Profile of a Humane Anthropologist

Dr. S. K. Ghoshmaulik

    Professor Usha Deka with a bright academic career chose by option and not by situational compulsion to stick to academics. In the initial stage she did some investigative research work at Lucknow University and the then NEFA. Her anthropological training in Calcutta University in the early fifties under some great teachers got further disciplined. Afterwards, she joined as full time teacher in the Gauhati University. She went to Kiel University in erstwhile West Germany (FRG) and received her doctoral degree (Dr. rernat.) for her research on the finger and palmar dermatoglyphics of the German criminals. Her graduation course subjects Mathematics and Physics endowed her with capacity to go deep into the subject of quantitative human genetics handled by very few scholars in India.

    She moved over to Utkal University in the year 1964, after her return from Kiel. At that time, the Department of Anthropology in Utkal University was only six years old, manned by a few teachers and the number of students was below ten. Physical anthropology was taught mostly in the theoretical fashion with very little laboratory work. Laboratory had minimum equipments only for course work and not for any advance research. No student scholar was available to carry out research work. In this perspective she had to depend solely on her own cerebral resources and managed to keep her research desire un-extinguished. This stage continued almost to the end of the sixth decade, when she, could gather a handful of students for research on local populations.

    Although Orissa provides a rich assemblage of human culture types with nearly a quarter of population belonging to scheduled tribes, no genetic data were available to gauze the nature of diversity. A long coastal area comprising of four erstwhile districts, has accommodated people belonging to diverse ethnic groups in the historical past. The hilly regions of extended Eastem Ghats are known as abode of aboriginal populations. The south and north Orissa have experienced admixture of different groups of people with the local inhabitants. Thus, to search for human variation needed not only a very meticulously designed study but also a systematic investigation. Being deprived of both trained personal and technical facilities, Prof. Deka, launched small ventures. The post-graduate students were trained to collect observable genetic data or collect genealogies or carry out easier investigations like rapid testing of ABO blood groups, taste sensitivity to PT C or screening for colour blindness, whenever they go to their countryside home. A few former students working in anthropology profession proved to be very useful in such small-scale ventures. These efforts resulted in accumlating good amount of data on various genetic traits on a wide variety of populations. '

    The nature of such investigations ranged from inheritance of some palmar dermatogyphic characters, growth pattern of Oriya non-tribal children, inheritance of some behavioral traits to genetic characters of some populations of Orissa, culminated in her presentation at the 1980 Indian Science Congress session at Jadavpur, as sectional President, which was the first attempt to estimate taxonomic relationship among the Hindu population of Orissa. ,

    Meanwhile some research scholar gathered around, and she designed in-depth problems for study. These studies were on various aspects of biological anthropology like morpho-metric and genetic study on aboriginal and migrant populations, establishing genetic identity of aboriginal populations, maintenance of genotypes in various grades of population, micro-evolution in small isolates, human reproduction in city population and growth pattern of children along with development of reproductive capacity in girls, various socio-cultural practices influencing genetic parameters. It will not be out of place to have a brief acquaintance with such research works, which she carried out through her research students.

Studies On General Physical Features And Genetic Characters Of Population

    There are as many as 62 tribal populations in Orissa of which some are major in terms of numerical strength. These are Santal, Gond, Kondh, Gadaba, Oraon, Bhuiya, Koya, Kolha etc. Some of these tribes though pass for one generic name, are in fact sub-divided with minor cultural variation, but mostly isolated by marriage regulations. Isolation by marriage is expected to confine the biological characters within the population. It is the logical way to test the authenticity of such segregation through metrical study of both morphological and genetic characters.

    Two major tribes, the Kondh and the Gadabas living in the hilly terrains of the Eastem Ghats in South-Central part of Orissa were studied by two scholars [G. Nayak (1985) and P. Patojoshi (1979)]. The Kondhs are spread over quite a vast stretch of land and identified at least in three sub-divisions. The morphological and genetic characters indicate existence of mutual segregation not of very diverse nature (G. Nayak).

    Likewise, the Gadabas living in the Koraput district of Orissa are lingustically identifiable into two distinct groups - one Mundari speaking (Gutab) and the other Dravidian speaking (Ollar). There is another group of tribal community in the same district, who are known as ’Sana’ or junior Gadaba. Some authors have claimed existence of more sub-groups on the basis of localization. One scholar (Patjoshi) under her design undertook the study of finding allelic affinities among various sub-groups of Gadaba. Genetic differences among the sub-groups were found to be very limited within the sub-groups of Gutab. As all these communities are confined within a small territory, a convergent type of micro-evolution has kept the genetic diversities within a limit.

