So What Happened To The ‘Unambiguous’ Genetic Evidence Of Aryan Migration?

So What Happened To The ‘Unambiguous’ Genetic Evidence Of Aryan Migration?

by Anil Kumar Suri - Monday, December 25, 2017 12:20 PM IST
So What Happened To The ‘Unambiguous’ Genetic Evidence Of Aryan Migration?The Indus Valley civilisation. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • Joseph’s article appears to be not so much an attempt at demystifying the science for the general reader but to prepare the ground for a prejudiced narrative no matter what the findings may be.

In less than six months, Tony Joseph has had to contradict his own enthusiastic claim that genetics has conclusively proved that a migration of 'Aryans' did happen into the Indian subcontinent about 4,000 years ago. For he has just admitted the possibility that ancient DNA (aDNA) from skeletons found in a Harappan settlement in Rakhigarhi, Haryana may prove his effusive claims – and indeed all claims of such a migration – wrong. Regardless of the actual results of the analysis of the aDNA, Joseph has had to backtrack, whether he realises it or not. Surely he could not have been unaware of the fact that this possibility existed even when he made his sweeping claim six months ago?

What is worse, in his latest article, Joseph persists with his selective presentation of facts, and appears to be preparing the ground for pushing a distorted narrative no matter what the analysis of the Rakhigarhi aDNA yields, inviting our scrutiny.

The Fundamental Flaw In The Migrationists’ Reasoning

There is no agreement among archaeologists about the identity of any ancient culture on the Steppe – or indeed anywhere – as having been that of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers. Indeed, there is no agreement on when PIE speakers may have existed, let alone their exact location. As the archaeo-anthropologist, the late professor Kenneth Kennedy pointed out, no 'Aryan' skeleton has ever been identified anywhere.

Thus, linking this DNA haplogroup subclade or that with the hypothetical Aryan migrants, simply because some affinity has been found between the genes obtained from ancient DNA in a Central Asian Bronze Age culture, and Indians, was always going to be speculative, especially as genetic affinities between Indians and some Eurasian populations have been known for quite some time now. This implies migrations had taken place between these regions, but geneticists are still unsure of both their direction as well as their time. Yet, amusingly, Joseph had gone overboard in claiming in his June article that genetics had come up with “unambiguous” evidence of Aryan migration into India.

Misrepresenting The Evidence

Joseph’s original claims were based on the thesis of linking the Y-chromosomal DNA haplogroup, R1a with Indo-European languages. However, two leading geneticists, Dr K Thangaraj and (now) Professor Gyaneshwer Chaubey, in a rebuttal to Joseph’s article, had cautioned against this for many reasons, two of which are particularly important: firstly, inadequate sampling meant we did not have an accurate picture of R1a frequencies in Indian populations and, secondly, even with the limited population sampling, some Indian tribal groups have shown anomalously high frequencies of the R1a, raising serious questions about its connection with IE languages. However, Joseph persists with his habit of selectively omitting inconvenient evidence, when he says, “...[the R1a haplogroup] is most common among north Indian Brahmins and least common among the tribals...”

More importantly, what if the Rakhigarhi aDNA does show R1a now, as Joseph admits it can? It would imply the Harappans may well have been the Vedic people. But this possibility existed even when he wrote in June that genetics had conclusively proved an Aryan migration. I also wonder where all this leaves the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, A S Panneerselvan, who had mounted a bizarre, blustery defence of his columnist.

Of course, Joseph is quick to mention a hypothesis that can explain the R1a away: the skeletons probably belonged to early 'Aryan' explorers from Central Asia who died in Rakhigarhi, and were buried there. But what about the tribal groups who have high percentages of R1a, whom Joseph pointedly avoids mentioning? Also, what if future studies find more such tribal communities? And while we are on the subject of sampling, how is he so sure that there are no IE-speaking communities that do not have R1a?

In addition to failing to grasp the pitfalls of inadequate sampling, Joseph also seems to have not appreciated the simple fact that genes by themselves tell us nothing about language and culture, if that is not independently known from other sources.

Ignoring The Archaeological Evidence

For someone who is so cavalier with the evidence, Joseph can’t resist taking swipes at others when he says, “...finding [R1a in the Rakhigarhi aDNA] would be the long-awaited confirmation of what they have always asserted without proof: The Indus Valley civilisation was Vedic, and the Aryans were those who built it.” This is not particularly bright. Joseph misses the elephant in the room: the Indus Valley Tradition (IVT) has the unique, unbeatable advantage over all other candidate cultures in being located right in the geographical area described in the Vedas. Clearly, Joseph is dogmatically opposed to identifying the IVT with the Vedic people. For some strange reason, one is reactionary if one merely mentions that something may have been developed indigenously in India, and one is rational and progressive only if one dogmatically holds that anything of value must necessarily have come from outside.

Joseph is also either ignorant of, or sidesteps, the evidence about the river Saraswati described in the Vedas and later literature, whose identification with the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra has been accepted by most archaeologists today. Among the many IVT settlements that were nourished by the Saraswati on its banks was – ironically for Joseph – Rakhigarhi. There is also the detailed evidence marshalled by B B Lal, former director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India.

Harappans As Dravidian Migrants From West Asia

Having got the inconvenient one off his chest, Joseph also describes the other possibilities that may arise from the aDNA analysis – while unfailingly misrepresenting/obscuring the evidence, as we shall see.

