Here We Go Again: Why They Are Wrong About The Aryan Migration Debate This Time As Well

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Jun 24, 2017 10:05 AM
Here We Go Again: Why They Are Wrong About The Aryan Migration Debate This Time As WellPossible routes of modern human migrations to Indian subcontinent.
  • The narrative around the Aryan ‘migration’ or Aryan ‘invasion’ is sought to be captured through propaganda and misrepresentation, every few decades.

    And every few decades, such a campaign has to be called out. So will it be this time as well.

It is a 2001 deja vu moment in 2017, as we saw the 1901 deja vu moment in 2001.

Michael Bamshad Does A Herbert Risley

In 2001, population geneticist Michael Bamshad of the Institute of Human Genetics, University of Utah, studied the genetic makeup of caste groups from Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh and compared them with various castes and regional groups of India as well as those in Africa, Asia and Europe. Then in his paper, he announced how the 'genetic distances' between castes correlated with social rank. The 'upper castes' were 'significantly more similar to Europeans' than the 'lower castes', he concluded.

Exactly a century before Bamshad, there was Sir Herbert Risley, commissioner for the 1901 census of India and honorary director of the Ethnological Survey of the Indian Empire, who had applied the nasal index to the castes. He had ‘proved’ how Indian castes belonged to several racial categories – from dark skinned, snubbed nose Dravidians to fair skinned Aryans with pronounced proboscis.

Doubts were raised from the Indian side, when Swami Vivekananda’s brother B N Dutta challenged Risley’s notion that ‘higher’ castes had European noses. He simply used more data than Risley.

Later, in a detailed work on the origins of untouchability, Dr B R Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution of India, questioned the methodology and conclusions of Western ethnography. Considering the colonial thesis that the so-called ‘untouchables’ belonged to a different race from the ‘caste Hindus’, Dr Ambedkar made a profound statement. Even if one were to consider ‘anthropometry as a science’ by which the race of a person could be established, he said, the data obtained "disprove that scheduled communities belonged to a race different from the rest of Hindu communities. The measurements prove that the Brahmin and the Untouchables belong to the same race."

So, did Bamshad in 2001, with Single Nucleotide Polymorphism in the place of nasal index, prove Risley’s colonial ethnographic project of 1901 right and Dr Ambedkar wrong?

Interestingly, the story was immediately grabbed by popular science magazines as well as local media. Popular Tamil newspaper Dinamani wrote an article approvingly quoting Bamshad’s paper as ‘Aryan invasion/migration theory’ being finally proved by science.

UK-based popular science magazine New Scientist presented the Bamshad paper with the sensational heading 'Written in blood'. It then quoted a pro-missionary scholar Robert Hardgrave as saying that there are 'some historical and archeological evidence' that the "Aryans came in, they intermarried with indigenous people and also absorbed many of them into their social system of ranking".

The Times of India newspaper reported the study with the prominent heading in its international section: 'Upper caste Indian male more European, says study'.

Frontline, the magazine from the Left-leaning The Hindu family of publications, in reporting the Bamshad paper announced sensationally: "New genetic evidence for the origins of castes indicates that the upper castes are more European than Asian. It took a potshot at 'strident nationalism' in the form of 'Hindutva' ideology, which rejects the premise that Aryans were outsiders." While conceding that the archeological evidence of marauding or migrating Aryans was wanting, the article declared "modern population genetics, based on analyses of the variations in the DNA in population sets, has tools" that could provide "a more authoritative answer". And that answer was that the Y-chromosomes of the 'upper caste' men had markers closer to Eastern Europeans than to the Asians.

One lone media voice that questioned the study was India Today. Labelling the Bamshad study 'controversial', an article in the publication drew parallel with the pseudoscientific racial study of Risley a century ago. The magazine quoted the famous archeologist Dilip Chakravarti, questioning the terminology used by the papers. The article cautioned readers against taking the paper as the final say on the matter. Soon, the Bamshad study was followed by another study in 2004. A team of six scientists, including Richard Cordaux of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, studying the origin of the 'Hindu caste system' concluded that 'paternal lineages of Indian caste groups are primarily descended from Indo-European speakers who migrated from central Asia 3,500 years ago'.

