Welcome back, everyone. Yesterday we were discussing Ainu genetics. Today we’re still discussing Ainu genetics, but this time we’re discussing mtDNA instead of Y DNA.
Based on analysis of one sample of 51 modern Ainus, their mtDNA lineages have been reported to consist mainly of haplogroup Y …haplogroup D … haplogroup M7a … and haplogroup G1 … Other mtDNA haplogroups detected in this sample include A (2/51), M7b2 (2/51), N9b (1/51), B4f (1/51), F1b (1/51), and M9a (1/51). Most of the remaining individuals in this sample have been classified definitively only as belonging to macro-haplogroup M. According to Sato et al. (2009), who have studied the mtDNA of the same sample of modern Ainus (n=51), the major haplogroups of the Ainu are N9 (14/51 = 27.5%, including 10/51 Y and 4/51 N9(xY)), D (12/51 = 23.5%, including 8/51 D(xD5) and 4/51 D5), M7 (10/51 = 19.6%), and G (10/51 = 19.6%, including 8/51 G1 and 2/51 G2); the minor haplogroups are A (2/51), B (1/51), F (1/51), and M(xM7, M8, CZ, D, G) (1/51).
Note that Y (confusingly named) is a sub-haplogroup of N9. It’s commonly found in groups around the Sea of Okhotsk, (including the Ainu,) and in Indonesia, similar to the distribution of Sundadont teeth. Haplogroup D is found in Native Americans (highest frequency among the Aleuts,); Siberians, Ainu, east Asians, Japanese, etc. M7 is kind of generically east-Asian, with high frequency in Japan. In other words, Ainu maternal DNA is fairly similar to that of Japan at large + nearby Siberians.
So how closely related are the Ainu to rest of the Japanese?
Given the archaeology of the area and what we now know of the genetics, it looks like the Ainu were descended primarily from two main groups:
Over the past hundred years or so, though, the Ainu have purposefully intermarried with the non-Ainu Japanese, who are themselves descended from a mix of:
Yayoi, who invaded around 300 BC, conquering the Jomon.
We’d expect therefore for the Ainu and Japanese to share a fair amount of their mtDNA (the Yayoi probably absorbed Jomon women into their groups;) but not much Y DNA. According to Wikipedia:
Studies published in 2004 and 2007 show the combined frequency of M7a and N9b were observed in Jomons and which are believed by some to be Jomon maternal contribution at 28% in Okinawans (7/50 M7a1, 6/50 M7a(xM7a1), 1/50 N9b), 17.6% in Ainus (8/51 M7a(xM7a1), 1/51 N9b), and from 10% (97/1312 M7a(xM7a1), 1/1312 M7a1, 28/1312 N9b) to 17% (15/100 M7a1, 2/100 M7a(xM7a1)) in mainstream Japanese.
A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon. This agrees with the reference to the Ainu being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon referenced above.
Now certainly, if we can use DNA testing to tell that someone is “half Spaniard, a quarter Finnish, and a quarter Czech, with 3% Neanderthal DNA,” then we can use DNA testing to tell what %s of someone’s ancestry are Japanese, Ainu, Jomon, Yayoi, Siberian, etc.–it’s just a matter of getting enough relevant samples. The only major issue I could see getting in the way is if there actually is no such thing as a genetically “pure” Ainu, but rather a bunch of small Ainu groups with varying levels of admixture from all of the other groups. For example, there is no such thing as “Turkic” genetics–all “Turkic” groups speak Turkic languages, take great pride in being Turkic, and presumably have cultural connections, but genetically they are quite diverse. The situation is similar with Jewish groups. 2000 years ago, most Jews were genetically “Jewish,” but today, the vast majority of Jews are at least 50% non-ancient Hebrew by DNA.
But of course, genetics doesn’t tell you much about the lives of modern Ainu.
Many people theorize recent connections between all of the peoples along the north Pacific rim, from Japan to Oregon, and northward across Canada, based on similar abstract, geometric art styles; lifestyles; and documented contacts. The eternally-controversial Kennewick man (a 9,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington State,) was initially described by some anthropologists as resembling an Ainu man. Mister Kennewick has since been proven to be related to modern Native Americans–Native Americans may simply have looked different 9,000 years ago.
