Early Indians: The story of our ancestors and where we came from by Tony Joseph

Early Indians: The story of our ancestors and where we came from by Tony Joseph
Early Indians: The story of our ancestors and where we came from by Tony Joseph

The Aryan Invasion/migration theory had an interesting journey in India. Proposed at the dawn of colonial rule in late 18th century and based on the discovery of the Indo- European family of languages, the theory was easily accommodated by earlier generation of Nationalists like Bal Gangadhar Tilak in order to present the upper caste/ruling castes of India as close relatives to the white race which had subdued the Indian nation.

This theory was also accepted by Jyotiba Phule- the anti-caste reformer- who argued that the “lower” castes were the true indigenous population of the Indian subcontinent, with the “upper” as later migrants and invaders. Later on, as the nationalist movement gained prominence and Hindu consciousness started to take shape, the theory was challenged by the radical Hindutva movement and several upper caste elites. The Aryan Invasion/migration theory, by the third decade of the 20th century was reversed by Hindutva proponents who argued ‘Out of India’ migration, and presented India as the original inhabitants of Aryans who later on migrated to west. This helped them to construct a primordialist Indian nation and also to project the Hindu nation as a synonym of Aryan culture, superior to all other nations and cultures!

The debate over the Aryan/migration theory became relatively dormant in the post-colonial period; nevertheless it was lurking in the background and again became charged during the late 1980’s with the growth of Hindutva movement in last decade of the 20th century and further found active support from the right wing government in last years of 20th century and early years of 21st century. The debate however remains far from settled, as new information from linguistic, genetic, environmental and archeological research carried out both in India and other parts of the world kept pouring in, with both; the proponent of ‘Out of India Migration’ and ‘Aryan Migration to India’ using new researches to prove their respective claims.  

This Aryan invasion/migration theory is actually a part of the wider ‘identity’ movement, with the Hindu nationalists aiming to prove Aryans as indigenous to India and the Sanskritic culture as the foundational basis of the Indian civilization- a point reasserted by Joseph in his book. This theory is also used by hitherto oppressed castes and tribes to construct the identity of ‘mulnivasi’ vis-à-vis foreign or Eurasian Aryans i.e. Brahmins and other “upper caste” to further their rightful claims over the resources of this country, which even after 70 years of formal independence remains skewed in favor of Hindu Upper caste. Therefore the Aryan Invasion/Migration theory remains hugely controversial and embedded in political process of Indian Nation as whole.

It is in this wider climate of contentions and assertions that Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians: The story of our ancestors and where we came from, published by Juggernaut aims to settle down some basic questions about the history of Indian population. Joseph combines most recent researches into DNA analysis of the population both contemporary and ancient, the latest archeological findings and linguistic research as well as recent developments in ancient climate change research, and as he writes in the opening pages of his book has “let the facts speak” and comes to a beautiful conclusion expressed in last line of the book that “We are all Indians. And we are all migrants” (pp, 221), to answer the question, who were the early Indians and who is the “real” Indian today. 

Joseph draws an important conclusion from all available data that “the fact of Indo- European migrations has to be told along with the truth of multiple migrations and large scale population mixing that happened over millennia. We are today a uniquely Indian civilization that has drawn together many populations groups with different migration histories, and its impulses, culture, traditions and practices come from multiple sources, not just one singular source”(pp., 12). Essentially we are a multi-source civilization not a single source one (pp. 201).

