The Tribes of Burma/Migration Waves

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We shall never be able to trace all the people who now inhabit Burma back fully to their original seats or say precisely where they had their beginnings as separate racial units and when they left their primaeval homes, but geography, philology and legend all help us to form a fairly shrewd general idea of their Genesis and roughly to trace their Exodus into the lands they ultimately occupied. Far north of Burma in Central Asia, where Tibet and China merge into one another, is the lofty cradle of great rivers. Thence flow the Yantze-kiang, the Hoang Ho, the Mekong and the Salween; from the southernmost edge of this gigantic mass of upland come the Irrawaddy, the Chindwin and some of the affluents of the Brahmaputra, and it is an undoubted fact that whenever we have a reliable clue of speech or tradition to follow, it leads us up northwards in the direction of this prehistoric breeding ground which shed in the dim past its tribes, like its waters, over the whole of South-Eastern Asia. The chain may seem to break here and there, the threads may show signs of crossing and re-crossing, but the general trend is eventually the same and the conclusion ever identical.

There are, as is well known, relics of this southward tendency still. For years it has been an interesting object-lesson for observers to note how, during the past generation, one of the most conspicuous of the tribes of Burma, the Kachins, have been pressing down from the north, displacing in their search for fresh ground the less virile tribes with whom they have come in contact. So and no otherwise we may imagine the predecessors of all the present inhabitants of the Province to have from time immemorial moved down from the north, following the line of least resistance along the hill ridges or the river valleys, as the case might be, till they found a final resting place for their feet. By watching the movement of the Kachins we can guess how the Burmans, and indeed all the indigenous inhabitants of Burma, came.

As to the time and order of their coming we can form but the very roughest idea. There are chronicles that give us a general conception of how the ethnical elements in Burma were disposed at the beginning of the historical period. So far as they go they merely show a distribution of tribes, much as it exists now–Burmans and Talaings in the plains, Chins and Karens in the hills—a distribution, moreover, that is such that proximity cannot be looked upon as any test of relationship. Here and there, too, there has been such fusion of different tribes that even custom and legend is shared in common. What geography and history tell us is too often fallacious. It is language alone that shows relatively few anomalies and gaps and exhibits a development along the surest lines. So it is that if we are to attempt a classification of the peoples of Burma, we must look for our guide, not to chronicles or custom or folklore or propinquity on the map, but to speech, and only employ the other tests to check the criterion of language.

Now research has shown that, with the solitary exception of Salon, (the speech of the sea-gypsies of the Mergui Archipelago in the far south) all the languages spoken in Burma belong either to one or the other of two main language families, the Mon Khmer and the Tibeto-Chinese. Of these the Mon Khmer has comparatively few, the Tibeto-Chinese a large number of representatives in the Province. Of groups and sub-groups there are many, but all the TibetoChinese languages of Burma take off from one of two main branches, the Tibeto-Burman and the Siamese-Chinese. It will be safe to take the above linguistic division as a basis for ethnical classification and divide the tribes (always excepting the Salons) up into Mon Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Siamese-Chinese.

We need not at this stage concern ourselves with the composition of the different groups and sub-groups of these families and branches, of which there are many, but for convenience of reference it may be mentioned here at the outset that the main representatives in Burma of the Mon Khmer race family are the Talaings, the Was and the Palaungs, while those of the Tibeto-Burman branch of the Tibeto-Chinese family are the Burmans, the Chins and the Kachins, and those of the Siamese-Chinese branch of the Tibeto-Chinese family the Shans and the Karens.

It is impossible, as stated above, to give any idea of the order in which these migration waves came down from Central Asia, for they were not single streams, but rather a succession of intermittent spates, the first separated by millenniums from the last; but it is probable, if for no other reason than that its traces seem the most diffuse and faint, that the Mon Khmer was in its beginnings the remotest in point of time. We know that the Shans and the Kachins represent comparatively late movements; but it wrould be most unsafe to hazard a conjecture as to whether the Chins or the Karens were the first to arrive in the country they now occupy, whether the Palaungs were in Tawngpeng before the Marus reached the Confluence, or even whether the Burmans had come down into the Irrawaddy valley before or after the Talaings had crossed the Salween.

In the map attached to this article an attempt has been made to indicate, as far as can now be conjectured, the paths followed by the tribes in making for their southern seats and to show how much of the journey they performed with their fellow tribes and where their ways diverged. The paragraphs that follow are designed to explain the map so far as it relates to each of the three main ethnical divisions with which we are here dealing.
The Tribes Of Burma - map.png