I will not comment on Joseph’s arguments for how the Indus valley people may have been Dravidians. However, he also says the Fertile Crescent is the “earliest cradle of human civilization” where agriculture and urbanisation originated before spreading all over Eurasia.

Just like the hypothesis that the Vedic people must have come from outside India, Western scholars had originally simply assumed that sedentism and agriculture had come to India from the Fertile Crescent. Joseph claims this model – which is basically a biblical myth, as many readers will have spotted – constitutes the “existing understanding of Asian history”. Again, he is either ignorant of, or omits, the archaeological findings which have by now established that sedentism, agriculture and urbanisation in India were indigenous and autochthonous developments.

The findings of the detailed excavations at the earliest known Neolithic settlements of the Indus Valley at Mehrgarh dating back to the eighth millennium BCE have show the progression of people from hunting of native wild animals and limited domestication of goats to domestication of native wild cereals including barley and wheat. Tellingly, it was the native Indian humped bull (Bos indicus) that was domesticated, whereas outside the subcontinent, it was always the Bos taurus, clearly showing that the trajectory in India was independent of any foreign influence. It was clearly a native people, who developed from hunting-gathering right from scratch and progressed through the exploitation of native, local resources – this has been established beyond doubt, regardless of what the aDNA results yield. The late French archaeologist, Jean-François Jarrige, who led the excavations at Mehrgarh, was quite categorical when he wrote, “...the assumption that farming economy was introduced full-fledged from Near-East to South Asia needs to be questioned.”

Did Austro-Asiatic Speakers Introduce Rice Cultivation To India?

While discussing the possibility of the Harappans having been Austro-Asiatic speakers, Joseph mentions the outdated theory that it was they who had introduced rice to India from South-East Asia, to where it had spread after rice was first domesticated in China.

Scholars accept the Ganga plains as an independent centre for the domestication of rice, wild varieties of which are native to this region, with evidence having been found for rice cultivation no later than the mid-seventh millennium BCE at Lahuradewa, on the Saryuparin Plain in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, microcharcoal (suggestive of some form of slash-and-burn agriculture) and cerealia pollen datable to 10,000 years ago have also been found here. Crucially, this region has evidence of continuous human occupation right from the Palaeolithic, and the Neolithic settlements here are as old as those of the IVT.

Curiously, small quantities of barley and wheat were also cultivated here, although these crops are suited less to the climate of the Ganga plain and more to the Indus Valley region, indicating close ties between the two regions right from the Neolithic period. When the Copper Age began in around the early third millennium BCE, both regions obtained their copper ore from the Aravallis, which seamlessly continued to be the source of copper ore into the Gangetic Tradition, centuries after the end of the Harappan period.

Joseph may want to factor all this evidence in when speculating who the Harappans may have been.

Proof And Prejudice

It does not help that Joseph’s homework is woefully inadequate. He relies far too much on outdated theories, and seems to not know where the archaeological evidence stands today. There is also reason to believe some of this may be deliberate, as I said above and in my earlier rebuttals of his articles.

Sure enough, he can hardly conceal his prejudice, and gives the game away when he says, “every single Indian... is a descendant of migrants and almost every Indian carries multiple lineages. ... Some of our lineages come from ... Neolithic migrations from West Asia, some from Neolithic migrations from East Asia, some from Bronze Age migrations from the Steppes, and some from migrations that happened even later.” The irony in making this statement in an article where he is discussing the possibility that forthcoming scientific evidence may actually disprove such migration theories has completely escaped him. Also, his statement is in direct contradiction to one thing that genetic studies have repeatedly found: North and South Indians, belonging to both caste and tribal communities, seem to have a common subcontinental ancestry, and migrations, if any, do not seem to have left much of a genetic trace.

Joseph’s article appears to be not so much an attempt at demystifying the science for the general reader but to prepare the ground for a prejudiced narrative no matter what the findings. This is proved when he dispenses with the need for evidence altogether and avers, “no matter what the geneticists come up with, the fact will remain that the sources of our civilisation are multiple, not single. ... Our cultural traditions, myths, beliefs, practices, languages and physical attributes are all, at the same time, both indigenously evolved and adapted as well as acquired from elsewhere.” Sadly for Joseph, the truth is that, no matter what the geneticists come up with, the archaeological and archaeo-anthropological evidence has already established beyond doubt that Indian civilisation is fundamentally and overwhelmingly indigenous, having organically evolved on the subcontinent, with absolutely no evidence for origins outside India of any physical or cultural attributes. In spite of the touching persistence of Joseph and others of his ilk, force of repetition is not going to make what they say, without a shred of supporting evidence, the truth.

While the ideal scenario for migrationists would be the absence of any R1a in the Rakhigarhi aDNA, whatever the results may be, there is no wishing the overwhelming archaeological evidence away. There is simply no case for agriculture having been introduced to India from outside. Also, as I said earlier, paradoxically, tin is absent for centuries from the archaeological record of the subcontinent from right after the supposed entry of a Bronze Age people from tin-rich Central Asia – a region that was known to have been exporting its tin to Mesopotamia and other ancient cultures. That would mean that, whoever these immigrants were, they were probably not the Vedic people. If, on the other hand, R1a is indeed found, then the migrationists may well become victims of their own propaganda.

Anil Kumar is a materials scientist.

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