    These attempts to understand maintenance of genetic equilibrium in the aboriginal populations and at the same time maintaining genetic identities were further elaborated through the studies by another scholar in the early eighties. This time the objective was to understand the nature and extent of genetic segregation and the relative divergence of the communities on the basis of language (P.K. Das 1983).

    The well accepted linguistic classification of Norman Zide was taken as the basis. In Orissa, majority of tribal communities are Mundari speakers, distributed from north to south Orissa. The south Orissa is adjacent to Andhra Pradesh and as such many tribal and non-tribal communities speak Dravidian language forms. It is interesting as also intriguing question how the Mundari speaking aboriginal populations moved so southward habitat and got separated from the northern Orissa brethren groups.

    The southern Mundari tribal populations living in Koraput and adjacent Ganjarn district were studied for some universal loci. Genetic distances among them were computed and amazingly, the linguistic dendogram of Zide was found to be fitted nicely with the genetic distance measures. This study provides us with an insight into the basis of genetic diversity. Although it neither corroborates nor discards the idea of "fusion and fission", which still remains unsolved, it confirms at least one source, the language - relation, to be a factor in origin of genetic diversity.

    Her idea to handle the problem of genetic identity and origin of segregation of populations, first remained confined to the aboriginal communities. Turning attention to study the process of adaptation of migrant human populations, she got one scholar (S. Patel) who took up the case of settled refugees from Tibet. The people are consciously separated from the surrounding population in having mongoloid physical features and distinct cultural practices.

    These Tibetans are traditional inhabitant of high altitude Himalayan valleys. Their biological constitution and food habit are quite different from the local populations. Forced by politically uncomfortable situation, these people came to settle in Orissa and were rehabilitated in the Chandragiri hills of south Orissa. a place of much lower altitude than their natural habitat. Such population gives ample allure to human biologist. Their detailed morphological, genetic and behavioural characters were studied by the research scholar (reported in many publications) and the quicker process of cultural adaptation was highlighted. Biological adaptive changes are much slower and are expected to come down the generations.

Study On Micro-Evolution In Small Size Population

    As this century grew old, more and more facts on occurrence of evolution in human populations were added to the treasure house of knowledge. Mutation and natural selection were no more believed to be the sole factors, and the mechanism of their operation was never same in all types of populations. The size of the population, their practices and choices of acquiring mates, their permissiveness to re-marriage, multiple marriage, interplay of birth and death etc. were increasingly understood as contributive factors in guiding the course of evolution. Random fluctuation of allelic frequencies between generations and genetic bias in the ancestral founder population were given due recognition.

    The late fifties and early sixties saw many studies on various types of small sized populations and methodologies being more sophisticated. The methods of distance measures in genetic frequencies were already known and the method to measure the genetic fitness leading to success in selection became known. Various ways to estimate the propensity of genetic drift, degree of isolation, state of inbreeding etc, enabled research scholars to study populations of numerically very limited size and to record the micro-evolutionary process or in other way assess the intensity of various forces of evolution.

    Professor Deka knew very well that in that time such studies in India, were countable on finger tips as it required not only a meticulous planning but also thorough understanding of the subject ‘population genetics’. In the early-middle seventies, she entrusted this type of work to two scholars, one attending to a social isolate of very small size, living in the fringe areas of Bhubaneswar (P.N. Sahu, 1978) and the other living as community in the rural areas of Orissa (S.K. Ghoshmaulik, 1978).

    The two communities were little over one thousand numerically and confined their marital affairs within themselves conceding very little admixture. But one probably originated from a handful of individuals, as per their myth and the other an offshoot of a wandering tribe, settled for some generations being cut off form the rest. Different types of occupation, social system and cultural practices have created differential situations for them regarding their survivality. The issue of survival is central theme for any community, either they continue to exist with the distinct socio-cultural identity or fade into the larger populations. This sets in a different process of genetic variation. But existence as distinct community involves two possibilities expansion or elimination.

    The methods devised by the population geneticists, enable one to estimate the role of natural selection, degree of isolation, extent of inbreeding pressure, genetic load and drift on a particular population. The results of various estimates can be verified with the actual performance of such population in increasing its size or declining steadily. Although the measure of intensity of selection through weighing birth and death is accepted by many with a pinch of skepticism, till now it is the most utilized tool to assess micro-evolutionary process of a population.