Subsequent Studies Reject The ‘Authoritative Answer’

In 2003, Dr Toomas Kivisild and 17 other scientists published a paper, which studied both tribal and 'caste' populations. The paper reported that the "Haplogroup R1a, previously associated with the putative Indo-Aryan invasion, was found at its highest frequency in Punjab but also at a relatively high frequency (26 per cent) in the Chenchu tribe". This suggested ‘that southern and western Asia might be the source of this haplogroup’.

This study did not receive the media spotlight that Bamshad paper received. However, it did prove to be a turning point. Dr Gyaneshwer Chaubey, of Estonian Biocenter, who is an expert in the field of biological anthropology and evolutionary biology, says, "the paper is still true and that is the one which has enlightened me to move to population genetics from Drosophila genetics!" Dr Chaubey since then has been at the forefront of research work related to the peopling of South Asia and is co-author of almost all the important papers dealing with the subject.

Then in 2006, a major genetic study of the Indian population was taken up by a team of 12 scientists. The study produced results that contradicted the 2001 study of Bamshad et al. However, this too did not receive the media attention it deserved. The paper had concluded:

The Y-chromosome data consistently suggest a largely south Asian origin for Indian caste communities and therefore argue against any major influx, from regions north and west of India, of people associated either with the development of agriculture or the spread of the Indo-Aryan language family.

This was followed by yet another research paper published in the same year. Among the 15 scientists, who submitted this paper, are some legends in the field, including Partha Mazumder of Human Genetics Unit, Indian Statistical Institute, L Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Peter Underhill of Stanford University. The paper said:

The ages of accumulated microsatellite variation in the majority of Indian haplogroups exceed 10,000-15,000 years, which attests to the antiquity of regional differentiation. Therefore, our data do not support models that invoke a pronounced recent genetic input from Central Asia to explain the observed genetic variation in South Asia. R1a1 and R2 haplogroups indicate demographic complexity that is inconsistent with a recent single history.

In 2010, Peter Underhill along with Dr Lalji Singh of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad and a team of 21 scientists published another paper, particularly dealing with R1a – specifically in relation to its geographic spread and its link with the spread of I-E languages. Here, the study was conducted by "analysing more than 11,000 DNA samples from across Eurasia, including more than 2,000 from haplogroup R1a to ascertain the phylogenetic information of the newly discovered R1a-related SNPs’. The paper made a decisive point:

The diversity and frequency profiles of M458 suggest its origin during the early Holocene and a subsequent expansion likely related to a number of prehistoric cultural developments in the region. ... Importantly, the virtual absence of M458 chromosomes outside Europe speaks against substantial patrilineal gene flow from East Europe to Asia, including to India, at least since the mid-Holocene.

Even with such an avalanche of academic refutation of Bamshad 2001 paper, it continues to enjoy media patronage. For example, in 2014, ‘Beyond Headlines’ a website that calls itself ‘a leading alternative news portal’ published an op-ed piece titled 'American Scientist Proves Brahmins are Foreigners' written by New Delhi-based Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Research Centre director Professor Vilas Kharat. Prof Kharat wrote that "Michael Bamshad has tremendously indebted the entire native Indians by publishing this report at an international level". According to him, the report "proclaims that, the higher castes (ie the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas) are not the original residents of India but they are the foreigners". BAMCEF (All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) launched by the founder-supremo of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is taking Bamshad's report to the people and doing this propaganda, he claimed.

It has been an interesting coincidence that the 2001 Bamshad paper had appeared almost at the same time, when the then National Democratic Alliance government was battling attempts to equate caste with race in the ‘World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Tolerance’ (WCAR) organised by United Nations in Durban. The conference was to be held from 31 August to 2 September 2001. As certain globally connected non-governmental organisations (NGOs) pushed the agenda to include caste-based issues as a form of racism at the Durban conference, heated arguments erupted in the National Committee on World Conference Against Racism (NCWCR). Dr Andre Beteille, the well-known social anthropologist had resigned protesting equating caste with race in June. And the same month, of course as a coincidence, Bamshad paper appeared on the scene. Dr Beteille was also critical of the Bamshad paper.

Aryan Migrants Versus Indigenous Aryans?

One of the consistent straw man argument in many of the polemical pieces supporting Aryan migration is that the ‘Hindu nationalists’ claim Aryans to be indigenous.

