Re: puzzle of the negrito: isolated archaic populations

John A. Halloran (
6 Dec 1996 01:34:06 -0700

In article <584qot$> (Gerold Firl) writes:

>Remnant populations of small, frizzy-haired, forest-dwelling peoples
>still exist (or did within the last century) in isolated pockets
>throughout asia, from the phillipines, malaysia, indonesia, the
>andaman islands, and possibly india as well. Average height for men
>ranged from around 4 1/2 feet to just under 5, leading to the name
>"negrito", and begging the question of relations to the african
>pygmies. How did the negritos come to be? The answer to this question
>could have important implications for the history of human evolution.

>The african pygmies are the best example we have of human adaptation
>for a specialized environment. The equatorial african rainforest,
>existing throughout multiple cycles of glacial advance and retreat,
>presents special problems of survival and adaptation. All the
>rainforest species are smaller than their savanna ancestors; one
>antelope is the size of a rabbit. The human inhabitants of the forest
>have adapted in similar directions; pygmy scale is well suited to the
>heat, humidity, and dense growth.

>The origin of the pygmies seems fairly obvious: they have evolved to
>live in the forest, which has remained a stable environment
>throughout the climatic fluctuations of the last few million years. It
>isn't known how long the forest has been their home; the rainforest
>has not yielded any fossil clues as of yet, and conditions are not
>good for bone preservation. But what of the negritos? How did they
>settle their far-flung range?

>One possibility is that the negrito evolved, in-situ, just as did
>their african counterparts. If we knew how long it took for the
>african pygmy adaptation to evolve, that would provide a useful
>comparison for the candleabra hypothesis.

>Another possibility is that the negrito are the direct descendants of
>african pygmies. The out-of-africa scenario would seem to require a
>climatic epoch where tropical forests covered the intervening arid
>territory between equatorial africa and india; have such conditions
>ever existed?

>A number of factors lend support to the out-of-africa hypothesis, none
>of them conclusive; first of all, the negrito *look* african. Their
>skin color is light by african standards (though pygmy skin color is
>also lighter than their bantu neighbors), but the rest of their
>physiology appears african. An interesting detail is the fact that the
>negrito *sit* like pygmies, with their legs stretched out straight in
>front of them; I know of no other people who sit that way. The socio-
>economic relationship between the negrito and their neighbors is
>strikingly analogous to that found in africa: the negrito trade meat,
>honey, and other forest products for agricultural and manufactured
>products from the villages. In common with the pygmies, the negrito do
>not build a fixed abode, and they also have largely abandoned their
>native language to adopt the speech of their neighbors.

>The relic populations of vedda peoples found in indonesia, sri lanka,
>and arabia felix provide another analogy; it seems unlikely that both
>races co-evolved in-situ. One, if not both, must have arrived as part
>of a great migration.

>Keep in mind that asia has been occupied by hominids for at least a
>million years, and throughout that time the 100,000 year glacial cycle
>has repeatedly exposed and inundated the continental shelves, shifting
>ecological zones southwards as the glaciers expanded, and then back
>north during the interglacials. If, during one of the interglacials,
>rainforest managed to extend around the horn of africa, up into
>arabia, and around the persian gulf through the indus valley, then the
>puzzle of the negrito may be solved.

Here is what a genetic expert has to say about the Negritos, "The
disappearance of the original languages is not surprising or
unprecedented; the languages of the African Pygmies have also become
extinct, but the African tropical forest may have permitted greater
genetic conservation of its inhabitants. Almost all reputed survivors of this
hypothetical Australoid population are on islands that were mostly connected
with the mainland in earlier times. It is tempting to speculate that the
migration from Africa to Southeast Asia and Australia happened mostly by the
way of the coast. Boats or rafts had to be used by the earliest Australian
aborigines in order to enter that continent, ... and it would not be too
surprising if all or most of the migration of a.m.h. to Southeast Asia and
Australia from Africa had taken place along the coast. Genetic traces of this
migration may no longer exist, or may be very difficult to find. However, as
has been repeatedly emphasized, Dravidian populations are not genetically
similar to Australian populations, as an analysis of the world data has
confirmed." L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, The
History and Geography of Human Genes, abridged paperback (1994), p. 242.


John Halloran