‘There is no pure race in India’

Indians are a mix of First Indians, Iranian agriculturalists, south-east Asians and pastoralists from the central Asian Steppe, says author Tony Joseph

‘There is no pure race in India’

Ashlin Mathew

In our country, the topic of our origins has always been contentious, especially in the north, where the notion of being a ‘pure blood’ was associated with superiority of our race. And now, we have governments which promote mythology as history.

Author Tony Joseph in his new book Early Indians – The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From sets right most of these notions and goes on to assert that there is nothing called a ‘pure race’ in this country. Indians are a mix of First Indians, Iranian agriculturalists, south-east Asians and pastoralists from the central Asian Steppe and, more importantly, the so called ‘Aryans’ had nothing to do with the Harappan Civilisation, says Joseph in an interview with Ashlin Mathew

What drew you to the topic of genetics and more specifically DNA of Indians?

I started on this project because of my interest in prehistory in general and the Harappan Civilisation in particular.Three questions about the Harappan Civilisation had remained a mystery: who were the Harappans, where did they go, and why did it take more than a thousand years for urbanism and cities to rise up in India again, after it declined? But as my research progressed, it became clear that you cannot really answer questions about the Harappan Civilisation unless you understand the periods before it, and the centuries after it.

To begin with, could you explain what the ancestry of Indians is? How old are we and what was the composition of those in one of the oldest civilsations – the Harappans?

The Indian population is mostly the result of major prehistoric migrations. First, the Out of Africa (OoA) migrants who reached India around 65,000 years ago. The book calls them the First Indians.Then the migrants from west Asia who arrived 9,000 years ago or earlier and mixed with the First Indians. It is this mixed population that likely spread the agricultural revolution in the northwestern part of India which ultimately gave rise to the Harappan Civilisation. It is likely that the First Indians in the northwestern region were already experimenting with agriculture and that the arrival of the West Asians only speeded up the transition. The third migration was around 4,000 years ago, from South East Asia, bringing Austroasiatic languages (such as Mundari and Khasi which are today spoken in central and eastern India), and perhaps new agricultural crops and practices.The last of the major migrations happened between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago,when pastoralists from the central Asian Steppe, especially from around the region today known as Kazakhstan, migrated to India bringing with them Indo-European languages and a new, mobile lifestyle and culture. They called themselves the ‘Arya’. All current day populations of India are a mixture of these four migrations, in varying degrees. And no matter where in the caste hierarchy they stand, what region they inhabit and what language they speak, almost all population groups of India today carry 50 to 60 per cent of the ancestry of the First Indians. In the language used by the book, the First Indians therefore form the foundation, or the base, of the Indian demographic pizza.

The Harappans were a mix of first Indians(Ancient Ancestral South Indians) and Iranian agriculturalists. When the civilisation fell apart, they migrated to the east and south, so does this make the South Indians, the First Indians?

South Indians are also a mix, like everybody else. The Harappans spread everywhere when their civilisation fell apart,making them the ancestors of both south Indians and north Indians. But the language of the Harappans, which the book strongly argues was Dravidian, today survives only in the south. In the North, their language was displaced by Indo-European languages that arrived four thousand years ago. So, it would be correct to say that the Harappan genetic and cultural ancestry was inherited by both North Indians and South Indians, though its linguistic ancestry is today mostly visible in South India.

What region, in today’s geography, comprised the Harappan Civilisation? Should we stick to calling it HC, instead of Indus Valley civilisation?

At its peak, the civilisation covered much of today’s Pakistan, north-eastern Afghanistan and western India, including mainly the states of Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Calling it the Indus Valley Civilisation is inaccurate because it seeks to describe ranges far beyond the Indus Valley itself. Dholavira, Lothal and Rakhigarhi, for example, are not in the Indus Valley. So the book follows the style of naming a civilisation by the name of the first city that was discovered – which, in this case, was Harappa.

What kind of society was the Harappan civilisation? What are the remnants from it in our culture today?

