Exploring the genetic roots of the Raute

Studying Nepal’s last remaining nomadic group critical to understanding how the Himalaya was first settled

Prakash Shahi (left) with his friends in a temporary Raute settlement in Salyan district of Nepal. All photos: KISHOR SHARMA

Much of our species’ 300,000 years of existence has been spent foraging, hunting, and gathering in the forests. And nomadism is in our blood, as it were.

Our ancestors were still nomadic when they left their African homeland 100,000 years ago and ultimately colonised all six continents. But even after leaving Africa, they continued practicing nomadism for tens of thousands of years.

Although nomadism has been the primary way of life for most of human evolution, 10,000 years ago some of our ancestors gave it up, settled down, and began farming– a practice that continues today. 

The success of early agriculturalists inspired most cultures across the globe to transition to farming settlements. Slowly, nomadism became the norm of the past. 

Yet, some human populations resisted the new ways of life and continued their foraging, hunting, and gathering lifestyles. Only a handful of them have survived to this day. The Raute of Nepal are the last of the nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Himalaya.

In 2006, while I was researching about the indigenous peoples of Nepal for a study in human genetics, I was surprised to find a chapter in Dor Bahadur Bista’s book,  सबै जातको फुलबारी in which he described the Raute as one of the ancient peoples of Nepal. 

Bista highlighted that there was not enough study on the Raute but postulated that they potentially descended from an Australoid population. The origins and history of the Raute remains unknown to this day.

In 2016, I finally got the opportunity to meet with the Raute people. From Kathmandu, my fellow researcher Yoshina Gautam and I flew to Nepalganj, where we met Prof Guru Prasad Gautam, who has established a long working relationship with the Raute. 

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Raute map

We drove up the winding accident-prone Karnali Highway for several hours and reached Tunibagar of Dailekh district, a small town serving as a rest stop for trucks. We hiked several hours the next day to reach the Raute camp located on the banks of a small river in Achham district. At first the Raute were apprehensive of us, but they gradually opened up. 

The Raute are elusive and mystical, divine yet destitute, enlightened albeit unschooled, appreciated and disliked by mainstream society. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, duodecennial nature, and preference for obscurity the Raute are portrayed as fearsome and savage in folklore. 

Yet the Raute consider themselves divine: direct descendants of Lord Ram, and therefore entitled to rule the forest as kings. They also hunt monkeys, a sacred Hindu symbol that local farmers would not dare to harm despite the nuisance and toll the monkeys take by destroying crops. 

They navigate high hills of far western Nepal with precision and are remarkably knowledgeable about the nutritional and medicinal value of hundreds of local plants. The Raute do not seem to disturb the settlers’ lives and livelihoods at all, yet their existence seems to irritate them.

While later settlers sometimes regard the Raute with curiosity, most of them flatly reject the Raute way of life. Their claims of divinity despite their destitution are incomprehensible to the settlers. The only desire the Raute have is the right to their isolation, and the settlers promise them everything except that. 

This dichotomous relationship appears to have existed for a long time because the Raute have incorporated aspects of Hindu culture to establish themselves as equals and not inferior to the higher caste settlers. Whether such elements are superficial and used by the Raute only to deal with the settlers, or it has influenced the Raute identity and self-perception remains unknown. 

Even though the Raute have endured immense pressure to give up their nomadism and settle down, dwindling forests and increasing urbanisation has added to the pressure to assimilate.

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exploring genetic roots of the raute
A temporary Raute settlement in Salyan district of Nepal.(Photo: Kishor Sharma)

The Himalayan foothills were once home to several other nomadic groups including the Kusunda, the Ban Rawat (Dadeldhura Raute), the Raji, and the Chepang. All of them have succumbed to the pressure to settle and this transition has left them fragmented. 

They have suffered massive loss of culture, many of their deities have been forgotten, their languages are dying, and these ancient cultures are rapidly becoming extinct. Such loss of cultural heritage makes Nepal’s much-vaunted ethnic diversity poorer. 

Importantly, the nomads and their ways of life provide us a means to gaze into our past. Understanding their lifestyle, culture, and diet allows us to peek into how our own ancestors lived. 

The Raute are the last nomadic group of Nepal, and therefore are the only means through which we can peek into the past to understand the ways of life of our ancestors. 

However, the Raute way of life is understudied. From the little ethnographic and linguistic data that exists, the Raute appear to be descendants of an ancient population. Their aboriginal lifestyle is ancient, and their Khamchi language also appears to be among the ancient Himalayan dialects. 

Since historical, anthropological, and archeological data on the Raute is limited, my laboratory at the New York University Abu Dhabi (The Genetic Heritage Group) is relying on genetic analyses to address some of the outstanding questions regarding Raute population history. 

We are analysing genetic variation within the Raute to understand how members of the group are related to one another, which may benefit the Raute to avoid consanguineous marriages. This data can also be useful to estimate Raute population sizes over time, which can provide key pieces of information to understand their history. 

Furthermore, we are comparing genetic data of Raute with many other Asian populations to demonstrate how they could be related to neighbouring Nepali populations and their distant cousins elsewhere in the region. 

Finally, we seek to compare Raute DNA with publicly available genetic data from ancient populations obtained from thousands of years old bones excavated from archeological sites across Asia.

They could tell us more about the origins of the Raute. The research is ongoing, but we believe the results will provide solid scientific evidence to establish the Raute as the living national treasures of Nepal.  

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Aashish Jha, PhD, is Assistant Professor at the Department of Biology at the New York University campus in Abu Dhabi.