Anthropology in India

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The state of Anthropology in India in 1948

From a report of the DEPARTMENT OF ANTHROPOLOGY, GOVERNMENT OF INDIA, cited in AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, N. S., 50, 1948, and published online on Online


Although India was one of the earliest countries to start an Ethnographical Survey, which it did during the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon, this was closed down prematurely owing to the transfer of the Director, Sir Herbert Risley, to other work, and for many years little was done to revive it. Strong recommendations were made by Dr. Nelson Annandale, F.R.S., for the institution of a separate Ethnographical Survey at the time the Zoological Survey of India was reconstituted out of the old Zoological and Anthropological Section of the Indian Museum in 1916. Dr. R. B. Seymour Sewell, F.R.S., who became the Director of the Zoological Survey of India in 1924 as successor of Dr.

Annandale, made similar recommendations in 1927 and again just before his retirement in 1932, but the financial stringency of the time, leading to drastic retrenchment in scientific departments, stood in the way, and anthropology was relegated to a subordinate section of the Zoological Survey under a single officer, Dr. B. S. Guha, to work in all branches of the subject.

In 1945, however, a scheme for the reorganization of anthropological research was prepared by Dr. B. S. Guha and Dr. Seymour Sewell, who were invited by the Government of India to make proposals for the formation of an independent Anthropological Department, and at the end of that year the nucleus of the Anthropological Survey of India was formed. In 1946, the long-dreamt-of plan came into being. The Survey was definitely established with a 5-year programme and a budget rising from more than 1& lakhs in the first year to nearly 8 lakhs in the iifth. Dr. B. S. Guha was appointed Director, with the additional duty of acting as Anthropological Advisor to Govcrnment.

Dr. Verrier Elwin was appointed Deputy-Director. Offices, laboratories, and a library were opened; officers and other staff were appointed and a beginning of work was made.

By the end of the 5-year period, the Anthropological Survey should be a fully developed, well-equipped and efficiently staffed institution which will study man on the broadest basis and in every part of the Dominion of India. This year the name of the survey has been changed to “Department of Anthropology.”

During the first two years of its life, the Survey was located in Benares, for the disturbed condition in Calcutta made it impossible to move to its proper home, the Indian Museum at Calcutta. In May 1948, however, the Survey moved to its comn~odious offices in the Museum where it had already opened its ethnographic galleries.

In India an enormous field of research, both theoretical and practical, lies before the anthropologist. The study of the physical characters of the people is still incomplete.

Since the pioneer work of Sir Herbert Risley in 1891, now rendered somewhat obsolete by great advances in the methods and techniques of the science, very little has bcen done except the works of Eickstedt, Cipriani and Bowles in some parts of the country, and Dr. Guha’s investigations on selected tribes and castes during the Census of 1931, leaving a vast field of unexplored territory for survey. Not only do the actual bodily measurements and characteristics require the fullest investigation, but it is necessary that these measurements should be accompanied by the study of deep-seated physiological characteristics, such as the percentage of blood-groups in each race, which may well provide evidence of the original source from which any particular tribe or race has sprung; by the effect of nutrition, and especially of an unbalanced nutrition, on the growth and finally on the proportions of the body and possibly also on the resistance to disease; and by the effect of climate on bodily structure and other physical characteristics-all of which are still largely unexplored.

Despite a number of outstanding monographs on individual tribes and concise “glossaries” of tribes and castes, the social organization, the religion and the customs of vast numbers of the Indian people are still but scantily recorded and imperfectly understood. The great fascinating fields of criminology, tribal art, primitive linguistics, the application of modern methods of psychological investigation to aboriginal people, the economics of the countryside, not only offer a tempting subject of research to the scientist, but urgently require investigation if the inhabitants (and especially the more primitive inhabitants) of the country are to be administered with sympathy and understanding.

The Five-Year plan of the Anthropological Department has, therefore, been drawn on broad and comprehensive lines, keeping in view the development in the science in the advanced countries of Europe and America, which can be grouped under the heads of Physical, Biological, and Cultural.

