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?