This synopsis is based on a talk by Professor George Van Driem who delivered a series of lectures in Thimphu at the end of August 2018 on 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 Van Driem and colleagues study on this subject.
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 analyzed.
In particular, the long-term comprehensive study looked at genetic diversity among the various linguistic groups in Bhutan using several DNA markers. This is an infallible and groundbreaking 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 Bhutanese linguistic groups, but also our prehistoric connections to the wider populations of Asia and beyond.
The findings are startling and significant
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.
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 Van Driem writes. The Eastern Himalayas and Bhutan served as a “central staging area” for the peopling of East and South East Asia. Van Driem writes: “The Eastern Himalaya can be identified as a cradle of ethnogenesis and a principal thoroughfare in the course of population prehistory.”
For Bhutanese the significance of this finding is that all linguistic groups in Bhutan are “original” and had their genesis here in the motherland. Indeed Van Driem writes “the region comprising Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, southeastern Tibet and northeastern India, furnished the cradle for the ethnogenesis of all East Asian language families: 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 Van Driem’s papers tracing the spread of the Y chromosomal haplogoups N and O provide a visual representation of the findings.
For Bhutan the prevailing believe that certain ethnic and linguistic groups are original inhabitants of Bhutan while others came in from Tibet and settled here from the north is completely debunked. Indeed all Bhutanese are more closely related to each other as reveled by our genes and we in fact “furnished” ancestors to the north.
Put simply there is more genetic diversity here in Bhutan and the Eastern Himalayas then elsewhere in Asia, making us the center of ethnogenesis as Professor Van Driem puts it. Bhutanese people did not migrate here from the north and definitely not from Mongolia as disproven again and again by Van Driem as the “Mongoloid Myth” and the “Sino-Tibetan myth”. Quite the opposite is reveled 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 we are one people, united by our common ancestry.
All the papers discussed here can be accessed at http://himalayanlanguages.org
Contributed by Tashi Wangchuk, Ph.D.