Where We Came From – A Review of “Early Indians” by Tony Joseph

20190325_142751Indians are a people who are always a bit confused about their identity as “Indians” – maybe because the nation itself is a relatively recent construct (not ignoring the mythical “Bharata”) and the regional and caste identities are more strongly embedded. Ever since the West discovered the mystic East, there have been attempts to create an Indian past which is wholly spiritual – based on the mythical, Vedic “Aryan” – by the proponents of the enlightenment. In colonial times, this “Aryan” became an invading race who destroyed the mature Harappan civilisation; the same figure was taken to be the epitome of race purity and became the basis of the toxic Nazi doctrine. And later on, in a reversal of the myth, the invading Aryan became the villain who destroyed the peaceful Dravidian civilisation in the Dalit version of history.

All these are now discounted by serious historians. The widely accepted theory about Indian prehistory is that the Harappan civilisation perished because of a severe drought, and the Indo-Aryan speakers migrated to the Indian subcontinent later on from Central Asia and mixed with the indigenous population. There is, however, a vociferous fringe who staunchly oppose this: they are adamant that there have been no migrations to India at all, and that the Vedic people are the direct descendants of the Harappans. All arguments to the contrary are taken to be part of a “colonialist conspiracy” to undermine Indian culture.

So far, the (hotly disputed!) evidence for the migrations have been mostly archaeological and linguistic. But now, a new tool is available with the scientific community for the analysis of the origin, development, and spread of homo sapiens across the globe: genetics.

Tony Joseph has been writing regularly about how the recent advances in DNA research have been impacting the research into prehistory. Now, he has arranged all his arguments in the form of this highly readable book.

In the introduction, he writes:

There is a reason why this book could have been written only now, and not earlier. It is because our understanding of deep history has changed dramatically in the last five years or so. Large stretches of our prehistory are being rewritten as we speak, based on analysis of DNA extracted from individuals who lived thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. Many ‘facts’ that we took for granted have been proved wrong, and many questions left dangling in the air as historians, archaeologists and anthropologists argued it out among themselves have been given convincing new answers — thanks to the recently acquired ability of genetic scientists to successfully extract DNA from ancient fossils and then sequence it to understand all that bound people together, or distinguished them from each other. If technology had not matured to the level it has, scientists would not have been able to make the discoveries they are making today. And if it were not for their latest findings, our prehistory would have remained as vague and contentious as earlier and this book would not have been written.

So how exactly does DNA put paid to the debate? Well, without going into the technicalities (it is all detailed in the book), let me try to explain in plain terms how this whole thing works.

All the genetic code that makes us what we are are packed into twenty-three pairs of chromosomes that we all carry in the nuclei of our cells, plus the mitochondrial DNA or the mtDNA that stays outside. This is called a person’s genome. In the twenty-three pairs, one of each pair inherited from each parent, exactly one pair – the sex chromosomes – will differ. If the type is XX, the person will be female, and if the type is XY, the person will be male. The Y-chromosome is passed relatively unchanged from male parent to male progeny, while the mtDNA is passed on without change from the female parent to both male and female progeny: but it gets further transmitted only through the female line. Thus, the mapping of these two over the human population spread across the globe helps us to get a genetic map of the world’s population. And since there are minor mutations to both the Y-chromosome and mtDNA that get accumulated over time, it provides us with the genetic history of the changes over time, too – combined with the DNA analysis of skeletal remains.

(This is super-condensation, and hence, a bit simplistic. Detailed and reliable info is available in many places, especially on the net.)

Aided with this technology of DNA analysis, the following is the timeline of India’s population during prehistoric times.

  1. 70,000 years ago – Homo Sapiens starts move out of Africa, where they originated.
  2. 65,000 years ago – The “Out of Africa” (OoA) contingent reach the Indian subcontinent, where they meet other archaic human species, whom they must have subdued and subsumed in their spread all the way across South Asia to Australia.
  3. 45,000 to 20,000 years ago – The First Indians, descendants of the OoA group, start using Microlithic technology and spread across India.
  4. 7000 to 3000 BCE – Migration of Iranian agriculturists from the Zagros region to South Asia leads to their mixing with the descendants of the First Indians. These people create the Harappan civilisation which exists from 5500 to 1300 BCE, through the Early, Mature and Late Harappan Eras, until it dies off most probably due to a massive drought. The Harappans migrate towards the south.
  5. 2100 to 1000 BCE – Pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe, the famed “Aryans” of legend, migrate into the Indian subcontinent, mixing with the Harappans. Thus we have two main DNA mixes that is found in India today: those of the Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians, called the Ancient South Indian (ASI) group; and Iranian agriculturists + the First Indians + the Central Asian Pastoralists, called the Ancient North Indian (ANI) group. They were called Dravidians and Aryans in the past.

(There was some migration from China as well, especially in the North East.)

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Now the million-dollar question: how does one say that the migration happened in one direction, that is, towards India? Why can’t it be the other way round, as the Out of India adherents claim? The author presents the following arguments against this:

  1. The Indo-Aryan languages which spread across most of Europe and Asia could conceivably have gone from India. However, if such a thing happened, the genetic footprints of the First Indians – the people who came originally out of Africa and settled in the subcontinent 65,000 years ago – should be seen across the populations of Europe. This is conspicuous by its absence.
  2. The horse, which is the prime animal in the Vedic religion, is absent in the Harappan culture – which is strange if the Vedic culture directly follows from it. Also, there are no vestiges of the Vedic deities anywhere in Harappa. (There are a multitude of other factors that the author points out – I am only highlighting a few prominent ones.)
  3. The Dravidian languages, the roots of which are markedly different from the Indo-Aryan ones, has strong connections to Elamite, the language of the Iranian agriculturists, at its roots. It has borrowings from Sanskrit too and vice versa – this points to the intermixing of language at later stages.

    (Once again, I am over-simplifying for brevity. There are a lot many other arguments quoted by the author, many of them raised by more than one historian/ archaeologist/ linguist from across the world. “Out of India” theory holds sway, it seems, with very few reputed scholars.)
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    In conclusion, the author says:

The best way we can define ourselves is as a multi-source civilization, not a single-source one, drawing its cultural impulses, its traditions and its practices from a variety of heredities and migration histories. The Out of Africa migrants, the fearless pioneering explorers who reached this land around sixty-five millennia ago and whose lineages still form the bedrock of our population; those who arrived from west Asia and contributed to the agricultural revolution and the building of the Harappan Civilization which then became the crucible for new practices, concepts and the Dravidian languages that enrich much of our culture today; those who came from east Asia, bringing with them new languages and plants and farming techniques; and those who migrated here from central Asia, carrying an early version of what would become a great language, Sanskrit, and all its associated beliefs and practices that have reshaped our society in fundamental ways; and those who came even later seeking refuge or for conquest or for trade, and then chose to stay — all have mingled and contributed to this civilization we call Indian. We are all Indians. And we are all migrants.

This, I like.

This is an extremely readable book on a fascinating subject, and will whet your appetite for more research.

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