When I was going through some Burmese colonial-era magazines on my research trip earlier this year, I came across the following article discussing some models that were displayed at the Field Museum in Chicago. I think that they were probably part of the ‘Hall of Prehistoric Man’ which opened in 1933. The article was published in Dagon magazine.
The author explains that these models are of ancient humans. These are, they state, the humans who came from monkeys and are calculated by European experts to be over 500,000 years old. They speculate that these first humans must have been thought to be ‘bizarre’ by the monkeys. They explain that as they went from being wild to tame, these monkeys became human.
The article then goes into some interesting directions. The author suggests that as levels of civilisation increase, this process will continue—although they cannot say when humans might arrive at the level of nats (spirits). The author also draws out an apparent incompatibility between the belief that humans came from monkeys, that they are just another animal, and the Buddhist scriptural belief that humans came from Brahmā, which they had been taught since school. They suggest that as the idea of humans descending from monkeys is popularized and becomes more widely taught, this will be viewed as the better explanation.
My still-developing translation skills are not good enough for me to be able to tell whether the author is being ironic in places, or which system of thought they favoured [more fluent Burmese readers, please correct me if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick with this, or if you can shed any further light on it—I’d be very grateful]. Nevertheless, it shows how scientific ideas traveled and were translated. In this case, traveling from the United States of America, and being translated into Burmese terms. It also raises questions about the changing meanings of words and concepts. Does lu, the Burmese world for person or human, take on different connotations within the context of evolutionary thought? What scientific and political resonances are the words tame, yin, and wild, yain:, taking on in this time of nationalist fervor? I don’t have answers to these questions, but at the very least it seems that for some writers humans, animals, spirits and gods had to be linked together in new ways because of the presence of ‘missing links’.