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Are veddas being romanticised?

by R. Chandrasoma

The public has a romanticized view of the Veddas as ancient people with an archaic life-style that is threatened by the cultural transformations of recent centuries. We have had a spate of articles lamenting over the fate of these indigenes of Sri Lanka who were forced to abandon their 'hunter-gatherer' mode of existence in the face of an inexorable advance in what may broadly be described as 'modernization'.

While it is very good to speak to the 'last survivors' to find out the idiosyncrasies of their ancient ways, there is an important caveat that is overlooked by people who have little or no knowledge of physical anthropology. As understood by scholars, the 'Vedda' is more than a cultural species - he (or she) represents an ancient physical type of homo sapiens with bodily features that are easily recognizable by even the non-expert.

The very dark complexion, the rugged flat face with high cheek-bones and beetling eyebrows, the marked prognathism of the skull, the dark, wavy hair and last but not least, a low cranial capacity signalling an association with an early variant of the human stock are among the most obvious. These features are shared with other South and East Asian 'primitives' such as the hill tribes of India, the natives of the Andaman Islands and the Australian Aborigines. That great center of ancient anthropogenesis straddling the Indonesian islands was the fons et origo of this wave of ancient peoples.

Comparison

That these people are non-Aryan and not directly linked to the Dravidas (so-called 'Dark Caucasoids') is obvious from a comparison of physical features. However, it must be said that there is a considerable admixture of 'Veddhoid genes' in the social underclass of both South India and Sri Lanka.

We do come across 'ancient faces' within contemporary populations - one need not go very far to find such traits. An examination of the faces of the current members of Parliament will give a fair index of the strength of this admixture.

Having said all this as a preamble, let us get down to the main point. We have a large picture of a handsome Vedda chief spread over almost half a page in the recent issue of the Sunday Observer - part of an essay on the Vedda language. A mere novice in anthropology will notice that this person is certainly no Veddha if the latter is defined as a district physical variant of mankind. He (i.e. the so-called Vedda boss) has the refined physiognomy and the light structural features of the skull that are distinctive of the Indo-Aryan stock. If this man is a Veddha, so is George Bush.

This charade - of locals posing as genuine Veddhas - is not new. It has been going on for decades with little protest from the cognoscenti. This is not a purely local phenomenon - it is known from DNA studies that the so-called 'Red Indians' of North America are about 90% European. Yet, these fake Red Indians are granted reservations on the basis of their historical roots in the Amerindian Aboriginal stock.

Acculturation

The position of the Fake Veddas Of Sri Lanka is no different. The genuine Veddas - the last of them - disappeared about a hundred years ago. It cannot be denied that some village Sinhalayas were subject to a form of acculturation that made them use a tongue that is faintly reminiscent of the original language of the Veddas. They adopted a 'hunter-gatherer' life-style that surely mimics the genuine thing. What they found impossible to mimic was the physical appearance of the Vedda-a lacuna in deceptive technique that gives the show away.

The early writers on the Veddas had no proper understanding of population genetics or of the taxonomy of ancient human populations. They conflated the physical and the cultural leading to confused accounts that have little more than deceptive value.

What is needed right now is a study based on DNA analysis to establish the purported bona fides of those who claim a Veddha link. It is not my view that these folks are outright imposters - perhaps they were brought up in the belief that that their ancestors were Veddas. It is only charitable that we allow them to sustain this mythical belief. As a matter of history, however, it is important for the rest of us to know the true facts regarding the Veddas of Sri Lanka. (@ Sunday Observer)


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