sumatra and spread the Hinduism. It is so fascinating to learn that our ancestors have likely come here before the Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.“

    😂😂😂

    For all the department which I thought RSS will Infiltrate, never thought genetics would be the first one to fall. I think perhaps the history dept came across more robust then they calculated.

    Anyway perhaps I was wrong, genetics is history of the future. Good that the hindu right has shown some innovative thinking.

    1. i would prefer someone like niraj within the tent to be honest. i don’t agree with a lot of his interps, but he’s a serious scientist so we can at least talk intelligibly. too many hindutva types are literally dumb.

      1. Yeah , totally agree.

        With the drying up of funds after India’s Independence, the right has had a serious drought of intellectual thought process, leading to rise of quack historians .

        Almost any serious right of centre historiography was done by historian born in British era and who the left could not displace (because they had moved too high up the ladder) . Folks like Mazumdar and Sarkar. For the rest they were just stymied and only few like Sampath etc could push though the cracks.

  9. re: magdha being center of indo-aryan civ. one aspect of cultural and historical patterns is that *marginal/march* lands are often highly dynamic. examples: rome (marginal to mediterranean), the zhou territories (marginal to central china), arabs/arabia (marginal/liminal to byzantium & persian), khorasan (marginal to persia, but the source of parthians and also the abbassids).

    but i don’t know the non-genetic stuff well. hoping to learn.

    1. I think that when we talk of areas of west bengal/Vanga, they were pretty “Aryanized”. We do have mentions of them as being participants of Mahabharat/Ramayana etc as “civilized” people and not Dasyus. This “status” was not even conferred to regions in parts of N-India , at that point.

      What u say of March lands is largely true of East Bengal, which did not have any long political/culture linkage with rest of India (akin to regions, east of Assam) and so the dynamics were quite fluid.

    2. “one aspect of cultural and historical patterns is that *marginal/march* lands are often highly dynamic.”

      Can also say this about California today.
      I like to think of Bihar as the California of 500 BC.

  10. “these people mostly are shifting to bengali anyhow.

    the big chasm in bangladesh is going to be btwn secularizing and those who became more islamic.”

    I dont know if they are becoming bengali or not. If they are becoming completely bengali, that’s a very good think. However, a common religion like that of majority bengalis will accelerate their assimilation with mainstream Bengalis and they will not maintain separate endogamous groups.

    The thing about religion is that people form separate endogamous groups based on religion i.e. they literally form separate tribes which often creates invisible walls between people. In the case of hinduism, it is even more complex: there are so many endogamous groups who often may have slight dislike for each other.

    I dont think majority Bangladeshis care whether politically Bangladesh gets islamized or secularized unless the government does anything against islam bcz it wont really change anything.

    For example, i am a practicing (though not very religious) muslim but i dont care whether Bangladesh is politically secular or islamic bcz it wont change anything.

  11. The thing about religion is that people form separate endogamous groups based on religion i.e. they literally form separate tribes which often creates invisible walls between people.

    this depends on the region. this is true in the middle east and south asia. not as true in other places. religious mixing in marriage is common in africa and east asia.

    the reason endogamy happens in bangladesh is that the norm is for nonmuslims marrying muslims to become muslims and raise their children as such. that means they won’t want to intermarry. if bengali muslims didn’t expect religious change, then intermarriage would happen.

    1. People born to different religions dont marry outside the tribe (religion) they are born to even if they are non-practicing. The situation for hindu people is even more complex:They usually dont marry outside their varna and caste. Religion works as ethnic identity for many people no matter how much practicing they are or whether they are born to muslim or hindu,buddhist or christian families.

      Similar situation probably also exists for believing Christians in europe and other parts of the world.

      The situation for muslims(and probably christians) is much better than that of Hindus: they can marry if their spouse converts which is not applicable for hindus because they are in further endogamous divide(i.e. castes). Plus, now hindu “nationalism” is quite popular in india.

      I wouldn’t say that this interesting situation created because of religious tribal divide is entirely a bad thing but the bad thing is that “religious” pluralism divides people not only in south asia but in many other parts of the world and the western world often tries to take advantage. In short, religious pluralism is often a very bad thing (depending on the overall situation and geography)

  12. Similar situation probably also exists for believing Christians in europe and other parts of the world.

    dude, you need to listen to me. i know more stuff than you.

    st. paul in the bible counseled christians who were married to pagans to be patient. the idea is that they would convert eventually. for xtians intermarriage often is seen as a way to bring others into the religion eventually, so it wasn’t nearly as strong a rule that christians wouldn’t marry pagans (there is NT sanction for the practice as seen above).

    People born to different religions dont marry outside the tribe (religion) they are born to even if they are non-practicing.

    again, this is false. it is common in much of africa for muslims and christians to marry (barack obama’s father was muslim mother was christian, some were raised muslim and some christian). in east asia it is very common for interreligious marriages to happen because confession doesn’t have a major valence.

    stop generalizing from what you know. you are basically extrapolating the south asian patterns to the rest of the world. but the world is not india (you are expressing a particularly indian view, not even muslim!).

    in the specific case of the chakma your point is valid. but i object to you misleading yourself into thinking this is a universal. it isn’t.

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