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The basic premise of Ancient Indian History has been the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), which posits that a group of fair Central Asians (probably from somewhere in the Caucasus) invaded India and displaced the darker natives southwards. The civilisation most directly impacted by this was the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), known by its two biggest discoveries in 1922, Harappa (24,000 inhabitants) and Mohenjo-daro (35,000 inhabitants). This civilisation was, according to this theory, centred around the Indus river system, and expanded from Bactria in central Iran to Lothal in Gujarat. By implication, the people were of Dravidian stock, short and dark like modern South Indians. This is all a fabulous tale – were it the plot of a Mel Gibson movie in the vein of Apocalypto. Sadly, it is also the dominant strain in academic discourse as is evidenced not only by scholarly papers archaeology, history, and population genetics,.but also the California textbook controversy in 2005. Recently, the AIT has been modified by some to a migration theory. So now, Aryans moved into India from Central Asia and settled down without war and bloodshed posited earlier. To be fair, the jury is still out on the AIT, but with each genetic study done, the assumptions of the theory are being whittled away. Add to that a complete lack of evidence in archaeology and contemporary literature, AIT seems to stand on pretty flimsy ground.

Since the early 1990s, the Indian subcontinent has been the focus of many genetic studies, most of which seem to yield divergent conclusions. This is because (1) India is one of the most diverse and complex genetic pools in the world; (2) early studies relied on too limited samples, a few dozens, when hundreds or ideally thousands of samples are required for some statistical reliability; (3) some of the early studies fell into the old trap of trying to equate linguistic groups with distinct ethnic entities — a relic of the nineteenth-century erroneous identification between language and race; as a result, a genetic connection between North Indians and Central Asians was automatically taken to confirm an Aryan invasion in the second millennium BCE, disregarding a number of alternative explanations. More recent studies, rectifying the errors of previous studies and building on their less controversial results, have reached very different conclusions.

One study conducted by the Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild relied on 550 samples of mtDNA and identified a haplogroup called “U” as indicating a deep connection between Indian and Western-Eurasian populations. However, the authors extrapolated a very remote separation of the two branches, rather than a recent population movement towards India. They note, “the subcontinent served as a pathway for eastward migration of modern humans” from Africa, some 40,000 years ago: “We found an extensive deep late Pleistocene genetic link between contemporary Europeans and Indians, provided by the mtDNA haplogroup U, which encompasses roughly a fifth of mtDNA lineages of both populations. Our estimate for this split [between Europeans and Indians] is close to the suggested time for the peopling of Asia and the first expansion of anatomically modern humans in Eurasia and likely pre-dates their spread to Europe.” In other words, the timescale posited by the AIT framework is inadequate, and the genetic affinity between the Indian subcontinent and Europe “should not be interpreted in terms of a recent admixture of western Caucasoids with Indians caused by a putative Indo-Aryan invasion 3,000–4,000 years BP (before present).” Another study, by U.S. biological anthropologist Todd Disotell, found that migrations into India “did occur, but rarely from western Eurasian populations.” Disotell wrote, “The supposed Aryan invasion of India 3,000–4,000 years before present therefore did not make a major splash in the Indian gene pool. This is especially counter-indicated by the presence of equal, though very low, frequencies of the western Eurasian mtDNA types in both southern and northern India. Thus, the ‘caucasoid’ features of south Asians may best be considered ‘pre-caucasoid’ — that is, part of a diverse north or north-east African gene pool that yielded separate origins for western Eurasian and southern Asian populations over 50,000 years ago.” Here again, the Eurasian connection is therefore traced to the original migration out of Africa. On the genetic level, “the supposed Aryan invasion of India 3000-4000 years ago was much less significant than is generally believed.”

In a study by Susanta Roychoudhury in 2000, 644 samples of mtDNA from some ten Indian ethnic groups, especially from the East and South were analysed. They found “a fundamental unity of mtDNA lineages in India, in spite of the extensive cultural and linguistic diversity,” pointing to “a relatively small founding group of females in India.” Significantly, “most of the mtDNA diversity observed in Indian populations is between individuals within populations; there is no significant structuring of haplotype diversity by socio-religious affiliation, geographical location of habitat or linguistic affiliation.” That is a crucial observation, which later studies will endorse: on the maternal side at least, there is no such thing as a “Hindu” or “Muslim” genetic identity, nor even a high- or low-caste one, a North- or South-Indian one — hence the expressive title of the study: “Fundamental genomic unity of ethnic India is revealed by analysis of mitochondrial DNA.” The authors also noted that haplogroup “U,” already noted by Kivisild et al. as being common to North Indian and “Caucasoid” populations, was found in tribes of eastern India such as the Lodhas and Santals, which would not be the case if it had been introduced through Indo-Aryans. Such is also the case of the haplogroup “M,” another marker frequently mentioned in the early literature as evidence of the invasion: in reality, “we have now shown that indeed haplogroup M occurs with a high frequency, averaging about 60%, across most Indian population groups, irrespective of geographical location of habitat. We have also shown that the tribal populations have higher frequencies of haplogroup M than caste populations.” Also in 2000, Kivisild and his team stressed the importance of the mtDNA haplogroup “M” common to India (with a frequency of 60%), Central and Eastern Asia (40% on average), and even to American Indians; however, this frequency drops to 0.6% in Europe, which is “inconsistent with the ‘general Caucasoidness’ of Indians.” This shows, once again, that “the Indian maternal gene pool has come largely through an autochthonous history since the Late Pleistocene.” The authors then studied the “U” haplogroup, finding its frequency to be 13% in India, almost 14% in North-West Africa, and 24% from Europe to Anatolia; but, in their opinion, “Indian and western Eurasian haplogroup U varieties differ profoundly; the split has occurred about as early as the split between the Indian and eastern Asian haplogroup M varieties. The data show that both M and U exhibited an expansion phase some 50,000 years ago, which should have happened after the corresponding splits.” In other words, there is a genetic connection between India and Europe, but a far more ancient one than was thought.

