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Out of Africa: How man came to India

April 29, 2008
A recent television series on India has turned the spotlight on a seven-year-old scientific study on the migration of the early man. Late in 2001, a group of researchers announced that the first migrants out of Africa came to India some 70,000 years ago. They even claimed to have traced the descendents of the early migrants to a village in Tamil Nadu. finds out how a random study, to understand tuberculosis better, played a role in finding the direct descendent of the first migrant family that came to India, and consequently, in retracing the journey of man.

In 1996, Professor Ramasamy Pitchappan of Madurai Kamaraj University's prestigious Immunology Department was studying populations that were at a high risk of contracting tuberculosis. During his study, he found that a community of Thevars called Piramalai Kallars carried an allele that made them highly susceptible to TB.

He then looked at their history. "They were distributed mostly in two taluks of two districts. If a population has to occupy such an area and have such a high concentration, it has to have settled there a long time ago and be disturbed constantly by other migrating populations," Pitchappan said. After looking at various theses about the Piramalai Kallars, Pitchappan decided to sample the population to study them further.

He sent his students to collect samples from the schools and colleges of the two taluks. But Pitchappan had to go to Oxford for his annual visit and he forgot about the study.

Image: Professor Ramasamy Pitchappan.
Text and Photographs: Krishnakumar

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