Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Where did we come from?: A convergence of science and tradition

(2005) An Evolutionary Road Less Traveled: From Farming to Hunting and Gathering. PLoS Biol 3(3): e116

"Invested with the arguably unique capacity for self-reflection, humans may well have asked the question, “Where did we come from?” ever since the dawn of self-awareness. From this universal question come origin stories as diverse as the cultures who tell them. In some cases, little is known about a population's evolutionary history aside from these stories—such is the case for the Mlabri people of Southeast Asia.

Until expanding agricultural development and modernization encroached on their forest homelands, the Mlabri lived mostly as nomadic hunter–gatherers in the forests of northeastern Thailand and western Laos. This lifestyle is unique among the other so-called hill tribes of Thailand—who all farm—raising the possibility that the Mlabri descended from the ancient Hoabinhian hunting–gathering culture of Southeast Asia and practice a way of life that predates agriculture.

Scant historical information exists on Mlabri language, culture, and origin, but Mlabri traditions speak to a long history as hunter–gatherers. The oral traditions of a neighboring hill tribe, the Tin Prai, paint a slightly different picture: several hundred years ago, legend has it, Tin Prai villagers sent two banished children downriver on a raft; the children, who survived by foraging in the forest, became the first Mlabri. In a new study, Mark Stoneking and colleagues use the tools of molecular anthropology to investigate the agricultural versus hunting–gathering origin of the Mlabri and reveal a scenario remarkably similar to the traditional origin stories."

The rest of this article synopsis can be read here.

What I find interesting about this report is the fact that molecular anthropology supports the Tin Prai oral tradition of how the Mlabri came into being. To me this points out the importance of relying not just on scientific research for understanding the past, but of also paying attention to what specific groups have to say about their own history.

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