Of India’s genetic roots

A remarkably accessible book about the ethnic foundations of the Indian people, dense with evidence from archaeology, linguistics, ancient texts and the recent study of ancient genes.

Published : Jul 17, 2019 07:30 IST

EVER since similarities between Sanskrit and the classical European languages, namely Greek and Latin, were noticed and a common origin for their speakers was proposed, the “Aryans” were looked upon as foundational to Indian civilisation. The theory of the “Aryan race” has been most convenient to nearly everybody. The colonial masters used it to justify their rule over India. It was something like a soothing ointment for the newly emerging Indian middle class, which was licking the wounds of colonial degradation. Keshub Chandra Sen went to the extent of describing the coming of the English to India as a “reunion of parted cousins”. For the nationalists, the “wonder” that was “Aryan” India, with all that the Sanskrit language had produced, was something to which they could turn for inspiration.

In regional politics, too, it was useful: the Dravidian movement in Madras presidency drew its sustenance largely from the theory of the “Aryan race” and its “other”, the Dravidian greatness. The Dalit movement spearheaded by Mahatma Phule used it to show how the invading “Aryans” had dispossessed the rightful owners of the land. A “theory” that explained nearly everything was, by definition, an impeccable theory.

The only difficulty that a section of the advocates of the greatness of the “Aryan” in India saw was that they came from outside: how can it be that the foundations of Indian civilisation were imported? For those who insisted that the pitrubhumi and punyabhumi of all authentic Indians should lie within the national boundaries—pray, which nation?—it was self-defeating to say that the “Aryans”, supposed to be the builders of the great civilisation, were outsiders like the Muslims.

There was a dilemma when Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote about the Arctic Home of the Vedas: on the one side, there was no denying the nationalism of Tilak; on the other, it was a happy thing to lose the original home of the precious “Aryans”, even if it was Tilak who caused it. M.S. Golwalkar found a way out: the Arctic, the original home of the “Aryans”, was in India, in the region of modern Odisha and Bihar. It was the North Pole that took a zigzag course in a northerly direction while the Aryans stayed back! How do you like it?

The first jolt to the idea that the “Aryans” were foundational to Indian civilisation came when evidence of the Harappan civilisation was brought out in the 1920s. It was not only “non-Aryan” but also “pre-Aryan”. While the discovery was celebrated by many, including those who looked upon the “Aryan” as invaders who dispossessed the rightful owners of the land, those who insisted on the “Aryan” foundations of Indian civilisation started gradually feeling uncomfortable. They looked for ways to claim the Harappan civilisation for the “Aryans”. To begin with, it was only a fad that would bring a smile to the reader’s face, but eventually, the comicality with which the Arctic home thesis was tweaked repeated itself: computer-enhanced images of the horse started turning up and Sanskrit was read in the Harappan seals, literally, left and right. Depending on the party in power, the Government of India spent huge sums of money in attempts to prove that it was not Indus Valley civilisation (why should you hand it over to those horrible Pakistanis?) but Sarasvati Valley civilisation (authentically Indian, claiming antiquity from the Vedic literature) and, therefore, “Aryan”. One thing about that discourse is clear: Indian civilisation owes itself to the “Aryans” and that the “Aryans” are, to the last person, born and raised in India. If you said anything different, you would be an anti-national.

Tony Joseph’s Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From is a book that will eminently qualify for such a description. No, it is not about the putative “Aryan race” or its original home. It is about the ethnic foundations of the Indian people. It seeks to raise and answer two basic questions: Who are we? and Where do we come from? “We” here includes all people of India from the earliest known period down to the present, people inhabiting this subcontinent irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

And the answer is complex, particularly because the ancestry of different sections of the Indian population is so intermixed, with strands drawn from different sources. Joseph summarises this complex answer in two simple (grammatically, that is) sentences: “We are all Indians. And we are all migrants” (page 221).

One of the more important revelations in recent years in the field of human prehistory results from the science of genetics. The developments in that discipline over the past decade are nothing short of explosive.

