Indian Anthropological Expedition 2018

The current stage of Russian physical anthropology development as a part of the wider human science, primarily biological, is characterized by several features, which, despite the objective and subjective difficulties, can be traced more and more distinctly. Firstly, it is the interdisciplinary openness, search for new ways to interact with other sciences, in which the connection with genetics and psychology is the most prominent. Secondly, it is the reconsideration of the term “race”, creating new approaches to its studies, among them – gathering new materials on different populations. There are not many foreign expeditions (recently Russian anthropologists have been, for instance, to Chili, Indonesia, Mongolia), however, the tendency to carry them out, as well as expeditions inside our country, is likely to strengthen. This report is about one of the events in this tendency of resurrecting complex anthropological expeditions.

The Indian Anthropological Expedition (the head of research – Dr. Denis Pezhemsky) was organized on the initiative of the Paleoethnology Research Center with its funding and established jointly with Timiryazev State Biology Museum in 2018. The goals of the new expedition are the following:

  1. to mend the international scientific relations almost lost in the 1990s;

  2. to gather data on the specifics of Hindu funeral ritual, primarily on the aspects important for physical anthropology and connected to the forensic expertise of cremated remains;

  3. to assess the possibility of physical anthropology research in modern India and, if possible, to gather new population material.

The renewal of the relations with Indian professionals had several stages, as did the expedition itself. Fortunately, we met with our colleagues from the Anthropology Department of Delhi University (Dr. Anup Kapoor, Dr. Satvani Kapoor), the Anthropology Department of Pune Univeristy in Maharashtra (Dr. Shaunaka Kulkarni, Dr. Subhash Walimbe), the Anthropology Department of Kolkata University (Dr. Arup R. Bandyopadhyay). With the latter it was possible to conduct a field trip to the Santals of West Bengal immediately and to gather physical anthropology data near Bolpur town (Fig. 1).


Fig. 1. The geographical position of the places in which the Indian Anthropological expedition worked in 2018

 The first stage of the expedition, conducted in Agra (Uttar-Pradesh state), was studying the process of cremating a human body within the rituals of the Hindu funeral tradition. The observation was carried out on an ancient ghat on river Jamuna bank 500 m to the west from Taj Mahal. The research was being conducted continuously during the daylight hours. All stages of the rituals performed were fixated in a special form as well as the weather conditions. Photo and video recordings were made, samples of the wood which the deceased were burnt on were gathered. In total, we managed to document about 50 cremations in detail and to describe about 50 more based on bonfire sites as cremations are carried out at the Jamuna Ghat almost incessantly twenty four hours a day. During the fixation of a cremation process we focused our attention on such aspects as the time needed for a corpse to burn down, the amount of calcined bones left, the changes in the bone bone tissue, etc. These materials are being processed and prepared for a separate publication at the moment.

At the second stage of the expedition a complex anthropological examination of the Santals of West Bengal organized by Dr. Arup R. Bandyopadhyay was conducted. The expedition set out from Kolkata to Bolpur which is near Shantiniketan. In the past Shantiniketan had been an estate of a famous Indian poet and educator Rabindranat Tagor (1861–1941). There he had founded Vishva Bharati University, which is now known throughout the world. In several kilometers from Shanteniketan there is a small Santal village Pearson Pally, where the Indian Anthropological Expedition members carried out their examination in a rural primary school.

 The Santals belong to the Munda group which constitutes a branch of the Austroasiatic language family. Santal groups reside in India – in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Assam as well as in such countries as Bangladesh, Nepal and Butan. The Santals speak Santali language, which has two dialects – mali and karmali. According to the census of 2011, there are over 7 million people in India who named Santali as their native language. Among them about 2.5 million live in West Bengal (Census of India, 2011; Linguistic Survey of India, 2016). By now, Santali language has been studied thoroughly. The researchers have composed several grammar books and dictionaries. Moreover, Santali has its own alphabet based on the Latin script and the Devanagari. According to our own field observations, many of the Santals of West Bengal also speak Bengali.