The Harappan Civilisation was the largest one of its time, as big as both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations put together, both in terms of area and in terms of people. But we do not know as much about the Harappan Civilisation as we do about the Egyptian or the Mesopotamian civilisations because the Harappan script is yet to be deciphered. But we can see that the Harappan Civilisation was quite different from these two civilisations and unique in many important ways. For example, Unlike the Mesopotamians with their monumental ziggurats (houses of patron gods and goddesses of each city), the Harappans have nothing that can be identified as grand temples or even large ritual places. Neither did they have clearly recognisable palaces for the kings, again quite unlike in Mesopotamia. The Harappans also did not set up sculptures glorifying kings and their exploits,unlike in the civilisations to its west. On the other hand, the Harappans did have outstanding public infrastructure – from well-laid out cities to efficient water management to sewage disposal. It is likely that that the Harappans had a ruling elite, but was not a kingdom in the west Asian sense. The remnants of the Harappan culture and practices can be seen today in such things as the way houses are built around courtyards; the veneration of the peepul tree; the way people wear bangles; some of the cooking utensils; designs and patterns on jewellery and artefacts; perhaps the Panchatantra tales; games of dice and chess…. the list is long.

The people who called themselves Aryans reached India around 2000 BC from the Eurasian Steppes when the Harappan Civilisation was on a decline… So would it be right to say that the ‘Aryans’ or the Vedas had nothing to do with the HC?

That is correct. The Harappan Civilisation predates the arrival of Indo-European language-speaking people who called themselves ‘Arya’. The Vedas also post date the Harappan Civilisation. However,the disconnect between the earliest Vedic texts and the culture of the Harappans as visible from the material remains reduces over time, as the incoming ‘Arya’s and the Harappans intermingled culturally, adopting and adapting to each other’s practices. In the later Vedic texts, we can perceive some commonalities with the material remains of the Harappan Civilisation.

The creators of the Harappan Civilisation spoke a Proto-Dravidian language… How can we confirm this and what are similarities that are visible even today?

This is based on archaeological evidence of links between the earliest hotspot of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent -Mehrgarh in today’s Balochistan in Pakistan - and the Zagros region of Iran;linguistic evidence of links between proto-Dravidian and proto-Zagrosian or proto-Elamite languages; and now genetic evidence that links west Asian migrants to the Harappan Civilisation. The book explains each of these in detail, and it would be difficult to summarise all of that evidence. The book does list out a number of root word similarities between Dravidian languages and proto-Elamite.

Why is there a resistance from Hindutva supporters, especially in the North, to the idea that Indians are a mix of First Indians, Iranian agriculturalists and Steppe pastoralists? Is it because it will crumble their notions of superiority stemming from purity of race?

To a large extent, yes. Even today in the 21st century, there are many people of a certain ideology around the world who value the idea of a ‘pure race’ and would recoil at the idea of mixing between peoples. But the reality is that all extant populations of today are mixtures of ancient populations, who themselves are blends of other populations! There is no such thing as a pure race. The word race is meaningless, and is not something the book uses.

Some of it also stems from opposition to the idea that while ‘Arya’ or ‘Sanskrit’ or ‘Vedic’ culture is an important constituent of the Indian civilisation as it is today, it is neither the earliest nor the only source. The Harappan Civilisation, which survived in its mature form for 700 years, has left a large mark on Indian civilisation and predates the arrival of the Indo-European language speakers from the central Asian Steppe.

There is a direct relationship between several Indian languages such as Sanskrit, Punjabi, Bangla and Hindustani with Eurasian languages such as Farsi, Latin, Greek, Italian, Celtic and Germanic. What is the association between all these Indo-European language speakers? Could you explain it in terms of the people who could have spoken it first and then their migrations?

That these languages are all part of a single family is very well-accepted. What recent genetic studies based on ancient DNA have shown is that the expansion of the Steppe pastoralists from Central Asia into Europe around 5,000 years ago and into south Asia around 4,000 years ago provide a parsimonious explanation for the spread of Indo-European languages as we can see it today.

What were the differences between the beliefs and practices of HC and the Indo-European culture as revealed by the Rig Veda?

There were many, starting from the kind of predominant presence the horse has in the earliest Vedas, the Rigveda, and its absence in the Harappan imagery, not to speak of the Harappan fossil record. There is also a certain disdain by the ‘Arya’ towards phallus worship (shishna deva) that the earliest texts exhibit, while archaeologists who excavated Harappan sites say there is significant evidence for phallus worship. The urban, trading culture of the Harappans also stands out in contrast to the predominantly pastoral culture that is painted by the earliestVedic texts. These are just some examples.

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