Out of Africa

Although evolutionary science had recognised the importance of distinguishing among the different species of early man, it is only in recent years that an Out-of-Africa (OoA) thesis of the migration of the anatomically modern humans, the Homo sapiens , was established unequivocally. Analysis of DNA made that possible. But more recently, the analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) has given the scientist greater confidence to talk about the various strands that go into the making of the ancestry of individuals, groups of people and even whole populations. The realisation that the human population the world over descended from a few Homo sapiens who migrated from Africa some 70 thousand years ago took the world by storm. Evidence of “human” life and operations before—long before—that was explained as belonging to the near-human species such as Homo erectus , Homo heidelbergensis , Homo neanderthalensis , and so on, but the weaker Homo sapiens succeeded in the race for survival, largely on account of better tactics and superior technology. That made sense.

After making the methodology and logic of genetics, particularly the study related to DNA, clear to the lay reader, Joseph raises, and proposes his answers to, the question of peopling India. Although evidence of near-human species is available from 3,00,000 years ago, the earliest fossil of an anatomically modern human outside Africa, discovered at a rock shelter in northern Israel, is only around 1,80,000 years old. And even that is only an isolated instance. The successful OoA migration occurred another 1,10,000 years later, around 70,000 years ago. Although humans or near-humans were around long before that, there is no trace of their having left behind successors. The OoA migration of modern humans arrived in India around 65,000 years ago. They may have come across earlier near-humans who were probably stronger than them. The OoA migrants avoided these physically stronger people to begin with and, later, equipped with better technology, such as the microliths, overpowered them. To be sure, the OoA migrants had gone to other parts of the world as well.

As the different parts of the globe were being populated, the OoA migrants were also undergoing mutations in their genes on account of the conditions under which they lived. While each group retained most of what it inherited, traces of new ones were making their appearance. That is how there are so many variations among the descendants of the OoA migrants. These hunter-gatherers, with technological advances graduating from the microliths of the Mesolithic Age to the polished hand-axes of the Neolithic Age, started all that went with the transition: what Gordon Childe called the Neolithic Revolution.

By 7000 BCE, a new agricultural settlement emerged at the foot of the Bolan Hills in Baluchistan, in a village now known as Mehrgarh. That developed into one of the largest habitations of the period in the area between the Indus and the Mediterranean. At around this time, Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region arrived there, which led not only to their mixing with the “First Indians”—that is, the descendants of the OoA migrants who had settled there—but also to changes in the cropping pattern. Geneticists believe that this took place by 4700-3000 BCE. Barley and wheat were cultivated and domesticated animals were consumed. Agricultural settlements had spread all across north-western India by now—in the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra valleys as well as in Gujarat. At the same time, evidence from Lahuradewa in Uttar Pradesh, in the Upper Ganga plain, shows that rice was harvested and life had become somewhat sedentary there by 7000 BCE. Mehrgarh was not an isolated case of experimenting in different kinds of agriculture.

During 5500-2600 BCE, agricultural settlements in the north-western part of the subcontinent developed into towns with their unique styles. Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi in what is now India and Banwali and Rahman Dheri in today’s Pakistan are among them. Distinct Early Harappan cultures such as Sothi, Amri and Kulli developed in this process. All these were subsumed in the process, and a higher level of standardisation evolved, with a complex script, seals, pottery, bricks, weights and measures, and so on. The Mature Harappan civilisation was born. The people who built this complex civilisation were a mixture of the “First Indians” and the agriculturists from the Zagros mountains of Iran; the admixture had taken place long before the first cities had come up. In one sense, it was authentically South Asian inasmuch as the Asians, Americans and Europeans were not any more Africans! And they had no trace of Anatolian ancestry.

It is important that this genomic conclusion is independent of any archaeological or linguistic correlation. But those who studied Mehrgarh had come more or less to the same conclusion long before the genomic evidence was available. Linguistics, too, pointed to the same conclusion. Of the different Mesopotamian languages, the one that the Iranians from Zagros are likely to have spoken is Elamite. Linguistic similarities between Brahui, spoken in Baluchistan, and Elamite have been established. The kinship of Brahui with the Dravidian family of languages is well known. Thus, it turns out that what the genetic study points to is exactly what the earlier archaeological and philological studies had suggested: about a heavy Dravidian content in the Harappan.

