Prevailing Belief About The Ancestry of the Bhutanese People Debunked After Research Done By Professor Van Driem
Spanning almost two decades, the research reconstructs the ancestry of the people of the Greater Himalayan region including Bhutan, based on genes and languages.
By Tashi Wangchuk, Ph.D. Environmental Scientist | Kuensel
This synopsis is based on a talk given by Professor George Van Driem who delivered a series of lectures in Thimphu at the end of August 2018 concerning the ancestry of the Bhutanese people.
We Bhutanese are plagued by a paucity of reliable information particularly on our own ancestry. Clear light on what seems shrouded in mystery and myth is finally being shed by Prof. Van Driem and his colleagues who researched on this subject.
Details about how the research was conducted
Spanning almost two decades, the research reconstructs the ancestry of the people of the Greater Himalayan region including Bhutan, based on genes and languages. The study is therefore large scale and from Bhutan, genetic samples of 941 individuals belonging to 17 distinct language groups were collected and analysed.
In particular, the long-term comprehensive study looked at the genetic diversity among the various linguistic groups in Bhutan using several DNA markers. This is an infallible and ground-breaking approach to revealing our deep genetic history and origins. It overcomes historical limitations and traces our ancestry to the very beginnings of the first modern humans (Homo sapiens).
This also enables comparisons of ancestral relationships, not only among the various Bhutanese linguistic groups, but also our prehistoric connections to the wider populations of Asia and beyond.
Surprising outcome of the research
The findings are startling and significant. The Genetic diversity of certain markers such as Y chromosome haplotypes or alleles based on Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) are highest in the Eastern Himalayas and Bhutan compared to the rest of Asia. Autosomal DNA findings also corroborate this finding.
The O haplogroup ancestor which originates in the Eastern South Himalayas spread into East and Southeast Asia.
This means that our ancestors did not come from Tibet, Mongolia, China or anywhere north. Quite the reverse, the ancestors of the people in these areas had their roots in the Eastern Himalayas.
About 75,000 to 62,000 years ago, our ancestors ‘emerged in waves’ from Africa as Prof. Van Driem writes. The Eastern Himalayas and Bhutan served as a ‘central staging area’ for the peopling of East and Southeast Asia. He also mentioned that the Eastern Himalaya can be identified as a cradle of ethnogenesis and a principal thoroughfare in the course of population prehistory.
For the Bhutanese, the significance of this finding is that all linguistic groups in Bhutan are ‘original’ and had their genesis here in the motherland. Indeed Prof. Van Driem states that the region comprising Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Southeastern Tibet and Northeastern India had furnished the cradle for the ethnogenesis of all East Asian language families that is, the Trans-Himalayan, Hmong-Mien, Austroasiatic and Austro-Tai.
At even greater time depths, the Uralo-Siberian and Altaic linguistic phyla too may have ultimately originated in the Eastern Himalaya. The accompanying figures from one of Prof. Van Driem’s papers tracing the spread of the Y chromosomal haplogoups N and O provide a visual representation of the findings.
Prevailing belief about the origins of the Bhutanese debunked after the research
For the Bhutanese, the prevailing belief that certain ethnic and linguistic groups are the original inhabitants of Bhutan while the others came in from Tibet and settled here from the north has been completely debunked.
Indeed all Bhutanese are actually more closely related to each other as revealed by our genes and we in fact ‘furnished’ ancestors to the north.
The counterclockwise spread of the paternal lineage N (M231) from the Eastern Himalayas to East and North Asia and as far as Lappland.
Put simply, there is more genetic diversity here in Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas than elsewhere in Asia, making us the centre of ethnogenesis as Prof. Van Driem puts it.
The Bhutanese people had not migrated here from the north and definitely did not originate from Mongolia. This belief has been debunked again and again by Prof. Van Driem as the ‘Mongoloid Myth’ and the ‘Sino-Tibetan myth’. In fact, quite the opposite is revealed from our genetic history.
These findings are a breath of fresh air to our myth laden and incomplete historical sources. What is important for Bhutanese is that our genes prove that we are one people, united by our common ancestry.
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This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for the Daily Bhutan.