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Ancestral Echoes in Indian Genes -- II By Prabir Purkayastha
In the earlier article, we had discussed that in order to discuss Rajaram’s and Sudarshan’s claims regarding mitochondrial DNA studies, we need to examine how genetics is used in history. In this section, we examine the current state of genetic evidence and what it can and cannot establish.

We discussed in the earlier part the use of genetics in the study of human migration. Having resolved one of the controversial questions -- the origins of modern homo sapiens -- the value of genetics in such studies is now increasingly clear. Coupled with this, is the break-neck speed at which this field is developing. Genetics therefore is an exciting addition to archaeology and linguistics, the only other tools that we posses for examining the ancient period for which we have no textual records.

The African origin – most probably in East Africa – raised the question of what route the modern homo sapiens followed into Asia, Europe, Australia and finally the Americas. It is conjectured that about 80,000-100,000 years ago, a group left Africa to reach West Asia. There is now some evidence to indicate that there were two routes out of Africa: one out of Ethiopia, Arabian Peninsula and into India – the southerly route; the other was from North Africa into West Asia and then to Europe. Undoubtedly, improved genetic techniques will answer some of these questions unambiguously in the next few years. What is fairly conclusive is that the migration to Europe, Australia and the Americas came out of West Asia. The Palaeolithic people – hunters and food gatherers using primitive stone tools -- populated India, Europe, China, Australia and the Americas, indeed the entire world, all originating from West Asia.

A fundamental change in the life of the people came with the Neolithic revolution, about 8,000-10,000 years back. With this, we move towards settled agriculture and domestication of animals. There are three centres where agriculture seems to have been discovered independently. The first is the Fertile Crescent in West Asia – an arc starting from Israel through Syria and Iraq to Iran. This is the area to which we can trace the origin of wheat and barley. The second is in East Asia, where rice was discovered. And the third is in Mexico, which gave us maize, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. The interesting historical question is how did farming spread: through farmers migrating out due to population pressures or through cultural diffusion: through contacts of Neolithic agriculturists with the Palaeolithic people. Cavelli-Sforza’s conjecture of the “demic” nature of this spread – spread through farmers and not farming – has been partially substantiated by the genetic record. However, it is now clear that cultural transmission also played a significant part. The latest genetic data seems to show that the Neolithic component in the European gene pool is about 10-20%; the major components still are of the earlier Palaeolithic and Mesolithic strata.

Based on Cavelli-Sfroza’s theory of demic diffusion, Colin Renfrew, a leading British archaeologist, made an extremely provocative conjecture in 1987. In his book Archaeology and Language: the Puzzle of the Indo-Europeans, he argued that the spread of Indo-European language family was the result of this demic diffusion. He therefore shifted the possible date of the proto Indo-European language – the mother language from which all Indo-European languages are derived -- to about 8,000 BCE (Before Current Epoch). The conventional hypothesis had been that the Indo-European languages originated probably in Central Asian steppes and spread due to the military superiority of the Indo-Europeans – their use of horses and chariots. Though Renfrew did leave open the possibility of Indo-European speakers arriving in India and Iran from the Asian steppes overlaying the earlier spread of Neolithic farmers, he was sceptical of the standard model of Aryan invasion. In his scheme, the primary spread of the Indo-European speakers was due to the demic expansion of the Neolithic farmers – the Indo-European speakers were “riding” ploughs rather than horses. The Hindutva lobby has almost exclusively fashioned their Sanskrit being indigenous thesis on Renfrew’s theory of Neolithic expansion.

Recently, Renfrew has re-examined his earlier schema and has come to the conclusion that he had over-emphasised the role of demic diffusion (At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Language, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10:1, 2000). He has now come to the conclusion that language transmission is not necessarily a migration of people and can take place through cultural diffusion accompanying the spread of agriculture. Another modification he has now made is arguing for an Elamite-Dravidian expansion through Iran and India along with the spread of Neolithic agriculture. Thus, in his current scheme, along with agriculture, the Indo-European languages spread in Europe while a Proto Dravidian language spread from West Asia to India. The current Indo-European languages in India -- in this scheme -- are from “elite dominance” by later Indo-European speaking groups exercising military superiority. This is the branch of Indo-Europeans, which gave rise to both “Vedic” Sanskrit and the Old Iranian language Avsetan, in which Avesta, the sacred book of the Zoroastrians is written. It must be emphasised that Renfrew’s change of views has been gradual and even by 1989, he was willing to consider that the expansion of agriculture into India came from a Dravidian and not an Indo-European stream.

