Steppe brothers

Two recent studies have sparked a debate on origins of early Indians

INDIA-HISTORY-ARCHAEOLOGY Bones to pick: Human skeletons dating back to the Harappan era, recovered from a burial mound at Rakhigarhi village in Hisar | AFP

IN JANUARY, researchers at the 4,500-year-old Rakhigarhi site of the Harappan civilisation discovered the remains of a man and a woman—presumed to be a couple—buried together, “facing each other in an intimate manner”. The way in which they were interred could be indicative of the gender equality in the society at the time, said Niraj Rai, head of the Ancient DNA Lab at Lucknow’s Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleosciences.

The steppe ancestry is more pronounced in sections of traditional upper castes. — David Reich, geneticist, Harvard Medical School

Harappa, or the mature Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), spread over 2600 and 1900 BCE, is considered one of the largest urban societies of its time. Dholavira in Gujarat, Mohenjo Daro in Sindh and Rakhigarhi in Haryana were some of its major centres. In infrastructure like town planning and drainage systems, the IVC was second to none. It is considered largely peaceful, cosmopolitan, with distant trade ties, and no outward, overarching influence of religion. The burial sites at Rakhigarhi were austere, lacking the garishness of its close contemporaries like the Mesopotamian civilisation. It was one of those sites that yielded I6113—the woman whose 4,000-year-old remains yielded the genetic evidence necessary for a recent breakthrough in research on early Indian society. Two new, revelatory studies published on September 6 in the US journals Cell and Science throw light on the topic of ancient Indians.

Before going into the details of the study, a brief background in history is necessary. Genetic and archaeological studies have long indicated three major waves of migration into India. The first one is the Out-of-Africa (OoA) migration that gave us the earliest Indians 60,000 years before. Secondly, in the early Neolithic period, it was believed there was an influx of Iranian farmers from the Zagros region, mixing with the earliest Indians to produce a population strain commonly known as the Ancestral South Indians (ASI). The latter largely populated the Harappan civilisation. Thirdly, in the turn of the second millennium (2000 BCE), when the IVC was in a stage of decline, traditional literature claims an influx of central Asian Steppe pastoralists (referred to as the Aryans) who brought with them Vedic culture and Indo-European languages including the first iterations of Sanskrit. ASI mingled with the pastoralists, producing a second population strain, Ancestral North Indians (ANI). Almost all mainland Indians are a mix of ANI and ASI in differing proportions. The steppe ancestry is more pronounced in sections of traditional upper castes, as David Reich, geneticist at the Harvard Medical School, wrote in his study ‘Reconstructing Indian Population History’.

Recent research bears out most of the hypotheses. According to the research in Cell, titled ‘An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe pastoralists or Iranian Farmers’, steppe pastoralist ancestry is absent in the Harappans. This could bear out the inference that the ‘Aryans’ arrived at the later, declining stages of the IVC.

Both the studies deliver interesting revelations. The report in Cell disputes the theory of mass migration of Iranian farmers into the early IVC society (the second wave as we mentioned before). The Iranian strain in ASI, instead, is derived from a lineage that split from Iranian plateaus, much before they became farmers and hunter-gatherers. The population has no detectable ancestry from Anatolian (Turkey) farmers either, according to the study. This is significant as it points to the possibility of agriculture having been developed either independently in the society, or with a “technology transfer” sans population migration.

The study in Science sheds light on the origin of the Dravidian language group. “The strong correlation between ASI ancestry and present-day Dravidian languages suggests that the ASI most likely spoke an early Dravidian language,” the study claimed. Even much earlier, there have been speculations that the Harappans spoke a language resembling the now-defunct Elamite, an Iranian dialect hypothesised to be related to the Dravidian languages spoken mainly in south India. “Our results not only provide evidence against an Iranian plateau origin for Indo-European languages in south Asia but also evidence for the theory that these languages spread from the steppe,” according to the study.

“Our study proves,” said Vasant Shinde, vice chancellor of Deccan College, Pune, and co-author of both the studies, “that there has been no foreign induction in our civilisation. Nobody is saying that there was no migration [from the steppes]. But, they intermingled and gradually assimilated. There were no attempts at cultural conquest. There is even a chance that Indo-European languages could have been developed in India. The Harappans were certainly evolved enough.” One of the points in the study published by Cell was that 11 individuals from two sites in central Asia—Gonur in present-day Turkmenistan and eight from Shahr-i-Sokhta in far eastern Iran—had genetic similarity to Rakhigarhi’s I6113, a different type of ancestry, which could point to gene flow from south Asia to the west. The evidence points to the possibility of an Out of India theory (OIT), said Rai, who is a co-author of both the studies. “This could be the future direction of our research,” he said.

There are counter-voices too, claiming that some of these public statements are not backed up by the research findings. “What is the meaning of Vedic people?” asked Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians, a treatise on the history of Indian ancestors. “Vedas are in Sanskrit, which is part of Indo-European family of languages brought by Steppe pastoralists, according to the two research studies, between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE.”

“What does one mean by Out-of-India migration? If you are talking about some Harappans travelling to neighbouring civilisations such as Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) or Shahr-i-Sokhta with whom they had trade and cultural links, that is accurate. We have known for a long time that there have been trade and cultural contacts between Harappans and other neighbouring civilisations,” Joseph said.

“But, if by Out-of-India migration you mean large-scale migration of prehistoric Indians to the west, spreading culture and language all the way up to Iceland in westernmost Europe, then I am afraid there is not even a suggestion of it in any of the genetic papers published now, or earlier. In fact, both the recent studies emphasise the fact that migrations from central Asia first into Europe and later into India are what spread Indo-European languages. The two studies, in essence, argue that these migrations explain why Indo-European languages are spread all across Eurasia as they are,” he said.