I look forward to more research on connections between circum-polar and circum-Pacific peoples.
Most of the information easily available on the internet speaks of the Ainu in the past tense: The Ainu were hunter-gatherers; the Ainu worshiped; the Ainu were conquered. The photographic situation is similar: an image search for “Ainu” brings up a few dozen century-old photos and not much else.
But the modern Ainu, of course, do not live in the past–they live in today, primarily in the very modern city of Sapporo. The modern Ainu are not hunter-gatherers (although the entire nation of Japan remains highly dependent on fishing for its nutrition;) they are doctors and shop-keepers, office workers and artists. They go to school, keep up with modern fashions, play video games, and ride the shinkansen just like everyone else in Japan.
Wikipedia (and everyone else) estimates that about 25,000 Ainu live today in Japan, with the caveat that since the Ainu don’t always bother to mention their ancestry, there could be a couple hundred thousand who just haven’t been counted.
Due to years of inter-marrying, the vast majority of today’s Ainu are at least part Japanese. One reference I recall estimated that about 300 pure-blooded Ainu remained in 1950; another estimated that 200 remain today.
There are also some Ainu living in Russia; according to Wikipedia, about 100 Russians tried to identify as Ainu in the 2010 census, and nearly a thousand people with some degree of Ainu ancestry live in the area.
Alas for my purposes as a writer, these few remaining folks appear to be living their lives out in anthropological anonymity, rather than posting selfies tagged #RealAinu all over the internet.
The one thing everyone likes to argue about in threads about the Ainu is whether or not they look like white people.
It’s kind of dumb to fight about, since obviously Ainu look like Ainu.
Okay, okay. Don’t start a flame war. According to Wikipedia:
Turner found remains of Jōmon people of Japan to belong to Sundadont pattern similar with the Southern Mongoloid living populations of Taiwanese aborigines, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Borneans, Laotians, and Malaysians. …
Your Y-haplogroup traces your paternal ancestry, because men (and only men) inherit their Y-chromosomes from their fathers. Your M or Mt-DNA, (short for mitochondrial DNA,) hails exclusively from your mother (and both men and women have Mt-DNA, because we all have mitochondria.)
Often when one group of people conquers another group of people, their descendants end up with Y-DNA from the conquerors and MtDNA from the conquered, but there are other ways people come together, like folks intermarrying with their neighbors.
(Presumably this study was done with relatively pure-blooded Ainu.)
The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is quite suggestive: Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders. These are three (historically) highly isolated groups–one of the world’s few remaining basically uncontacted peoples, the Sentinelese, (they’ll put a spear in you if you land on their island) live in the Andaman Islands. The Tibetans, as I’ve mentioned, have inherited DNA from the Denisovans–cousins of the Neanderthals who interbred with their ancestors–that lets them breathe more easily at high altitudes than anyone else on Earth, making it rather hard for non-Tibetans move there, much less conquer and occupy it [Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nepalese or other folks who also live up in the Himalayas also have the adaptation; this isn’t meant to be a discussion of modern political borders.] And the Ainu basically live on the far edge of Asian at the southern edge of Siberia–northern Japan is the snowiest populated place in the world.
“Sinodont” and “sundadont” actually refer to two different tooth shapes.
Tibetans and Andaman Islanders are definitely Asians–they clade with other Asians in the Greater Asian Clade–but they don’t look much alike. You wouldn’t mistake them for Caucasians, though.
Haplogroup D-M174 is believed to have evolved about 50-60-thousand years ago, presumably in Asia. This was shortly after the Out-of-Africa event, which occurred about 70,000 (or possibly 100,000 years ago [there might have been more than one OOA.]) D-M174 is so old that its “parent” haplogroup is DE, which is found in Africa and Asia.
By contrast, the mutation to the EDAR-gene which gives Han Chinese (the Asian ethnic group Americans are most familiar with) and Japanese their characteristic hair, skin, tooth shape, build, etc., (EDAR is pretty incredible in that way) only occurred 30,000 years ago–that is, the Ainu split off from other Asians 20-30 thousand years before what we think of as “the Asian look” had even evolved.