What can the genetic data tell us about the migration of languages? It is important to realise that the genetic data can only speak about the migration of people and cannot give any evidence regarding the culture of the migrating people. The genes have no language; only human beings do. Thus conjectures about language migrations can be substantiated only by linguistic evidence, texts and archaeological data; the genetic data can give information only about underlying human migrations. If a language transmission takes place through contact and spread of farming (not spread of farmers), it will leave very little genetic record. Similarly, if a small group of speakers become the dominant elite through military conquest, they can impose their language on the general population, again without a significant genetic record.

The Hindutva lobby argues that the genetic evidence does not show mass scale Aryan invasion, ergo Sanskrit must have originated in India. They therefore equate movement of language with the movement of people. If we take this equation of the Hindutva lobby’s at face value, we come across immediately an even bigger problem. If indeed the Aryan invasion did not occur and Sanskrit is completely home grown, how do we explain the spread of Indo-European languages related to Sanskrit in other parts of the world? Further, a number of the current Indo-European languages that are spoken today seem to have separated much later than 8,000 years BCE even if we accept the older Renfrew thesis regarding spread of Indo-European languages due to Neolithic farmers. Therefore, if we are looking at a homeland for these languages, we probably have to look at other areas then the original Neolithic home in West Asia. The Hindutva lobby’s preferred answer of course is that Northwest India -- the Indus Valley civilisation, renamed the Indus-Saraswati civilisation -- must be this second homeland. The problem here is that if it is so, based on their equation of language and peoples’ migration, it should manifest itself through genetic outflows from India. However, as they claim the Indian gene pool is distinct, it automatically rules out Northwest India as the homeland for this branch of Indo-Europeans. Any mechanism that seeks to explain the Indian language scenario must also be able to explain the larger historical picture. Thus, the Renfrew thesis identifying the spread Indo-European languages with the spread of the Neolithic people, combined with the Hindutva version of the development of Sanskrit indigenously on the banks of the Saraswati, does not solve any real historical problem.

The genetic isolation of the Indian population from other Indo-Europeans then cuts both ways. If there is no large-scale inflow, the genetic record shows that there is no large-scale outflow either. If this establishes the independent development of Sanskrit in India, it must then argue that all Indo-European languages have similarly grown independently, a preposterous position making nonsense of the concept of a linguistic family. Otherwise, it will have to be accepted that the spread of Indo-European language has not been accompanied by massive migrations of people.

An interesting new twist to the historical debate has taken place on the question of Dravidian languages. If we disregard the relatively unsupported claim of the Hindutva lobby that the Dravidian group of languages is derived from Sanskrit, the question that arises is whether Dravidian language group developed in India or it came from outside? In 1981, McAlpin (quoted by Cavelli-Sforza in his book co-authored with Menozzi and Piazza, 1994) deciphered the Elamite language (Elam is the Biblical name for an area in south western Iran with extensive contacts with Mesopotamia) which was written down in the cuneiform script and therefore not difficult to decipher. According to McAlpin, the Elamite language is related to the Dravidian group of languages. This is the basis of Renfrew’s current conjecture (and also independently by Cavelli-Sforza) that the southward thrust of the Neolithic farmers from the Iranian horn of the Fertile Crescent to India was of Proto Dravidian speakers. The Mehargarh site in India, which is the oldest Neolithic site in South Asia (dated as 7,000 BCE), is at the foot of the Bolan-pass and leads into Indian sub-continent from South Iran. This is consistent with Neolithic farmers taking this route into India from the Fertile Crescent. If McAlpin’s linguistic analysis were correct, it would mean that the Dravidian-speaking farmers populated the area from Iran to South India, along with a more ancient Austric speaking people of hunters and food gatherers in India. This would then strengthen the arguments for the Indus Valley civilisation to be Dravidian speaking. There is further corroborative evidence in that a number of signs of Harappan origin seem to appear in the Elamite tablets.

