Dead Names, Dead Dog: Time for the Toda

In the Nilgiri Hills of southeastern India reside the Toda, a mysterious group of people who have a distinctive appearance and beliefs and customs unlike those of their neighbors. Could these be the remnants of a civilization of the past – perhaps even the remnants of ancient Sumer?

“Simon” had better hope so. After all, he’s got that heading “The Sumerians of the Nilgiri Hills” on page 175 of Dead Names

You can read more about the Todas in “Simon’s” book, but he does omit some important context.

The Todas have excited the commentary of outsiders ever since the first missionaries arrived centuries ago. These newcomers found a people who, unlike their neighbors, were light-skinned and forthright in their demeanor. This inspired those who met them to come up with all sorts of interesting theories about their being the descendants of the Scythians, the Romans, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel – or the Sumerians. A recent encyclopedia referred to all such theories as “amateurish speculation.” You can learn more in Anthony Walker’s Between Tradition and Modernity, where there is an entire chapter on the numerous – and incorrect – theories about the Todas’ origins.

Via the principle that everything must be made interesting, “Simon” turns a small-scale scholarly dispute into a major controversy when he says that “early anthropologists” believed the Toda were Sumerian. Actually it was a single mid-century anthropologist, Prince Peter of Greece, who was the only supporter of this theory. (Despite “Simon’s” statement that Prince Peter and Blavatsky were contemporaries, she died seventeen years before he was born!) Prince Peter’s work on the topic was published in 1952 and followed the next year by an article in American Anthropologist by Murray Emeneau, pointing out that Peter’s claims of Sumerian god-names – including “Simon”‘s “On”=”Anu” example – could be explained by examination of neighboring languages. It may be that a few researchers still believe the Sumerian link, but I’ve yet to find them.

The other pieces of evidence “Simon” provides are also unconvincing. For example, he implies that the Toda’s lack of sickle-cell anemia, in comparison with neighboring tribes, shows that they came from elsewhere. What he does not say is that those neighboring tribes live in malaria-ridden lowlands, where the sickle-cell trait helps to resist the disease. The Toda live in highlands, with no risk of malaria, so sickle cell selects out. “Simon” has provided a classic example of natural selection and nothing more.

I’d give further evidence, but as it happens, someone beat me to it – even before “Simon” published his book! Anthony Walker, an anthropologist who has worked with the Toda for over four decades, wrote an article critiquing a tourist website piece on the Toda. You’ll notice that Walker manages to deny most most of the arguments made in Dead Names about the appearance, the language, the sacrificial practices, and other traits of the Toda. He even says that the depiction of the Toda as a vanishing people is a “blatant falsehood.”

I brought this article to “Simon’s” attention and asked him to provide his sources. He initially argued that fieldwork methodology was inherently flawed, the Mead and Freeman debate – in short, all the points that I’d expect from a first-year anthropology student who’d done the theory reading and wanted to get out of specific evidence he couldn’t actually prove was wrong. To give him credit, he said he’d track down the references he used. That was quite a while ago.

I’ve yet to hear from him.

Published in: on July 1, 2006 at 3:40 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] Toda people – not Sumerian or even remotely as “Simon” describes them. Part 1, Part […]

  2. […] Toda people – not Sumerian or even remotely as “Simon” describes them. Part 1, Part […]

  3. […] Toda people – not Sumerian or even remotely as “Simon” describes them. Part 1, Part […]

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