Ancient Indians, Neanderthals and Denisovans

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 15 March 2020

Some time ago, I was reading the wonderful book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari (originally written in Hebrew in 2011). Reading this book reminded me about some of my old ideas about the possible depiction of the prehistoric humans such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans in the ancient Indian texts.

Other human species in Indian mythology - Images by Sunil Deepak

As a child, while reading the old Indian sacred stories, I used to wonder if some of the people such as vanars, danavs and rakshas, described in books like Ramayan, Mahabharat, and Purans, could have been references to other human species.

This post explores some of those ideas about the other human species in the sacred books of Hinduism. I am not claiming any scientific rationale behind these ideas, they are just speculations that had started from my childhood fantasies. The images used in this post show depictions of those characters in the temples, folk-art and folk-plays of India.

Importance of Oral Cultures

According to the evolution theory, humans and apes such as chimpanzees, had common progenitors and the two had separated around 5-7 million years ago. Those first pro-genitors of humans 5 million years ago, did not have the capacity to speak as their wind-pipes (trachea) did not have voice-boxes.

It is estimated that speaking humans came around 150 thousand years ago, around the same time when the Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved. For about 50 to 80 thousand years, the modern humans co-existed with other human species such as Homo neanderthalis, Homo erectus, and Homo floresiensis.

The oldest evidence of writing skills dates back to just 5-6,000 years. Before this period, for thousands of years, the human cultures were primarily oral cultures, which had "memory songs" to transmit events from the history, and which gradually transformed into our mythologies. For example, it is widely believed that the stories of a heavenly bridge over the oceans in the Amerindian mythologies refers to the ice-age when people from Asia could travel to Europe and then to the Americas, because the northern sea was frozen.

All cultures across the world had such oral traditions which kept alive their ancient histories in the form of memory songs of their mythologies. However, 1500-2000 years ago, most of such ancient mythologies were replaced by newer stories associated with the rise of monotheist religions, which frowned on the older stories. Thus, ancient mythologies of many cultures were lost.

Other human species in Indian mythology - Images by Sunil Deepak

India is one notable exception, where the ancient mythologies and the memory songs have been part of continuous living traditions of Hinduism and its different streams, including Jainism and Buddhism. Hindus have a strong emphasis on oral transmission of ancient memories, which helped in safeguarding the older stories. In 2007, BBC had made a documentary called the "Story of India", which had shown how some pre-language sounds from ancient times were remembered and faithfully conserved by a group of Kerala Brahmins, even if the original meanings and significance of those sounds were lost in antiquity.

This is why, I feel that Indian mythologies might have traces of our interactions with other human species. However, mythology is not history and can not be taken literally.

Different Human Species in Yuvan Noah Harari's Book

Regarding the encounters between the different human species, in his book Yuval Noah Harari has written that:

Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother. 

Indians, Aryans, & Dravidians

European academics and indologists from 19th century had popularized the theories of Aryan invasion and proposed that people of south India (Dravidians) were pushed southwards by those Aryans coming into India from the west. They had also proposed that fair-skinned Aryans had exploited and subjugated dark skinned indigenous populations of ancient India and forced them into specific caste groups (shudra) or outside the caste system (untouchables). They had argued that groups like Asur and Rakshas described in the ancient Indian tales were actually Dravidians and other indigenous people of India.

These ideas were widely accepted both in India and internationally. Only during the last couple of decades there have been doubts about the invasion theory since they have not found matching archaeological or documentary evidence to support it. However, objective discussions on this theme are difficult because certain Hindu groups see it as diminishing of their claim to be original inhabitants of India, while many leftist scholars see its negation as pandering to conservative Hindu groups - both sides refuse to discuss anything that does not fit in with their ideas.

Most researchers now favour an Aryan Migration Theory (AMT) instead of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), meaning that different waves of persons from outside India came and joined other groups living here from earlier times while the decline of Indus Valley civilization has been linked with climate change and drying up of rivers.

What does it mean for the identities of groups called Vanars, Daitya, Danav and Rakshas in the Indian mythology? I feel that at least some of them are about encounters that pre-date Indus Valley and thus, represent other human species.

Encounters with Diverse Human Species in Indian Mythology

The ancient Indian texts are divided into Shruti (The ones which are heard) and Smriti (The ones which are remembered). Both kinds of texts talk about Deva (humans) and other speaking-communicating humanoid beings such as Vanars, Asurs, Danavs and Raskshas.

The mythological stories talk of their inter-marriages as well as, of their wars and killings. For example, there is the story of a king called Yayati, who had divided the earth into 5 parts (which can be interpreted as the ancient knowledge of the 5 continents). Yayati was married to Devyani, daughter of Shukracharya, the king of Daityas. This story can be seen as a reference to intermixing between two human species.

These stories are not always easy to interpret. For example, there is a story of Sagar, son of Satyavrat from a Daitya family, whose grandson Bhagirath had brought the river Ganges from heaven to earth. Sagar is also credited with the killing of historical groups like Shaka (Bactrians) and Yavana (Greeks) in wars. Thus, the stories mix historical events with fantasy.

Other human species in Indian mythology - Images by Sunil Deepak

The two Indian epics, Ramayan and Mahabharat, both have characters which are part animal and part human. For example, Ramayan has the Kapi (monkey like) or the Vanar tribes which join Ram in his fight against the Rakshas king Ravan. Hanuman (the monkey god) is the most famous character of this tribe, who occupies an exalted status in the pantheon of gods in Hinduism. Can Hanuman be seen as a person from another human species?

Disappearance of Other Human Species

To explain the disappearance from earth of all other human species except for the Homo sapiens, wars and genocides have been proposed. However, we can also interpret the old Indian myths as stories of interactions between different human species. Yuval Noah has written about these interactions, "About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into Arabian peninsula and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? … According to the Interbreeding theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens." (p. 20)

Can we confirm these ideas?: When the human genome mapping project had come up, I had thought that genome mapping could give the answers about inter-mixing between the different human species. For example, genome studies have shown that 1 to 4 percent of Europeans and Asians have some Neanderthal genes. Another recent report about a genome study by Sriram Sankararaman of California university and David Reich of Harvard University has shown that a higher than expected percentage of south Asians have genes of the Denisovan species of humans. People of Oceania and Pacific have even higher number of persons with these genes.

Thus, these studies suggest that at least some degree of inter-mixing between human species did take place. However this does not prove that the other people mentioned in Indian myths and ancient books were other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Conclusions

Do ancient Indian myths tell stories about encounters between different human species from prehistorical times? May be one day the technology will be able to provide better answers to such speculative questions. More likely, these will remain speculations.

Other human species in Indian mythology - Images by Sunil Deepak

However, I like the idea that our old Indian myths and stories can remember events from the dawn of the humanity before we had our languages and identities. I like the idea that the archetype chimpanzee grandmother of Yuval Noah Harari is still remembered as the mother of Hanuman in our stories. That our Neanderthal cousins are still there with us as Ravan, Kumbhkaran and Meghnath in the Ramayan plays called Ramlila. That our Denisovan cousins are not lost for ever, they live in the Puranic stories of India, as well as, in our DNA.

Note: This is an updated version of an article I had written for my old blog almost 10 years ago.

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