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Tony Joseph’s “Early Indians”: An Appreciation

Several reviewers have hailed Tony Joseph’s “Early Indians” (Juggernaut Books, December 2018), as an important book. It adds indisputable evidence from genetics, archaeology and linguistic data to prove that the Indus Valley civilisation gave physical structure to modern Indian society. In contrast, the Aryans put their stamp on their language and religion. He presents a concise story of the origins of early Indians with remarkable clarity.

Though archaeological evidence of human settlements in India dates back to 120,000 years, evidence from population genetics fixes the earliest date as 65,000 years. That is because the genetic evidence reveals only those humans who were successful in leaving behind a lineage that still exists.

The African fossil record is rich with the remains of our closest relatives who lived 7 million years ago. Humanity outside Africa comes from a single group that migrated out of Africa, about 70,000 years ago. This is because the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA is the DNA inherited from the mother) of people outside of Africa all originate from L3, a single haplogroup with ancestry in Africa. This suggests a single migration event. Multiple events would have resulted in present-day populations deriving their ancestry from a larger number of mtDNA haplogroups, not just L3. Using mutation rates and genome data, geneticists fix the time of the emergence of L3 haplogroups to approximately 70,000 years ago. Climatic considerations narrow this to roughly between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. The earlier period was glacial; too cold for migration.

The archaeological evidence fixes modern human existence outside Africa to 300,000 years ago. These early forays were not successful either due to a cold, glacial period or their inability to prevail over the Neanderthals who were well-adapted to the colder climate of Europe. All non-Africans carry 2 per cent of the Neanderthal genome, indicating intra-species mating. In Africa and elsewhere, research indicates more interbreeding events between modern humans and our genetic cousins.

The rapid migration between 70,000 and 60,000 years ago has left no remnant human fossils from this period in South Asia. The earliest modern human fossil found at the Fa Hien caves in Sri Lanka dates to about 35,000 years ago. One reason could be that the period between 71,000 and 57,000 years ago being glacial, sea levels would have been lower than they are today and the migrants’ path could have submerged.

When the first group of modern humans walked into India, they confronted earlier members of the species. The subcontinent is littered with evidence of the widespread presence of archaic humans much before modern humans arrived.

It is likely that our ancestors from the same out-of-Africa group arrived at different parts of the subcontinent at different times. They may have managed to avoid a direct conflict with the existing populations of archaic humans who were likely confined to Peninsular India. Over time, the modern humans would have expanded their footprint, moving south and displacing the archaic humans. In fact, between 50 to 66 % of our genome-wide ancestry originated in the First Indians. This is the most appropriate measure of the genetic make-up of Indians. The extinction of the archaic Homo species may have happened around 35,000 years ago.

The earliest experiments in agriculture in South Asia started in Mehrgarh, in Balochistan, which was inhabited in 7000–2600 BCE. Mehrgarh laid the foundations for the Harappan Civilization that was to follow. With abundant food, the population started exploding dramatically, leading to massive migrations that changed world demography in Europe, Central Asia, South Asia, China and East Asia. The Mehrgarhians who raised the first mud-brick homes laid the foundation for the first civilization in South Asia, called the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization. In about 4500 years, those humble mud-brick abodes turned into the urban structures of Harappa or Mohenjo-daro or Dholavira.

When the Harappan Civilization fell apart after 1900 BCE due to a drought, the people spread out to the rest of the subcontinent — to the east and the south, spreading all over India. Harappan Civilization covered about 30 % of the area of India. When we say the Indian civilization is 5000 years old, what we mean is that the First cities of the Harappan Civilization were built around then.

When did the Proto-Dravidian Harappan language, related to ancient Elamite from Iran, reach South India? The most common assumption is that this happened after the civilization declined. The distribution of Dravidian place names all the way from north-western India to south India indicates the movement of people to the south.

A southward migration of pastoralists from the Kazakh Steppe towards southern central Asian regions and then towards south Asia happened after 2100 BCE. These ‘Aryans’ brought a pastoralist lifestyle, new practices of worship, elaborate sacrificial rituals, a warrior tradition and mastery over the horse and metallurgy. Mixing with the existing Harappan people, they created one of the two main sources of population in India today: Ancestral North Indians (ANI). The new elite was dominant enough to impose an Indo-European language across northern India. Some Harappan beliefs and practices reshaped the religious ideology of the ‘Aryans’. They preferred a non-urban, mobile lifestyle. India had to wait for more than a thousand years after the Harappan Civilization, for its ‘second urbanization’ that began after 500 BCE. The Harappan Civilization, gone into decline by around 1900 BCE, went south, mixed with the First Indians of peninsular India and generated the second source of the Indian population, Ancestral South Indians (ASI). Harappan imagery has no representation of the main gods and goddesses of the Rigveda — Indra, Agni, Varuna. On the other hand, the dominant symbols and imagery of the Harappan culture — such as the ubiquitous seals that display a unicorn with what looks like a brazier — cannot be interpreted by the Rigveda. The Harappan Civilization had no horses, neither as physical remnants nor as representations on seals and artefacts.

After an extended interaction between the Harappans and the ‘Aryans’, we see Indo-European languages replacing the earlier languages across much of northern, western and eastern India and a new syncretic culture emerging with elements recognizable from both the Harappan and Vedic cultures. The script and seals of the Harappans disappeared into the mist of prehistory. So did some of the early Vedic gods and rituals. Endogamy and the caste system didn’t start immediately following the Aryan arrival. In fact, mixing continued until about 2,000 to 2,500 years BCE, due possibly to political developments.

Both in India and in Europe, the Indo-European-language speakers were the last migrants to make a significant demographical impact. Multiple incursions since then — from Alexander’s army in 326 BCE, the Sakas (Scythians) around 150 BCE, the Huns around 450 CE, the Arabs in 710 CE, the Mughals in 1526 CE, and then the Europeans have not left more than a delicate impression on our demography. However, their impact on our culture has been significant.

We can summarize using Tony Jospeh’s pizza analogy. The base of the Indian ‘pizza’ was laid about 65,000 years ago when the OoA migrants reached India. The sauce started with the Zagrosian herders reaching Balochistan after 7000 BCE. They mixed with the First Indians and together went on to build the Harappan Civilization. When the civilization collapsed, the sauce spread all over the subcontinent. With the ‘Aryans’ after 2000 BCE, cheese was sprinkled all over the pizza, with a lot more in the north than in the south. Around the same time arrived the major toppings that we see today in different regions in different amounts — the Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman-language speakers. And then, much later, of course, came the Greeks, the Jews, the Huns, the Sakas, the Parsis, the Syrians, the Mughals, the Portuguese, the British, and the Siddis — all of whom have left small marks all over the Indian pizza. The sauce, the cheese or the toppings on this Indian pizza are not unique; these are found in other parts of the world. However, the base of the pizza is unique to India.

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