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Along The Salt Road

Christiaan Klieger
Photographs by Dong Lin

The foothills of the Eastern Himalayas rise 14,000 feet above the plain. Their lower slopes are canopied with deciduous broadleaf forest.

We have spent the last 15 days trekking through 150 miles of dense rainforest in the northernmost part of Burma (Myanmar). Although this is one of the wettest rainforests in the world, the monsoon season has passed, the days are dry and sunny, and the nights surprisingly cold with frost on the ground each morning.

Our goal is the tiny village of Krone in the Adung Wang valley. There I hope to find the Tírung, a group of people barely hinted about in anthropological literature. They were last visited by an ethnographer over 70 years ago, and I had read that their continued survival is precarious. If they are still there, they should be easy to identify. According to the previous accounts, none is over four-and-a-half-feet tallóamong the smallest people in the world.

I am traveling on a National Science Foundation grant, ominously called the ďHigh Risk Exploratory Research Program,Ē to trace the ancient north-south trade routes between Tibet, China, and Burma. Historically, salt from Tibet was carried into the mountains of Southeast Asia to be exchanged for medicinal plants, musk, and other forest products.

A few years ago the Adung Wang Valley was incorporated into the new Hkakabo Razi wildlife preserve. I wanted to find out whether establishing the preserve had interrupted the age-old trade routes. Some of the customary ďmerchandiseĒ carried along these routes were slaves, mostly indigenous peoples who had fled to these remote mountains to escape subjugation. The Tírung were among that group, and I was keen to meet them to see how they fared.

The possibility of ďlost tribesĒóunknown or little known groups living in inaccessible corners of the planet in the twenty-first centuryóis both exciting and vexatious for anthropologists. Most of the time, the groups discovered arenít lost at all. Remember the 1970s controversy of the Tasady people of the Philippines, found living a Neolithic lifestyle not too far from Manila? They turned out to have traded with nearby villages for generations, and not to be as simple or isolated as the popular press had spun. I had similar skepticism regarding the ďlastĒ of the Tírung.

From what I had learned, the Tírung are Tibeto-Burman language speakers, a tribe of the Rawang people who live around the conjunction of Burma, India, and China. There are only about 20-30,000 Rawang. They have long been primarily hunters and gatherers, but nowadays they also grow rice, serve as porters, and mine for gold and jade.

With me is California Academy of Sciences photographer Dong Lin, a frequent visitor to Burma; eleven porters; a cook; and Hte Tun, our mountain guide and translator. Apart from a brief window after World War II, no outsiders were permitted into this region of Burma prior to 1997, and visitors are still required to be accompanied by a guide and be under general military supervision. Given the regionís reputation for smuggling and occasional violence, and the lack of reliable maps, guides are indispensable anyway.

Through brief breaks in the forest canopy, I can see glaciers near the peak of the 19,296-foot Hkakabo Razi Mountain, the highest point in Southeast Asia and the eastern ďanchorĒ of the Himalayan chain. Itís a refreshing contrast to the monotonous shades of green that constantly press up against us. We spend most nights in small mountain villages. In a land without electricity, we are asleep soon after the sun goes down, and each morning we awake at four to the sound of chickens crowing and women pounding rice.

Our journey traces the dusty footsteps of only a handful of Western visitors. In 1895-6, an expedition led by Prince Henri díOrleans came upon the sources of the Irrawaddy River. His travels took him to the Dulong Jiang Valley, since 1961 a part of China. Along the upper regions of the valley, Prince Henri encountered the Tírung people:

The men mostly had a twig or thorn in the ear as ornament; the women sometimes a large silver ear-ring. The latter also were tattooed in green round the mouth. Formerly they used to be unmolested, but the Loutses made war on them, and it was then that they lived for precaution in holes under the trees.... The natives who came in with food were well formed, though diminutive, almost naked, and wholly dirty.

British explorer F.M. Bailey in 1911 noted that Tibetans living along the upper Salween, the valley east of Dulong, exploited the Tírung people as slaves. ďMenkong,Ē he writes, ďused to be a centre for the slave trade, and we found many slaves of a dwarf race...who had been brought from a country called by the Tibetans Tsong Yul, seven days journey south. Edgard [my companion] measured some typical ones. A man was four foot four inches...Ē

English botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward visited the region in the 1920s, and he, too, found dwarf slaves among the Tibetans, the women ďtattooed with indigo from between the eyes,Ē possibly to discourage their abduction. He described the indigenous people as two discrete types: a pygmy group not over five feet high, and a ďtaller muscular, well-built strain.Ē He believed the former were stunted due to lack of food. Further northwest in the Dza Yul region in Tibet, he writes of a similar population that:

Consists of two distinct elements, Tibetan and aboriginal. The aborigines must have swarmed off some common stock long ago, and remained in undisturbed possession of Zayul [Dza Yul] until comparatively late years. They are pygmies and now form the serf population.... They dress in drab sacking, and for decoration wear only a multitude of bright yellow bead necklaces...[that hide] the goitrous lump in the neck.