I. Physical Anthropology. Under this head the following lines of investigation are proposed:

(a) Somatology, Craniometry and Osteometry

1. Paleontological Work. The occurrence of such early forms as Sivapil&cus and Ramapilhecirs suggest the possibility that further exploration may discover prehuman remains similar to those found in China, South Africa, and Java.

2. Prehistorical Survey. In this work close collaboration has alreadybeen established between the Archaeological and Anthropological Surveys. Many human remains discovered by archaeologists at Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Taxilla, Ujjain, and prehistoric sites in Central and Southern India have already been handed over to the Anthropological Survey for study, and there are opportunities, as for example the excavation of such cave-sites as are suspected of having been inhabited, for joint research by the two departments.

3. A Survey of Present-day Conditions. The acquisition of somatometric and osteometric data regarding the whole population is of great importance. This study will include the examination of the skeletons of the existing population by means of X-Rays.

(b) Radiological Work.

The examination of the skeletons of individuals of known age and the radiological examination of living people in order to determine the age at which the bones of the skeleton attain their final mature form or other difference in their maturation, proportional lengths, general configuration, and adaptation to such habitual postures as squatting. A very good beginning was made by the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal and by Dr. John Anderson, the first Superintendent of the Indian Museum, to whom we are indebted for our present collection of Indian crania. A systematic attempt will have to be made for the collection of authentic crania and other bones from our hospitals, burial mounds and river beds, and a well-planned research has to be undertaken on the skeletal variations of Indians, comparison with races of other parts of the world and their linkage with the inhabitants of the past, and how far variations have taken place due to miscegenation and changes in environment.

On the applied side such a study will furnish extremely important data for the maturation of bones to be used for medico-legal purposes in the determination of age. As Prof. Wingate Todd’s elaborate studies in the United States of America have shown, the norm for maturation of bones differs in different races, and, unless this is established separately for various ethnic units, no deduction can scientifically be drawn from results of the study of one race to mother.

II. Biological Investigation. Under this head the following lines of research are proposed: In recent years investigations in the general biology affecting the human race have made vast strides in the advanced countries of Europe and America, and this is regarded as an essential part of anthropological research. It includes (1) such factors as the rate and pattern of growth in different races, differences in the metabolic behaviour of people due to differences in protein intake and climatic conditions, variations in the sex-ratio and differential rates of fertility, differences in vital capacity and psychological behaviour in different races, etc., (2) human genetics including serology, normal range of variability in man, hereditary defectives and anomalies and malformation, effects of inbreeding, hereditary basis of criminal propensities, feeble mindedness, hereditary characters of palmer pattern, and other tests in dactyloscopy for detection of criminals, etc.

The whole of this subject is of an applied nature and is of great importance in the formulation of a sane policy for raising the physical standard of the population and creation of public opinion in favour of measures for controlling the multiplication of congenital defectives and hereditary criminals.

In India very little has been done so far in the study of the rate and pattern of growth of the different racial groups which depend not so much on single factors like might but on “the rebuilding of the whole body” expressed in the changing proportions, in progressive ossification, in manifestation of secondary sexual characters, conditioned, as recent studies in America and Japan have shown, partly by environmental forces and partly by racial factors. There is some suggestion of a quicker tempo of succession and early maturity in tropical countries, but the influence of size and stature, inducing a longer period of intensive growth, is noticeable among taller races. We need reliable data on controlled groups of samples of children through a number of years among different sections of the Indian people and, only when the ethnic patterns of growth are known, are judicious improvements in dietary and introduction of athletic sportslikely to be most effective. Similarly we have no figures for basal metabolism on any race in India except those taken by Mason and Benedictof America in South India, and on Vital Capacity by Mason, both showing the mean values of the index to be below that of American women. It is necessary to establish the norms for the different Indian races and to find out whether the differences from European standards are due to morphological or physiological causes.

Researches in human genetics will have to be pursued by collection of pedigrees of hereditary defectives, and by field work and laboratory studies on twins, effects of race-crossings in the contact zones among different ethnic groups, the harmonic and disharmonic nature of the crosses, hybrid vigour and hybrid sterility, etc.

The marriage customs of India, so varied in the different parts of the country, require a thorough study in the light of the modern concepts of genetics and such questions as the biological effect of cousin marriage, caste endogamy among small groups, etc., should be investigated. We have very little data on the hereditary nature of anomalies and criminal traits among Indian races, although in Germany the entire resources of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology were devoted to these researches before the War.