For that matter, Caucasian themselves only appear to have split off from Asians around 40,000 years ago–10,000 years before EDAR mutated, but 10-20,000 years after D-M174 arose.
Or to put it another way:
About 70,000 years ago, an intrepid band of explorers left Africa. Presumably, these people looked African, but I don’t know exactly which Africans these ancient people looked like–perhaps they didn’t really look like any modern group; perhaps they looked a lot like most Sub-Saharan Africans; perhaps they looked like the Bushmen, noted for their tawny skin tones and more “Asian” look than other Sub-Saharans. I don’t know yet.
About 60,000 years ago, the band split, and one group spread far across Asia. Their modern descendants are the Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders.
The other group presumably hung out in central Eurasia, until about 40,000 years ago, when it definitively split. One group went west and became the Caucasians; the other became the Han.
Around 30,000 years, the distinctive EDAR mutation that gives east-Asians their “typical” appearance evolved.
Around 10,000 years ago, more or less, Europeans began getting lighter, and “whiteness” as we know it evolved.
So… could the Ainu retain some traits or have never obtained some traits–like epicanthic folds at the corners of their eyes–which make them look more like their ancestral group, to which the ancestors of both Asians and Caucasians belonged? Sure. Could they have just evolved traits to deal with the extremely cold, near-Siberian environment they lived in that happened to resemble traits that evolved in European populations dealing with a similarly cold environment? Sure.
But are they Caucasians? Not even remotely.
And in my opinion, they don’t look Caucasian, at least not when their faces aren’t covered with big, bushy beards. (The modern Ainu tend to shave.) Take, for example, Oki Kano, an Ainu musician. Nothing about his appearance says, “Mysterious tribe of lost Caucasians.”
Back to Wikipedia:
In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men have been found to belong to Haplogroup C-M217, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of Siberia and Mongolia. … Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C-M217 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.
The Nivkhs live basically next door and have a lot of cultural similarities–for example, both groups traditionally had shamanic rituals involving bears, which they raised and then sacrificed:
Nivkh Shamans also presided over the Bear Festival, a traditional holiday celebrated between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, treating the bear like a child. The bear was considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form (see Bear worship). During the Festival, the bear would be dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume. It would be offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans. After the banquet, the bear would be sacrificed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. Often dogs were sacrificed as well. The bear’s spirit returned to the gods of the mountain ‘happy’ and would then reward the Nivkh with bountiful forests. …
While haplogroup D-M174 shows affinity with more southerly Asian groups, like the Tibetans or Andaman Islanders, haplogroup C-M217 is found throughout northern Asia (principally Siberia) and northern North America.
I hear the Pope has declared that dogs can get into Heaven, now. (I guess technically he can do that? Like, the opposite of excommunication? But don’t only humans have souls under Catholic doctrine? Can some Catholic expert clarify?)
“In now passing from the consideration of the souls of men to that of the souls of the lower animals, we have first to inform ourselves as to the savage man’s idea, which is very different from the civilized man’s, of the nature of these lower animals. …
“Savages talk quite seriously to beasts alive or dead as they would to men alive or dead, offer them homage, ask pardon when it is their painful duty to hunt and kill them. A North American Indian will reason with a horse as if rational. Some will spare the rattlesnake, fearing the vengeance of its spirit if slain; others will salute the creature reverently, bid it welcome as a friend from the land of spirits, sprinkle a pinch of tobacco on its head for an offering, catch it by the tail and dispatch it with extreme dexterity, and carry off its skin as a trophy.
“If an Indian is attacked and torn by a bear, it is that the beast fell upon him intentionally in anger, perhaps to revenge the hurt done to another bear. When a bear is killed, they will beg pardon of him, or even make him condone the offence by smoking the peace-pipe with his murderers, who put the pipe in his mouth and blow down it, begging his spirit not to take revenge.
S”o in Africa, the Kafirs will hunt the elephant, begging him not to tread on them and kill them, and when he is dead they will assure him that they did not kill him on purpose, and they will bury his trunk, for the elephant is a mighty chief, and his trunk is his hand that he may hurt withal. The Congo people will even avenge such a murder by a pretended attack on the hunters who did the deed.
