Unravelling human history

Where do you and your ancestors come from? Who can help you find that out? Anthropologists possibly can. Read on to solve the puzzle of evolution of mankind.
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Updated on Jul 07, 2010 10:42 AM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByRahat Bano, New Delhi

Where do you and your ancestors come from? Who can help you find that out? Anthropologists possibly can; and not just this, they can also answer many other intriguing and exciting questions about the evolution of mankind. Their interest ranges from genetics to ritualistic healing practices. The Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) has amongst its scientists about 98 anthropologists plus those from allied subjects including psychology, ecology, folklore and linguistics.

In parts of Gujarat with a high rate of thalassaemia, a group of anthropologists with the help of local doctors, health authorities and schools, have devised a solution. “Some anthropologists and social and medical scientists have opened genetic counselling units in the form of NGOs in tribal areas. They visit schools where they screen children for various genetic diseases such as sickling (sickle cell anaemia), thalassaemia and G6PD (Glucose-6-phosphotase deficiency). For example, students with the thalassaemia gene are issued two different cards (blue or red) depending on their gene carrier status,” explains AK Kapoor, professor of anthropology in Delhi University (DU), who was involved in the project. Instead of their horoscopes, these people are told to see each other’s card to select a suitable spouse. If both the man and the woman have same-coloured cards, they will not be biologically compatible, says Prof Kapoor.

The incidence of thalassaemia is as high as 30 per cent in certain tribes like the Bhils, he adds. “The infant mortality rate is very high in some areas of Gujarat and Maharashtra.”

Genetics is an important and upcoming component of anthropology, says Kishor K Basa, director (in-charge), AnSI and director, Indian Museum, Kolkata. One of AnSI’s research areas is ‘Community genetics extension programme (thalassaemia and sickle cell anaemia)’ under a project called ‘People of India: bio-cultural adaptations’.

Going back to the subject of variety in this field, just look at AnSI’s main research project: Intangible and tangible cultural heritage: People of India, cultural diversity and traditional knowledge

Under this project, it is pursuing the following themes:
. Traditional knowledge related to recording of genealogies in Puri temple complex and extended to other such complexes in Kamakhya in Assam, Haridwar in
Uttaranchal and Madurai in Tamil Nadu.
. The study of traditional cultivation practices, especially related to paddy cultivation, both dry and wet forms, delimited to north-east India
. Traditional knowledge related to the practice of traditional medicine

Other than the AnSI, NGOs and academics, anthropologists can get into museums, international organisations such as the World Bank, USAID and UN agencies and multi-national companies. An important area of work for anthropologists is to help prepare standard size slabs for readymade garments and in designing uniforms (for defence forces). Students specialise in forensic science, too. Some go for the Indian Administrative Service.

What's it about?
Anthropology is a holistic study of human beings and society. Spanning both humanities and science, it has three main branches — social or cultural anthropology, physical or biological anthropology and pre-history or paleo-anthropology or archaeological anthropology

Clock Work
A day in the field:
5 am: Get ready for the day
6 am: Go to the field with the peasant/s on their bullock cart. Observe and try to understand what they do (e.g. how they cultivate the land). Ask questions
1 pm: Resume the same
Late afternoon: With peasants, return to the village. Observe them feed and massage cattle, prepare for next day (eg if it’s sowing season, check seed drill etc)
Evening: Go for a gossip session at the choupal/panchayat hall
7.30 pm: Return to the hut/small room one has rented. Cook dinner on a kerosene stove. Eat
9 am: Write field diary
11 pm: Go to bed

If you join the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), your time will go into recce tours, field work, research, analysis and report writing. Such projects usually take two years and can be in urban areas, too

The Payoff
In the government sector — whether in AnSI or academics, the salary is as per government scales

. Interest in people, their origin, culture and issues
. Analytical skills
. Adaptability and inter-personal skills (especially to get strangers in a different community you are studying, talking)

How do i get there?
To get into academics or AnSI, you require at least a Master’s degree (both MA and MSc are available) in anthropology. A doctorate can brighten your prospects

Institutes & urls
. University of Delhi, BSc, MSc,
. Panjab University, Chandigarh, BSc, MSc,
. Pune University, MA/MSc,
. Calcutta University, MSc,

Pros & Cons

Fascinating work


Work may involve field work and travel


Niche area of work

Many new areas are emerging

What opportunities does the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) offer to students of anthropology?
We have mainly three kinds of anthropologists - cultural or social anthropologists, physical or biological anthropologists and paleo-anthropologists or pre-historic archaeologists. Physical or biological anthropologists look at how humans evolved from primates to earlier forms of humans to modern humans.

They try to understand human beings in terms of genetic parameters, which include DNA studies. Further, they study nutritional status among various communities, diseases patterns and physical growth of adolescents, which is an important aspect of biological anthropology. In recent years, anthropologists have also been involved in human genome studies, both for understanding human variation and genetic disposition to various diseases. The Survey has well equipped labs for studying the DNA.

Cultural anthropology is concerned with different ways of life of human societies across the world. Pre-historic archaeology emphasises the study of societies in antiquity before they knew the art of writing, i.e. stone-age cultures.

How is anthropology different from other social science disciplines like sociology?
Social scientists deal with a wide range of issues like social, economic, political and cultural dimensions of society. Anthropology integrates both biological and social aspects of the study on human beings. Here lies the strength of the subject. This integrative and holistic approach to study human beings and their relationships in society give it a distinct flavour. Cultural anthropologists also study traditional knowledge systems such as tribal healing practices, simple local solutions for day-to-day living, and so on. While anthropologists would not romanticise these time-tested traditional knowledge systems, they do point out the importance of such knowledge for sustainable development.

What are the upcoming areas in this field?
The study of human genome has great potential. Based on human genome studies, population movement can be traced back to antiquity on a firmer ground. The study of human genome also enables us to understand disease patterns, which vary from community to community.

Certain populations show genetic pre-disposition to diseases like sickle cell anaemia, thalassaemia, and so on. Such a community specific study of disease patterns helps us in understanding the problem areas for prevention and policy formulation.

In social anthropology, although the study is primarily on cultures at local levels, the global-local relationship is an important contemporary issue in an age of globalisation. Understanding ecology is important, especially human ecology, as to how human beings make use of natural resources, for a better planning of sustainable development.

In pre-historic archaeology, the emergence of complex society from egalitarian band level organisation is an important issue.

What the career prospects for students of anthropology?
Anthropologists find career opportunities mainly in universities and the Anthropological Survey of India. However, many new areas are emerging. For example, human genetics is now an emerging area, which has many implications for development of medicines for diseases for which hitherto no treatment existed.

Anthropologists can work in the rural health mission based on their field experience in remote areas. Another potential avenue is non-government organisations working in socio-economic development of different communities. Development anthropology is a very important contemporary field.

Besides, anthropologists also work in museums. In addition, just as environmental impact assessment clearance is required for any new major project, there is an increasing concern that there should be a social impact assessment including proper plan for rehabilitation. Such a proposed mandatory social impact assessment along with a rehabilitation plan would go a long way in mitigating opposition to various projects in a vast country like ours. In the Anthropological Survey of India, we are working out as to how to prepare a module on carrying out this social impact assessment.

Prof Kishor K Basa Interviewed by Rahat Bano

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