Tony Joseph wades through genetics, archaeology and linguistics to present a picture of the people who shaped Indian civilisation
Madhavankutty Pillai | 13 Feb, 2019
A METAPHOR THAT Tony Joseph uses in Early Indians (Juggernaut; 288 pages; Rs 699) to crunch the journey of the shapers of Indian civilisation is of a pizza. Its base is made up of the ‘First Indians’, a wave of migrants who came from Africa into Arabia and then reached India around 65,000 years ago. Their genetic lineage still permeates the vast majority of the country’s population. The sauce that goes over the pizza’s base are Harappans, whose genesis is through migrant herders from the Zagros region in Iran mixing with First Indians around 7000 BCE. It took slightly less than 5,000 years for this civilisation to bloom to its full potential in the north and when it collapsed ‘the sauce spread all over the subcontinent’. Around the same time, after 2000 BCE, Indo-Aryan language speakers, commonly termed Aryans, arrived from the Central Asian steppes, melded gradually with existing populations and left an enduring influence on Indian culture. Joseph calls them the cheese of the pizza, spread all over ‘but a lot more in the north than in the south’. And finally there are pizza toppings made up of Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman language speakers, followed later by groups that included Greeks, Huns, Sakas, Parsis, Mughals, Britons, etcetera.
This imagery of the pizza came to him when following newspaper articles he had written on the subject, he was once asked about the genetic composition of the population of the questioner’s state and was trying to explain what the data had to say. ‘At that point, I thought the metaphor was too simple and that I would be able to come up with something better later on. But the fact is, I am still not able to think of anything that better explains the structure of Indian population groups and the way they are distributed. As I write in the epilogue, this metaphor is probably a silly oversimplification, but it is useful to the extent that it helps correct deeply-embedded and problematic misperceptions about who we are. For example, we often do not realise that the First Indian ancestry forms 50 to 65 per cent of the ancestry of most Indian population groups and that this is our genetic foundation—or the base of the pizza, to use the metaphor. Just as the First Indians form the genetic foundation of the Indian population, the Harappans— themselves a mix of First Indians and later migrants from West Asia who spearheaded the agricultural revolution in northwestern India and thousands of years later went on to create the Harappan Civilisation—form the cultural foundation of the Indian civilisation as it is today. The Harappan Civilisation survived for 700 years in its mature form, and has left a large imprint on all parts of India—north, south, east, west. That is because when that civilisation gradually disappeared after 1900 BCE because of the effects of a long drought, the Harappans moved towards the south and the east, taking with them their languages and their cultural practices. Their languages today survive only in south India, but their culture has left its imprint everywhere. The Harappans later mixed with Indo-European language speaking migrants to India from Central Asia who called themselves ‘Arya’, thus forming the basic population mix of ancient northern India. As the book explains, Harappans thus became the ancestors of both the North Indians and the South Indians of today,’ he says over email.
Joseph is a journalist and his initial interest had been in the unsettled questions of the Harappan Civilisation, like their emergence and disappearance; and the vast gulf of 1,500 years that followed before India’s second urbanisation. As he delved into the subject, he realised that these answers were tied to both what went before and came after Harappans. Altogether he spent six years working on it and between the beginning and the end, population genetics, a field he had been alien to, had taken on an extraordinary role in getting to the answers. Joseph tries to simplify the story, but Early Indians is a complex read that relies primarily on three prongs of genetics to tell it. Mutations in mitochondrial DNA, only passed through mothers, and in the Y chromosome only passed through fathers that reveal information about maternal and paternal ancestry. As the book notes, ‘…in the case of 70 to 90 per cent of Indian women, if you traced their maternal line back through the ages, you will arrive at a woman who was an original [Out of Africa] migrant…’ In addition, there is the study and comparison of whole genome data of current populations. This, for example, says that population groups in India have west Eurasian ancestry ranging from 20 to 80 percent, but it doesn’t show the direction of the migration—whether they came here or we went there. That is then provided by studying and comparing the DNA of the ancient remains of populations. What genetics says is further confirmed by research in linguistics and archaeology to arrive at the complete picture. All of this meant Joseph spent years wading through unfamiliar technical terrain.
“A key takeaway is that old cliche: Unity in diversity. The genius of our civilisation, during its best periods, has been inclusion, not exclusion,” says Tony Joseph
“In the early years, it did look as if I would never be able to finish the book because the sea of information that had to be crossed to get to the other side was too deep and wide. In fact, writing the book itself took less than two years— much of my effort was spent in accessing and understanding the scientific research papers and then following them up with conversations with the authors. I also put in a lot of time… to talk to academics and scientists from all sides of the debate. This helped me to better understand what the data was revealing and what it was not,” he says.