“Such customs are common among the lower Asiatic tribes. The Stiens of Kambodia ask pardon of the beast they have killed; the Ainos [Ainu] of Yesso kill the bear, offer obeisance and salutation to him, and cut up his carcase. The Koriaks, if they have slain a bear or wolf, will flay him, dress one of their people in the skin, and dance round him, chanting excuses that they did not do it, and especially laying the blame on a Russian. But if it is a fox, they take his skin, wrap his dead body in hay, and sneering tell him to go to his own people and say what famous hospitality he has had, and how they gave him a new coat instead of his old one. The Samoyeds excuse themselves to the slain bear, telling him it was the Russians who did it, and that a Russian knife will cut him up. The Goldi will set up the slain bear, call him ‘my lord’ and do ironical homage to him, or taking him alive will fatten him in a cage, call him ‘son’ and ‘brother’ and kill and eat him as a sacrifice at a solemn festival. …”
“Even now the Norse hunter will say with horror of a bear that will attack man, that he can be “no Christian bear.” …
“Men to whom the cries of beasts and birds seem like human language, and their actions guided as it were by human thought, logically enough allow the existence of souls to beasts, birds, and reptiles, as to men. The lower psychology cannot but recognize in beasts the characteristics which it attributes to the human soul, namely, the phenomena of life and death, will and judgment, and the phantom seen in vision or in dream. As for believers, savage or civilized, in the great doctrine of metempsychosis, these not only consider that an animal may have a soul, but that this soul may have inhabited a human being, and thus the creature may be in fact their own ancestor or once familiar friend. …
“North American Indians held every animal to have its spirit, and these spirits their future life; the soul of the Canadian dog went to serve his master in the other world; among the Sioux, the prerogative of having four souls was not confined to man, but belonged also to the bear, the most human of animals. The Greenlanders considered that a sick human soul might be replaced by the sorcerer with a fresh healthy soul of a hare, a reindeer, or a young child. Maori tale-tellers have heard of the road by which the spirits of dogs descend to Reinga, the Hades of the departed; the Hovas of Madagascar know that the ghosts of beasts and men, dwelling in a great mountain in the south called Ambondrombe, come out occasionally to walk among the tombs or execution-places of criminals. The Kamchadals held that every creature, even the smallest fly, would live again in the under- world. The Kukis of Assam think that the ghost of every animal a Kuki kills in the chase or for the feast will belong to him in the next life, even as the enemy he slays in the field will then become his slave. The Karens apply the doctrine of the spirit or personal life-phantom, which is apt to wander from the body and thus suffer injury, equally to men and to animals. The Zulus say the cattle they kill come to life again, and become the property of the dwellers in the world beneath. …”
“Animals being thus considered in the primitive psychology to have souls like human beings, it follows as the simplest matter of course that tribes who kill wives and slaves, to dispatch their souls on errands of duty with their departed lords, may also kill animals in order that their spirits may do such service as is proper to them. The Pawnee warrior’s horse is slain on his grave to be ready for him to mount again, and the Comanche’s best horses are buried with his favourite weapons and his pipe, all alike to be used in the distant happy hunting-grounds. 1 In South America not only do such rites occur, but they reach a practically disastrous extreme. Patagonian tribes, says D’Orbigny, believe in another life, where they are to enjoy perfect happiness, therefore they bury with the deceased his arms and ornaments, and even kill on his tomb all the animals which belonged to him, that he may find them in the abode of bliss; and this opposes an insurmountable barrier to all civilization, by preventing them from accumulating property and fixing their habitations.
