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Tonu

Something about human skulls

Hi Tanaya, Barsan, Angsul and others

I had been reading your posts with interest, though I did not respond to them much.

But I do appreciate your posting on the science section. We have a lot of research students and scientists in this Uttarayan member group, with a collective potential to increase our knowledge base by contributing here. From that point of view, I really appreciate you all taking time, within your own busy schedule, to contribute here.

Meanwhile, I shall ask a question on an issue that has been puzzling me for a while. I hope someone has the answer or can point us to the right direction. This relates to shapes of modern human skulls, and how this can be used to distinguish different people, such as people from different ethnic groups, and even from different sub-groups within a localized population.

Why I ask this, is because of two issues that has come to my notice recently. These are:

A recent article in The National Geographic mentions discovery of human skulls in an underwater seaside cave in Mexico. Dating of the skulls imply that the humans (there are four complete skulls discovered) lived around 13,500 years ago, at a time when the sea level was much lower than now, and the caves in question were above water at the time. This discovery has brought up two very interesting theories.

  • The first is that the date itself and the location (Mexico being so far from the Bering Strait) seem to imply that the first humans to inhabit North America (if they did come via the Bering Strait), must have arrived much earlier than originally supposed.
  • The second is even more surprising - which is, that the skull shapes seem to indicate that the people did not come from Tibet-Siberia region, or even the north European landmass as some propose (pre-Viking explorers etc), but from South Asia (Specifically - India). The news surprised me a lot, for multiple reasons. Firstly, for South Asian early inhabitants, Mexico is a pretty difficult place to reach following any route, unless they were super expert navigators and seafareres very early on, something that archaeology does not seem to support strongly, far as we know. Mythology is no use since I do not know of any mythology going back 13,500 years. In fact, it is doubtful that humans that far back had languages similar to anything we can recognize today. Nonetheless, if the skull shape diagnosis proves to be irrefutable (the article is only a few months old, and surely will be put to the microscope by the scientific community in the coming months and years), then the entire history of not only North American human inhabitants, but even South Asians of a pre-pre-pre-pre Vedic times would need to be rewritten. This also keeps another issue unanswered - did people of India that far back possess the same skull shape as Indians today? I would guess not, since a lot more ethnic mixing took place in India since that remote time. If my guess is right, then people from which prehistoric region should be having the kind of skulls found in the underwater cave, back in 11,500 BC, which happens to resemble Indian skulls of today? Tough questions, and I do not know the answers.


The second item is covered in the current episode (#135) of Santiniketan Podcast, where I recite chapter 1 of the book “History of the Bengali Speaking People” by Sengupta. In that chapter, the writer takes reference from many sources and studies, to chalk out the ethnic mix and ancestry of the board group of  people speaking Bengali language (covering present West Bengal, Bangladesh and a few surrounding regions in Assam, Tripura, Bihar and Orissa).
  • The text seems to imply some curious facts such as - the Bengali Brahmins (and upper class Muslims) are less related to the North Indian Brahmins and more closely related to Dravidian high castes and the Turkic-Mongoloid people, with a smaller amount of mixing with North Indian “Vedic” type of Gengetic brahmins.
  • Further, the book also implies that the middle caste Hindus are more mixed up between the Bengali Brahmins and the lower clastes and tribes. Not only that, but these middle order castes are more akin to the people of Behar. In other words, if I am a Kayastha, I might find some genetic relationship with Mr. Laloo Prasad Yadav. Wow!
  • Next, the so called tribes and lower castes (Sabara, Dom, Chandal, Pulinda, Kola and Hadi types) are by and large earlier settlers than the later Dravidian, Mongolians and later Brahimic Aryans and even later Portuguese, Middle eastern, and Arakani invaders (also called the “Mugs” of the “Moger Muluk” fame).
  • Details aside, what Sengupta says is that the shape of the average Bengali skull, which is supposed to be more “round” indicating Dravidian-Mongolian influence and less “long” such as North Indian Brahminic types, and the mixture of all types in Bengal is more thorough, than in the rest of India where different types remained separate to a larger degree.


I not only read out the text for the podcast, but spent a bit of time feeling the shape of my skull with my hands. The best I could guess, my skull appeared neither quite round, not quite long, but more a triangular shape, if sliced horizontally and looked from top, with one corner being my forehead, and two more corners at the back above each ear.

The question is - is skulls shape that well researched already, and the database that extensive, to provide such conclusive statements ?

Sengupta does imply (without using the words "dominant gene") that the mixture of ethnicity in Bengal, while more thorough than other parts of India, still allows people to have dominant genes of one or other types, thereby allowing some Bengali to appear different than his father or mother, where the parent might appear more Dravidian and the child more Aryan or Mongolian or African etc.

This also raises a question relating to The National Geographic article about the Mexican skulls. How could they be sure about any South Asian origin of the skulls, when South Asians themselves seem to have skulls of all kinds of shape and size? These couldn't be Vedic types, since vedic types were not around 13,500 years ago. Neither could they, I suppose, be Dravidian, Mongolian, Arakani or Portuguese types. Could they be what we call Dom, or Sabar or Santhal or Bhil or hill tribes types ? Could they be some tribes that lived by the coastal regions of India those days and somehow acquired the skill and wanderlust to reach as far a shore as the Mexican gulf coast, and lived to tell the tale?

Could it be that the Mexican or South and North Amercian tribal people, of Aztek, Mayan, Comanche, Apache and Blackfoot ancestry, actually share genes with our Santhals or Bhils etc ?

The subject appears quite fascinating to me and I wonder if you are able to throw some more light on it.

As some of you know, I did get some of my gene markers tested some months ago, but the basic analysis traced my paternal and maternal ancestry from a hundred thousand and more years ago and stops more or less at about ten thousand years ago. That study shows little influence from India and more traces from all sorts of places outside of current India. This is not surprising if we believe that the majority of inhabitants in India (not all) came to this land in the past 10,000 years or less, although I have no idea if I fall into the majority or the minority category - ethnically or anthropologically speaking.

To check my more recent ancestry, 10,000 years onward, I need to spend more money for detailed tests on more recent gene mutations, and have not yet decided if I should afford it. These tests are not exactly cheap, unfortunately.

But my personal history aside, I would have liked to know some more about this science of skull shape comparison business, since it seems to show great potential in unraveling history from our prehistoric days, supplemented with genotype analysis, archaeological finds, mythology, study of language and dialect, and what not.

I am still in the far east. Once I return back to Vancouver, we should spend another wkend talking about things.

Cheers.
tanaya

To the best of my knowledge, skull shape has not been explored by engineers or computer scientists. Though the idea sounds interesting, I think data collection would be very difficult (think of cumbersome and expensive CT scanners) and expensive.

thanks
tanaya

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