Rakhigarhi does not end the Aryan invasion debate but it provides more accurate answers to who we are
Aerial view of Rakhigarhi excavation site (Courtesy: Plos One)
THERE WAS a time when things were simple. History textbooks in school were unambiguous about chronology. The chapter titled ‘The Indus Valley Civilisation’ (IVC) always preceded ‘The Coming of the Aryans’ or ‘The Aryan Invasion’, there being that inevitability that the Aryans followed the IVC, destroying and replacing it with the rudiments of their own civilisation in India. There was, however, already a well- entrenched argument against the theory of an invasion by pale-skinned hordes from the north—an argument born long before the early 20th century discovery of the IVC—but we mostly remained oblivious to it. Later, when the late 20th century and 21st century inheritors of this counter raised the flag of revolt and engaged in pitched academic battles with the so-called children of Macaulay—still subscribing to the theory of an Aryan invasion and a fascination for fair-skinned, sharp-nosed ancestors—we realised that the world as we knew it had changed. Perhaps it was always something different to begin with.
The IVC, or Harappan Civilisation, took a long time to be mapped. The date of discovery and excavation of an archaeological site is important, since it influences how the site is perceived in the overall scheme, and the importance and attention it subsequently enjoys. Rakhigarhi, in Hisar, Haryana, is a case in point. Spread over 224 hectares, the Rakhigarhi site is almost two-and-a-half times bigger than Mohenjodaro (100 hectares, presently in Sindh, Pakistan). It has resonances in history: a 12th century manuscript of the Saraswati Purana mentions Rakhigarhi, a site of considerable importance by the then-flourishing Saraswati river. The name crops up in the Mahabharata as well, in the context of Balarama’s journey from Dwarka. Yet, Rakhigarhi’s excavation began only around 1997, letting one argue that had the site been excavated, say, 60 or 70-odd years ago, it would have emerged as one of the main Harappan sites. It might have ended up influencing how the civilisation was described—and the names given to it.
The ‘Rakhigarhi skeleton’ in question dates back to c 2,500 BCE. Now, what does the skeleton say, or do? What it does not do is clear—it does not resolve the Aryan invasion issue. What it does say is that most Indians, or South Asians, are descended from the woman the skeleton belonged to.
Vasant Shinde, who led the Rakhigarhi project, attested along with his colleague Niraj Rai that combining the first genome of a Harappan individual with archaeological data, we conclude that South Asian hunter-gatherers had an independent origin, the same people who later settled in the region. And as David Reich, one of Shinde’s co-authors for the paper published in Cell under the title ‘An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Pastoralists and Iranian Farmers’, affirmed, there is finally a genetic model that is a statistical fit for the majority of South Asians of our own time. Reich’s own 2009 study ‘Reconstructing Indian Population History’, published in Nature, talked about two broad ancestral groups to explain the majority of the Indian population as a mixture of—the Ancestral South Indian (ASI) and the Ancestral North Indian (ANI), with the ASI being the older (roughly 60,000 years) and not related to any group outside the Indian subcontinent, and the ANI being more recent (roughly 40,000 years), with links to Europeans. There is, of course, no pure ANI or ASI and this must be kept in mind when we return to the current debate. Not only are we dealing with very ancient populations, but the very idea of a ‘pure race’ as understood at the time the Aryan invasion theory was put forth no longer holds. And the fact that there are no pure races is what genetics has been demonstrating again and again.
At the outset, what must be kept in mind is that we are dealing with a single skeleton (there are several at the Rakhigarhi site). Drawing conclusions from a single data point is always fraught with danger and yet, an absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. What must also be understood is the nuance on the Iranian genetic inheritance of South Asians. The Rakhigarhi findings do show that Indians and Iranians share a very close and old relationship but this predates agriculture. The IVC’s Iranian ancestry is related to early Iranians, long before the separation of their ancestors. The idea that the shared ancestry implied an eastward movement of west Iranian farmers into the Indus Valley region, who then developed farming, has been discredited. Farming in the IVC developed without interference from people moving in from the Fertile Crescent, ruling out thereby any Anatolian influence too, unlike in the case of Europe. What is also missing is the trace of migrants from the Steppes of Central Asia. Thus, the Rakhigarhi findings tie in with evidence from global agricultural history which shows that farming developed separately in many places around the same time and there was no need for migration for the IVC people to take to agriculture.
