Why The Latest Genetic Study Does Not Rewrite India’s History

Why The Latest Genetic Study Does Not Rewrite India’s HistoryThe ancient Indus Valley. (Wikimedia Commons)
  • This conflation of genetics with culture is an easy trap to fall into, and wholly erroneous.

    Indians should know their origins and their history; and they need no longer blame that history for today’s realities.

Nearly a decade ago, when the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) began its textbook entanglements in California, much of the most acrimonious contentions hinged on what was then dogma – the Aryan invasion.

American school children were taught that “Aryans”, speaking Sanskrit, had mounted on horses, descended through the Khyber Pass, and destroyed the extant Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC). The hapless IVC people – dark skinned, of course – were said to either be driven deep into South India or enslaved as the lowest castes or untouchables by the fair skinned ritualists with their fire sacrifices and foreign chants they carried down from Central Asia.

Confronted by the archaeological evidence that there was no evidence of war-like devastation in the ruins of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (just migrations likely due to drying of rivers, as a just published study again demonstrates) or that the Vedas, the ostensible historical record of those Aryans, actually carried no record of destruction or subjugations, the “Aryan invasion” silently morphed into the “Aryan migration”. Scientists and linguists wrestled with these inconsistencies, even if the most irredeemable Indian historians did not.

Fast forward to 2017, the California arena saw the academic opposition of a Harvard scholar insisting on Aryan invasions replaced by the antics of American Dalit identitarians. Only the players changed – the insistence that the Vedic age was a racist age of “Brahminism,” Aryans came from outside as oppressors, and that the Dalits and Dravidians were one and the same oppressed peoples for their skin color remained unchanged.

No wonder then that just a pre-release of a not yet peer-reviewed article anchored by noted Harvard geneticist David Reich was breathlessly trumpeted by the political inheritors of the Indic race theory.

Shashi Tharoor tweeted:

The scientific basis of this paper by Reich’s group is by now well-known. Briefly, DNA samples from the Steppes (present day Russia and Kazakhstan), Iran/“Turan” (present day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the Swat Valley of Pakistan were analysed. There were no DNA samples analysed from the actual sites of the IVC. A comparison of the ancient DNA was made to DNA samples from hundreds of living Indians from various castes and regions.

The analysis – which is still undergoing peer review preliminary as it is and bereft of actual IVC DNA samples – implies that, indeed, today’s Indian population is comprised of three groups: Steppes, Iran/Turan, and early South Asian peoples (that the paper calls, without citation or linguistic elaboration, “hunter-gatherers”). The paper contends that people from Iran likely came first – more than 7,000 years ago and mixed with IVC people – that Steppe people migrated some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and that depending on region and caste, all Indians share varying proportions of Steppe and later IVC genetic pools. North Indian Brahmins, the study claims, have the highest proportion of Steppe ancestry of any Indian cohort, and the authors conclude that this confirms that the so-called custodians of the Vedas descended from Steppe migrations.

So there was a migration of people into India, and as it happens, the genetic signals show that there was also an early migration out of India around 4,000-5,000 years ago or so into the Bactria region (modern day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). “So there we are; all questions answered…” says another eager analyst long heralding the end of the Aryan debate.

Despite the premature pronouncements, and let’s be clear as to what is answered and what remains firmly in the realm of conjecture after this latest Reich study. First, it is important to recognise that, while there were some voices claiming Indo-European languages spread from India to Europe, most of those uncomfortable with the ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’ were opposed not to the idea of people moving into India from the Northwest but rather to the insistence of an invasion, and to racially charged theories about how such an invasion destroyed the IVC, directly displaced the “Dravidian race” and created a birth-based caste system. Such theories are now held only by political ideologues and deserve no place in scholarly discourse or school textbooks.

Secondly, there is in fact, no actual IVC or South Asian DNA in the entire cohort. So indirect genotyping without studying the indexed individual – meaning extrapolating the DNA of a heterogeneous population such as today’s India as this study does – is vulnerable to serious errors. Until the much awaited Rakhigarhi samples – believed to be derived from the first skeletal remains of actual IVC people – are released, we are left with a major assumption that the Swat Valley of Northern Pakistan is a reasonable placeholder for IVC.