III. Cultural Studies

The importance of acquiring correct and adequate knowledge of the social and religious institutions of the people in a country of such diverse races and tribes is not only scientific but of utmost practical value in administration, as well as for ensuring fellowship and understanding among the population. Racial prejudice and communal animosities breed on ignorance, and the surest method of stopping it is by appreciating each other’s habits of life and modes of thought.

Such knowledge leads to the development of harmony and a centrifugal outlook which is the great cementing lorce in a nation of many races. Unfortunately we have very little objective knowledge of the institutions of the tribal folk as well as of the various progressive groups and, until this is acquired, all disruptive forces born of ignorance and prejudice will have full play in the hands of interested persons and will act as great set-backs in the path of national unity and progress. In the case of the primitive tribes the necessity is even more urgent, as the disintegrating forces of civilization are in full operation, with the result that among many the tribal institutions and authority have been greatly weakened and their tribal life broken. Careful enquiries by distinguished scientists in America, Africa, and the Pacific islands have shown that nothing is so harmful to the primitive races as the loss of interest in life as a result of failure of adjustment to rapid changes brought about by civilization, and this is the chief cause of depopulation in the aboriginal people. We, in this country, are on the fringe of this problem and in some cases, as among the Andamanese, the Todas, the Chenchus, the Radars and the Lepchas of Sikkim, the lethal forces are already at work and fast depopulation is taking place. It is urgent therefore that no more time should be lost in acquiring as comprehensive a knowledge’of the tribalinstitutions as possible before they disappear, so as to insure not only a fair play and justice in administering them but also for guidance in formulating measures for their adjustment to the changing conditions of time.

Under this heading, the following special subjects will be studied:

(a) Primitive Economics. This will include urgent problems of land alienation, debt, the readjustment of aboriginal methods of cultivation and food-gathering in the face of an ever encroaching “civilization,” etc., about which information is constantly required by the Provincial Governments.

(b) Primitive Technology and Art. There is a wide field of research, at present scantiIy explored, which may lead to the improvement of home industries and the discovery of what tribes are likely to adapt themselves to the industrial civilization of the future. A proper survey of primitive art is long over due; it will bring valuable accessions to the Museum, display the artistic capacity of even the simplest people, and suggest lines of art training to be follotred in aboriginal schools.

(c) Primitive Linguistics. Much work remains to be done, especially in the field of tribal languages, in continuation of the Linguistic Survey which left Southern India untouched. Qualified philologists will make a survey both by script and record of the speech and music of the people, study the social implications of language, and continue work on the classification of the Indian tongues.

(d) Folklore. The stories, legends and songs of the countryside have not yet been scientifically recorded on a wide scale, nor has their relationship to the classical literatures been adequately established. They have no little value, as indicating the artistic and IiteraIy instincts of the people, as illustrating their fundamental religious and social ideas, and as revealing the unity of modern tribal and classical India. On the practicaI side, it has been found that text-books prepared from local songs and stories are very popular in village schools, e.g., Bihar. The officer in charge of this section is a first-rate Sanskrit scholar.

(e) Primitive Psychology. In recent years, psychology has come to be recognized as an essential part of social anthropology, and in India particularly the time has come when the investigator must penetrate behind the bare record of established custom and relationship to its motive and origin. Child-psychology has been too neglected by those who would educate the aboriginals.

Moreover, the whole of village India is passing through a period of rapid cultural, religious and economic change, and a study of the resultant psycholo~ical reactions is essential for a proper administration of the tribal populations.

(f) Primitive Crime and Tribal Law. Many tribes follow a local customary law which is at variance with the official codes and there is often delay and hardship in the courts as a result. An attempt to codify Santal tribal law is now being made by the Government of Bihar, but the matter will be examined by the Anthropological Survey on an all-India basis. The study of thc aboriginal criminal is in its infancy and there hits beep sowe confusion over the classification 01 Criminal Tribes.


