Andrew Collins: Ancient Humans in India Horrified by "Grotesque" Giant Cannibal Denisovans, Had Sex with Them Anyway
Andrew Collins has a new article at Ancient Origins speculating about Denisovans and their alleged influence on ancient Homo sapiens. The news peg revolves around a new study published last week in Nature in which the authors performed a genetic study concluding that the non-Indo-European inhabitants of south and southeast Asia have significantly more Denisovan DNA than the Indo-European populations that entered those areas later in history, and the two populations also differ in terms of the branch of Denisovan DNA they include in their genome. In short, the study reflects earlier assumptions and conclusions about Indo-European incursions onto Asia and their relatively higher sociocultural status. Collins summarizes the Nature piece and then decides that it proves Indian myths are actually about Denisovan Nephilim-style cannibal giants.
Collins takes the Nature study and concludes that the first Homo sapiens crossed the Arabian Peninsula, entered India, interbred with Denisovans, and then kept moving into Southeast Asia, interbreeding time and again with the “Sunda” Denisovnans of the former Asian landmass known as Sundaland:
… this alternative scenario not only makes good sense, but also hints at the presence of Sunda Denisovan in the Indian sub-continent, their suspected great size, alleged grotesque appearance in the eyes of modern humans, and perhaps even their uncouth dietary habits causing them to be remembered in mythology as the Rakshasas. These were demon-like creatures, often synonymous with the Asuras, who in Vedic literature were said to have been created from the breath of Brahma when sleeping, an event that occurred at the end of the Satya Yuga.
I can’t see how it does any of these things. Not to overstate the obvious, but if we are speculating about widespread, nearly universal, interbreeding between Homo sapiens and Denisovans, it’s highly unlikely that our species thought of them as “grotesque.” I suppose it’s possible that ancient people had a weird kink for the strange and grotesque, or else that there were armies of Denisovans bent on rapine, but these explanations are speculative solutions in wont of a problem.
Nothing in the genetic study or Collins’s imagined scenario implies that the Denisovans were giants or that they were “uncouth” dinner guests.
Just for kicks, it’s also worth noting that Collins’s speculation echoes Wikipedia’s page on the Rakshasas nearly word for word: “Rakshasas were believed to have been created from the breath of Brahma when he was asleep at the end of the Satya Yuga.” A further comparison makes the light rewriting and incomplete paraphrasing plain:
The wording, sentence structure, and order of information is identical.
Anyway, it should go without saying that there is no evidence that these cannibal giants of myth date back 20,000 or more years; indeed, there is no myth on Earth that can be shown conclusively to have such a deep origin. (Some argue for Aboriginal Australian accounts of old seashores to have a deep origin older than that, but the evidence isn’t conclusive.) Therefore, Collins’s conclusion is simple cherry-picking from any number of myths about wild men, giants, and other prehumen races:
As phantasmagorical as the Rakshasas clearly are, their presence in this world prior to the emergence of the first human dynasties suggests they are the memory, as debased as it might have become, of an archaic human group that once inhabited the Indian Sub-continent. If so, then the most likely real life counterparts of the Rakshasas were the Denisovans, who existed throughout the eastern half of the Eurasian subcontinent for hundreds of thousands of years, their final survivors perhaps encountering indigenous peoples like the Aeta of the Philippines as recently as 20,000 years ago.
It is unclear how Collins sees events that allegedly happened 50,000 years ago to early modern humans in India surviving into Indo-European Vedic and Hindu mythology since the Indo-European culture and language family did not spread into India until after, as should be obvious, the Indo-Europeans emerged in Central Asia after 4500 BCE. The general consensus is that Indo-Europeans entered India around 1500 BCE. Presumably he posits borrowings by the Indo-Europeans from indigenous Indian mythology, though the degree to which that can be proved is not at all clear to me.
It is certainly possible that memories of other species of humans may have influenced the origins of some myth systems, but given what we know about how much myths and legends can change in just a few generations, any attempt to look for the origins of a story tens of thousands of years before the first written literature, all without evidence, is little more than wishful thinking.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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