According to Spanish anthropologist Santiago Nebreda, as late as 1932, Tibetan and Chinese raiders regularly assaulted the Adung Wang valley, just west of Dulong Jiang. They forced the local Tírung to collect ginseng and other medicinals, and then carried off some of them as slaves.

When Burmese colonel Saw Myint came across the Tírung of Adung Wang in 1954 he noted their very short stature, unusually high rates of mental retardation, and significant infant mortality. Myint concluded the population would soon be extinct if Tírung continued to marry within the clan.

In the mid-1960s a team of physicians from the Burma Medical Research Society visited the Hkakabo Razi region as part of the countryís first field research in population genetics. In the villages of Htalatu and Krone they surveyed all 68 adults with at least one Tírung grandparent. The team measured physical and physiological parameters, such as the size and shape of the skull, limb length in proportion to overall stature, general fitness, and hematology. They inventoried nutrition and diet, looked for parasites, took family histories, and analyzed the water. The report indicates that the experience traumatized the shy Tírung.

The survey found the mean height of adult Tírung males to be 1.43 m (4í6Ē) and that of females 1.40 m (4í5Ē). Other measurements of the shape of the skull and jaw line and the consistency of the epicanthic fold verified that the Tírung were from Central or East Asia, and were not related to the short Negrito people of Malaysia and the Philippines.

With the exception of a lack of iodine, the diet of the Tírung appeared to provide adequate protein and vitamins. Since the 1960s, it has been known that iodine deficiency can contribute to infant mortality, deaf mutism, mental retardation, and short stature, and the Tírung may be especially sensitive to iodine deficiency. On the other hand, despite their proportional stature, they may be achrondroplastic dwarfs. This condition is determined by a dominant gene, which would tend to proliferate in an isolated community regardless of iodine status. The reality is that their short stature may be a finely tuned balance between environmental and genetic factors.

The last-known members of the T'rung. From left: Nang Sein, 85-year-old Sung Wang, Dawi, Nun, and Magada.

When we finally arrive at the village of Krone, Dong and I are guided to a bungalow made of woven bamboo, a structure typical of many Burmese and north Indian villages. Such houses are made available for visitors. But as I crouch down to enter, I canít help noticing that the doorway is unusually low. A few moments later, a man enters the hut. It is immediately obvious from his imperious manner that he must be the village chief.

Behind him appears a man a little over a meter high. He is introduced to us as Dawi, the last full-blooded male Tírung in Burma. I wince to see that he is wearing a new red and white ĎSantaís Helperí hat, clearly a gift from an American tourist we had met earlier on the trail.

I learn that Dawi and his three sisters (all in their 40s and 50s) and an aunt, aged 85, are the last full Tírung, although some older relatives, including an aunt, had married the neighboring Htalu, another group of the Rawang.

The headman is a Htalu. Our guide Hte Tun let me know that the headman was a bit resentful that the tiny Tírung received all the attention from both Burmese officials and foreign visitors. Yet at the same time he was protective of the Tírung, never allowing us to ask questions directly, and never leaving us alone with them. At this first meeting, Hte Tun gave the headman a gift, a harmonica. This eased tensions a little.

The next morning we travel to Tehaundan, the northernmost town in Burma and the home of Tibetan refugees who migrated here after Chiang Kai-shek occupied parts of Tibet in the 1930s. We pass many traders carrying salt, signs that the traditional trade routes are still active. In fact, we learn that since 1961, when the current border between Burma and China was established, there have been no restrictions on travel by locals between the two countries.

We return to Krone a few days later hoping to learn more about the Tírung. When Dong poses them in front of their hut, in preparation for a video interview, the activity soon attracts the entire village. They gather behind the camera, watching and giggling. The Htalu headman, suddenly Cecil B. DeMille, asserts his position, ordering people about and conjuring up a battery of translators. Conversation is difficult. First, Hte Tun translates my questions into Burmese, then Aung Aung, our cook, translates them to Rawang, the predominant language in the village, and the headman translates from Rawang into Tírung, although it is clear Dawi understands both languages.

