Last week, papers published in the journals Cell and Science reinforced two well-established but controversial facts of ancient Indian history: first, that the Indus Valley Civilisation was pre-Vedic, and second, that Sanskrit came to India through migrants from the north-west at a time when the Indus Valley Civilisation had declined.

Media coverage, however, reported the exact opposite of what the studies found. To understand why newspaper headlines, television and Twitter feeds misrepresented the research so comprehensively, one needs to grasp why the facts are controversial.

If the Indus Valley Civilisation predated the Vedas, as it is now clearer than ever it did, it means the earliest Vedic hymns aren’t much more than 3,500 years old. This dating negates not just the fundamentalist Hindu idea of a culture going back hundreds of thousands of years, but also the modern compromise figure of a 5,000 year-old Vedic civilisation. If the roots of Sanskrit lie outside South Asia, as it is clearer than ever they do, it weakens the Hindu nationalist demonisation of Christianity and Islam as faiths alien to India.

That is why the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies reject the data, and why, as a consequence, Indian researchers in government-supported institutions muddy the waters of debate.

Background to the controversy

The history of the controversy begins in the late eighteenth century, when it first became apparent that most of the major languages spoken in Europe, Iran, and South Asia related closely to each other. In the nineteenth century, some Europeans drew on Indian and Iranian texts to conclude that speakers of the root Indo-European language called themselves Aryas or Aryans. This theory, based on flimsy evidence, developed into the ridiculous notion of an Aryan master race originating in North Europe.

Serious researchers, while rejecting white supremacist ideas, continued to employ the term Aryan as a descriptor for people who spoke the precursor language to Vedic Sanskrit and Old Avestan. The Eurasian grasslands north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea came to be widely accepted as the original home of this population.

Mohenjodaro. Credit: Saqib Qayyum/ CC BY-SA 3.0/ Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1920s, Daya Ram Sahni excavated the ruins of Harappa and soon after, his colleague RD Banerji, working on a dig at Mohenjo-daro, noticed similarities between the sites. The two archaeologists had discovered a forgotten Bronze age society that came to be called the Harappan or Indus Valley civilisation. The culture, though very advanced, had collapsed mysteriously after flourishing for centuries. It was natural to speculate it had fallenprey to a violent incursion.

It so happened that 19th-century scholars of Sanskrit like Friedrich Max Mueller believed the early Vedic people, who were semi-nomadic pastoralists, had clashed with settled agricultural populations in India after entering the subcontinent from the north-west. One name for Indra, the most powerful god of the Rig Veda, is Purandara, which means the destroyer of cities. The disintegration of the culture discovered by Sahni and Banerji could be explained neatly as being caused by marauding “Aryans”.

The Aryan Invasion strawman

As continued study of Indus Valley Civilisation sites failed to turn up evidence of cataclysmic encounters, the Aryan Invasion Theory was abandoned. The decline of Indus Valley Civilisation cities has not been fully explained, but most scholars now attribute it to a mix of climate change and trade route disruptions. That’s the way science progresses, through a series of hypotheses that are discarded as better evidence becomes available.

Hindutva activists, however, have kept the Aryan Invasion Theory alive, because it offers them the perfect strawman, “an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument”. All rebuttals of the Aryan Invasion Theory are strawman arguments that dodge the actual evidence for the Indus Valley Civilisation being pre-Vedic, and early Sanskrit being the language of migrants to the subcontinent.

In past columns I have dealt with some of that evidence, from the perspective of urban planning, linguistics and archaeology, and genetics. What do the newly published papers add to the Indus Valley Civilisation discourse?

The study in Cell is a significant breakthrough, being the first analysis of the sequenced genome of an Indus Valley Civilisation individual from a site in Rakhigarhi, Haryana. Its title provides the relevant bullet points: An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers. The missing Iranian farmer ancestry indicates that agriculture arrived in India through a process of knowledge diffusion rather than migration. It might even have been invented independently in the subcontinent. This sets South Asia apart from Europe, where all the evidence points to an influx from the east bringing farming with it.

Harappa. Credit: Sara jilani [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

From the perspective of contemporary politics, the Indus Valley Civilisation’s subject’s lack of Steppe pastoralist ancestry is crucial. The DNA of modern Indians reveals significant amounts of such Steppe ancestry. It is more pronounced among North Indians, and among privileged caste groups. If the Indus Valley Civilisation population was bereft of this ancestry, as the Cell study demonstrates, when did those genes begin to appear in India?

The second paper, the one published in Science, offers an answer:

  “Using data from ancient individuals from the Swat Valley of northernmost South Asia, we show that Steppe ancestry then integrated further south in the first half of the second millennium BCE, contributing up to 30% of the ancestry of modern groups in South Asia. The Steppe ancestry in South Asia has the same profile as that in Bronze Age Eastern Europe, tracking a movement of people that affected both regions and that likely spread the unique features shared between Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic languages.”  

In other words, between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE, some horse riders of the Steppe who spoke a precursor to Sanskrit began migrating into South Asia, bringing their language, rituals and belief systems with them.

Into or Out Of India?

The statement in Science about Steppe ancestry is quoted in the Cell study with which it shares a few authors. Yet, Vasant Shinde of Pune’s Deccan College, one of the lead authors of the Cell study and also credited in the Science article, has taken a contradictory stand in interviews, as has his fellow author Niraj Rai of the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences. Rai even invoked the Out of India theory as a possible alternative to Steppe migration.

Rai based this suggestion on a finding in the Science paper that the Indus Valley Civilisation subject’s DNA matched, “ancient DNA from 11 genetic outliers from sites in Iran and Turkmenistan in cultural communication with the IVC”. The obvious explanation is that the 11 people had travelled to those locations from an Indus Valley Civilisation region. Their presence in such far-flung places testifies to the extensiveness of Indus Valley Civilisation commercial and cultural contacts. It does not suggest a migration out of India extensive enough to change the genetic profile of foreign lands, because if that were the case the 11 individuals would not have been obvious outliers.

The Out of India hypothesis is a desperate attempt to reconcile linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence with Hindutva sentiment and nationalistic pride, but it cannot reverse time’s arrow. The earliest proof of horses being ridden and yoked to spoke-wheeled chariots appears in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, not India. The words for flora and fauna common across Indo-European languages are of animals and plants that flourish in temperate rather than tropical or subtropical climates.

For example, words for the birch tree (Sanskrit: भूर्ज, bhūrjá) are similar in dozens of Indo-European tongues, while India’s national tree provides no Indo-European root. In fact, most European languages use a variety of “banyan”, a modern term derived from observing Indian traders (or banias) conducting business in the generous shade of these trees.

Hindutva history

The data from Rakhigarhi and from the 523 subjects of the study published in Science provide genetic confirmation of a migration from India’s north-west beginning after 2000 BCE, which corresponds precisely with linguistic and archaeological information about the movement of Vedic people into India.

The evidence keeps crushing Hindutva ideas of history, but we live in a looking-glass world, where interpretations in popular outlets can be encouraged to display the obverse picture. We can make bones speak after thousands of years in the ground, but can’t prevent their message from getting garbled in the present moment.