EARLY INDIANS makes an overwhelming case for why the story of India is essentially a story of migrations into India. However, the idea of Indian culture being shaped by migrants runs into some opposition in the present political environment. The Hindu Right has in recent times been vociferously arguing a revisionist history where Aryans have their beginnings in India and then migrate outwards into the world, spreading a superior culture. The roots of this phenomenon were explained to me by a researcher of the Harappan Civilisation two years ago when I was doing a story on whether horses were present at the time. It is a key question because the Vedas are full of horse references and the Harappan Civilisation has almost no archaeological record of the animal (it is something that Early Indian delves into at some length). The researcher didn’t want to be named because, in the light of past experience, he was fed up of the rancour he would face. The problem, he said, emanated from the Hindu Right’s definition of a ‘foreigner’—because Christians came in the 16th century or Muslims in the 13th century, they considered them ‘outsiders’ who made India their home. But now if evidence suggested that ‘Aryans’ came in the second millennium BCE, then they were also ‘foreigners’, just an older such group. Hindus thus had no special right to India, being just older foreigners. True Indians, by that measure, would then be Harappans of an even older stock. It was therefore important, said the researcher, for the Hindu Right to show that Harappans and Vedic people were one. It provided a locus standi for ownership of the land. The consequence of this obsession, primarily political in nature, was that scholars and writers who questioned the Out of India hypothesis found themselves becoming a target on social network and elsewhere. Joseph had already got a taste of it.
Beginning the study of our history with the Harappan or Vedic period is faulty because it ignores the ‘first Indians’ who came from Africa via Arabia around 65,000 years ago
He says, “As my research on this book was progressing, I had written many articles in The Hindu—and also in Scroll.in and The Quint—about new research findings that are settling many of the old debates about Indian prehistory. The Hindu article that appeared in June 2017 was titled ‘How Genetics is Settling the Aryan Migration Debate’. This story went viral and was shared nearly 100,000 times on Facebook alone, and it also went on to become the most-read feature article in the newspaper in 2017. The reaction from the right wing was intense—about a dozen articles were written by their leading lights trying to ‘debunk’ my article, and many prominent ruling party politicians found it necessary to add their weight to the criticism against the article too. But in March 2018, a path-breaking new paper authored by 92 well-regarded scientists from India and around the world, titled ‘The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia’, supported every statement I had made in The Hindu article. When I wrote a new piece about the findings of this latest paper in The Quint in April last year, there was very little opposition—either because the right wing now considers theirs a lost cause, or because they have realised that creating baseless noise about an article supported by scientific data only makes the story go viral and, therefore, is counter-productive.”
With the book, the reaction was similarly muted. He believes it is because the format allowed him the space to tell the whole story without ambiguities in interpretation. Early Indians shows that even Harappans were not totally indigenous and had a migrant component. “Apart from a leading light of the right wing who rallied his fans to go and downrate the page of Early Indians on Amazon without even reading the book, there has largely been silence. I believe that part of the reason might be that in my book I have been able to place the new findings in context—such as the fact that migration of the ‘Arya’ from the steppes of Central Asia was just one among four prehistoric migrations; that we have had other major migrations from the west and east; that all Indian populations today are mixtures of these different ancestries; that the Harappan Civilisation declined mostly due to a long drought; that the Harappans are the ancestors of both the North Indians and the South Indians of today, etcetera. So I am hopeful that the right wing has begun to realise that prehistory is not as frightening as it perhaps imagines it to be; that there is no conspiracy spanning many centuries, continents, disciplines and generations of scientists; and that one cannot fight data and science and still be credible.”
There are three takeaways from the story of Indian prehistory, according to Joseph. One, the way we study history— beginning with the Harappan Civilisation or the Vedic period—is faulty because it ignores First Indians. “This distorts our history as much as our neighbour to the west, Pakistan, distorts its own history when it ignores its pre-Islamic period and heritage,” he says. Earlier the tools to go that far back in prehistory, like population genetics, were not available. If it is there now, then the way we see history must also change.
“The second takeaway is linked to the first: we are more closely connected with each other than we had thought. Many people do not often see this, because their understanding of history makes them view the tribals, for example, as different from them in some fundamental way. We now know this is not correct. The rest of the population shares much of their ancestry with the tribals. We are all migrants and we are all mixed. The third takeaway is that old cliché: unity in diversity. The genius of our civilisation, during its best periods, has been inclusion, not exclusion. I explain in the book why there are good reasons behind the patterns of differences we see on India’s sociological map and for the differing answers we give to common questions of our civilisation, including whether to be a vegetarian or not. To try to erase these differences and patterns to create a monoculture would be a typically un- Indian enterprise, prone to mishaps and doomed to failure.”