Another important point is that looking at mtDNA as a whole, “even the high castes share more than 80 per cent of their maternal lineages with the lower castes and tribals”; this obviously runs counter to the AIT thesis. Taking all aspects into consideration, the authors conclude: “We believe that there are now enough reasons not only to question a ‘recent Indo-Aryan invasion’ into India some 4000 BP, but alternatively to consider India as a part of the common gene pool ancestral to the diversity of human maternal lineages in Europe.”

In later studies, Kivisild dealt with the origin of languages and agriculture in India. He stressed India’s genetic complexity and antiquity, since “present-day Indians [possess] at least 90 per cent of what we think of as autochthonous Upper Palaeolithic maternal lineages.” They also observed that “the Indian mtDNA tree in general [is] not subdivided according to linguistic (Indo-European, Dravidian) or caste affiliations,” which again demonstrates the old error of conflating language and race or ethnic group. Then, in a new development, they punched holes in the methodology followed by studies basing themselves on the Y-DNA (the paternal line) to establish the Aryan invasion, and point out that if one were to extend their logic to populations of Eastern and Southern India, one would be led to an exactly opposite result: “the straightforward suggestion would be that both Neolithic (agriculture) and Indo-European languages arose in India and from there, spread to Europe.” In yet another study with L. Cavalli-Sforza and P. A. Underhill, Kivisild undertook a particularly detailed examination of the genetic heritage of India’s earliest settlers, using nearly a thousand samples from the subcontinent, including two Dravidian-speaking tribes from Andhra Pradesh.15 Among other important findings, it stressed that the Y-DNA haplogroup “M17,” regarded till recently as a marker of the Aryan invasion, and indeed frequent in Central Asia, is equally found in the two tribes under consideration, which is inconsistent with the AIT framework. Moreover, one of the two tribes, the Chenchus, is genetically close to several castes, so that there is a “lack of clear distinction between Indian castes and tribes,” a fact that can hardly be overemphasized.

This also emerges from a diagram of genetic distances between eight Indian and seven Eurasian populations, distances calculate on the basis of 16 Y-DNA haplogroups. The diagram challenges many common assumptions: as just mentioned, five castes are grouped with the Chenchus; another tribe, the Lambadis, is stuck between Western Europe and the Middle East; Bengalis of various castes are close to Bombay Brahmins, and Punjabis are as far away as possible from Central Asia! It is clear that no simple framework can account for such complexity, least of all the AIT framework. Mait Metspalu confirmed the results of this study by analysing 796 Indian (including both tribal and caste populations from different parts of India) and 436 Iranian mtDNAs and concluding, “Language families present today in India, such as Indo-European, Dravidic and Austro-Asiatic, are all much younger than the majority of indigenous mtDNA lineages found among their present-day speakers at high frequencies. It would make it highly speculative to infer, from the extant mtDNA pools of their speakers, whether one of the listed above linguistically defined group in India should be considered more autochthonous than any other in respect of its presence in the subcontinent.”

Indian biologist Sanghamitra Sengupta, together with L. Cavalli-Sforza, Partha P. Majumder, and P. A. Underhill, undertook a study in 2006 on 728 samples covering 36 Indian populations. His findings were no different from Kivisild’s. For instance, the authors rejected the identification of some Y-DNA genetic markers with an “Indo- European expansion,” an identification they called “convenient but incorrect … overly simplistic.” To them, the subcontinent’s genetic landscape was formed much earlier than the dates proposed for an Indo-Aryan immigration: “The influence of Central Asia on the pre-existing gene pool was minor. … There is no evidence whatsoever to conclude that Central Asia has been necessarily the recent donor and not the receptor of the R1a lineages.” Most significantly, this study indirectly rejected a “Dravidian” authorship of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization, since it noted, “Our data are also more consistent with a peninsular origin of Dravidian speakers than a source with proximity to the Indus….” They found, in conclusion, “overwhelming support for an Indian origin of Dravidian speakers.”

