Tag: Thailand

Language, genes, & peoples of Southeast Asia

By Razib Khan | June 15, 2011 5:44 pm

As I am currently reading Victor Lieberman’s magisterial Strange Parallels: Volume 2. So I was very interested in a new paper from BMC Genetics, Genetic structure of the Mon-Khmer speaking groups and their affinity to the neighbouring Tai populations in Northern Thailand, pointed to by Dienekes today. Here are the results and conclusions:

A large fraction of genetic variation is observed within populations (about 80% and 90 % for mtDNA and the Y-chromosome, respectively). The genetic divergence between populations is much higher in Mon-Khmer than in Tai speaking groups, especially at the paternally inherited markers. The two major linguistic groups are genetically distinct, but only for a marginal fraction (1 to 2 %) of the total genetic variation. Genetic distances between populations correlate with their linguistic differences, whereas the geographic distance does not explain the genetic divergence pattern.

The Mon-Khmer speaking populations in northern Thailand exhibited the genetic divergence among each other and also when compared to Tai speaking peoples. The different drift effects and the post-marital residence patterns between the two linguistic groups are the explanation for a small but significant fraction of the genetic variation pattern within and between them.

There are many occasions when it has taken a synthetic scholar to point out to me the overall structure of a constellation of facts which I was conscious of prior. So it is with Lieberman’s work. I had known that the eruption of the Thai peoples into Southeast Asia occurred with the last 1,000 years, before which the peninsula was divided between Tibeto-Burman populations to the west and Austro-Asiatic languages to the east (the latter divided between the Khmer and Vietnamese). Additionally, it is presumed that the Tibeto-Burman languages themselves displaced Austro-Asiatic in the western zone (as evident by the persistence of Mon in modern Burma). What was noted in volume 1 of Strange Parallels though is that the three geographical regions engaged with and assimilated the Thai invasions different. In the center the Thai succeeded in dominating the previous groups and imposing their identity upon the region. It is often asserted that modern Cambodia’s existence as an independent state is a function of the protection conferred upon it by the French from the expansive ambitions of the Empire of Siam. But in the east the Vietnamese state was barely impacted by the Thai folk wandering. As in China the Thai in Vietnam are marginalized “mountain tribes.” Finally, in the west, in the zone which became Burma, the Thai did not take over the cultural commanding heights. But neither were they absolutely marginalized as in the east. Rather, the Shan people became part of the of the Burmese landscape, integrated into the Theravada Buddhist culture, but also a significant secondary ethnos to the Burman majority (along with Karens, Mons, etc.).

What does this have to do with genetics? Possibly everything and nothing, and all answers in between.

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