Thursday, May 29, 2008

A summary of the international conference on “Origins and Migrations Among Tibeto-Burman Speakers of the Extended Eastern Himalaya”

-by Rebecca Gnuechtel

From the 23rd to the 25th May 2008 some 30 scholars gathered in Berlin, Germany for an international conference on “Origins and Migrations Among Tibeto-Burman Speakers of the Extended Eastern Himalaya”, which was organized by Prof. Toni Huber of the Humboldt University, Institute for Asian and African Studies and Prof. Stuart Blackburn of SOAS, London University. The scholars covered areas such as eastern Nepal, Yunnan Province in Southwest China, Burma, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Particularly for those international scholars working on Arunachal it was the most amazing setting of having the few people working on this remote area gathered in one place. Many met each other for the first time in person.

Prof. Stuart Blackburn from the University of London delivered a lecture on Apatani Ideas and Idioms of Origins. He pointed out that their thinking on origin is dominated by concepts of genealogy and cosmogony rather than geography saying that: “Apatanis really do not think of themselves primarily as migrants from another place but rather as descendents of a particular ancestor [Abo Tani].” The central concept in doing so however is that of the process of differentiation from formlessness to the formation of the natural as well as the social world.

Professor Toni Huber from Humboldt University in Berlin spoke about his fieldwork data on “Micro-Migrations and Our Understanding of Origins: A Case Study from the Upper Subansiri Region of the Eastern Himalaya”. “How do people actually move?” Toni Huber tries to give some answer to this question for a particular area of the Upper Subansiri River valley and a particular time, the 20th century. What he shows by means of historical records and personal interviews of a large number of local people is that whenever people move for reasons such as conflicts or bamboo flowering they also interact with the people they come in contact with and even take wives from there. Adding to that some clans are explicitly exogamous and marry outside their own community. Consequently there is a high mix of people. However he also shows something else very interesting. Those movements are not just downwards along the rivers but also upwards depending on the particular cause for migrations as well as the direction from which the jeopardy comes. Consequently the very widespread belief of a unidirectional migration from Tibet to the South might prove to be much more complicated.

Further, Dr. Alex Aisher from the University of Sussex, England spoke about “Migration Narratives and the Environmental History of the Nyishi Tribe in Arunachal Pradesh” and Mark Post from La Trobe University, Australia gave a presentation on “The Language, Culture, Environment and Origins of Proto-Tani Speakers”. From the Rajiv Gandhi University, Arunachal Pradesh Dr. Sarit Chaudhuri delivered a lecture on “Oral Narratives of Origin and Migration and Construction of Identities by the Tibeto-Burman Tribes of a Frontier state of India”. Kerstin Grothmann from Humboldt University reported about her recent fieldwork as did Atsuko Ibata a Japanese student from Delhi University, both are working on societies in central Arunachal Pradesh.

The author is MA student, Department of Anthropology at Heidelberg University, Germany


  • PB

    A more complete list of participants and abstracts can be obtained from this link :
    (remove spaces that have been added after slashes in order to put the URL on 1 line first)

    It is indeed a very good thing to see such a gathering of eminent linguists and anthropologists. One can only regret that there was only one scholar from Asia, and none from the communities studied…

  • AG

    Thanks for the link.

  • wiian

    The story is kind of more complete after going through the pdf file.

    Its heartening to see the academic interests and efforts being put on tracing the migration trail of my people. Maybe someday, the original land of our ancestors will be discovered... what would be your first thought?

  • taka

    the reserchers should come fast to arunachal and do their study than lecturing in europe without setting foot.

    or very soon there wont be any history or culture left:--
    ACN News: Friday, 30th May 2008 – INDIA

    ##Mission unstoppable - The Church in India that just doesn’t stop growing

    By John Pontifex

    A CORNER of India lays claim to be the place where the Catholic Church has grown the most over the past 30 years – with more than 10,000 adult baptisms every year.

    Since the 1970s, Catholics in Arunachal Pradesh state have grown from a few scattered communities to almost 200,000 in number.

    He added: “Becoming Catholic appeals to people in Arunachal Pradesh. They like the idea of belonging to part of an international Church with such a significant presence in so many parts of the world.”

    The bishop said the Church now faces the rise of the Jehovah Witnesses and other evangelical Church groups, requiring a greater emphasis on catechesis to keep people committed to Catholicism.

    they are even figthing themselfs to convert first!
    is it too late?

  • AG


    Atleast I know of a person in the conference who has actually been to Apatani plateau and conducted extensive studies on Apatani migration, oral literature etc. He is Prof. Stuart Blackburn of SOAS. So, I guess the case is not a case of 'lecturing without setting a foot' :)

    However, what concerns me is that why we are always waiting for someone from outside rather than us to do research on us? Aren't we capable enough? Or is it that we are so immersed in other culture and custom that we don't feel the need to look into our own culture and custom? :(

  • RG

    All researchers who presented a paper in this conference have spend several months doing research in Arunachal, often in remote places and most of them learned the local language to some degree.

  • AG

    Hope your information would shed some doubt from Taka's mind ;)

    There is this CCRD based at Itanagar, which is into cultural research and documentation and which is managed by Sammanoy Gut Cooperative Society. So, I take back my earlier words and stand corrected.

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