Eastern Himalaya: The Cradle of Ethnogenesis

Sunday, July 13, 2014
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The eastern half of the 3600 km Himalayan range, from the Kali Gandaki River all the way to Yunnan and Sichuan, is a region of pivotal importance in population prehistory. As a cradle of ethnogenesis, this region served both as staging area and principal thoroughfare in the populating of much of Asia following the emergence of anatomically modern humans in Africa. New scientific insights from different disciplines enable us to reconstruct the dispersal of a number of major language families in Asia and Oceania. These insights help dispel two antiquated scholarly themes, one of which still lives on in the popular imagination and another which survives in some slow-moving quarters of the linguistic community.

The new scholarship explains the origin of the ‘Mongoloid’ myth and exposes the fallacy of the Mongoloid, Caucasoid and other races. It debunks the unsupported theory of a Sino-Tibetan (or Indo-Chinese) family tree model. In place of these old scholarly fables, an exciting new scientific account of our past is unfolding, based on historical-linguistic evidence, the findings of population genetics and archaeo-botany. Four of the great language families of Eastern Eurasia and Oceania are seen to have their original homeland in the hills of the Eastern Himalaya. This fascinating scholarship illuminates several distinct episodes in our prehistoric past, and then there is even more to the story.

George van Driem occupies the Chair for Historical Linguistics at the University of Berne, Switzerland. He is a long-time researcher of the endangered languages and grammars of the Himalaya, including Nepal, Bhutan and India. He is associated with the Himalayan Languages Project, which has since 1983 been documenting languages of the region. Professor van Driem’s multidisciplinary interests range from historical linguistics to archaeology, palaeobotany, palaeoclimatology, anthropology and genetics. He uses Pokhara as a base for much of his work in Asia.

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