Certain Esquimaux, as Cranz relates, would lay a dog’s head in a child’s grave, that the soul of the dog, who is everywhere at home, might guide the helpless infant to the land of souls. In accordance with this, Captain Scoresby in Jameson’s Land found a dog’s skull in a small grave, probably a child’s. Again, in the distant region of the Aztecs, one of the principal funeral ceremonies was to slaughter a techichi, or native dog ; it was burnt or buried with the corpse, with a cotton thread fastened to its neck, and its office was to convey the deceased across the deep waters of Chiuhnahuapan, on the way to the Land of the Dead. The dead Buraet’s favourite horse, led saddled to the grave, killed, and flung in, may serve for a Tatar example. In Tonquin, even wild animals have been customarily drowned at funeral ceremonies of princes, to be at the service of the departed in the next world. …
“Among the nations of the Aryan race in Europe, the prevalence of such rites is deep, wide, and full of purpose. Thus, warriors were provided in death with horses and housings, with hounds and falcons. Customs thus described in chronicle and legend, are vouched for in our own time by the opening of old barbaric burial-places. How clear a relic of savage meaning lies here may be judged from a Livonian account as late as the fourteenth century, which relates how men and women slaves, sheep and oxen, with other things, were burnt with the dead, who, it was believed, would reach some region of the living, and find there, with the multitude of cattle and slaves, a country of life and happiness. … It is mentioned as a belief in Northern Europe that he who has given a cow to the poor will find a cow to take him over the bridge of the dead, and a custom of leading a cow in the funeral procession is said to have been kept up to modern times.”
EvX, here: Turning to the European intellectual tradition on the subject of animal souls, Tylor observes:
“Although, however, the primitive belief in the souls of animals still survives to some extent in serious philosophy, it is obvious that the tendency of educated opinion on the question whether brutes have soul, as distinguished from life and mind, has for ages been in a negative and sceptical direction. The doctrine has fallen from its once high estate. It belonged originally to real, though rude science. It has now sunk to become a favourite topic in that mild speculative talk which still does duty so largely as intellectual conversation, and even then its propounders defend it with a lurking consciousness of its being after all a piece of sentimental nonsense.”
Here we have maps of the distribution of red hair and the distribution of blond hair. If we could overlay these maps, we’d see, especially in North Western Europe, a large overlap between the places where blond here is and red hair isn’t. It looks kind of like the blond-haired people started out somewhere around Sweeden and spread out in concentric circles from there, and as they spread, they began displacing an earlier, red-haired people who ended up surviving only on the far fringes of Britain. (The red splotch in the middle of Russia represents the Udmurt people, who could have been originally related to the ancestors of the folks on the coasts of Britain, but I suspect not.)
Luckily for me, we have historical records for this area, and we know that this is exactly what happened, what with the Germanic barbarians invading Gaul and Britain and Prussia and so on.
Anyway, so this is just an idea I’ve had kicking around in my head that when you see something like the red hair/blond hair pattern, the trait that’s in the easy to conquer, fertile, valuable areas is more recent, and the trait that’s in the fringier, more isolated places–sometimes widely separated–is the older one.
“Fringe” areas don’t have to be the edges of coasts. They can also be rainforests, mountain tops, deserts, icy tundra, etc.–just anywhere that’s far away or hard to conquer.
The Ainu are among the most famous Siberian peoples primarily because, once upon a time, Europeans mistook them for Caucasians, probably because the Ainu had beards and other East Asians tend not to. (I think East Asians generally can’t grow shaggy beards, but it’s hard to say because shaving one’s head is so common among men these days.)
It’s not surprising that the Ainu aren’t actually long lost Europeans, but it is odd that they appear to be most closely–though still distantly–related to the Ryukyuans (aka Okinawans,) and mroe distantly related to their immediate neighbors, the Japanese. The Ainu hail from Hokkaido, in the far north of Japan, (though they may have previously ranged further south:
while the Okinawans hail from Japan’s southern end. Here’s another look at their respective genetics:
So we’re left with the Ainu still being quite unusual.
For that matter, their beards actually are rather unusual for the area–while the neighboring Nivkh People have beards, most of the other nearby Siberian groups, like the Yukaghirs and Oroks, (not to mention their Japanese neighbors) don’t seem particularly beardy, even though facial fur seems like it’d be useful in cold places.
To be clear, based on my past half hour’s worth of research, the Japanese (and other east-Asians) can grow beards, but their beards are generally thin and patchy due to the distribution of hair follicles. The fluffy, full beards of the Ainu appear to be rare among the Japanese and other east Asians.
I’ve yet to find a map I trust of the distribution of hairiness among humans, so we’re going with one I don’t entirely trust:
Why are Norwegians furry, but not Siberians?
