The Birhor are a Munda-speaking, forest-dependent semi-nomadic tribal community with fewer than 20,000 members concentrated in the eastern central Indian state of Jharkhand and adjacent northern parts of the state of Odisha. Only a few thousand fluent speakers of the Birhor language remain at present as their way of life and their language are both under threat.
Until recently, many Birhor subsisted as hunter-gatherers living in leaf-huts setting up camps at the edge of village market areas, selling rope and rope products in local village markets; many now have been forced to live in settled agricultural communities, as forest degradation and urban encroachment has made hunting and gathering no longer viable as a way of life. Officially a ‘primitive’ tribal group, the Birhor stand at the very bottom of the complex and multi-tiered ethno-religious and linguistic hierarchies that dominate Indian life. In northern Odisha, two different groups are officially known as ‘monkey-eaters’ and overtly despised.
The cultural and environmental context that the Birhor people are living in is changing rapidly and their language and culture are both poorly documented. Both will likely soon disappear without immediate action. Their knowledge of medicinal and nutritional uses of forest products is vast and unrivaled in India.
In 2019, we began a new project documenting Birhor language and culture. Our field team, comprised of trained tribal/indigenous Indian linguists, worked closely with Birhor indigenous experts to digitally document their fragile and now disappearing knowledge domains, such as local hunter-gatherer strategies, ethnobotany and rope-making techniques.
We also made strides documenting their rich oral literature, which forms an intimate connection with their traditional subsistence activities and helps shape the social cohesion of the community. Community empowerment may lead to further development projects and the Birhor people may be able to slowly change their socio-economic context over time, finding new ways to retain their identity.
The process of recruiting local Birhor consultants, training them in digital documentation techniques, and collaborating with them in a cultural empowerment project will result in first-time recordings of endangered cultural and linguistic knowledge and first-ever educational materials in the languages, and lead to valuable digital literacy for participating community members assisting them in future socio-economic mobility.
We gratefully acknowledge the support that made this project possible:
2018-2020. Documenting the Fragile Knowledge Domains of the Birhor People. The Zegar Family Foundation.