“Can we now prove the historical existence of Bhagwan Ram?” rang out a question at a press conference in Delhi on Friday to explain the findings of two much-awaited studies on the genetic origin of modern South Asia.

On the podium to explain the two new papers of which they are among the co-authors were Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist and vice-chancellor of Deccan College, and Niraj Rai, head of the Ancient DNA lab at the Birbal Sahni Institute for Palaeosciences.

Taken together, the studies – one in Cell, the other in Science – painted a fascinating genetic picture of how groups as diverse as local hunter gatherers, Iranian farmers and pastoralists from the Pontic steppe grasslands in Eastern Europe mixed to form most of the modern South Asian population.

However, as the question at the press conference on the historical existence of gods demonstrated, this detailed science published on September 5 was also accompanied by the inevitable politics that hangs over any exploration of human origins. The sharp ascendance of Hindu nationalism in India has resulted in a nativist movement that places great emphasis on the claim that most of India’s peoples have indigenous roots – a narrative that sits uncomfortably with the very eclectic origins of the country’s modern populations.

As a consequence, though the genetic studies themselves were rather clear, many in the media misrepresented the results to suit this political narrative. In fact, even the co-authors of the papers themselves seemed to disagree on the conclusions that can be drawn from the research.

Media confusion

The Economic Times reported that the research raises doubts over the “long-held theory of Aryan invasion or migration into South Asia”. Amar Ujala, one of India’s largest Hindi newspapers, was more emphatic: “The Aryan invasion theory proved completely false; India is the guru of South Asia.”

The theory of the Aryan invasion (or migration) was first put forward by Western scholars during the colonial age. It maintained that a race of European or Central Asian “Aryans” swept into the subcontinent displacing the indigenous Indus Valley Civilisation. These Aryans were said to have introduced key elements of Indian culture such as the Sanskrit language – which gave rise to the Indo-Aryan branch of languages spoken all across north, west and east India today – as well as the Vedas, the foundational texts of Hinduism.

This went against Hindutva’s own imagination of India, in which all significant cultural development was held to be indigenous.

Geographical distribution of the major Indo-Aryan languages in modern South Asia. Credit: Creative Commons.

Some of what the term “Aryan” once referred to has been proved to be scientifically inaccurate. The Nazis, for example, mistook what is a language grouping to be a racial one. However, much of the Indian media did not bother to explain that the new research actually upheld the theory that people with European Steppe ancestry had brought the Indo-Aryan language branch to India – not overturned it.

In contrast, the media in the West (with no political dog in this fight) communicated this fact rather well. People of Steppe-pastoralist ancestry likely “brought horses and the Indo-European languages now spoken on the subcontinent,” reported the Atlantic. The Smithsonian.com website of the American museum group wrote, “Indo-European languages may have reached South Asia via Central Asia and Eastern Europe during the first half of the 1000s BC.”

Academic split

These results were not only misinterpreted in the media, they also led to a split in how the authors of the landmark studies and other genetic scientists interpreted them. Vasant Shinde, co-author on both studies, put out a press release on September 6 where he argued that the new data “completely sets aside the Aryan Migration/Invasion Theory” and also proves that the “Harappans were the Vedic people”.

When Scroll.in spoke to Shinde, he explained his point further. “This is not a migration but a movement of people,” Shinde argued. “And the movement from the Steppe is not large.”

Vasant Shinde speaks to the media during his press conference in Delhi on September 6, 2019. Credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Shinde also disagreed with the linguistic conclusions in the research, claiming that they were not based on any scientific proof. “The Harappans were speaking Sanskrit since they were so advanced,” Shinde told Scroll.in.

American geneticist and science writer Razib Khan did not agree with Shinde’s conclusions. “This research points strongly to the fact that Aryans migrated to the Indian subcontinent,” said Khan. “Steppe ancestry is found in almost every group in India. And Steppe ancestry maps to the spread of Indo-Aryan language migration”.

What about the Shinde’s conclusion that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were the same as the Vedic people? “I at least cannot make such an interpretation,” Vagheesh Narasimhan, co-author of the Science study told Scroll.in. “This proposition makes jumps that I am not comfortable with.”