    As professor Deka had a strong mathematical mind, theoretical genetics rather than experimental biology attracted her interest. Although she received teaching from some great teachers in anthropology in Calcutta University, she imbibed most inspiration from the legendary Sasanka Sekhar Sarkar. Professor Sarkar also appreciated her merit and potentiality. Those were the days when students in anthropology had to learn the subject thoroughly, not compartmentalized by walls of specializations, as it is observed today. A comprehensive knowledge about human existence, obviously equips a learner about all possible factors guiding the course of evolution. As for example, social structures of small band and migratory communities as opposed to sedentary populations, in rural areas or communities accustomed to high technology provide appropriate material to design studies on biogenetic aspects.

Studies Of Bio- Social Nature

    As social norms and cultural practices have been found to guide the course of genetic reshuffling within a community, it can naturally lead to genotypic selection. There are certain genotypes comprising of universally present alleles, which have incompatible relation among them. Genotypes causing Rhesus factor and ABO phenotypes are of this category. ABO incompatible matching between married couples has been proved to be the reason for non-survavility among human. No marriages in India are settled, till now, on the basis of genetic information. Such incompatible matches in ABO characters, however small may be, is responsible for reduction of fitness. Any geneticist will be eager to know about the proportion of such genotypes, the effect produced by them and how nature balances the pressure created due to incompatible matches.

    One research scholar was entrusted to carry out such investigation in four communities living in similar ecosystem, but with different social systems and means of subsistence. The reproductive performances of the couples were enumerated as per their ABO combination. The matching or compatible combination of couples was compared with ABO non-matching on incompatible couples in terms of reproductive performances. Such investigation not only provides information on the active force of antigenic incompatibility operating in a population, but also the mechanism of genotypes format in the subsequent generations. Increase or decrease of certain alleles and corresponding genotypes (like AA or BB or BO) are formed through some chance combination (by marriage) and survival. ‘Natural populations’ who mostly maintain a fair degree of isolation and very less artificial interference, usually maintain a balance in allelic frequencies in ABO blood group inspite of a certain amount of selection through incompatible couple-combination.

    Human reproduction and survivality are the main crux of micro- evolution. Differential reproduction includes mortality. Fitness of individuals depends on success in survivality of the offspring to maturity. Various stages of social transformation are observed to influence mode of selecting mates or attitude towards having offspring. Some people are still around, who prefer to marry their close kin and at very early age, as opposed to cosmopolitanism in the city centres. To understand this process in the perspective of social and cultural traditions of the people, two topics were entrusted to two scholars, to study the nature of reproduction (i) in two cities of Orissa and the other (ii) in a traditional community of south Orissa, who prefer to marry their cousin.

    She always stressed the need for understanding human life activities in a holistic way. The current of change in the socio-political situation is bound to have effect on the biological existence of the people and these need to be considered seriously in assessing the course of micro-evolution as well as survivality. _

Studies On Somatic Growth And Maturity

    Prof. Deka has attempted various aspects of physical anthropological studies, possible with meagre laboratory equipments. Postnatal growth of children and adolescents are always very fascinating and also important. As Orissa is inhabited by a variety of communities with distinct biological identity and of economic pursuit, the need to have a stock of data on the pattern is known to be influenced by many exogenous factors like food habit, actual nutrition, occupational stress, disease infection etc. besides the inherited factors. In order to generate a large database, she always insisted the post- graduate students to take up growth study during their routine field study.

    ‘Although a large quantity of data have been piled up, through small piecemeal ventures, on )pattern of body growth on various population, these mainly came through cross-sectional studies. The limitations are well known. She persuaded one research scholar“(Rath 1976) to take up growth study of Oriya children through a short ended longitudinal method. That started in the mid-seventies. For the first time in Orissa such a study was conducted and still remains as one of the few individual attempts in India (study through longtudinal method). Till now, only one more student (Nanda 1993) has ventured to conduct growth study in time consuming vertical way, among the villagers.

    Physical growth is related closely with development of different organs. As body grows internal organs gain maturity to function in their specific ways. This is most evident in the adolescence, when the boy and girls face subtle segregation. The internal maturity of girls is manifested in the first appearance of monthly cycle known as menarche. The age factor is as important as the status of growth, input of nutrition and climatic condition. Worldwide variation in age at menarche, makes an imperative to record the same for each population especially where early marriage of girls are still practiced. This information will be supplementary to the understanding of fertility performances.

    One research scholar '(Patnaik 1988) was entrusted with research on assessing the menarcheal age of Oriya girls and its various correlations with socio-economic and other relevant factors. She took quite a long time and came out with a very valuable set of information. The study of human physical growth and physiological development could not satisfy Professor Deka when she turned her attention to study the variation in growth through generations. This is not exactly the pattern of studies to scan secular trend in growth. Dichronic data are not available to measure the secular trend in growth achievement.

