Recent genetic studies published in the scientific journals Cell and Science have reiterated what archaeology and linguistics have claimed for several decades: that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, which existed between 5000 BCE to 1500 BCE, probably spoke a Dravidian language that was a precursor to the modern Dravidian languages such as Tamil.
With the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, its people moved east and southwards from north-west India. This period, roughly placed between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE, coincided with the arrival of Steppe Pastoralists from Eastern Europe. With them came the Indo-European languages now spoken in the subcontinent.
These studies raise an important question: where did the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation settle when they moved away from north-west India?
For a long time, politicians in Tamil Nadu associated with the Dravidian movement have claimed that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation, because they are said to have spoken a Dravidian language, could be ancestors of the modern Tamils.
But archaeological and genetic evidence to establish this link has been hard to come by. For example, till 2013, the Archaeological Survey of India had conducted only three major excavations in Tamil Nadu despite overwhelming literary evidence of the existence of an ancient civilisation. These were at Arikkamedu in 1947, Kaveripoompattiam in 1965 and burial sites at Adichanallar in 2005.
None of these three provided concrete evidence of an ancient urban settlement in Tamil Nadu. Urbanisation was a significant feature of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
However, this changed in 2015 when the ASI began excavations in Keezhadi, on the banks of the Vaigai river, about 12 km from Madurai. This area was identified from over 170 sites that the ASI shortlisted for excavations.
The results of the dig since 2015 have revolutionised the understanding of this ancient Tamil region. The Keezhadi site provided overwhelming evidence of an urban settlement as complex as those found at the Indus Valley and Gangetic sites, with artifacts carbon dated to 200 BCE. These were linked to the Sangam era, which is considered the golden age of Tamil culture between 4th Century BCE to 2th century CE when many of its epics were composed.
The excavations ran into a political storm when the Centre briefly suspended the digs in 2017 and transferred the officer leading the project. Tamil political parties accused the Centre of trying to subvert the study as the site showed evidence of a civilisation that was independent of the Vedic civilisation. In 2018, the department of Archaeology in Tamil Nadu took over the excavations and has finished two seasons of work. A detailed report on the findings is expected to be released this week.
Given the recent genetic studies, can Keezhadi provide the missing links to the question of who the ancient Tamil people were and if they had any connection to the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation who moved southwards?
Linguistics has perhaps provided the strongest base for Dravidian-Indus Valley links. As early as in 1964, researchers in Russia and Finland independently came to similar conclusions that the Indus Valley script was Dravidian.
Later, Asko Parpola, an Indologist at the University of Helsinki, extended this research, becoming the world’s foremost authority on the Indus script. Parpola would go on to develop his now famous rebus theory, mapping Indus symbols to visual puns in proto-Dravidian.
When the ASI surveyed the banks of the Vaigai river for potential excavation sites in 2013, it found a burial site just 1 km away from the urban settlements of Keezhadi. Located in Kodangai, the initial survey of this site discovered urn burials. But it has remained unexplored and it isn’t clear whether this was the site where the residents of the Keezhadi complex buried their dead.
However, the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department is gearing up to explore this site in the next season of digs, expected to begin in January 2020. According to the department commissioner T Udhayachandran, the state has made a proposal to the ASI to further excavate what it has now described as the “Keezhadi cluster”, a group of sites related to the Keezhadi complex. “This includes the burial site at Kodangai,” he said.
The state government will tie up with the biological sciences department of the Madurai Kamaraj University for the excavation. Asked if DNA extraction to study the genetic profile of the ancient remains was part of the plan, the officer said that the proposal was for permission from the ASI to excavate the sites. “Study and interpretation will be done according to what we find at these sites,” he said.
An official of the ASI who was associated with the Keezhadi project said the bones found in the initial survey were “exposed remains”, which means they may not be ideal for DNA extraction. But the official was confident that a deeper excavation will provide a solid sample. “There is a big gap in history with regards to the genetic profile of the ancient Tamils,” the official said. “If we are able to extract a DNA from this site, it could lead to significant revelations.”