Another Indian biologist, Sanghamitra Sahoo, working with Kivisild and V. K. Kashyap, for a study of the Y-DNA of 936 samples covering 77 Indian populations, 32 of them tribes. The authors left no room for doubt: “The sharing of some Y-chromosomal haplogroups between Indian and Central Asian populations is most parsimoniously explained by a deep, common ancestry between the two regions, with diffusion of some Indian- specific lineages northward.” So the southward gene flow that had been imprinted on our minds for two centuries was wrong, after all: the flow was out of, not into, India. The authors continue: “The Y-chromosomal 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.”

The last of the two rejected associations is that of Indo-Aryan expansion – the first, that of the spread of agriculture, is the well-known thesis of Colin Renfrew, which traces Indo-European origins to the beginnings of agriculture in Anatolia, and sees Indo-Europeans entering India around 9000 BP, along with agriculture: Sanghamitra Sahoo et al. see no evidence of this in the genetic record. The same data also reveals that “the caste populations of ‘north’ and ‘south’ India are not particularly more closely related to each other than they are to the tribal groups,” an important confirmation of earlier studies. In particular, “Southern castes and tribals are very similar to each other in their Y-chromosomal haplogroup compositions.” As a result, “it was not possible to confirm any of the purported differentiations between the caste and tribal pools,” a momentous conclusion that directly clashes with the Aryan paradigm, which imagined Indian tribes as adivasis and the caste Hindus as descendants of Indo-Aryans invaders or immigrants. In reality, we have no way, today, to determine who in India is an “adi”-vasi, but enough data to reject this label as misleading and unnecessarily divisive.

It is, of course, still possible to find genetic studies finding differences between North and South Indians or higher and lower castes but that may be because of a certain nocebo effect caused by two centuries of acculturation (or suspect randomisation, size of sample, and referent). The studies cited above argue overwhelmingly for an unequivocal rejection of a 3500-BP arrival of a “Caucasoid” or Central Asian gene pool. Just as the Aryan invasion/migration left no trace in Indian literature, in the archaeological and the anthropological record, it is invisible at the genetic level. The agreement between these different fields is remarkable by any standard, and gives us the opportunity to reconsider our linguistic and historical preconceptions. Secondly, they account for India’s considerable genetic diversity by using a time- scale not of a few millennia, but of 40,000 or 50,000 years. In fact, several experts, such as Lluís Quintana-Murci, Vincent Macaulay, Stephen Oppenheimer, Michael Petraglia, and others, have in the last few years proposed that when Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa, he first reached South-West Asia around 75,000 BP, and from here, went on to other parts of the world. In simple terms, except for Africans, all humans have ancestors in the North-West of the Indian peninsula. In particular, one migration started around 50,000 BP towards the Middle East and Western Europe: indeed, nearly all Europeans — and by extension, many Americans — can trace their ancestors to only four mtDNA lines, which appeared between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago and originated from South Asia.” In Oppenheimer’s own words, “For me and for Toomas Kivisild, South Asia is logically the ultimate origin of M17 and his ancestors; and sure enough we find the highest rates and greatest diversity of the M17 line in Pakistan, India, and eastern Iran, and low rates in the Caucasus. M17 is not only more diverse in South Asia than in Central Asia, but diversity characterizes its presence in isolated tribal groups in the south, thus undermining any theory of M17 as a marker of a ‘male Aryan invasion’ of India. One average estimate for the origin of this line in India is as much as 51,000 years. All this suggests that M17 could have found his way initially from India or Pakistan, through Kashmir, then via Central Asia and Russia, before finally coming into Europe.”

Archaeogenetics has given historians a new tool to re-examine the past where records are scanty. In the case of Ancient India, it is certainly clearing out the colonial historiography, save for the resistance of those whose careers have been built on outmoded European thought on India’s (and their own) ancestors. The new evidence, fodder for the Hindutva brigade, has created for itself another enemy – the anti-Hindutva brigade (because, if the Aryan invasion is not true, it could have implications regarding the dating of the IVC and the Hindu scriptures). In this tussle, it is politics that is winning out, and not our understanding of the past. For all their deploring the ban on Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah recently and MF Hussain’s depiction of the Hindu Goddess Saraswati in the nude, these self-appointed messiahs of Indian historiography dismiss these findings by labelling them as ‘saffronising’ Indian History (note, for example, Romila Thapar’s honorary doctorate from the Sorbonne in 2001 and the laudatio given by the French). The political instrumentalisation of theories about Indo-European origins has yielded coalitions of strange bedfellows. On the side of the hypothesis of an Aryan invasion of India, we find old colonial apologists and race theorists and their marginalized successors in the contemporary West along with a broad alliance of the Christian missionaries and the Marxists who have dominated India’s intellectual sector for the past several decades. On the side of the non-invasionist or Aryan-indigenist hypothesis, we find long-dead European Romantics and a few contemporary Western India lovers, along with an anti-colonialist school of thought in India, mainly consisting of contemporary Hindu nationalists. Obviously, among the subscribers to either view we also find scholars without any political axe to grind, and it is in these individuals we must place our hope.

This article has used the following sources:

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