The Santals do not have caste distinction. Their traditional beliefs are still preserved and they comprise a complex synthesis of a higher deity worship, ancient solar cults, ancestors and mother goddesses worship, popular zoomorphic conceptions and worship of the demon spirits common to all Munda. Santal mythological tradition is rather rich, and Hindu motives can also be traced. It is worth mentioning that in the most ancient Santal folklore layers, connected to the Creation, whales and lobsters, impossible to be known to the residents of the areas far from a shore, act. This fact has led several researchers to an assumption about a past connection between the Santals and a sea, especially in light of the Santal ethnogenesis remaining a serious scientific issue. The Santals also have an abundant ritual culture, which is often accompanied by music and dancing. However, recently researchers have indicated a decline in the interest of young Santals in their traditional culture and Hindu customs’ assimilation (Hembrom, 2003).

Santal houses are usually of the pillar-based type. The main materials are bamboo, clay and cane. Santal clothes is rather similar to the one of the other residents of India. Women wear sarees, traditionally - white (often with a colored border) or checked ones. However, in the course of the fieldwork we observed sarees of most different colors. Also, women insert flowers in their traditional hairdo. Men wear dhotis or waistclothes, though nowadays “European” clothes, such as T-shirts, shirts, shorts or jeans, prevail.

It is important to mention that unlike many other Indian ethnic groups the Santals have extremely few nutritional prohibitions. For instance, they they eat meat of different animals freely. However, until recently a prohibiton of drinking bovine milk existed. The majority of Santal dishes contain rice in different forms. Regarding the drinks, two kinds of beer are widespread. One is made of rice and another one – of mahua flowers.

Traditionally, the Santals are farmers. At present, tillage farming prevails. The main cereal crop is rice. Several researchers are of the opinion that it was Munda people who had brought the rice cultivation technology to India. Except for rice, the Santals cultivate millet, mustard and several kinds of beans. In addition, the Santals are engaged in animal husbandry. They breed swines, goats, sheep, cows and buffaloes. It is interesting that the Santals continue to practice hunting. They hunt with dogs and use bows and arrows of different forms as weapons. The custom of a collective hunt in which all the residents of nearby villages participate is also still maintained. Gathering plays an important role in Santal economy too. Aside from traditional activities, more and more modern Santals do seasonal and industrial work. Santal men also work in big cities as rickshaws, at farms, at Assam tea planatations, they do brick-kiln labour. Women often do seasonal work in forests, on roads and dams (Gupta, 2007).

In colonial times as a result of British reforms the most of Santal community land was concentrated in possession of major landowners (mostly zamindars – immigrants from other areas of India) who would lease it to peasants through manjhis (the headmen). If a Santal did not pay the rent, he would find himself in debt serfdom. As a consequence, there were uprisings against the creditors and landowners-zamindars (e.g. the famous “Santal revolution” of 1850s). Later, the Santals started to migrate to the east to Bengal and to the north to Nepal looking for work in order to repay the debts. The vast majority of the Santals examined (or their ancestors) came to Pearson Pally from Bihar about 40-60 years ago.

All these circumstances must be taken into consideration while processing the gathered data. Overall, 240 individuals were examined, among them there were 214 individuals who identified themselves as Santals (Table 1). The majority of the examined were children or teenagers (52 boys and 61 girls). Adult Santals comprised a small and not genderly equal selection of 32 men and 59 women over 20 years old. The remaining 25 people are of different ethnic groups, mostly Bengali (10 men and 15 women).

The examination was conducted using as many methods as was possible under the given conditions with a mandatory social questionnaire (T.E. Kliuchnikova; Fig. 2) The questioning was carried out in several languages – English, Bengali and Santali. The rural school’s teachers, Vishva Bharati University (Shantiniketan) and Anthropology Department of Kolkata University helped us greatly with it.

Detailed measurements of head and face were taken (32 men and 59 women over 20 years old – E.A. Vagner-Sapukhina) and morphological elements of the face were described according to the “racial” program (83 male individuals and 119 female; - A.H. Gilmitdinova; Fig. 3).

Anthropological photographs of head and face were taken in three projections (88 male individuals and 121 female – Yu.A. Alekseev; Fig. 4).

Body measurements of the adults were taken in accordance to the full somathometric program (30 men and 59 women – A.H. Gilmitdinova) and of the children – in accordance with a short program (A.H. Gilmitdinova, E.A. Vagner-Sapukhina; Fig. 5).

Dermathoglyphic palmar prints were taken as well (88 male individuals and 119 females – D.V. Pezhemsky; Fig. 6). Dental system was examined, dental casts were gathered using the method conventional in the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology RAS (70 male individuals and 86 females – N.A. Leybova; Fig. 7).

