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Origins of Tibetan People: Tibetan Origin Myths

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 01/09/02; September 2, 2001.]

http://www.stanford.edu/~geeyuen/people.html

The way people arrived at answers about their world followed much the same path individuals take in coming to understand one another. In all of the mythologies that we know, and by extrapolation in mythologies long extinct, many of the important elements, such as animals and physical forces, are endowed with humanlike emotions and motives. The mind that evolved subjective consciousness as a tool with which to understand the complexities of social chess used the same formula to understand the complexities of the rest of the world. It is anthropomorphizing on a cosmic scale.

Richard Leakey

Tibetans have traditionally considered their ancestors to be of Indian ancestry. According to popular belief, an ancient king named Rupati was also military commander of the Kaurava army. Rupati led his soldiers in a war against the Pandavas. After suffering defeat, the king fled to the northeast and established Tibet. This myth is based on the writings of an ancient Indian scholar who described the flight of Rupati approximately one hundred years after the death of Buddha (Shakabpa 5).

A second origin myth asserts that Tibetan people descended from a male monkey. The monkey, an incarnate of the "Compassionate Spirit" deity Avalokitesvara, met and married a mountain ogress. Eventually, Avalokitesvara and the mountain ogress proudced six offspring. The "hybrid monkeys" resembled Avalokitesvara. Over time, the Tibetan descendants of these six offspring gradually lost any remaining animal features. Tibetan people trace certain characteristics of modern humans to Avalokitesvara and the mountain ogress. People who are "merciful, intelligent, [. . .] sensitive and do not talk more than necesary" inherited such traits from Avalokitesvara. Meanwhile, those Tibetans that are "red-faced, fond of sinful pursuits, and very stuboorn" resemble the mountain ogress (Shakabpa 5). Adherents to the monkey origin myth rely on ancient documents discovered in a Lhasa temple by Atisha, an Indian scholar. The myth documents claimed to have been written "according to tradition during the reign of Songsten Gampo in the seventh century" by a scholar named Shankara Pati. (Shakabpa 5).

Read the seventh chapter of Shankara Pati's ancient scripts

Anthropologists on Tibetan Origins

Modern anthropologists generally consider Tibetans to be descendants of the Mongoloid people, although specific historical details remain disputed. According to one historian, archaeological data confirms that humans from the Mongoloid race resided in North Asia during the Paleolithic area (Smith 1). During the Paleolithic, another group of people with slightly different biological characteristics apart from the Mongoloids lived in current South China. While some scientists classify these people as part of a different phenotype altogether, others maintain that these people were in fact Southern Mongoloids. Anthropologists regard modern Chinese people as secondary descendants of Mongoloids. However, Smith writes, "Primary Mongoloid types continued to exist in some isolated areas in the New World, in parts of Siberia, and perhaps in Tibet, while the Chinese developed by mixture and environmental adaptations in divergence from the primary Mongoloids" (1).

During the Neolithic era, a mainstream Chinese culture evolved. The Yellow River valley became the epicenter of China's cultural explosion. Between 5000-3000 B.C., the Yellow River valley flourished. The Chinese witnessed a Renaissance unrivaled by past cultural developments. Minority groups across China eventually assimilated into the culture of the Yellow River valley.

Historians and anthropologists believe that the ancestors of Tibetans migrated to present-day Tibet from the northeast (China) and the southeast (Assam and Burma). Differences in migration patterns could explain the diversity of biological characteristics among Tibetans (Smith 2). Shakabpa writes, "The majority of the people in the U-Tsang region of Tibet are short of stature, round-headed, and high-cheek-boned--therefore slightly different from those of the other two regions. The people of Dotod and Domed are tall, long-headed, and long-limbed" (6).

According to Smith, the Yellow River culture's influence appeared to stop at the T'ao valley of the Kansu in the west. The Kansu encompasses "the ecological frontier between the plains of China and the steppes of Inner Asia" (Smith 2). Anthropologist Jaroslav Prusek asserts that "[Inhabitants of the Kansu were] possibly of a different ethnic strain and probably of a distinct cultural tradition" in comparison to the other Neolithic cultures to the north and west. Some anthropologists even argue that the Nelothic cultures pre-dating Tibet can trace origins to the Indo-Europeans. According to Smith, "In the third millennium, proto Indo-Europeans were stretched all along the present political boundaries of China and perhaps even farther to the east" (6). Quite simply, the exact biological origins of Tibetan people remain, to this day, contested.


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