Another co-author on the Science paper, Niraj Rai chose his words carefully when it came to Shinde’s claim of equating the Indus Valley Civilisation with the culture that authored the Vedas. “This is not my statement; I don’t agree with this statement,” said the geneticist.

Nick Patterson, another co-author, and one of the main movers along with geneticist David Reich of the endevour to genetically decode South Asian origins had much the same point to make while speaking to Scroll.in: “While I am always willing to listen, I disagree with Dr Shinde that the people of the Indus Valley spoke an Indo-European language”.

Two new papers

The study of the genetics of ancient humans, using DNA to do the work of archeologists and historians in explaining our past, was pioneered at Harvard University by geneticist David Reich. However, till now, India has been one of the dark spots in this field of study. This is because, as Nick Patterson, a co-author on the two new papers and a close associate of Reich, told Scroll.in, “Genetic material survives best in cool and dry climates. And two words I would not use to describe India are cool and dry.”

However, researchers managed to extricate enough DNA from the ear bone of a woman who lived in the Indus Valley Civilisation 4,500 years ago from an archeological site in Rakhigarhi, Haryana. This DNA was analysed by Reich’s team in one paper published in Cell. Another analysis by Reich’s team in Science took a macro view, analysing genetic data from 523 ancient people spanning 8,000 years across Central and South Asia right up to the European Steppe – the largest study of ancient human DNA.

Read this explainer for more details about a study by Reich’s team that came out earlier this year covering the subject.

Members of an archaeological team work in Rakhigarhi on March 4, 2015. Credit: Manoj Dhaka/AFP.

The picture that emerges is one of diverse origin for the modern South Asian population. The main building blocks at the time of the Bronze Age (around four millennia ago) are the Ancient Ancestral South Indians, the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation and a significant migration from the Pontic Steppe. None of these people exist today but it is their mixing that caused most of the modern Indian population to be formed.

Of these, the Ancient Ancestral South Indians are probably the least studied and were present across parts of the subcontinent that did not fall under the Indus Valley Civilisation. Their closest modern-day relatives are the tribes of the Andaman Islands.

Thanks to the Cell paper released on September 5, we now know that the people of the Indus Valley had no Steppe DNA. They mainly had a mixture of Iranian-farmer-related DNA as well as some DNA from Ancient Ancestral South Indians.

The Steppe population came in from grasslands in Eastern Europe corresponding to modern-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. The genetic research identifies that this Steppe ancestry burst into India during a “narrow time window” dated between 2,000 BC and 1,500 BC.

The spread of the Steppe pastoralists and their descendants across ancient Eurasia. The Steppe population is identified here using the name Yamnaya which refers to an ancient archaeological culture on the Pontic Steppe. It is the Yamnaya people who spoke the a language which was the ancestor of every Indo-European language in existence today, be it Bhojpuri or Welsh. The arrows show plausible routes while the years refer to rough estimates of when the Yamnaya and their descendants arrived in a place. Source: The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia.

Once these Steppe people entered India, a great churning ensued. They mixed with the Indus Valley people to create what is now called the Ancestral North Indian grouping. However, a significant portion of the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were pushed south when the Steppe people entered. They then mixed with the Ancient Ancestral South Indians to form a group known as the Ancestral South Indian population.

For the next 2,000 years, Indians mixed freely. As a result, most modern South Asians are some mix of Ancestral North Indian and Ancestral South Indian. However, this great churning stopped around 1,900 years ago when Indian society calcified into thousands of endogamous groups who do not intermarry across caste lines – a societal structure maintained till today.

There are however some exceptions to this narrative. The Bengalis and Mundas, an Adivasi people of eastern India, “have significant amounts of ancestry from South East Asia”, noted Razib Khan, and cannot be explained using this Ancestral North Indian-Ancestral South Indian model.

How this explains modern India

Perhaps the biggest learning from this genetic research is that it explains the various languages South Asians speak. “It is clear that the movement of people mirrors the information we have from linguistics on how different features of language families are shared between them,” explained Vagheesh Narasimhan of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, who has contributed to the research.