In addition, biological material (buccal swabs) was gathered in order to study DNA-polymorphism (49 male individuals and 45 females; N.A. Leybova). It was frozen upon our arrival to the Anthropology Department of Kolkata University and temporarily left in India.


Fig. 2. The work in progress – T.E. Kliuchnikova is conducting the social questioning with the help of a teacher


Fig. 3. The work in progress – A.H. Gilmitdinova is working on head and face morphological description


Fig. 4. The work in progress – Yu.A. Alekseev is taking photographs of the head and face


Fig. 5 The work in progress – E.A. Vagner-Sapukhina is gathering data on children’s body length


Fig. 6. The work in progress – D.V. Pezhemsky is gathering palmar prints


Fig. 7. The work in progress – N.A. Leybova in the process of a dental examination

table 1.jpg

Table 1. Gender and age structure of the anthropological selection examined in Pearson Pally village in 2018; Bolpur – Shantiniketan, West Bengal, India

We would like do draw your attention to the fact that while the Indian Anthropological Expedition of 2018 can not compete with the Soviet-Indian Anthropological Expedition of 1971–1983 in complexity of the methods used, the new materials contain data on the female part of the population, which the materials gathered earlier in India by Soviet and Russian specialists lack.

The first result of our work which we would like to share in this publication is the composite portraits of male and female Santals which show their morphological specifics (Fig. 8, 9). They are the result of processing the anthropological photographs taken in the field by Yu. A. Alekseev. The photographs were taken using the conventional method with the elaborations suggested by A. M. Maurer – in the three main projections (en face, three quarters and side view) with a millimeter scale allowing to adjust to scale and take measurements from a photograph. The composite portraits were made by A. H. Gilmitdinva with the help of a special software faceONface (developed by A. B. Savinetsky and G. V. Syroejkin).

The female composite portraits are based on 64 separate photographs en face, in three quarters and side view (Fig. 8). The age range of the individual portraits – 18-75 years old, the average age being 37 years.

The male composite portraits are based on 37 separate photographs from all three views (Fig. 9). The age range at the individual level – 18-70 years old, the average age being 27 years.


Fig. 8. The composite portrait of a Santal female from Pearson Pally (n = 64; by A.H. Gilmitdinova) 


Fig. 9. The composite portrait of a Santal male from Pearson Pally (n = 37; by A.H. Gilmitdinova)

The division into 12 kins (11 according to another sources) is still preserved in Santal community, among them – Soren, Murmu, Baski, Marandi, Hembram, Tudu, Hansda, Kisku, Chonre, Mardi and Besra, that we encountered during the fieldwork. According to some of the questioned Santals, Mardi and Marandi are the same kin, but this issue will need elaboration. All Santals consider themselves a member of one of the kins, however, the social role of a kin nowadays is not so big, it plays a part mainly during the life cycle.

In every Santal village there is a headman (manjhi) and a priest (naik) with several aides. Together with the most respected older men of the village they form panchayat. Panchayats resolve such issues as people breaking marital or other prohibitions. Santals are an endogamous community. If someone violates the endogamy, i.e. marries a non-Santal, the panchyat may sentence them to bitlakh – a corporal punishment. Cases of such beatings can be found in police reports even of the 1970s. According to our Indian colleagues, if a Santal violates this marital prohibition today, he or she will be banished and stop being a Santal. However, during the fieldwork of 2018, we came across cases of endogamy violations when the violators continued to live in a Santal village and the non-Santal spouse was accepted in the corresponding Santal kin. This circumstance will require very careful processing of the questionnaires’ data before we can go on to generate morphometric and morphological characteristics of the examined Santal group.


The comprehensive consultations with famous Russian specialists were very important for setting the goals and the tasks for the Indian Anthropological Expedition of 2018. The authors are deeply grateful for particularly valuable advice and recommendations to indologist V.E. Larionov; anthropologists Dr. G.L. Heet and Dr. N.A. Dubova; ethnologist, corresponding member of the RAS, Dr. S.A. Arutyunov (a participant of the Soviet-Indian Expedition of 1971–1983).

The fieldwork in West Bengal would be impossible without the help and support of young anthropologists of Kolkata University Parikshit Chakraborti and Swapan Sarder who did the most of the organizational work. Students from Vishva Bharati University Soumen Mardi and Namrata Santra provided invaluable help with the questioning. The members of the Indian Anthropological Expedition and the headship of the Paleoethnology Research Center express their most heartfelt gratitude.