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Who are we Indians? Genetics is bringing bad news for the politics of identity: We are all migrants
Many pundits predict that the approaching 2019 election is likely to focus on identity politics primarily because of economic discontent, making BJP turn to identity and other non-economic issues. Before we are engulfed in election rhetoric this may be a good time to pause, sit back and ask – who after all, are we Indians? What are our origins? What should be a straightforward matter of factual evidence has grown into a contentious debate in recent years.
So far, theories about how Indians were formed were based on linguistic analysis and archaeology. Based on the similarity of European and Indian languages, colonial Indologists (and Nazis) propagated the Aryan invasion theory in which blue-eyed fair people swept into the Indian subcontinent on horses, conquering everyone along the way. The Hindu Right has retorted, claiming that Indo-European languages originated in India and spread westwards. There are also theories about the Indus Valley people: were they connected to the Dravidians who were pushed south by the Aryans or were they Aryans who moved southwards?
Startling answers have come in the last decade, the latest from last year’s study co-authored by 92 scientists from around the world, coordinated by David Reich, who runs a lab at Harvard that analyses ancient DNA. It has changed the way historians think about our early history. There is tremendous excitement, not unlike the exhilaration in the 1920s and 1930s when archaeologists discovered Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Valley Civilisation. Tony Joseph, a journalist, has just written a remarkable book, Early Indians, narrating this story. Its conclusion is that we are all migrants and we are all mixed.
Many of us believe that we have always lived on the subcontinent from the beginning of time. This is not true. The new science of population genetics, which uses ancient DNA from skeletons thousands of years old, has made dramatic breakthroughs and we Indians can now trace our ancestry back to around 65,000 years ago when a band of modern humans, or homo sapiens, first made their way from Africa into the subcontinent.
They crossed from Africa to Asia and walked along the coast of southern Asia and all the way to Australia, while another group went towards central Asia and Europe. The genetic ancestry of these First Indians constitutes 50-65% of our DNA today. Thus, ‘pure Indians’ never really existed. All human beings are descended from Africa.
After this first migration, apparently there were three more waves of major migrations into India and the new migrants mixed with the local population. Interestingly, as early as 20,000 years ago, the subcontinent had the world’s largest human population. The second major migration occurred 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, when agriculturists from Iran’s Zagros region moved into India’s northwest and mixed with the First Indians to create probably the Harappan people and later the urban Indus Valley civilisation.
The Harappan people moved south and mixed with the local people to produce what geneticists call Ancestral South Indians with a culture based on Dravidian languages. A third farming related migration occurred around 2000 BC when migrants from the Chinese heartland swamped south-east Asia and reached India, bringing the Austroasiatic family of languages (such as Mundari and Khasi spoken in eastern and central India.) The fourth migration took place between 2000 and 1000 BC soon after the Indus Valley civilisation collapsed. It brought central Asian pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe, who spoke an Indo-European language.
The study of ancient DNA is a new, evolving science and more findings are expected. But so far, the genetic evidence confirms the old colonial hypothesis that Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves Aryans, did migrate to India when the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end, bringing with them an early version of Sanskrit and they mixed with the Harappans to create the ancestral north Indian population. It was not the other way around as the Hindu Right has argued. What is surprising is that the Harappans may also have a foreign connection, although much before their urban civilisation came about.
For some reason the vigorous mixing of people came to an end around 100 AD in India (but not in the rest of the world.) Thus, differences between people have increased in the last 2000 years in India. The only explanation seems to be that after 100 AD the caste system became rigid. Because marriage was confined within a jati group, genetic differences increased even though people lived side by side in the same village. In contrast, the Chinese continued mixing freely and they are a homogeneous Han people today while Indians are diverse and ‘composed of a large number of small populations’, writes Reich.
Enterprising readers of this article can order a DNA kit from various online sites such as Mapmygenome or 23andMe and confirm their identity. They will find half their DNA comes from First Indians who came out of Africa with various proportions of Harappan, Aryan, and other DNA. We are all mixed and we are all descended from a single woman in Africa, having left behind ancestors in Ethiopia, Middle East, central Asia and other places.
It is futile to obsess over purity and pollution because we are a product of what Rushdie called ‘chutnification’ through waves of migrations and minglings in prehistory. It is splendid how science has confirmed the statement of the Maha Upanishad: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam, ‘the whole world is a family’, which is also engraved at the entrance hall of our Parliament. But the unity of the human race is bad news for the politics of identity and difference.
Gurcharan Das, February 28th 2019