News

Munda speaking people point to India-Laos link some 3000 years ago

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.52 Published online 29 April 2019

Almost 11 million Munda speaking people, mostly living in and around Central India now, descended from a genetic interaction that happened 2000-4000 years ago between Indian Dravidian and Southeast Asian populations, says a new population genetics study1.

Munda, an Austroasiatic language prevalent in Southeast Asia, has speakers bearing both South Asian and Southeast Asian genetic signatures. The mixing of these components has previously been estimated on the basis of archaeology, linguistics and ‘uniparental’ markers.

The new study by an international team of researchers, including some from the Banaras Hindu University at Varanasi, India, used genome-wide data collected from 102 Munda and other Austroasiatic speakers from Laos, Bangladesh, and east India.

"The study found that the Lao people (from Laos) were responsible for one third genetic contribution to the Munda people in India whereas, remaining two third genetic component comes from early Dravidians of Kerala, who had least West Eurasian genetic signal," Kai Tatte, lead author at Institute of Genomics of the University of Tartu, Estonia, told Nature India.

The study also uncovered “rather surprisingly that Munda people are genetically closer to tribes of Malaysian peninsula than their Austroasiatic counterparts of geographically closer countries like Vietnam or Cambodia”, according to Ajai Pathak, another key author.

Majority of present day populations of the Indian subcontinent are known to have descended largely from ancestral north Indians – who were genetically close to West Eurasian populations – and south Indians. The present study shows that, in addition to these two components, "India's Munda speakers share a minor proportion of their genetic ancestry with Southeast Asian populations.”

However, Ramasamy Pitchappan, a former professor of immunology and population geneticist at the Madurai Kamaraj University said the study’s conclusion that the intermixing of Indians and Munda speakers of Southeast Asia occurred about 3000 years ago needs corroboration.

"Looking at the history of India and the whole gamut of archaeology, Harappan and Ashokan periods, this time estimate seems less. One should corroborate these findings with cultural, sociological, archaeological and historical evidences,” he said.

Pitchappan said a study based on Y chromosome alone carried out earlier by his group had indicated that Mundas arrived in India about 7,000 years ago.

Pathak points out that the genome-wide data used in their study is derived from multiple ancestors and provides a broader picture of an individual’s heritage unlike a study based only on "uniparental" markers  (derived from a single ancestor) – mitochondrial DNA from mother or Y-chromosome from father. He also says the dates of their study are compatible with earlier archaeological findings2. "Nevertheless, to come to a concrete date, we would need ancient DNA samples from the Indian subcontinent."


References

1. Tätte, K. et al. The genetic legacy of continental scale admixture in Indian Austroasiatic speakers. Sci. Rep. 9, 3818 (2019) doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-40399-8

2. Diamond, J. & Bellwood, P. Farmers and their languages: The first expansions. Science 5619, 597-603 (2003) doi: 10.1126/science.1078208