Population History of the Gond: The Largest Tribal Population of South Asia

Abstract

Although the tribal populations represent a fraction of the South Asian population, there are only very few tribal populations ranging in the millions. The Central Indian tribal population Gond is one of them, with a census size of approximately 12 million people. Various disciplines of the humanities have drawn conflicting conclusions with regard to their origin. Therefore, in our previous study, we analysed hundreds of thousands of autosomal markers and found out that Gonds share their closest genetic similarity with the Austroasiatic (Munda) populations. While our findings support our previous contention, the current analysis has revealed that the Gonds occupy a transitional position between Dravidian and Munda groups. Sex‐specific markers also differentiate the Gond substantially from the Indian Austroasiatic (Munda) and Dravidian (Telugu) speakers. Taken together, we suggest a unique and distinct genetic ancestry of the Gond population of South Asia.

Key Concepts

  • The classical works of ethnography, anthropology and linguistics have suggested that the human diversity of the Indian subcontinent preserves numerous traces of older strata of population.
  • The Gond linguistically belongs to Gondi–Manda subgroup of the South Central branch of the Dravidian language family and is the largest tribal population of South Asia with a population of more than 12 million people.
  • Gond population is mentioned in ancient Indian scriptures, and they exhibit an exceptionally high population size, despite covering a limited geographical region.
  • Studies on haploid (Y chromosomal and mitochondrial DNA) markers have suggested that the Gonds share haplogroups both with the Austroasiatic and Dravidian‐speaking populations of the Indian subcontinent. However, these studies did not aim at providing high‐resolution population structure, which is crucial to infer migrations, admixture and the ethnic history of the Gond populations.
  • Our first high‐resolution molecular study on only one group of Gond revealed a massive amount of their genome sharing with other ethnic groups of South Asian descent (Bhil and Kol).
  • Subsequently, with four distinct Gond groups, we found that all the Gond groups were likely to share a common ancestry with a certain degree of isolation and differentiation, and more importantly, this analysis also pointed out the sharing of substantial genetic ancestry with the Indian Austroasiatic (i.e. Munda) groups rather than with the other Dravidian groups with whom they share very closest linguistic similarity.
  • In the present study, we revisited the conclusions with more robust data and analysis and found that the attraction of Gond from Munds speakers is associated with the gene flow due to arrival and expansion of Austroasiatic speakers in India.
  • In spite of the gene flow from Munda, Gonds maintained their unique identity from surrounding populations.
  • Our results further showed that the ancestral pre‐Dravidian Gond and the original pre‐Austroasiatic Munda biologically reflect either two closely affiliated indigenous ancestral populations or perhaps one and the same older population native to this portion of east central India.
  • As all the Gond groups carry the Southeast Asian signature, we hypothesise that the population differentiation and expansion of Gond with the neighbouring Munda populations continued after the expansion and admixture of Austroasiatic speakers in the subcontinent.

Keywords: Gond; tribes of South Asia; mitochondrial DNA; Y chromosome; autosomes; ancestry analysis; phylogenetics

Figure 1. (a) The principal component (PC) and (b) ADMIXTURE analyses of the combined autosomal data set. Both the analyses provided individual‐wise information; however, for a simplified understanding, we have plotted the population‐wise mean values, which were useful in understanding the clustering pattern of Gonds. The population colour codes in ADMIXTURE plot are the same as given in PC and IBS (Figure ) plots.
Figure 2. Pairwise IBS (identity by state) analysis showing the IBS distances of various Gond groups with the Eurasian populations.
Figure 3. Plot of chunks (DNA segments) donated by the South, East, Southeast Asian and PNG populations to the Gond groups.
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Further Reading

Chaubey G, Metspalu M, Kivisild T and Villems R (2007) Peopling of South Asia: investigating the caste‐tribe continuum in India. BioEssays : News and Reviews in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology 29: 91–100.

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Kumar V and Reddy M (2003) Status of Austro‐Asiatic groups in the peopling of India: an exploratory study based on the available prehistoric, linguistic and biological evidences. Journal of Biosciences 28: 507–522.

Moorjani P, Thangaraj K, Patterson N, et al. (2013) Genetic evidence for recent population mixture in India. American Journal of Human Genetics 93: 422–438.

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Chaubey, Gyaneshwer, Upadhyay, Rakesh K, and van Driem, George(Jun 2018) Population History of the Gond: The Largest Tribal Population of South Asia. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0027474]