The main theory to which Narasimhan is referring deals with how a single language family, the Indo-European family stretches all the way from Britain to Bangladesh and encompasses more than half of the modern world’s population. It counts amongst its members ancient heavyweights such as Sanskrit, Greek, Roman and Pali as well as modern tongues like English, Persian and Hindi.

The people who spread the Indo-European language family across Eurasia are the same Steppe pastoralists who are key constituents in making up the modern Indian population. As the Science paper states, its results provide “evidence for the theory that these [Indo-European] languages spread from the Steppe”.

In South Asia, the Indo-European language family bought in by the Steppe people forked to give rise to the Indo-Aryan daughter branch. The first Indo-Aryan language in South Asia was Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the Rig Veda. In present-day South Asia, around 1.3 billion people speak an Indo-Aryan language. Each of the modern states of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka use an Indo-Aryan language as their official language.

The original homeland of the ancient Steppe pastoralists (marked in deep green) who spread the Indo-European language family all across Europe and Asia. The present-day distribution of Indo-European languages in Eurasia is marked in light green on national borders. Credit: Creative Commons and Nithya Subramanian.

Much of this Steppe ancestry is male, the research shows. This means that Steppe migrants “were more successful at competing for local mates than men from the local groups” – which tells us something about the aggressive nature of Indo-Aryan migration into India. The Science paper concludes that there was an “asymmetric social interaction between descendants of Steppe pastoralists and peoples of the Indus Periphery Cline [Indus Valley Civilisation]”.

In simpler language, David Reich explains that the preponderence of male Steppe DNA means that this encounter between the Steppe pastoralists and the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation “cannot have been entirely friendly”.

This male bias is standard for Indo-European migration. In fact, when these Steppe pastoralists reached Europe, Reich’s research found an even larger proportion of male Steppe genes. In large parts of Western Europe, Steppe migrants almost completely displaced local males in a short time span, leading to one Danish archeologist postulating that the coming of these Indo-European speakers “must have been a kind of genocide”.

This pattern, wrote David Reich in his 2018 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, “is exactly what one would expect from an Indo-European-speaking people taking the reins of political and social power 4,000 years ago and mixing with the local peoples in a stratified society, with males from the groups in power having more success in finding mates than those from the disenfranchised groups”.

This ancient encounter is, incredibly, reflected even in the present-day Hindu caste system, with Steppe DNA correlated with upper-caste status. “Groups that view themselves as being of traditionally priestly status, including Brahmins who are traditional custodians of liturgical texts in the early Indo-European language Sanskrit, tend (with exceptions) to have more Steppe ancestry than expected on the basis of ANI-ASI mixture,” says the research in Science.

While this new genetic research backs it up, this claim has been made before by experts using only linguistics and archaeology. In his remarkable 2007 book The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, David Anthony, a professor of anthropology and one of the world’s leading authorities on Indo-European migration, pointed out that funeral sacrifices at Sintashta, an archaeological site all the way out on the Russian Steppe “showed startling parallels with the sacrificial funeral rituals of the Rig Veda”.

Moreover, not only does the new genetic research explain the origin of the Indo-Aryan languages of North India, it also seems to explain the Dravidian language family of South India, which it traces to the Indus Valley Civilisation. “A possible scenario combining genetic data with archaeology and linguistics is that proto-Dravidian was spread by peoples of the IVC [Indus Valley Civilisation],” argues the Science paper.

Location of Dravidian languages in present-day South Asia. Credit: Creative Commons.

Though much of India does not speak a Dravidian language, this does not mean the Indus Valley Civilisation has not been influential outside the modern south. In fact, the research concludes that the Indus Valley Civilisation is the single-largest source of DNA for modern South Asia.

As for the Iranian component in the Indus Valley Civilisation DNA, it was found to be so old that it dates to before the invention of farming in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. This means that Indians either invented farming on their own or learnt it via cultural contact with people out west.