Leaving aside fringe groups, the organisation of historians affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the main Hindutva organisation, does not claim Aryans to be ‘indigenous’. On the other hand, it rejects the race concept itself and claims that there is no such race called Aryans at all. So any critique of ‘Aryan’ invasion/migration is not to claim that Aryans are indigenous and genetically pure. While accepting that there has been gene flow into and out of Indian land mass, the contention is only that there was no such event as an ‘Aryan’ invasion or migration. In fact, one of the tallest ideologues of Hindutva, V D Savarkar stated as early as in 1924 that all a human being can claim in terms of ‘purity’ is that the blood of all humanity runs through his veins and that the fundamental unity of human race from pole to pole is the only reality.

The Real Spin

So, when The Hindu reported in 2017, the paper of Prof Martin B Richards which claimed evidence of "genetic influx from Central Asia in the Bronze Age" which was "strongly male-driven, consistent with the patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal social structure attributed to the inferred pastoralist early Indo-European society', it is to be expected that the report would be filled with the usual 'clinching evidence' cliché. And the writer Tony Joseph definitely does not disappoint us with his sensationalist heading 'How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate'. Deja vu 2001!

Unfortunately, the euphoria was to be short-lived as it became clear that the writer has concealed data and has been economical with truth as revealed by the article of Anil Suri. It will also become clear now that Joseph has been less than honest in even dealing with the papers he quoted in favour of ‘Aryan migration’ scenario and media reports he assailed.

Spin 2009?

In his article, Joseph takes to task some media reports of the 2009 study by Dr Lalji Singh et al. Written under the subheading ‘Spin and the Facts’ here is his criticism at length:

Aryan-Dravidian divide a myth: Study,” screamed a newspaper headline on September 25, 2009. The article quoted Dr Lalji Singh, a co-author of the study and a former director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, as saying: “This paper rewrites history… there is no north-south divide”. The report also carried statements such as: “The initial settlement took place 65,000 years ago in the Andamans and in ancient south India around the same time, which led to population growth in this part. At a later stage, 40,000 years ago, the ancient north Indians emerged which in turn led to rise in numbers there. But at some point in time, the ancient north and the ancient south mixed, giving birth to a different set of population. And that is the population which exists now and there is a genetic relationship between the populations within India.

The study, however, makes no such statements whatsoever – in fact, even the figures 65,000 and 40,000 do not figure it in it!

Schematic diagram showing the process of formation of the present-day Indian populations.
Schematic diagram showing the process of formation of the present-day Indian populations.

The media report, he talks about, is from The Times of India, (25 September 2009) a competitor to the newspaper he was working for. A conflict of interest at work here? However, what Joseph did not do or if he did, what he had concealed from his readers is talking to the reporter for the source of the numbers 65,000 BP for ancestral south Indians (ASI) and 40,000 BP for ancestral north Indians (ANI). In fact, the report in The Times of India also quotes Dr Kumaraswamy Thangaraj of Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad as saying the above factoids and does not say it is from the paper.

In 2009, I had independently contacted Dr Thangaraj. In his communication with me, he stated the following, which I present here in his own words:

  • Our paper basically discards Aryan theory. What we have discussed in our paper are pre-historic events.
  • Data included in this study is not sufficient to estimate the time of ANI settlement. However, our earlier studies using mtDNA and Y chromosome markers, suggest that the ANI are 40,000 years old. We predicted that the ASI are part of Andamanese migration, therefore they could be about 60,000 years old.

So, clearly Tony Joseph has allowed his bias towards the migration theory get the better of his journalistic standards. Even here, he does not seem to have done his homework properly or decided not to deal with certain facts.

In 2012, Dr Lalji Singh, two other scientists of CCMB (Rakesh Tamang and Kumaraswamy Thangaraj) had published a paper. The paper explicitly made the following statements, along with the info-graphics showing ANI entering India 40,000 years BP and ASI entering India 65,000 BP:

Interestingly, both the ANI and ASI ancestry components of the Indian populations are found to harbour higher haplotypic diversity than those predominant in west Eurasia. The shared genetic affinity between the ANI component of northern India and west Eurasia was dated prior to the Aryan invasion (Metspalu et al. 2011). These realities suggest the rejection of the Aryan invasion hypothesis but support an ancient demographic history of India.

So there is no spin involved in the 2009 TOI report. The only spin regarding that 2009 report is the negative one spun by Joseph, with wrong presumptions and concealed data.

And The Real Spin

Now let us come to the real spin Joseph engages in. Stanford University School of Medicine's Department of Genetics scientist Peter Underhill's 2015 paper contains an interesting caution "against ascribing findings from a contemporary phylogenetic cluster of a single genetic locus to a particular pre-historic demographic event, population migration, or cultural transformation". And more importantly he finds in "the geographic distribution of R1a-M780 a reflection of early urbanization within the Indus Valley".