Potential issues with this map: 1. Hindley and Damon gathered their estimates from the literature of their day, which means some of these numbers may be quite old; 2. Map is based on a measure of hairiness of people’s finger joints, not beards or overall body hair; 3. It looks like the numbers in the US are based on current populations rather than indigenous ones, which isn’t an issue so much as just something to be clear on; 4. the Wikipedia lists some of the numbers cited in the article, but not those for Melanesia/Indonesia/SE Asia, and the article itself is paywalled; 5. the article’s abstract notes that Solomon Islanders measured 58.8% hairy–purple–which seems in contrast to the very yellow area nearby.
At any rate, judging by the Wikipedia, lots of people rate the Ainu as “very hairy” and the Japanese as “not very hairy.”
Interestingly, the Australian Aborigines seem to have nice beards:
The article on Ainu genetics notes, “…Omoto conducted a pioneering study on the phylogenetic relationship of the Ainu population considering various degrees of admixture. When a 60% admixture with the Mainland Japanese was assumed for the modern Ainu population, the ancestral Ainu population was clustered with Sahulian (Papuan and Australian). This sort of simulations based on the real data is needed.”
Speculative… but interesting.
The Ainu belong to Y-haplogroup D-M55, a sub-clade of D-M174, which according to Wikipedia, is found “at high frequency among populations in Tibet, the Japanese archipelago, and the Andaman Islands, though curiously not in India. The Ainu of Japan are notable for possessing almost exclusively Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes,…” (You remember our discussion of the Andaman Islanders the other day, right?)
It’d be interesting to know if the Ainu have any Denisovan admixture.
The Ainu language doesn’t seem to be related to any of the nearby languages, not even Nivkh (aside from loan words.) It’s hard to study the Ainu language, since very few people speak it anymore, but so far all of the proposed groupings sound very tentative.
The Ainu also have different teeth from their neighbors. “Sinodont” teeth are found in Japan, China, Siberia, and Native Americans. “Sundadont” teeth are found in the Ainu, Okinawans, ancient Japanese skeletons, Taiwanese aborigines, Filipinos, Indonesians, and folks from Indochina like the Thais and Laotians.
Here’s a helpful map:
(N = Negritos; A = Australians)
The word “Sundadont” refers to “Sundaland“, which is the part of Indonesia that was above water and connected to the mainland back during the last ice age. Getting to Indonesia was therefore potentially quite simple for ancient people, since they could just walk there; getting to Papua New Guinea and Australia was much more difficult, since deep water lay between them. WestHunter has an interesting post on the subject.
However, on the subject of Native American teeth, the Wikipedia notes:
“Rebecca Haydenblit of the Hominid Evolutionary Biology Research Group at Cambridge University did a study on the dentition of four pre-Columbian Mesoamerican populations and compared their data to “other Mongoloid populations”. She found that “Tlatilco“, “Cuicuilco“, “Monte Albán” and “Cholula” populations followed an overall “Sundadont” dental pattern “characteristic of Southeast Asia” rather than a “Sinodont” dental pattern “characteristic of Northeast Asia”.“
As we discussed previously, it looks like Melanesians may have been the first folks to reach the Americas, but were later conquered and largely wiped out by a wave of “East Asian”-like invaders.
Taken together, all of the evidence is still kind of scanty, but points to the possibility of a Melanesian-derived group that spread across south Asia, made it into Tibet and the Andaman Islands, walked into Indonesia, and then split up, with one branch heading up the coast to Taiwan, Okinawa, Japan, and perhaps across the Bering Strait and down to Brazil, while another group headed out to Australia.
Later, the ancestors of today’s east Asians moved into the area, largely displacing or wiping out the original population, except in the hardest places to reach, like Tibet, the Andaman Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon Rainforest, and Hokkaido–the fringe.
Each group, of course, has gone its own way; the Ainu, for example, have mixed with the nearby Japanese and Siberian cultures, and adapted over time to their particular climate, resulting in their own, unique culture.
The Sentinelese appear to have split off from the rest of humanity approximately 48,500 years ago, and aside from occasional contact with other members of the Andaman islands, have remained isolated ever since.
