GENETICS

Do Rakhigarhi DNA findings debunk the Aryan invasion theory or give it more credence?

A confusing news report draws conclusions that seem to contradict the findings of the study on the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Who were the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation? This hotly debated question is likely to be answered in one of the most anticipated scholarly studies of the last few years and, if recent reports are anything to go by, the results of that research paper will be made public soon. On Wednesday, an Economic Times report put out a preview of those results based on comments by one of the authors, but drew conclusions that left experts scratching their heads, because they seemed to contradict the findings mentioned in the report.

The report, titled “Harappan site of Rakhigarhi: DNA study finds no Central Asian trace, junks Aryan invasion theory,” says that the “much-awaited DNA study of the skeletal remains found at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, Haryana, shows no Central Asian trace, indicating the Aryan invasion theory was flawed and Vedic evolution was through indigenous people.”

It goes on to quote Vasant Shinde, vice chancellor of the Deccan College and one of the lead researchers of a study looking at ancient DNA taken from individuals found at the Rakhigarhi Indus Valley site in Haryana. “The Rakhigarhi human DNA clearly shows a predominant local element – the mitochondrial DNA is very strong in it. There is some minor foreign element which shows some mixing up with a foreign population, but the DNA is clearly local,” Shinde told the newspaper. “This indicates quite clearly, through archaeological data, that the Vedic era that followed was a fully indigenous period with some external contact.”

Aryan theory

In other words, the report seems to be saying that the ancient DNA of the Indus Valley individuals showed that they had mostly local ancestry, with minor foreign elements. And it goes on to claim that this “junks” the Aryan invasion theory.

Except, as more than a few have pointed out, this conclusion actually seems to lend credence to the Aryan invasion, or migration, theory.

That theory is based on the idea that the Indus Valley civilisation, which thrived in South Asia until about the 2nd millennium BCE, was at some point overrun or significantly altered by migrants from the Steppe, the vast grasslands of central Asia, who were earlier referred to as Aryans. The theory suggests that these Steppe pastoralists brought with them horses, chariots and the Vedic culture, none of which are otherwise prevalent in Indus Valley sites.

To debunk the Aryan invasion, or migration, theory, one would have to show that South Asian populations at the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation and subsequent South Asian populations, including current ones, aren’t particularly different in terms of ancestry. But the ET report seems to suggest the opposite: That the Indus Valley individuals were primarily indigenous, whereas studies of later DNA and current South Asians all indicate much more Steppe, or Aryan ancestry.

Contradictory conclusions

A recent study of ancient DNA from 612 ancient individuals, which has still to be peer-reviewed, arrived at the same conclusion, saying an Aryan invasion, or migration, theory did indeed seem likely. But that study did not have access to ancient DNA from Indus Valley sites, only individuals from nearby locations. If the Economic Times report is accurate, the Rakhigarhi study, the first one to properly examine the ancestry of individuals found at Indus Valley sites, now seems to affirm those findings.

Yet the report draws a few different conclusions altogether.

  • First, the newspaper report seems to make the argument that because the Indus Valley Civilisation population had no Steppe ancestry, that disproves the Aryan invasion theory. In fact, it does the opposite.
  • Second, the report speaks of Iranian strains in the DNA, which the newspaper says “may point to contact, not invasion.” Again, this affirms the extant Aryan invasion/migration theory, which believes the Indus Valley population was primarily South Asians mixed with Iranian agriculturalists, who at the end of the Indus Valley civilisation saw an influx of Steppe ancestry.
  • Shinde says the findings show a manner of burial that is similar to the early Vedic period, and that some burial rituals prevail even now in some communities, showing remarkable continuity. This point is a reminder of the difficulty of using DNA to determine how culture or language travelled, but on the face of it, this finding suggests that cultural behaviour that was prevalent before the Steppe influx did not necessarily change much afterwards.
  • Neeraj Rai, head of the DNA lab at Lucknow’s Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences and a co-author of the study, says that the condition of the skeletons at Rakhigarhi points to a “predominantly indigenous culture that voluntarily spread across other areas, not displaced or overrun by an Aryan invasion.” Here he is suggesting that the Aryan invasion may not have been violent, since the skeletons do not seem to indicate warfare. But it is still unclear why that would discount the Steppe ancestry that shows up only at the end of the Indus Valley civilisation.
  • Finally, there is Shinde’s statement: “This indicates quite clearly, through archeological data, that the Vedic era that followed was a fully indigenous period with some external contact.” It is unclear what this means at all, and how the DNA results play into this, and only a full reading of the paper is likely to clear up the questions around this.

Some have suggested that the findings, when connected with other studies, lend credence to another theory – the out of India theory – in which it is populations moving out of South Asia that take ‘Aryan’ culture and language into Eurasia. This does not yet explain the findings that show Steppe ancestry moving into South Asia, though some have suggested that this might simply be because we do not yet have a full picture of the genetic development in South Asia.

But authors of the same study that ET reported on, when speaking to the Caravan earlier this year, seemed to suggest that it would prove the Aryan migration or invasion theory, rather than disproving it.

Reports began turning up late in 2017 suggesting that the Rakhigarhi findings may be out soon, and the emergence of a story in a major newspaper is an indication that the paper is indeed around the corner. The results will inevitably have a major impact, considering the deeply political battles fought over the question of the Aryan invasion theory. And a confusing report like the one in the Economic Times makes it clear that it will not just be the findings, but how they are interpreted that will matter. Will the paper itself shed enough light on the situation to at least clear up the contradictions that have cropped up in this report?

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.