In his email communication, Dr Underhill cautioned against jumping to conclusions with quite a few caveats:

It is important to realize that haplogroup R1a1 is just one piece of genetic information that informs the conversation about the peopling of Eurasian as well as Indian. It is also important to keep in mind that the Y chromosome locus is sensitive to founder effect and high frequencies may over-emphasize the magnitude of the impulse relative to other genetic data. For example while the Y chromosome might indicate a large degree of replacement of other Y chromosomes in a region, while other genetic data may indicate that the degree of replacement and mixing was not as great as reflected by Y chromosome data alone.

Then, he pointed out:

The place of origin of the M417 branch & Z93 & Z282 branches as well as the Z780 branch is uncertain but the diversification and distribution of M780 sub-lineages is consistent with an approximate 5,000 years ago time horizon. As city state populations began to rise relatively recently (post-New Stone Age ie Neolithic) the frequency distribution of M780 is consistent with this population growth as well as a culture involving metallurgy and probably Indo-European speakers as well as displacement of earlier peoples. While locally at considerable frequencies, the overall distribution of various R1a lineages is a minority fraction (ca. 10%) in the Indian population overall.

So, let us summarise:

  • The place of origin of Z93 as well as Z780 branches have not been yet resolved.
  • The distribution of the branch itself happened approximately 5,000 years ago which is when the city-states’ population and culture involving metallurgy were expanding. And even the probable ‘replacement’ was not completely true in Indian context as ‘the overall distribution of various R1a lineages is a minority fraction’.

Both the 2015 paper and Dr Underhill’s communication speak respectively about ‘the early urbanisation within the Indus Valley‘ and the rise of city-states as well as their population growth, associated with the spread of R1a lineages. So from the above, what can we conclude? The early demographic changes in the area had a lot of region specific dynamics, which include the distribution of M780 in the region. Given the 'minority fraction' presence of R1a in Indian population, the 'replacement of earlier people' cannot be applied at least to Indian/Indus Valley scenario. Dr. Chaubey affirms the above conclusion, ‘without any doubt’. According to him, ‘M780 is a marker that originated in India’ and ‘phylogentically it is not nested in any other R1a branch present in the world’. In other words, he concludes, ‘M780 doesn't show Central Asian or Middle Eastern or European variants as ancestral to it’.

Interestingly, Joseph had contacted Dr Chaubey and after getting his inputs decided to edit them out completely and does not even mention him once.

Joseph, citing the 2016 study, ‘Punctuated bursts in human male demography inferred from 1,244 worldwide Y-chromosome sequences’ says something curious, which deserves to be quoted at some length:

This paper, which looked at major expansions of Y-DNA haplogroups within five continental populations, was lead-authored by David Poznikof the Stanford University, with Dr Underhill as one of the 42 co-authors. The study found “the most striking expansions within Z93 occurring approximately 4,000 to 4,500 years ago”. This is remarkable, because roughly 4,000 years ago is when the Indus Valley civilization began falling apart. (Emphasis not in the original)

However, the study itself says something very different:

Potential correspondence between genetics and archeology in South and East Asia have received less investigation. In South Asia, we detect eight lineage expansions dating to 4.0-7.3 kya and involving haplogroups H1-M52, L-M11 and R1a-Z95. The most striking are expansions within R1a-Z93, 4.0-4.5 kya. This time predates by a few centuries the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization associated by some with the historical migration of Indo-European speakers from the western steppes into Indian sub-continent. (Emphasis not in the original)

Interestingly, this paper is present behind a paywall and hence the original lines with which Joseph has done almost a Lysenko-like editing, may not be seen by a casual Google search [the abstract is available in 'Nature' genetics magazine website with article behind the paywall while the entire text is available in NCBI website]. Actually, the period of expansion within R1a-Z93, 4,000-4,500 BP, matches not with decline but with the mature phase of Harappan Civilisation (2500-1900 BCE). So, if at all we correlate R1a-Z93 with ‘Aryans’ then they were more likely to be contributors to Indus civilisation, perhaps catalysing the urban expansion of Indus cities rather than its destroyers. What is even more interesting is that along with R1a-Z93, established indigenous Indian lineages for example, H1-M52 and L-51 also showed the same expansion time, Dr Chaubey points out.

