Nagaland (Inde): Re-thinking Naga pre-history, identity & Mimi caves

Susan Waten & D. Sadokpam, Photo Courtesy: Dr. Tiatoshi Jamir & team


In a series of in-depth conversations with Dr. Tiatoshi Jamir, associate professor of Archaeology, department of history & archaeology, Nagaland University, it came to light that ground-breaking archaeological discoveries have been made in the limestone caves of Mimi at Saramati range in Kiphire district. Initiated by the department of art & culture, Nagaland and partnered by the Anthropological Society of Nagaland, a project under the theme, “Cultural History, Ethnography & Physical Characteristics of Nagas of Nagaland” was undertaken since 2007, with focus on folklore, oral tradition, festivals & rituals and archaeology.

This momentous project reveals the changing concern of the state government to initiate a much deserved intensive research on the history and culture of the Nagas. The project also attempts at a systematic reconstruction of ancient Naga history through the legitimately established methodology used in archaeological research, historical linguistics, genetic studies etc.

Already there are great international concerns that the archaeology of Northeast India can contribute much to world of archaeology, particularly with reference to plant life, animal domestication and ancient population movement during pre-historic times. The Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) in one of its International Conference held at Canberra in 1978 enumerated that archaeological research in Northeast India offers a potential for the domestication of important plants and animals, and also a physical and cultural bridge between India and Southeast Asia.


Closer home, the Indo-Myanmar range is regarded as an important corridor for both animal and human migrations since pre-historic times; and evidence of early pre-historic sites of rock-shelters and cave sites across South Asia and Southeast Asia are well preserved in such caves.

Dr. Tiatoshi Jamir, assisted by two other archaeologists Dr. David Tetso (department of Anthropology, Kohima Science College) and Dr. Zokho Venuh (department of History, Capital College of Higher Education, Kohima) has been conducting intensive archaeological explorations in the Mimi limestone caves since early January 2009.

The data gathered from this research program has invited worthwhile academic discourses in both international and national archaeological conferences. They have also established collaborations with well known institutions such as Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, Lucknow, on archaeo-botanical studies and radiocarbon dating; department of Archaeology, Deccan College (Post-Graduate & Research Institute), Pune, on the bio-anthropology of ancient human remains; N_CAD, department of Geology, Nagaland University, on remote sensing and GIS mapping and Beta Analytic Inc., Florida, Miami on AMS dating.

Of particular interest is the excavations done around the mouth of a cave in Mimi named Ranyak khen. Traces of early human habitation were found to be dated around 4450-4350 BCE through the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) technique by the Beta Analytic Inc., Florida, Miami, dating laboratory. Mimi cave sites are considered to be the earliest dated cave sites in the whole of Northeast India. Sites yielding similar evidence are also reported from Manipur by Dr. O.K. Singh such as the Songbu (Chandel district) and Khangkhui caves (Ukhrul district) but unfortunately, no scientific dates for those sites have so far emerged.

Mimi’s “Ranyak khen” cave which is 780 m above mean sea level is situated at the foothill of a limestone ridge, about 80m above a small perennial river, which drains into the Tizu river. Excavation inside the cave revealed evidence of elongated edge grinding tools, rich collection of animal bones, potteries, grinding stones, few discoids (roughly circular shaped flaked tools) and bone tools. The pottery designs bear cord-mark patterns typical of the Southeast Asian type. Another significant find was a human burial accompanied with few grave goods. Tools made of stone include an elongated flat marble-stone adze with a curved butt-end was recovered close to the burial. The presence of sharp cut-marks and charring on the animal bone assemblage and the absence of corroded bones suggest that most of these bone fragments were accumulated by the early humans.

Evidence shows that the cave not only served as a habitation site, but also as a place where hunted animals were butchered and cooked. The skeletal remains of the following were found: bats, hillock gibbon, stag, barking deer, fresh water fishes, frogs, gastropods and birds. The argument that Southeast Asia has an extraordinary diversity of ecological zones and that the region’s pre-historic cultural diversity is closely linked to that environmental diversity can also be well attested in the case of the archaeological evidence from Mimi. Mimi caves exhibits a similar adaptive mechanism of prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations who were well adapted to a forested and riverine habitat.

In Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), the mid-Holocene period which is roughly 5000-2000 BCE, is called “the missing millennia” because of a scarcity of archaeological evidence. This is of special interest because evidence of prehistoric life in Mimi’s “Ranyak khen” cave falls within this particular millennia.

This mid-Holocene period was also the period when ceramics, domesticated millets and rice first appeared in many parts of Southeast Asia. Archaeologists maintain that the possible reasons behind an overall decline in archaeological evidence during mid-Holocene period may be due to regional population decline or a shift in human settlements away from caves and rock shelters towards more open-air permanent settlements. The evidence from Mimi is thus significant in further filling in the gaps of the mid-Holocene datasets of Mainland Southeast Asia.


At the moment, however, unless deeper excavations are carried out at Ranyak khen and other caves within the vicinity of Mimi village, we will never know for sure whether these ancient lives truly confirm popular hypotheses current in archaeological and anthropological trends in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The Anthropological Society of Nagaland is thus eager to undertake further excavations in Mimi caves if the department of arts & culture extends support once again to continue research this forthcoming field season.

Nevertheless, with present archaeological evidence at hand, one can we dare to ask whether the term Naga is actually a “homogenous” unit or a fusion of multiple ethnicities that flocked this region during pre-historic times? Former chief minister of Nagaland, S.C. Jamir, in his controversial book, “Bedrock of Naga Society” appears to line up with the former pre-supposition. 

Dr. Tiatoshi Jamir asserts that “ancient DNA studies” on the human remains from Mimi caves might reveal, if at all there is, the genetic linkages and historical continuity of the early pre-historic hunting-gathering population with the modern Naga population.

However, we also take into consideration the recent argument by a world prominent linguist, George van Driem, from linguistic sources that the Neolithic cultural assemblage into Northeast India represents the Proto-Tibeto-Burmans. Originating from Szechwan Yunnan in China roughly about 7000 BCE, they spread southwest onto the lower Brahmaputra plain and introduced themselves and their Eastern Indian Neolithic culture to resident Austro-asiatic populations (first cultivators of rice).

Even if we are to loosely assign the remnants of the Mimi cave to an ancient Tibeto-Burman population, the lack of archaeo-botanical evidence from Mimi caves at least for now, fails to support this claim made from historical linguistics. Modern Nagas, on the other hand, are popularly known to belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group of Chinese origin. Does that imply that the cave evidence from Mimi bears little or no socio-racial resemblances whatsoever, to the modern Naga? If so, who then were those ancient cave people who once lived in this particular region?

Moreover, do we continue to hold on to the theory that all Naga tribes have a common ethnicity based on origin myths and actual migration of people? Is it valid to equate the term “Identity” with “Ethnicity” as referring to a culture shared by every Naga? So many questions, but no decisive answers yet as we await precise evidence from archaeology, historical linguistics and genetic studies!

Julian Jacobs in his book, “The Nagas: Hill Peoples of North East India” (1990) argues that Naga society is “one” society. So also is a similar argument by Dr. Abraham Lotha based on the migration of tribes, clan systems, morung, headhunting and feasts of merit. If so, how do we explain away the different social and political institutional pattern of the Aos, Konyaks, Semas, Angamis etc. Prior to the arrival of the British, ‘identity’ in the Naga Hills always referred to the village and the clan. It is said that the Khiamniungan (formerly Kalyo Kengyu) were unfamiliar with the term Kalyo Kengyu labelled to them by the colonial ethnographers.

Few Assamese historians even claim that in the original Ahom Buranjis, prior to its translation, the Ahoms knew the Nagas as “kha” (hill-people) during Ahom-Naga relations and not as ‘Noga’ as thought to be by many.  Considering all these perplexing propositions, it makes sense to leave behind a legitimate question: How does the new generation of Nagas respond to traditional culture and how do they define their identity?