As to the conclusion that Steppe people are the progenitors of today’s North Indian Brahmins, it may be true that Brahmins are outliers in terms of stronger Steppe ancestry. But that difference, though statistically significant, is small indeed. For all of the alleged racism of these early Brahmins and their ostensible purity fetishes, these Brahmins still managed to dilute their gene pool to be seven times closer to the Indian mix of the IVC than to the Steppe from where they may have originated. No pure Russified bloodline do these Brahmins carry, rather just another Indian mix – like all Indians. And to Dalit ideologues who have long foisted a blackness narrative – racialist nationalism – to intersectionally connect the African American struggle with the Dalit struggle not just against oppression, but on a professed genetic intersection – this study demolishes that notional “otherness.” In addition, no steppe enrichment was found to be present among south Indian groups, including Brahmins.

So the genetic data give us interesting information about the bloodlines of India’s progenitors. But not a word of the study says anything about the legacy of those ancestors – the culture, language, spiritual insights or ways of living. Kanishq Tharoor, for example, offered this requiem to nationalists:

Hindutva irredentists insist that the culture of the Vedas had to originate in India, not come from elsewhere. Using genetic science, this new study confirms the outlandishness of that theory.”

But this conflation of genetics with culture is an easy trap to fall into, and wholly erroneous. Not a shred of available genetic data lends credence to any contention that the Vedas, Sanskrit or the very underpinning of Hindu civilisation originated outside of India. Take Reich’s team’s own words from a previous manuscript predicated on similar assumptions where genetic data is seen to corroborate scriptural evidence written within the Indus Valley:

The Rig Veda, the oldest text in India, has sections that are believed to have been composed at different times. The older parts do not mention the caste system at all, and in fact suggest that there was substantial social movement across groups as reflected in the acceptance of people with non-Indo-European names as kings (or chieftains) and poets. The four-class (varna) system, comprised of Brahmanas, Ksatriyas, Vaisyas, and Sudras, is mentioned only in the part of the Rig Veda that was likely to have been composed later (the appendix: book 10). The caste (jati) system of endogamous groups having specific social or occupational roles is not mentioned in the Rig Veda at all and is referred to only in texts composed centuries after the Rig Veda, for example, the law code of Manu that forbade intermarriage between castes. Thus, the evolution of Indian texts during this period provides confirmatory support as well as context for our genetic findings.

That is quite a complete deconstruction of so many long-held assumptions that colour India’s ideologically driven study of history and, too, the false narratives peddled in California. So no, these Steppe pastoral people that may have entered India did not import the Vedas nor enslave a population. There was no racist basis of Indian civilisation. There was no casteism imposed on a native population – the supposedly original Indians. The Vedas did not codify a birth-based hierarchy and enforce endogamy.

And the important corollary: Sanskrit was not a foreign language spoken by the Steppe pastoralists and brought to India. The proto-Indo-European language that the Steppe people may have spoken –surmise based on an earlier migration of Steppe pastoralists into Europe and the known cognates of western languages and Sanskrit, for example – only flowered into the complete language of the Vedas, Upanishads, yoga shastras and the hoary breadth of Hindu sacred texts, within the geographical confines of what we know today as India (or perhaps more accurately “South Asia” as modern-day Pakistan would be included). There is a reason why Hindus not only in India, but throughout the diaspora, privilege India as the cradle of their religion and culture, and this genetic data will not shift that sentiment.

So we must ignore the breathless conclusions. We must reject, too, the conflations of genetics and culture. The younger Tharoor’s rather triumphant declaration illustrates this fallacy.

The genes bespeak of no declines in people or civilisations. The IVC sites in Harappa, Mohenjo Daro, and along the likely Saraswati River corridor declined due to droughts, but the people and their ways of living perhaps never disappeared. Rather, an economical explanation – a linguistically and archaeologically defensible one – would be that that Vedic Civilisation and the religion it gave forth – the Sanskrit and samskriti – emerged from a heady time of indigenous ideas meeting those of various migrants in and out of a peninsula where some evocative, really mind-blowing conversations were happening.

Nothing changes then, from what so many Hindu students lining up at a podium in California said late last fall in front of the State Board of Education. It is not “Hindutva History” to insist that Indians and a billion Hindus around the world cherish India as the cradle of their civilisation; of Sanskrit; of yoga; of all dharma traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is not “Savarna Fragility” to boldly declare that there is no racist basis to this migration nor to the varna system that preceded the shameful era of casteism and discrimination. And it is not “fake history” to insist that while there may have been migrations into India, the Indus Valley Civilisation also sent people out of India. Indians should know their origins and their history; and they need no longer blame that history for today’s realities.

Aseem Shukla, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-founder and member of the Board of Directors of the Hindu American Foundation

Swami Venkataraman, an Executive Council member of the Hindu American Foundation, is a financial analyst based in New York.


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