In fact, this is exactly what the most modern work on the Harappan script tells us. Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan have, in their independent studies, pointed out the possibility of the language of the Harappans being related to the Dravidian. No, neither claims to have read the language. It is the systematic study of the signs, their occurrence, their frequency, patterns of pairing and the context that led them to this conclusion. The attempts of Aryan/Sanskrit enthusiasts are rendered laughable by these studies.

The Mature Harappan continued until about the middle of the second millennium BCE. Perturbations in the isotopes of oxygen atoms present in the layers of a stalagmite growing from a cave in Meghalaya have now been accepted as proof of the failure of monsoons all over South Asia about 4,200 to 4,000 years ago. Joseph, in a lighter vein, suggests that it is Varuna, the God of water, who has to be blamed for the end of the Harappan civilisation—not Indra, as Mortimer Wheeler did about seven decades ago! Jokes apart, the Harappan civilisation had already declined by the second half of the second millennium BCE, when north-western India witnessed a fresh wave of migration as shown by evidence from genetics. Elements from the Eurasian Steppe make their presence felt in the DNA of the new migrants. What is interesting is that in the new wave of migration, it is the male element (represented by the Y chromosome) that is considerably more than the female element (represented by mtDNA).

Obviously, the new migrants were mostly men, and they mingled with women of the local population—that is, the admixture of the “First Indians” and the Iranians from the Zagros mountains. This evidence of a possible migration from the Steppe region is borne out by the archaeology of the Bactria-Margiana-Archaeological Complex (BMAC). A recent article by Michael Witzel (2018: “Beyond the Flight of the Falcon: Early ‘Aryans’ Within and Outside India”, in Kumkum Roy and Naina Dalal (eds), A Festschrift for Romila Thapar: Questioning Paradigms, Constructing Histories , Aleph Books, pages 274-292) considers all the evidence that is available. Witzel makes the following statement: “The complex Indian data exhibits many overlaps in archaeology, genetics, linguistics and Vedic texts. When comparing the results of these fields they largely agree with each other and sustain an emerging picture of the origin and spread of the arya, their language, poetry, religion, ritual, culture, and even their genetic set-up.”

Although he is circumspect about the kind of evidence from these disciplines (“Just as the fields of archaeology and linguistics, the rather new branch of genetics, population genetics, has its inbuilt problems.”), his conclusion is clear: “In sum, neither was India ever isolated, nor did all facets of its archaeological, linguistic, textual, genetic/somatic data arise ‘on their own’ inside the Indian subcontinent; instead, they look back up to some 60,000 years of Out-of-Africa history. Just like other Asian subcontinents—Europe, the once dry Sundaland, Northeast Asia—the Indian subcontinent presents a fascinating array of internal developments and external influences that only patient and unbiased study can reveal.”

Before these speakers of an Indo-European language describing themselves as the arya , migrating from the Steppes, arrived in what is now India, the ancestors of those who speak the Austroasiatic languages had come here. Two major waves of migration, one through an inland route via South-East Asia and the other an island-hopping one with its origin in China, had reshaped South-East Asia. Rice and millets had been fully domesticated in the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys long ago. The first migration brought with it the Austroasiatic languages, such as the Munda, new plants and a new variety of rice to India by the turn of the second millennium BCE. This recognition shows that around the time that the Mature Harappan civilisation was about to bow out, there was the influx of another set of people coming through eastern India. Even in the case of the heirs of these migrants, their maternal lineages are of “First Indian” origin.

This last point is very interesting. Even in the case of the Steppe pastoralists migrating to India, there was a heavy predominance of men. Joseph shows a brilliant flash of insight in his observation that the convention that women speak Prakrit while the “high-born” speak Sanskrit in plays may be “because women may often have belonged to a different, a non-‘Aryan’, language culture than the high-born, or ‘Aryan’ men from the Steppes they were married to in the early period of their migrations”.

This book is remarkably accessible to the reader, dense as it is with evidence from multiple branches of knowledge such as archaeology, linguistics, ancient texts and, most notably, the recent study of ancient genes (aDNA). It goes without saying that not all scholars will agree with the conclusions drawn on the basis of results of individual disciplines; so also, some may doubt the validity of generalisations based on limited samples, especially in the study of genes. But, here is a firm basis on which the study of Indian history can begin. T his is of especial importance in the context of the post-truth conditions of the present when myth-making seeks to replace authentic know ledge.

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