Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

August 16, 2010

Where writing is silent

In my post on Empires of the Word I observed that quite often the written record is silent on many matters which only language or genes tell us must have occurred. The Indo-Aryan character of the dominant language on the island of Sri Lanka seems to be a geographical anomaly in the least, but perhaps most strange of all is the existence of a language and ethnic group of clear Southeast Asian provenance on the island of Madagascar. To my knowledge Arab, Persian and South Asian sources do not record the existence of a prominent Southeast Asian maritime diaspora which spanned the Indian ocean in the years before 1000 A.D., but we know that it did exist. A new paper on the genetics of the island of Comoros fleshes out another piece of the puzzle, Genetic diversity on the Comoros Islands shows early seafaring as major determinant of human biocultural evolution in the Western Indian Ocean:

The Comoros Islands are situated off the coast of East Africa, at the northern entrance of the channel of Mozambique. Contemporary Comoros society displays linguistic, cultural and religious features that are indicators of interactions between African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian (SEA) populations. Influences came from the north, brought by the Arab and Persian traders whose maritime routes extended to Madagascar by 700–900 AD. Influences also came from the Far East, with the long-distance colonisation by Austronesian seafarers that reached Madagascar 1500 years ago. Indeed, strong genetic evidence for a SEA, but not a Middle Eastern, contribution has been found on Madagascar, but no genetic trace of either migration has been shown to exist in mainland Africa. Studying genetic diversity on the Comoros Islands could therefore provide new insights into human movement in the Indian Ocean. Here, we describe Y chromosomal and mitochondrial genetic variation in 577 Comorian islanders. We have defined 28 Y chromosomal and 9 mitochondrial lineages. We show the Comoros population to be a genetic mosaic, the result of tripartite gene flow from Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. A distinctive profile of African haplogroups, shared with Madagascar, may be characteristic of coastal sub-Saharan East Africa. Finally, the absence of any maternal contribution from Western Eurasia strongly implicates male-dominated trade and religion as the drivers of gene flow from the North. The Comoros provides a first view of the genetic makeup of coastal East Africa.

In the paper they note that ~6% of the Y chromosomal lineages were Southeast Asian, while ~15% of mtDNA lineages were. That indicates that the Southeast Asian presence on the Indian ocean was a case of folk migration, men, women and children on the move. The data from Madagascar indicate something similar, both male and female lineages show Southeast Asian imprint among the highland Malagasy (I don’t make much of the proportional difference because this is just one sample). In contrast, they show in this paper that there’s a substantial West Eurasian (probably Arab, Indian and Persian) Y chromosomal gene flow into the population of Comoros, but no West Eurasian mtDNA. So in this case you have a clear contrast with that of the Southeast Asian seafarers, the Muslim merchants who settled on the Comoros did not bring their children or womenfolk. It was not a folk migration, but a mercantile network. Because of the nature of the sources, and the cultural influence of the West Asians, we know of their presence from the historical record. In contrast, the arguably more substantial folk migration of Southeast Asian seafarers from Borneo is hidden in the text. They may have been of no concern or beneath mention from the perspective of the Muslim merchant princes, but the fact that they were no longer on the high seas by the time the Portuguese arrive may also indicate that they were driven off by the same Muslim merchant princes in the years after 1000. If the latter is the case the silence may be due to the inclination to forget an unpleasant rivalry.

All this goes to show that history’s reliance on text can mislead and obscure real dynamics. Even social and economic history which attempts to tunnel-down to the level of the populace is still heavily reliant on written records. In the case of seafarers it seems likely that even archaeologists would be unable to detect their movements because of the liminal nature of their settlements. The linguistic and cultural influences in Madagascar and in East Africa indicate a sojourn by Austronesians in that coast, but there is no physical or textual record. There is the “dark history” which we ignore because of current ideological preferences, and then there is the dark history which has fallen outside of our methodological window.

Dienekes has more on this paper.

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