The Unicorn seal from the Indus Valley Civilisation featuring an inscription of eight symbols along the top. While the script is yet to be deciphered, the latest research postulates that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation spoke proto-Dravidian or the language from which the modern Dravidian languages of South India are descended from. Credit: Harappa.com

What about Shinde’s claim that the Indus Valley Civilisation was the same as the Vedic civilisation, with both speaking Sanskrit? This is, in fact, an assertion that has long been made by many Hindutva supporters as a way to claim that key cultural markers of modern Hinduism such as Sanskrit or the Rig Veda have completely indigenous origins.

However, there is little data to support this theory. In fact, this recent genetic research backs up the claim that the Indus Valley Civilisation was completely different from the Vedic people. The Science paper points out that the former probably spoke a Dravidian language, while we know that the Vedic people spoke an Indo-European language: Sanskrit.

This gap is further widened by the fact that there was no Steppe DNA found in the Rakhigarhi woman, providing yet another data point in favour of Indo-Aryan migration (this data was also egregiously misinterpreted by the Times of India). After all, Steppe DNA and Indo-European language is highly correlated – so it is rather unlikely that the Rakhigarhi woman spoke an Indo-European language like Sanskrit. Rather than the Indus Valley Civilisation and the Indo-Aryans being the same, the genetic data points to the fact that the latter followed the former chronologically as a result of Steppe migration.

The politics of it

This enquiry into the origin of modern Indians has set off hectic political debate in India. David Reich recounted how politics played a part in his work. Given the significant Steppe ancestry in the Ancestral North Indian component, Reich had originally termed this group “West Eurasians” – a move that received violent pushback from Reich’s Indian collaborators, who controlled the access to genetic material. Reich recounts these discussions as the “tensest 24 hours of my scientific career”.

“At the time I felt that we were being prevented by political considerations from revealing what we had found,” he complained.

Eventually, a nomenclatural solution was found. Names were chosen for the two ancestral groups that seemed to suggest to the layman that they had solidly subcontinental origins: the earlier discussed Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians. “The ANI are related to Europeans, central Asians, Near Easterners and people of the Caucasus,” wrote Reich, but with those 100% subcontinental names, “we made no claim about the location of their homeland or any migrations”.

While all people are interested in their origins, why do feelings in India run especially deep? Reich, in an interview to Scroll.in in February, put forward a cultural argument, noting that in contrast to India, its Muslim-majority 1947 twin Pakistan doesn’t seem to care very much about the ancient past. It is similar to the situation in much of the West, Reich noted: “In Europe, there’s almost no emotionality at all about the ancient farmers or Bronze Age people or hunter-gatherers. There’s in fact, no emotion about the dead.”

To Reich’s cultural argument, there is also a political layer. India is today dominated by the politics of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, an ideology which is fiercely nativist. Vinayak Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva and a foundational thinker for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, based his nationalism on nativism arguing that for a true Indian, India had to be both his pitribhumi (ancestral land) and punyabhumi (the land of his religion).

“A Hindu therefore could not be descended from alien invaders,” said historian Romila Thapar, explaining how Hindutva saw the world. “Since Hindus sought a lineal descent from the Aryans, and a cultural heritage, the Aryans had to be indigenous.”

Much the same argument was echoed by Madhav Golwalkar, the highly influential second chief of the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the BJP: “Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of this soil always from time immemorial”. It is this racial factor that, as per Gowalkar, “is by far the important ingredient of a nation”.

Even as Golwalkar and Savarkar’s ideas spread with the rise of the BJP, scientific research started to point the other way, providing strong proof that, driven by events such as Indo-Aryan migration, India’s peoples have incredibly heterogeneous origins. This research might not fit the dominant politics of the day but really, is it such a surprise that India is diverse? For most Indians, this genetic research would only be confirmation of their everyday, lived reality as part of this remarkable subcontinent.

Also read:

Did the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation speak a Dravidian language?

How was Vedic Sanskrit, the language of the Rig Veda, born?

Was the horse bought to India by the Indo-Aryans as a result of migration from the European Steppe?