The Tírung, Dawi tells me, followed other Rawang groups into Burma. The Rawang began to migrate 2,000 years ago from the Mongolian plains thousands of kilometers to the north. They came in pursuit of their most prized game animal, a wild ox called the Rawang ngapuk (Bos javanicus birmanicus). They traveled south along the Mekong valley until they eventually crossed the ridge into the Salween watershed. From there they continued southwest over the Gaoligong mountain range into the Dulong Jiang valley and thence to Burma, where they established Krone early in the nineteenth century. The village is perched relatively high on steeper slopes that are difficult to farm, because the lower parts of the valley had already been settled by other Rawang.

All the Tírung in Burma, I learn, are the descendents of just three men and their wives. Adung Long Hpone, brother Thala Long Hpone, and Soomdum Hpone left Longdam village, on the Dulong Jiang, after the family had an argument with their Tibetan landlord in the 1880s. The story is very similar to the one Prince Henri related a hundred years earlier.

For a long time, the three Adung families kept in touch with Tírung back in Longdam. They continued exchanging matrimonial partners until a series of earthquakes from 1949 through 1951 blocked the routes. While there are Tírung in Yunnan and probably in Tibet, I havenít heard of any accounts of Tírung since the explorer accounts of the 1930s. Perhaps they are still around, undiscovered by the outside world.

I learn that they grow maize as their staple, as well as some rice. They hunt deer, goral (a species of goat) and monkey, and they still go into the forest in search of medicinal plants. But I donít get answers to all my questions, particularly those relating to the Tírungsí knowledge of and attitude toward the rest of the world. The headman acts as a gatekeeper and some questions seem to evaporate during translation. Mercifully, when the interview is over, the headman and the villagers finally drift away.

Dong and I, too, are leaving when one of the Tírungís relatives runs up, inviting us for tea. The house is a single room with no furniture but two wood-lined firepits, as if the room is split into two households. For the next hour or so, we happily sit on animal skins in their hut with woven bamboo walls, sipping tea and munching fresh popcorn. The popcorn has been heated in hot sand, which makes for effective cooking if somewhat gritty eating. Even a shy sister, who had been put off by the clamorous interview earlier, starts to warm up. While it is difficult to converse, it is quite clear none of them is retarded.

After a while, the headman drops in. He seems most surprised to see us, and while he is polite, I have a sense that he doesnít appreciate events happening in his village about which he is not aware. I look at the Santaís helper hat on a shelf and remember the Tasady. The Tírung are a genuine people, but I am horrified at the thought that the remaining members may one day be exploited by ecotourist entrepreneurs, local and otherwise.

The Tírungís short stature may be genetic. Their reticence, facial tattooing, the fact that they once lived in tree-holes and caves, plus their recent abandonment of marriage within the clan, appear to be cultural adjustments to current environmental and social conditions. Historically, the Rawang as a whole have been largely marginalized by the Tibetans and the Chinese, and the Rawang, in turn, appear to have marginalized the Tírung. Judging from the the headmanís treatment of Dawi and his sisters, they are still being marginalized.

Anthropologist Christiaan Klieger crosses one of the many footbridges along his 150-mile hike tracing the ancient trade routes linking Tibet, China and Burma.

Only a more complete survey will reveal whether or not the Tírung are really on the verge of disappearing. With only a handful of foreign visitors entering Hkakabo Razi National Park since it opened in 1998, ecotourism has not radically changed traditional cultural practices. And without the resourcesóand perhaps the willóto enforce the rules against hunting rare wildlife, the Burmese authorities have yet to interfere with the tribesí traditional lifestyle.

Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society has suggested that the Tírung of Krone are not going to have any children and recommends governmental support until they die out. But I am not so sure this will happen. Dawi tells me that he will visit Dulong Jiang, the home of his ancestors, within a year or two. He is still young and active, and I suspect that he may intend to look for a bride. Hidden in the Tibetan valleys north of Hkakabo Razi, and elsewhere in the eastern Himalayas, there may be other descendents of the pygmy people described by Western visitors a century ago.

The ancient cross-border trade in salt, medicinal plants, and animal parts still continues. The people traditionally involved in the trans-Himalayan trade have not yet been swept away by Western consumerism and modernization. That change may be inevitable. But before it happens, I hope to return to further document the life of the Tírung and Rawang and how they have lived it for so many hundreds of years.


P. Christiaan Klieger is a research associate in the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences, and the author of several books on Tibetan and Hawaiian cultures.

Dong Lin is senior photographer at the California Academy of Sciences. This was his sixth Academy expedition to Burma.