In the light of the above discussions, let us look at the current genetic evidence in India. The primary data from the various studies indicates that there is clear evidence of Caucasoid (Caucasoid here is being used as a short hand for genetic markers carried by European and Central Asian populations and not as a racial type) admixture in the North Indian population, particularly the caste population and the Muslims. Therefore, the Rajaram claim, repeated by the RSS supreme Sudarshan, of no or very little of such admixture is clearly false. The studies also indicate that the South Indian population has differences with the North, West and East Indian populations. This again contradicts the Hindutva lobby’s claim of no genetic differences between the South and North Indian population.  The interesting find is that the Austric speaking population appears to be the oldest strata in the India. However, in spite of all these differences, it is also true that there is a fundamental genomic unity of the Indian population, more so for the female population. For this, we have to remember that the variation between groups contributes only about 15% of all genetic variations and 85% of all variations are within the group.

 All this is available in the various genetic studies conducted in the country, particularly by the Human Genetics Group of the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta. As we had brought out in the earlier piece, Majumder in his paper on  “People of India: Biological Diversity and Difficulties”, in Evolutionary Anthropology, 1998, says”…… the populations of Southern India stand apart genetically from the populations of North, West, East and Central India”. In a more recent paper in Majumder and his co-researchers state “ ..this finding is indicative of a higher Caucasoid admixture in northern Indian populations”, Current Science, November 2000.  From their data, we cannot yet draw final conclusions regarding dating either the earlier Neolithic influx or a later influx of Indo-European speakers. However, Gadgil, and his co-researchers in seem to believe that there is genetic evidence regarding invasion of Dravidian and the Indo-European speakers. However, in both these and other studies, neither the genetic isolation demanded in the Rajaram thesis nor the homogeneity needed for creating a homogenised future is established. Indeed, all evidence is against both these propositions.

Genetic evidence thus far discovered is quite in consonance with what most historians today believe. According to Romila Thapar, the doyen of Ancient Indian History, there were probably multiple waves of invasion of Indo-European speakers into India. One such group was the Vedic Aryans, who came into India from Afghanistan. Romila had postulated as early as 1968 that the number of such speakers was not high and their language spread by technological superiority and elite dominance and not through numbers. This is the same case that Rajesh Kochar has argued in his recent book “The Vedic People; Their History and Geography”. 

All genetic studies show that geographical features – mountains and oceans -- have a lot to do with gene flows. The Himalayas, while permitting some gene flows, is an obvious barrier to large-scale migrations of people. Thus, we would expect the genetic composition of the South Asian population to be distinct with higher admixtures in the north, west and east. We would expect some inflow from the north of Caucasoid people, as the route to North India is from a region peopled by Caucasoid people, just as we would expect a Mongoloid influx into eastern India. The current genetic studies, which are in their infancy, even with their rather thin database substantiate this broad picture. The interesting light that they throw is regarding South East Asian migration. It was earlier postulated that the Palaeolithic people came into South East Asia through China and the route into India of Palaeolithic people was from the East. This was buttressed by the fact that 98% of the Austric language speakers in the world are from South East Asia and only 2% are in India. The genetic studies show however that the reverse is likely to have happened. South East Asia received two separate migrations: one from China and one from India.

Undoubtedly, as more evidence comes in, we will know more about the pathways of migration that took place into India with possibly better dates than we possess currently. What we cannot establish is the language they spoke and how language and other cultural artefacts were transmitted. For these, we will have to look at other disciplines: linguistics, archaeology and textual analysis. Anybody, who speaks with a certainty of the language of the Indus Valley people using genetic evidence, is using science for essentially a political project.

The point that we need to understand is that secular historiography is completely neutral to whether Indus Valley people spoke Vedic Sanskrit, Dravidian or proto Munda. If there is enough evidence for any of these, historical theories must necessarily incorporate that. For the Hindutva lobby however, history is quite a different venture. The past is preordained in their books: it must show the indigenous origin of Hindu religion; therefore the need to appropriate the Indus Valley civilisation and construct a set of historical “facts” or genetic “facts” even if they do not exist. If “these” constructed facts do not match the larger picture of either human or language migration that is not their concern. Therefore, the Hindutva lobby needs to take facts selectively and discard those that are uncomfortable. This is where the project of identifying the Indus Valley people ceases to be a historical one and comes out in its true colours as a political project. 

Interestingly, the same pseudo historians and ideologues that earlier claimed a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya are the ones now arguing for a Saraswati civilisation. It is the same S.P.Gupta, of the Babri demolition fame that is the leading light of converting Indus Valley to a Saraswati civilisation. After their assault on a historical structure, we have an assault on history itself. Science is sought to be made an accomplice. Unfortunately, only doing violence to science can science be bent this way. That is why these current attempts are either bad history or direct fraud.