Let me draw out some important points from the well-researched book

  1. Who were the First Indians? – From the combination & conclusion of research in different fields, the earliest date for the presence of Human species in Indian subcontinent has be put around 120,000 years ago. But the presence of “first modern humans” in India or “First Indians” i.e. the people who have left their genetic presence in Indian population has been dated around 65,000 years ago.   That an Out of Africa (OoA) Migration happened some 70,000 years ago and modern humans are descendent migration from Africa has been reaffirmed by most recent discoveries. The OoA migration reached and settled in India around 65,000 years ago (ibid. 44). The settlement process was not easy as the migrant population were blindsided by the presence of archaic humans who have had been well settled in the region for hundreds of thousands of years (Ibid. 55). The migrant population with time expanded into newer areas and forced archaic humans i.e. the original inhabitants, to restrict themselves to local refuges until they went extinct (Ibid.). In the genetic language, based on genetic research, between half and two third of our genome wide ancestry today comes from the First Indians (Ibid. 57).
  2. Who were the Harrapans? –  The Harrapan civilization was an outcome of development of agriculture and farming in the subcontinent. The history of Harrapan civilization begins from the Mehrgarh settlement which happened some 9000 years ago. The Mehrgarh settlement was a result of expansion of First Indians towards north-western parts of Indian subcontinent and migration of people from Zargos region of present day Iran towards India. The Harrapans civilization was work of – “a mix of the descendants of the First Indians and the Iranian agriculturist migrants.  After the Harrapan civilization fell apart after 1900 BCE, the people who built it and kept it going for centuries spread out to the rest of the subcontinent- to the east and the south in particular” (pp. 97).  
  3. The later migrations:- Around the time when Harrapan civilization started to fell apart, there were multiple migrations happening in India simultaneously.
  4. The migration of Austroasiatic language speakers – The Austroasiatic languages belong to two families: Munda and Khasi. The Austroasiatic speakers in India today are derived from the dispersal from Southeast Asia, followed by extensive sex-specific admixture with local population (pp. 156).  
  5. The migration of Tibeto-Burman –language speakers following increased contact between Indian and Chinese civilization. This language family includes the Meitei language of Manipur and the Tani language of Arunanchal Pradesh (Ibid. 159).
  6. The Aryan Migration:  As the author notes in his book, and has been discussed in beginning of this piece, the Aryan migration/invasion theory has been a political hot button issue for decades, because it is very much embedded in the political discourse of identity based Hindutva movement in this country.

Let us look at the migration pattern of Aryan population across the world through genetic pattern. The Y chromosome (which is transferred from male to male) haplogroup (population which shares common ancestor in paternal or maternal line) R1a or more specifically, it’s sub-clad R1a-M417 is distributed over a wide geographical line i.e. from Scandinavia to south Asia- which covers almost all Indo European language speaking world. The R1a haplogroup split into two; R1a-Z282 and R1a-Z93 around 3800 BCE, with different distribution pattern. R1a-Z282 is seen only in Europe, while R1a-Z93    is seen in parts of central Asia and South Asia and accounts for almost all the R1a lineages in India (Ibid.166). The earliest evidence for the R1a-M417 comes from Ukraine dated to between 5000 BCE-3500 BCE, while its sub-clad R1a-Z93 which is common in India has been found in many central steppe samples  that date as early as 2500 BCE- 1400 BCE.

There has been several genetic study which has shown the higher prevalence of R1a among the upper caste than the lower caste  and that is about twice as high among the Brahmins as among the SC/ST’s (Ibid. 167). So there is congruence between genetic structure of Indo-European language speaking countries and traditional custodians of the oldest layer of Indo-European languages in India (Ibid.).

So the genetic evidence in corroboration with archaeological and linguistic evidences completely supports that a group of pastoralists from steppes migrated to India.  The migration from steppe was quite complex. Let me give a very brief description of the migration process which has been dealt with quite detail in the book. The OoA migration populated Eurasia some 50,000-35,000 years ago. The people who inhabited the region are today classified into two basic groups i) Eastern Hunter Gatherers (EHG) of the steppe region and ii) Ancient North Eurasians(ANE) of the Siberian region. Some 7,000 years ago, there was an influx of people from Caucasus region who later mixed with the EHG and created the Yamnaya culture, which was heavily influenced by the Maikop culture of Caucasus region.By around 3000 BCE  Yamnaya people started westward migration into Europe and as suggested by genetic records, there was an ‘eastward reflux’ of Yamnaya people after 3000 BCE with people carrying a genetic mixture of Yamnaya and European Middle Neolithic farmers.  By 2600 BCE i.e. around 4600 years ago the Yamnaya has splintered into many different successor cultures. One of these cultures later on migrated into south Asia in the second millennium BCE and mixed with the already existing population from Harrapan civilization who were migrating to different parts of India after their fall.