Jati system brought by Aryan/I-E speakers?

Joseph then weaves a grand picture of the waves of migrants. Interestingly, the migrants of Bronze Age, created Indus Valley Civilisation and migrants, who came next brought agriculture. And then “those who came with a language called Sanskrit and its associated beliefs and practices and reshaped our society in fundamental ways”. In fact when discussing the stopping of the admixture of communities and emergence of endogamy, he gives a racial interpretation and calls it ‘shifting attitudes towards mixing of the races in ancient texts’. So essentially the ‘Aryans’ brought with them Sanskrit, associated beliefs, rituals, a patriarchal social structure and ‘reshaped our society in fundamental ways’. That is very euphemistically saying that ‘Aryans’ brought in caste system and fitted themselves at the top of the pyramid.

Even pro-migration Dravidian-ologist Iravatham Mahadevan has interpreted ideograms in Harappan script as representing occupational groups like 'functionary with priestly duty', 'functionary with military duty', 'Farmer, tiller, tenant' and 'servant'. The parallel with varna system is indeed hard to miss.

More interesting is the observation of archeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. He says:

Although repeatedly challenged by reformers and benevolent leaders, the literate Brahminical elites were able to dominate ritual ideology and in many cases socio-economic organization through their ability to control knowledge. In the context of the Indus state, the limited distribution of written materials and their use by elites suggest that this pattern of control may have started as early as the first urbanism in Indus cities.

Leaving aside the socio-political views of Kenoyer on the ‘Brahminical’ system, the empirical data points out that the social stratification that we see in India today can be seen as having a continuity with Indus Valley Civilisation and was not imposed by a marauding or migrating band of ‘Aryans’ from Central Asia.

Why The Persistent Bias?

Some years ago, while studying the population genetics papers related to the so-called Aryan invasion/migration theories, I sent an email regarding certain issues to Dr Nicole Boivin, then with the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Cambridge, (and joined Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History as director of the Department of Archaeology in July 2016), she advised me: "Do take all the genetics research with a giant grain of salt". She had also explained in great detail the reason in her paper, 'Anthropological, historical, archaeological and genetic perspectives on the origins of caste in South Asia':

Part of the reason that many geneticists prove Indo-Aryan invasions so frequently is that they give little if any consideration to other populations that have or may have entered South Asia in prehistoric and historic times. Another problematic assumption that therefore needs to be highlighted is that in much of the genetics literature, the only (or only significant) possible post-Holocene source of nonindigenous genetic material is Indo-Aryans.

Dr Boivin’s critical observation becomes significant here because it is interesting again to see that while eminent Indian geneticists like Dr Lalji Singh or Dr Partha Majumder have been able to see the problem through a complex, multi-dimensional scenario, a section of geneticists from Bamshad to Martin Richards seem to make one hypothetical event pivotal to entire demographic evolution of Indian population. A comparison of the following conclusion of Dr Partha Majumder et al in their May 2017 paper to the shrill conclusion of Martin P Richards about "strongly male-driven, consistent with the patriarchal, patrilocal and patrilineal social structure attributed to the inferred pastoralist early Indo-European society", will reveal the contrast. Dr Majumder et al conclude:

A closest neighbour analysis in the phylogeny showed that Indian populations have an affinity towards Southern European populations and that the time of divergence from these populations substantially predated the Indo-European migration into India, probably reflecting ancient shared ancestry rather than the Indo-European migration, which had little effect on Indian male lineages. ... This analysis suggests that Indian populations have complex ancestry which cannot be explained by a single expansion model.

If one can feel the difference in spirit and approach to the problems between these two groups of scientists, not in a crude caricatured way but as a subtle difference emerging from their respective epistemologies perhaps, then we might have also understood, yet another subtle though fundamental difference between the two approaches and also two visions of the ancient past of India.

Postscript: I thank Dr Peter Underhill, Stanford University; Dr Gyaneshwer Chaubey, Estonian Biocentre, Estonia; Dr Thangaraj Kumaraswamy of Cellular CSIR - Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology, India; Dr Nicole Boivin, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany, for taking their time and answering my questions, in 2009 and in 2017. They not only responded but also sent me materials so that I can understand the problem better. I thank Dr Lakshmi Chitoor Subramaniam, Mumbai, for taking the time to go through the draft and correct it.

This article, along with all its references can be read here on Scribd.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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