, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 507-522

Status of Austro-Asiatic groups in the peopling of India: An exploratory study based on the available prehistoric, linguistic and biological evidences

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Abstract

Among the most contentious currently debated issues is about the people who had settled first in the Indian subcontinent. It has been suggested that the communities affiliated to the Austro-Asiatic linguistic family are perhaps the first to settle in India and the palaeoanthropological evidences suggest the earliest settlement probably around 60,000 years BP. Recent speculations, based on both traditional genetic markers and DNA markers, seem to corroborate the aforesaid view. However, these studies are inadequate both in terms of the representation of the constituent groups within this broad linguistic category as well as the number of samples that represent each of them. We strongly feel that, before making any formidable conclusions on the peopling of India and/or the history of settlement, it is necessary to ascertain that the Austro-Asiatic speakers, represented by over 30 different tribal groups, either genetically constitute a homogenous single entity or are a heterogeneous conglomeration, derived from different sources. As a first step towards this we tried to collate and analyse the existing information — geographic, ethno-historic, cultural and biological.

The results of the analyses of anthropometric and genetic marker data indicate that the Austro-Asiatic groups, particularly the Mundari speakers, with certain exceptions, show greater homogeneity among them when compared to the other linguistic groups, although certain groups show as outliers. However, traditional genetic markers show lower within population heterozygosity compared to Dravidian and other Indian populations. This is contrary to what has been claimed in case of certain DNA markers. Given that relatively greater heterozygosity among the Austro-Asiatic populations has been taken as one of the important evidences supporting greater antiquity of these populations one should await results of detailed DNA studies being currently undertaken by us, involving a number of Austro-Asiatic and other ethnic populations of India to resolve the issue unequivocally.