This whole process then created two major population groups in India, namely the Ancient North Indian (ANI) which is a mix of First Indians +Zargosis + Steppe and Ancient South Indian (ASI), which is a mix of First Indians+ Zargosis+ existing population of southern India. Both these groups mixed again, to create the population of India as it is today (Ibid. 181).

All the above conclusions are based on latest research in field of linguistics, archeology, environmental history and genetics. The author in his book has cited all the works in different fields quite exhaustively.

Some of the other major conclusions this book draws:-

  1. Aryan culture was most likely the result of interaction, adoption and adaptation among those who brought Indo-European language to India and those who were well settled inhabitants of the region (pp.163).
  2. In the Indian population 10-40 % of Y – Chromosome or the Y- DNA lineage which comes from the paternal line is of First Indians descent, while 70-90 % of mtDNA lineage which comes from maternal line is of First Indians. This means that in case of 70-90 % of Indian women, their lineage can be traced back to OoA women who reached India around 65000 years ago, while in case of men; this figure is around 10-40 for respective OoA male migrant. What this data means is that later migrations were male dominated and male from migrant groups mixed freely with the then local population.   

Some general conclusions drawn in the book are:

  1. No Human Community is of exceptional status relative to others. None are children of God, or chosen people, unless all are. And none of us live upon the center of the earth any more than we live on its periphery, since we live on the surface of a globe (pp.5).
  2. There is no nation in the world today that has not been shaped by repeated mass migrations (pp. 161).

Apart from this the book also discuss about possible date of origin of caste system in India and about the cultural continuities from Harrapan civilization to the vedic civilization.

In last 5 years whatever scientific temperament this country had developed in last 67 years, before the advent of the present regime, has faced massive assault. Though there was always an undercurrent which presented Indian myths as real and having a “scientific” basis, under the present regime it gained momentum and has become somewhat mainstream, or is in a process of becoming mainstream. Also, with appointing those people who have a clear Hindutva bias as heads of prominent social science research institutes, and their induction in university systems, the present government has started the process of historical revisionism which is clearly not going to end, even if the present regime is replaced with another regime. In such difficult and bleak scenario, Tony Joseph’s book is a timely intervention. However the need is to translate this book in vernaculars thereby making it available to much larger section of Indian population, in order to not only regain the losses which this country has seen in last 4 years in terms of scientific temperament and harmony, but also to make people aware of the biased, one sided and flawed interpretation of Indian history by the right.

In the end I would like to quote the “Pizza” Metaphor from the book to describe the current Indian Population structure. According to Joseph,

“One way to understand the population structure of today’s India is to think of it as a pizza, with the First Indians forming its base. Some parts of the pizza are thin crust, some parts thick crust, but all parts need to have the base- the pizza dosen’t exist without it. Then comes the sauce that is spread over the pizza. And then the cheese and the toppings- the people who came into the subcontinent later, at various periods. The cheese and the toppings are not uniform across the different slices. Some slices have an extra topping of tomato, some have more capsicum and others have a lot of mushroom. The sauce, the cheese, the toppings that you find on this Indian pizza are not unique; these are found in other parts of the world too- some in West Asia, some in Southeast Asia and some in Europe and Central Aisa. But the base of the pizza is unique to India- you will not find another one like it anywhere else in the world. And neither will you find a pizza with this level of diversity in any place other than Africa”.

At last I would like to emphasize that this is a must read book. Permission to quote from the book was taken from the Author.

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