Historian Sanjeev Sanyal, author of Land of Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography (2012) and The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History (2016), has been studying the developments in genetic research into India’s population for a long time. Speaking to Open, Sanyal says: “The genetic findings confirm that India and Iran were a continuum since the Neolithic period. We have independent archaeological evidence that the two were linked by trade in the Bronze Age. Why do we need Central Asia to explain links between Vedic and Avestan?” The contention that Indians and Iranians do not need the Central Asian connection to explain their very old linkages has implications for the debate on the Aryan invasion theory. The ‘Indo-Iranian continuum’, or the ‘Persian Gulf-north India continuum’, was a site of constant churn and of migrations within and outward. Even as groups of people were coming into the subcontinent, others were leaving. This has led geneticists to believe that India is the point of origin of many significant lineages prevalent worldwide. But the multiplicity found in the subcontinent makes any generalisation about ethnic roots of Indians as a whole a fool’s errand.
Just the case of a single gene mutation, R1a1, throws light on the matter. Its parent R1a and subgroup R1a1a are important components of ANI. R1a1 is shared between Indians and eastern Europeans such as Czechs, Poles and Lithuanians but western Europe’s lineage is mostly through R1b which is rather rare in India. R2, meanwhile, is found only in India and its highest concentration is in the east, particularly in Bihar and Bengal. The mapping could go on, but the point is that the Indian subcontinent is the only place where all the siblings of R1a1 are found. Gerard Lucotte’s 2015 study published in Hereditary Genetics showed that the oldest strains of haplogroup R1a are to be found in the subcontinent, strains that are older than those in eastern and western Europe.
Biologist and anthropologist Gyaneshwer Chaubey from the Estonian Biocentre and University of Tartu, Estonia, currently working at Banaras Hindu University, has been conducting advanced research into the genetic mapping of Indians which is to be published in an upcoming paper. Speaking to Open, Chaubey says: “There is a clear continuity of R1a1, showing links of over 20,000 years. Now, half of this has roots in
All of this would appear to make the subcontinent not so much a receptor of genes as a dispenser, a point of origin. As far as the Aryan invasion theory is concerned, this may not have any direct bearing at all, but it does raise questions as to where the Central Asians are in all this. The reason why Central Asians cannot be excluded from the mix could, of course, be a matter of timelines. A 2006 study published in The American Journal of Human Genetics had argued that the population mix in the subcontinent has been more-or-less stable for a long time with no major injection of Central Asian blood for longer than 10,000 years. That would place any theoretical or real influx of Central Asians, or Indo-Europeans, well before the timeline for iron weapons or the domestication of the horse. On the presence of Central Asian ancestry, Chaubey says: “Not more than 5-10 per cent of Indians, that too mostly in the north, have any Central Asian ancestry.”
Doubtless, with the constant movement of people back and forth, Central Asians too came into the subcontinent but there is no genetic evidence of an invasion of India (and Iran) in the Iron Age from the Steppes and, thus, of no dominance of Central Asians in the story of the Indian population. Peter Underhill’s 2010 study published in the European Journal of Human Genetics, looking into the issue, said that it excludes a ‘significant patrilineal gene flow from East Europe to Asia, at least since the mid-Holocene period’. Indeed, one particular group could have travelled through Central Asia and ended up in eastern Europe with the R1a1a gene. Sanyal argues that it is time to move on: “We need to give up the idea of unidirectional genetic flow from Central Asia to India. The so-called ‘Aryan’ haplogroup R1a1a is common in north India and eastern Europe, but its ancestor P* is found in Southeast Asia. We are dealing with multidirectional movements over long expanses of time.” (The Rakhigarhi skeleton does not help with R1a1 of course, with R1 being a Y-chromosome haplogroup, or the male lineage.)