People have occasionally landed on or near Sentinel island, but the islanders have all resisted contact, generally by shooting arrows at anyone who gets too close. Even National Geographic hasn’t got any pictures of them–when they tried to make a documentary on the island, armed with gifts, they had to retreat after the director took an arrow in the thigh. The last guys whose boat accidentally drifted onto their beach got killed and buried in shallow graves on the beach.
North Sentinel Island is technically owned by India, but India has given up trying to make peaceful contact, and it would probably look bad to just bomb the place.
So what do we know about the Sentinelese?
Obviously not a whole lot, since most of what we know of them has been observed from a distance.
The whole island is about the size of Manhattan, and probably inhabited by 40-500 people. They’re generally characterized as Negritos, a term used for the shorter than average but taller than Pygmies, dark-skinned people of the Andaman Islands and certain groups in the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia. The term is only descriptive; different Negrito tribes may not be related to each other at all. (I promised I’d get around to the Negritos eventually.)
Aside from stuff that has randomly washed up on their island or was given to them by folks trying to make contact, they have only stone tools and, according to the Wikipedia, appear not to have fire.
But a little more research suggests that Wikipedia may just be wrong on this point; during the search for the lost Malaysian jetliner, smoke was observed rising from North Sentinele, which implies that the people there probably do have fire.
At any rate, we do know that they have bows and arrows, boats, and spears.
When National Geographic tried to make contact, they left a plastic toy car, coconuts, a live pig, a doll, and aluminum cookware on the beach before getting shot at. After they retreated, they observed the Sentinelese shoot and bury the pig (not eat it?) and, if the Wikipedia is accurate, shoot and bury the doll. They took the coconuts and pans; no word of the car’s fate.
In 1970, a group of Indian anthropologists that came near the island had a decidedly strange incident:
Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics… A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude… They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship…
Virtually nothing is known about the Sentinelese language, though it is speculated that it is related to the Onge language of the Andaman islands. However, attempts at using the Onge as translators have failed, as the Onge themselves cannot understand a word of Sentinelese.
A British expedition in the 1880s that got a decent look at the island claimed that, of all the nearby groups, Sentinelese culture most closely resembled Onge culture, so it is still possible that the languages are related, albeit distantly.
Since much more is known about the Onge, I’m going to speak briefly about them:
The Onge are marked in blue on the map above; today they live chiefly on Little Andaman Island in the south, but in the past they ranged further north, closer to to the Sentinelese. Contact with the outside world has reduced their population from almost 700 people (1900) to about 100. (There may well have been >700 people before 1900, that’s just the first date I have numbers for.) Strangely, the Onge appear to be the world’s least fertile people, with 40% of couples suffering infertility. Wikipedia estimates their Net Reproductive Rate (similar to TFR, but only looks at daughters) at 0.91, which is below replacement, however, their population appears to have held steady for the past 30 years, so perhaps the problem is working itself out.
Why such infertility? The most obvious guesses (IMO) are some sort of environmental poison/effect; some sort of diseased-induced infertility, like gonorrheal scaring (please note that I have no idea if any of the Onge have ever had gonorrhea, but it is a common cause of infertility;) or a side effect of inbreeding/lack of genetic diversity following their extreme population collapse.
Genetically, the Onge appear to have been isolated for an extremely long time. They all share the same mitochondrial DNA, haplotype M32, which is not found anywhere outside of the Andaman Islands. (The larger umbrella-group M, to which all M-varieties belong, is one of the world’s most wide-spread lineages, emerging either shortly before the Out of Africa event, or shortly after it, but is most reliably concentrated in Asia, with several ancient lineages in India.)
The Onge language is related to the languages of some of the other tribes in the Andaman Islands, and speculated to be part of the greater Austronesian language family. (Considering that the whole Indo-European language family is about, what, 4-6,000 years old, I am a little skeptical of our ability to reconstruct too much about a language that may have diverged 40,000+ years ago.)
