Where Do We Actually Come From? ‘Early Indians’ Author Explains
Tony Joseph’s book uses path-breaking DNA evidence to answer tough questions about caste, race and Aryan migration.
Video Editor: Puneet Bhatia
Camera: Nitin Chopra & Abhishek Ranjan
Is there such a thing as ‘pure’ race? Senior journalist Tony Joseph recently published his book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From — an ambitious project that looks at path-breaking DNA research and archaeological and linguistic evidence to answer some uncomfortable and highly contested questions: Who are our ancestors and where do they come from? Did the ‘Aryans’ really migrate to India? Who were the Harappans? When did India get the caste system?
In this interview, Joseph tries to answer these questions.
Who are Indians? Where do we come from?
My book uses the metaphor of pizza to explain the Indian population.
The foundation or the ‘base’ of the pizza is the ancestry of First Indians, who came to India 65,000 years ago – these were the Out of Africa migrants, who went on to populate the rest of the world.
And the ‘sauce’, my book says, are the Harappans. The Harappan civilisation was created by a mixed population of First Indians and West Asian migrants, who reached India 9,000 years ago or a little earlier. In many ways, it’s the Harappans who are the cultural glue that holds us together.
The ‘cheese’ are the Aryans who arrived in India between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE, that is about 4,000 or 3,000 years ago, from the Central Asian Steppe region, the areas that would be known as Kazakhstan. They were more prominent in north India than in south India. But they did spread across the Indian subcontinent in various proportions.
The ‘toppings’ are other migrations that brought other components of Indian civilisation. Most of all, the Austroasiatic language-speakers. But it’s the first four migrations that have essentially formed the bulk of the Indian population.
Note: The word ‘Arya’ is used during the interview by Joseph, as that is what the Indo-European language speakers called themselves. ‘Aryan’ is the Anglicised version of the name, and has been used here for clarity.
In your book you say Indians are ‘migrants’. Borrowing Rushdie’s terminology, we are a product of ‘chutnification’. No one person, race, community has more claim over the land than the other. What did your research tell you? Is there a pure race, group or caste?
The concept of race is meaningless today. All populations exiting today are mixtures of ancient populations which themselves are blends of earlier populations. To answer your question about original inhabitants, one of the things that the book talks about is what happened between 4000 years ago and the beginning of Common Era that’s around 100 CE. That’s a period of about 2000 years. If you had to pick one period in the entire history of the Indian subcontinent and ask which was the most tumultuous, most eventful, most dramatic, this would be that period.
Around 4,000 or 3,000 years ago, all the four major constituents of the Indian population are already in. First Indians are in, obviously. West Asians are in, people from East Asia are in and the Aryans are in. And during this 2,000 years, genetics tells us, there was significant mixing that happened between all population groups — of the kind that was never seen before or never seen later.
The genetics also says that around 100 CE, this mixing, more or less, also came to an end and endogamy started – people marrying within their own groups – which is a distinguishing feature of the caste system.
After people had already mixed, the caste system falls around the ankles of Indian society.
How do we see what your books says, against the idea behind a ‘Hindu Rasthra’? People who say they have the sole claims on India and others are second-class citizens.
The idea that a nation had to have one religion, one leader, one faith, one culture to be a nation is a certain kind of nationalistic ideology, which was popular in Europe in the 1930s. And which is around the time when the right-wing ideology was taking shape in India as well. It is a very outdated and old idea that needs to be discarded.
We have created a common civilisation. But it’s multi-source. It comes from the history of multiple migrations that happened over large periods of time. To straitjacket it into a single source, with a singular history, is a tragedy. It doesn’t relate to the reality as has been revealed by science. The attempt to straitjacket it into one form is under the wrong impression that this is necessary for a nation to cohere.
Aryans, Sanskrit and Vedas are critical and fundamental to the Indian culture as some people would like us to believe. But the DNA evidence cuts right through this and speaks about Harappan civilisation preceding Aryan migration, a civilisation which was pre-Vedic and pre-Sanskrit. What do you have to say?
The book talks about four migrations, not one.
First Indians or the Out of Africa migrants who arrived 65,000 years ago, West Asians, East Asians and Aryan. But nobody has a problem with three of those migrations, which are not sensitive. But there is great deal of political and other sensitivity about only one of those migrations. Why is that? When you ask why that is, you realise that it is based on two misconceptions. Firs misconception is that Indian civilisation is uni-source and it comes from Aryan, Vedic, Sanskrit civilisation. It is not true.
One of the most remarkable civilisations in the world [Harappan], precedes the arrival of the Aryans. And has left a huge mark on Indian civilisation.
The second misconception is that, if people who speak Indo-European languages, who call themselves Aryan, arrived in India around 2000 BCE or later, that doesn’t mean that they brought the Vedas and compositions with them in a packed form and then unpacked it here.
The Sanskrit that we know, the Vedas that we know, were composed mostly in India. For example, there are retroflex consonants. In most Indo-European languages, you won’t find them. In early Sanskrit, you will find retroflex consonants. Where do they come from? It comes from the fact that it was in contact with other pre-Vedic, pre-Sanskrit, pre-Aryan languages in the areas that it migrated to, in the Indian subcontinent. Because the retroflex consonants are a feature of many languages, many pre-Aryan languages, including Dravidian.
How We, The Indians, Came to Be
When did the sophisticated caste system come into being?
The caste system fell into place only 2,000 years later, around 100 CE. It has to be explained as a political development rather than a religious or scriptural development. If you say it has to be understood as a political development, you have to understand what happened in terms of empire, politics, ideologies. What changed?
But it is reasonable to say, I think, there was a conflict between two ideologies within the Aryan community.
One which was more – to use current-day terminology – ‘liberal’ and had no problems with mixing with people or in the way language is used. And the other was more ‘conservative’ – again to use modern-day terminology – and had strong views about mixing and wanted language to be used conservatively.
I think in the contest between these two different approaches of how society ought to be organised, one of them prevailed. As I said, this is a more reasonable explanation and we need more details on how exactly this happened.
If you take a single village in India, the genetic difference within that village is two-three times higher than the genetic difference between north Europeans and south Europeans. This is what the caste system has done. It has divided society – and if you want to see the original ‘tukde tukde gang’, you have to go back 2,000 years. It has left significant impact on Indian society.
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