Last year’s discovery of a chariot in a Bronze Age burial pit in Sanauli in Uttar Pradesh has impacted the Aryan invasion debate as well. If the Rig Veda’s mention of chariots was used to locate chariots in India in the 2nd millennium BCE, speculation about when the Vedic texts were written may not have allowed the use of the same as evidence. But Sanauli now appears to have given Indians chariots for the same period when the Mesopotamians and Greeks had them. So, contemporary to the Harappans, we find other people in the Gangetic plains with chariots, helmets, etcetera. The Aryans, we heard, were chariot-using people wielding iron weapons. Strangely, artefacts of the kind mentioned above have not been found in the Punjab and adjoining areas. If Central Asians flowed into the subcontinent around the same timeline, did they skip Afghanistan (where chariots would be useless anyway) and the Punjab to land directly in what is today’s Uttar Pradesh and begin riding chariots? In place of logic, we have a gaping hole here. Sanyal explains: “The emerging genetic data needs to be mapped with new archaeological finds. So far we had Bronze Age sites on the Indus and Ghaggar-Saraswati, but now we are finding evidence of a sophisticated culture in the Gangetic plains. Moreover, iron seems to be an Indian discovery that developed in the Godavari valley and eastern Gangetic plains before heading north-west.”
A very complex story is being told by genetics and archaeology, often corroborating each other. Rakhigarhi is no exception. The problem arises because many of us are still looking for pure races which has, unfortunately but expectedly, turned it into a political debate. Geneticists have been demonstrating time and again that there is no pure origin for anybody. And Indians are much more mixed than most. In that light, it is perhaps time for us to shed our obsession with the debate of old. Yet, as soon as the Rakhigarhi study became public, news headlines wrapped themselves around the same ‘Aryan invasion theory’ and whether the findings demolish it or keep its embers burning. The headlines can be dismissed as innocuous after all, but they hark back to a divide that grew wider over the last century, beginning with the first challenges to the Aryan invasion theory propounded long before genetics and the scientifically sharpened linguistics of today.
Perhaps the first significant refutation of the Aryan invasion theory as a colonialists’ invention came from Dayanand Saraswati, based on his complete rejection of the 19th century European view of the Vedic texts. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, of course, while no friend of the colonial project, argued that the mass of the Indian population are descended from people who migrated south from the Arctic— from much farther north than the Steppes. Swami Vivekananda was categorical in his rejection of the Aryan theory, as evidenced in a lecture delivered in the US: “And what your European Pandits say about the Aryans swooping down from some foreign land snatching away the land of aborigines and settling in India by exterminating them is all pure nonsense, foolish talk” (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda). While dismissing the Aryan invasion theory, Vivekananda was also pointing out the lack of evidence in Indian scriptures that proves the Aryans, whoever they were, came from outside. The main villain was, of course, Friedrich Max Müller who, in his own words, believed that ‘[T]he translation of the Veda, will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion and to show them what the root is [is] the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last three thousand years’ (The Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Friedrich Max Müller). The counter to the Aryan theory, in the service of politics, would later be reductively used to blur boundaries, erase subtleties and start a war with the camp adhering to the Aryan invasion theory which remained unconvinced, even blind and condescending—a war that reignited on social media immediately after the publication of the Rakhigarhi results.
But the first systematic, text-based refutation of the Aryan invasion theory had come from Sri Aurobindo: ‘But the indications in the Veda on which this theory of a recent Aryan invasion is built, are very scanty in quantity and uncertain in their significance. There is no actual mention of any such invasion. The distinction between Aryan and un-Aryan on which so much has been built, seems on the mass of the evidence to indicate a cultural rather than a racial difference. The language of the hymns clearly points to a particular worship or spiritual culture as the distinguishing sign of the Aryan,—a worship of Light and of the powers of Light and a self-discipline based on the culture of the ‘Truth’ and the aspiration to Immortality,—Ritam and Amritam. There is no reliable indication of any racial difference’ (The Secret of the Veda, emphasis added). Aurobindo had made an important distinction—that ‘Aryan’ may at most be a cultural notion, not racial. From another perspective, BR Ambedkar reportedly called the Aryan invasion theory “an invention” necessitated “because of a gratuitous assumption that the Indo-Germanic people are the purest of the modern representative of the original Aryan race”.
Genetics has shown that the pure race is a myth. It has put both warring camps in their place. The moral of the Rakhigarhi story is that there is no ‘left’ or ‘right’ to this debate. We know better now where most of us come from, and we remain a mixed bunch. Whether we call ourselves indigenous or foreign is beside the point.