Onge Y-DNA belongs to Haplogroup D-M174, which emerged in Asia about 60,000 years ago and isn’t found outside of Asia. It is found today among Tibetans, the Ainu, and the Andaman Islanders, suggesting that these people are all (at least partially) descended from a common source that split off from other humans around 60,000 years ago, or just after the OoA (relatively speaking.) D-M174 is also found in small amounts in China and central/east Asia.
The Ainu, IIRC, also have a particular tooth shape that is commonly found in Melanesia, but not outside of it, and a small amount (about 15%, I think,) of Siberian DNA. And, of course, we now have evidence of Melanesian DNA showing up in the Amazon rainforest, not to mention the curious concentration of archaic Denisovan admixture in Melanesians, despite the only Denisovan remains we’ve found so far coming from Russia. However, it appears that there is no Denisovan DNA in the Andaman Islanders, so maybe they split off before the Denisovan admixture advent.
The sum of the evidence suggests a single band of people, perhaps most closely resembling the Negritos, spread 60,000 years ago along the coast of southern Asia and spread far into the interior, reaching at least as far as Tibet, the Andaman Islands, and northern Japan, and possibly even crossing the Bering Strait and down to the tip of South America. (Since Melanesians do not appear to have ever spread to Polynesia, I suspect they did not boat straight across the Pacific, but maybe we just haven’t yet found Melanesian remains in Polynesia.)
Over the ensuing millenia, later population waves, like the Polynesians and the common ancestors of east Asians like the Han and the Japanese, migrated into the area, leaving only a few isolated remnants of Haplogroup D-M174 in far-flung, difficult to reach places like the Andaman islands, the Himalayan Plateau, and the coldest parts of Japan. Likewise, Melanesian DNA in the New World seems to have best survived in one of its harshest, most difficult to penetrate habitats: the rain forest.
This all gets back to my theory of genetic survival at the fringes, (discussed here,) which I hope to devote a full post to soon. The history of the world is the group with better tech conquering the group with worse tech, and then getting conquered in turn by a group with even better tech.
The island of Taiwan illustrates this well; the most recent immigration wave happened in 1949, when the ROC lost their war with the PRC and evacuated 2 million of their people to Taiwan, a nation of 6 million at the time. Taiwan had previously (temporarily) been conquered by the Japanese, and before that, by other Chinese people, who began arriving around 1300. They’ve been gradually defeating/replacing the aboriginal Taiwanese, who are now a very small population, and the aboriginal Taiwanese themselves have legends about having wiped out a negrito-like people who predated their arrival, but I consider such legends only potentially true. Each group got conquered by the next group with better tech.
A couple more pictures of Andaman Islanders:
Anyway, back to the Sentinelese.
The available evidence suggests that they split off from the rest of the human population ages upon ages ago, and have been effectively isolated from everyone but their immediate neighbors ever since. Though technically their island is considered part of India, as a practical matter, they govern themselves. They have managed to retain their independent status for so long by living on a tiny, hard-to-reach island and enforcing a strict immigration policy of killing anyone who shows up on their beach.
Given that the Sentinelese would probably all die of the common cold if they ever did let foreigners onto their island, their policy is not unreasonable. You wouldn’t want to let some plague-bearing foreigner kill you with their germs, either. Unfortunately, the disease situation is unlikely to reverse itself; their population is just too small to withstand contact with the outside world. Too-long isolation in such a tiny place has cut them off from all the technological progress of the past 40,000 to 60,000 years, and their population is too small to develop much tech internally. To be fair, their strategy has worked so far. But now they’re stuck, maintaining their tiny island against the odds until someone decides to show up with guns and do some logging, fishing, or whatever they feel like, at which point there’s a good chance they’ll be wiped out.
Long term, total isolation is a policy with very low survival odds.
After some thought, the best option I can think of for the Sentinelese, other than continuing as they are and hoping for the best (after all, the rest of the world could destroy itself in a nuclear holocaust and leave them behind to continue doing their thing for the next 40,000 years,) is to expand their numbers and send excess people to the other Andaman Islands. Sure, most of those people would probably get colds and die, and if not the colds, alcohol’s a likely culprit, but as long as they keep exporting people, eventually some of them will survive, and create a breeding population/intermix with the other Andamanese until they have the numbers/immunity to interact with the outside world.