The greater part of the year 1946-47 was spent in building up the equipment, library and laboratories of the Department. An X-Ray plant with accessories and radiographic material has been purchased. The Applied Psychological Laboratory has been equipped with apparatus for mental tests, accessories and equipment being made locally.

Arrangements have also been made for purchasing from America more delicate and complicated instruments for testing primitive people.

The number of books in the Library is now over 8,000, and complete sets of important anthropological journals, as well as many other books and journals not otherwise available in India, have been obtained from abroad.

The scientific studies undertaken since December, 1945, are as follows:

(1) The detailed study and restoration of the skeletal materials from Harappa.

These fragile remains,in spite of the regular application of preservatives andall possible care, have suffered greatly by being shifted from Calcutta to Dehra Dun during the War and then again to Benares, and by the subsequent damage caused by the great Varuna flood of September, 1943. The greater part of the repairing and restoration has now been completed; so has the larger portion of the disphotographic tracing of skulls which were ruined by flood water. Much progress has also been made in the osteometric study of the bones, including parallelograph drawings and tracings and measurements of angles of retroversion and torsion.

Two short reports, one on the animal remains from Orikamedu and the other giving a preliminary account of Harappa skeletons excavated this year, have been published by the Department of Archaeology.

(2) Another important work completed was the preparation of a comprehensive report on the cultural and racial affinities of the primitive tribes of India and the problems affecting their administration in the light of the experience of tribal peoples in different parts of the world. Maps illustrating the distribution of these tribes and their proportionate strength were also prepared. This work entailed examination of a large mass of materials on non-Indian tribes which was obtained only with difficulty.

(3) Field work was commenced at the earliest possible moment, even before touring equipment was available. The Deputy Director went with a party into the hills of Orissa, where he made a special study of the religion of the Lanjhia Saoras, while members of the party investigated the economics and physical characters of the people, from December, 1946, to February, 1947. He made further visits to the Bondo and Saora country in Dec.-Jan., 1948, and in April-June, 1948. In May, 1947, the Director led a large expedition to the Jaunsar Bawar area, and valuable work was done both on the physical side and in investigating the psychology and sociology of the inhabitants whose social customs present problems of peculiar difficulty and complexity to the administration.

(4) Another scientific investigation started during the year was the application of mental tests to school-going children in Benares for the assessment and gradation of their mental abilities in order to provide norms for comparison with the results of similar tests on children of primitive races.

(5) At the beginning of 1948, the Director took a party of investigators to the Andaman Islands in order to make an up-to-date survey, physical, psychological and economic, of the aboriginals who are still surviving in that most interesting region. The expedition was undertaken at the request of the Ministry of Home Affairs, and visits were paid to the Little Andamans, Car Nicobar and the Jarawa tract, among others. If funds are available, a permanent sub-station will be established in the islands.

The Department plans three types of publication-a twice-yearly Bulletin consisting of papers by its members; Memoirs; and popular handbooks in the national languages intended to make the latest anthropological knowledge available to a wide public.

In addition to research work, the Department has a scheme for giving advanced training to students.

Six post-graduate students were selected during 194647 and four others will be trained in 1947-48. Two students went on the Orissa expedition early in the year and two others accompanied the Director to Jaunsar Bawar. While at headquarters they have been given regular instruction and opportunities for laboratory training on a scale at present unobtainable elsewhere. The training course for these students is of two years’ duration, and a stipend of Rs. 150/-a month is allowed them; it is hoped to send some of them later to Europe and America.

In view of the rapid advance in the development of method and technique in other countries, it is proposed to offer a few Visiting Fellowships to foreign scholars, both Asiatic and Western, to facilitate their researches in India, and it is hoped that thereby not only will the cause of science be advanced but the latest experience of world scholarship will be made available to the Survey.

In addition to the award of such Fellowships the Department of Anthropology will be happy to give assistance and to arrange facilities for work to anthropologists from other parts of the world who wish to visit India, and those intending to do so are advised to approach the Dominion Government through this channel, writing to Dr. B. S. Guha, Ph.D., Director, Department of Anthropology, Indian Museum, Calcutta.







See also

Caste in India: genetics and heredity (easy reading)

Caste among Hindus

Caste in India: genetics and heredity (academic studies)

Racial Classification of Indian People

Anthropology in India

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