    She designed the plan to have data on various growth points finally achieved by the parents and their adult offsprings. Various students were given the assignment, so that data from different tribal populations accumulate. This type of investigation has revealed the influence of eco-system on growth-achievement. The ecological aspect of human life has predominated her research designs. In most of the research designs prepared for collecting data from natural populations, she insisted on tracing the role of eco-system. Many of her research papers contain analyses on growth gradients, reproductive performances, survivality ratios, coefficients of selection etc. in the perspective of various eco-factors. Her observations on ecological pressure created by indifferent forest policies on the life of tribal poulations at the Indian Science Congress in Mysore (1982) was much highlighted by major news media. She was later asked to write in the Ecological Report of the Citizens’s Forum.

    Apart from the research studies conducted through research scholars working for their doctroal dissertations, all of which were highly acclaimed by eminent anthropologists of Indian and Western Universities or institutions, Prof. Deka carried out numerous short-term researches on various topics. The range of such studies is so wide and varied that it will not be feasible even to mention them. During middle part of her career, she became an enthusiastic collector of prehistoric lithic implements from open sties. Orissa is such a treasure house of prehistoric cultural relics that one who roam about in the remote areas, is likely to come across some relic if one can identify. She collected a large number of various types of lithic artefacts but never personally analysed them to publish. She always respected other’s knowledge and gave away the materials to proper persons.

Study Of Political Process

    Life in the second half of twentieth century demands alacrity to different socio-political events. Such events, which lead to a turmoil in the normal life of people, attract the attention of social scientists. People’s movement for achieving certain facilities or protecting their rights, usually have some social and economic causes which submerge into clumsy political situation. Assam became turbulent in the seventies, when people, mainly of the younger generation started agitation against the central as well as state governments on various demands, mainly regarding the discriminatory attitude. The movement of the students and a small political party snowballed into a huge movement causing upturning of State government and a great chaos in the administration. The total situation has not yet cooled down, though many governments have come and gone both at the centre and in Assam.

    As Prof. Deka hails from an elite family of Assam and as she has intimate knowledge about the people’s aspirations, she could not resist herself from attempting to study the movement. Her greatest disadvantage was her long absence from her home-state, and the advantages were her easy access to the youth leaders of the movement, acquaintance with the person in authority and above all her thorough understanding of the movement in most pragmatic way. Her endeavor was very limited, yet penetrative and she mainly exposed the underlying situation and the true nature of the movement in her small book ‘Background of Assam Movement’. She has always been unpretentious about her observations and did not succumb to the journalistic ways or orthodox sociological methods.

Beyond Academics

    She has rescued many people in tricky situations, be it in a throttling academic seminar, or in administrative matter or in any professional or even personal tight-noose affairs. As a voracious reader of books of all types, she admits that she relishes reading books than writing. A sense of perfectionism, perhaps, exists in her, which desist her from producing frivolous writings. She often remarked that she was not prepared to devote her cent percent energy to anthropology. There are many other matters to demand engagement. Although she was never interested in organizational politics, she had to yield to the wishes of the teacher community of the University, to lead them as President of the association. She led them from front and many crucial achievements were made during her tenure. She also dived into turmoil situation in the campus life, with exemplary courage and helped in restoration of normalcy. She had stood behind the students for innumerable times and they have also shown love and respect.

    Professor Deka has tremendous love for Nature, which is partly reflected in her attention to gardening. Probably the famous Persian saying that ’if you want to have long term joy, do gardening’ has influenced her, or she wanted to plunge into the silent world of beauty of the plants after spending a tire-some day among the garrulous bipeds. Glories of academic achievements or showering of praises have never attracted her. Many persons have taken her to be ‘not so serious‘ even in some critically maneuvered academic situations, because she wears a shroud of indifference beneath which is concealed a sharp and alert personality. Life has presented her many hurdles some of which are really very dejecting, yet she has circumvented all, so far, with her natural dignity, alacrity and cultivated talents.

    Life’s journey through six decades has taken enough toll on her physical condition, yet she has still reserved her vital capacity to contribute to the cause of human science. We fervently desire to see her around us with the same excellency as before.

  • * From “Usha Deka Felicitation Volume: Bio-cultural Frontiers of Man”, ed. K.C.Tripathy and N.K.Behura, Department of Anthropology, Utkal University, 2001

  • ** Retd. Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Utkal University and currently Editor, The Tribal Tribune.