Problems with ‘genetic evidence’ for AIT – Punarvasu Parekh

Rig Veda

The geographical evidence of Rigveda is very clear and unambiguous. It shows that the Vedic Aryans … were inhabitants of interior parts of India, to the east of the river Sarasvati and were only just expanding into and becoming acquainted with areas further west. – Punarvasu Parekh

Champions of Aryan Invasion/Migration Theory (AIT) refuse to give up. With virtually nothing to show in support of their pet theory in linguistics, archeology or ancient texts and inscriptions, they keep coming up with new kinds of evidence. Thus Tony Joseph’s new book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From claims to prove once and for all, with the help of genetics, that a group of pastoral people from steppes east of the Ural mountains entered India during 2000-1000 BCE, bringing with them Indo-European languages and new religious and cultural practices. The migrants—invaders?—drove away Dravidian-speaking Harappans to deep down in the south and started a caste system.

Sadly for the champions of AIT, they can no longer rule the roost by stonewalling the debate. Shrikant Talageri, Mumbai-based independent scholar on ancient India, critically examines [1] the material presented by Tony Joseph and shows that what is claimed to be a clinching evidence is actually flimsy and weak data which cannot support the conclusions drawn from it or claims made on its behalf.

For his data, Tony Joseph relies largely on two Paleogenomic studies conducted by David Reich and his team at Harvard Medical School: (a) a preprint (non-peer-reviewed research paper) titled “The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia” which was co-authored by 92 scientists from around the world, co-authored and co-directed by Reich, and lead-authored by a member of Reich’s team named V. Narasimhan (2018) and (b) an older paper titled “Massive Migration from the Steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe” (2009).

Tony Joseph tells us that India is a multi-source civilization. The present population of India represents varying combinations of basically three ancestral lineages. The genetic lineage of “Out of Africa migrants” who reached India 65000 years ago (First Indians) forms the bedrock of India’s population. West Asian migrants (Iranian-agriculturist-related pastoralists from the Zagros mountains in Iran and the steppe grasslands (from the belt of Latvia to the west of Mongolia) provide the other two lineages.

Of these, the West Asian migrants built the Harappan civilisation which were associated with the Dravidian languages. The proof for this, Tony Joseph tells us, is that the Harappans had combinations of basically only two ancestral lineages: First Indian and Zagros. But there are no ancient DNA samples from any part of India for the Harappan period. So how can we determine the genetic make-up of its people?

Tony Joseph’s answer is disingenuous and gives the game way. Reich’s study is based on ancient DNA of 612 individuals from various regions and periods: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (5600-1200 BCE), the Steppe east of the Ural Mountains, including Kazakhstan (4799-1000 BCE), and Pakistan’s Swat valley (1200 BCE to 1 CE). Three of 612 specimens stood out from the rest in that their DNA showed presence of First Indian and Zagros ancestral lineages and no Anatolian ancestry at all. In contrast, other specimens showed early Iranian agriculturist related ancestry, Anatolian agriculturist related ancestry and west Siberian related ancestry; but they had no First Indian ancestry. In other words, three out of 612 individuals had ties on the Indian i.e. Harappan side of the area but not with the Anatolian side.

Therefore, in Tony Joseph’s reasoning, the three outliers must be migrants from Harappan civilisation who were residents in neighbouring cities that the Harappans had trade relations with. They represent what Tony Joseph calls “Indus periphery” and since no ancient DNA has been recovered from the Harappan civilization to enable genuine comparison, they stand in as proxy for the entire Harappan population itself. How? With what logic?

Notice the circularity of the argument. “Harappan civilization was built by people with First Indian and Zagros ancestral lineages. Three out of 612 specimens had First India and Zagros ancestral lineages. Therefore, they must be Harappans.”

Notice also flimsy nature of the data. The Harappan civilization must have had a population of some millions at its peak. Tony Joseph thinks nothing of making sweeping generalisations about such a large population on the basis of three dubious foreign DNA samples.

The circularity of the argument and paucity of data are bad enough for Joseph’s mission. But there is something worse.

Talageri delves deeper into the findings of the Reich’s research paper and shows that instead of supporting Joseph’s conclusions, the findings in fact contradict him!

Let us try to summarise it without being too technical. According to Reich’s study (2018), it is possible to model almost every population as a mixture of seven deeply divergent distal ancestry sources. The study tabulates ancestral components of 21 ancient groups (some of which consist of just one individual each) from different ancient periods. In the Harappan period, one of the seven lineages—Anatolian agriculturist related represented by 7th millennium BCE Anatolian agriculturists—is found to be present in 8 groups of Iran-Turan region (other than the Indus periphery people), including the BMAC. [2] In a later post-Harappan period it is present in three groups from the Swat valley from northern Pakistan. In none of these groups from both periods do the charts in the report show the Steppe DNA. It looks as if the Anatolian ancestry (which had been in Central Asia since a very long time), and not the Steppe ancestry, had moved from the BMAC area in a post-Harappan period into northern Pakistan.

However, both Reich and Joseph claim that the Steppe DNA in a post-Harappan period came from the north and entered northern Pakistan after bypassing the BMAC area. But both the earlier BMAC DNA and the later Swat DNA in the charts shown in the report show the same DNA composition. So where is this Steppe DNA which bypassed the BMAC and entered northern Pakistan?

A.L. Chavda makes an interesting point in this context. “In the second paper, the geneticists admit “other migrations from the Steppe” (which they are unable to identify) may have brought Indo-European languages to Europe. Apart from the repeat of the circular claim (why Steppe again?) and the lack of any basis for making this wild claim, they do not seem to have realized the really damning self-contradiction in that statement: if “other” migrations from the Steppe could have brought Indo-European languages to Europe, that means other differentiated branches of Indo-Europeans were already present on the Steppe! So where did these branches originate, if they were already in a differentiated form on the Steppe, ready to launch into Europe? Could these be the people who migrated to both Corded Ware and Yamnaya? (See “Journalist Attempts To Revive Aryan Invasion Myth Using Discredited Genetic Research“)

Tony Joseph goes on to tell us that Central Asian Sanskrit-speaking Hindu Aryans were the last to migrate to India; they “reshaped” India’s society in “fundamental ways”. That, in fact, is the crux of his argument. Let us see how he proves it.

The only DNA from ancient India is from the Swat valley in northern Pakistan from a post-Harappan period: after 1200 BCE till around 100 BCE. This DNA, Tony Joseph tells us, represents a combination of all the three major ancestral lineages found in present-day India: First Indian, Zagros and Steppe. This proves, according to Tony Joseph, that Steppe DNA entered India during 2000-1000 BCE. But this is the period that Indologists and linguists have long held as being the period of Aryan Invasion of India by speakers of Indo-European languages who are also said to have come from the steppes of south Russia. This, according to Joseph, proves AIT.

This again is a circular argument at its best, or worst. Joseph assumes AIT which he is expected to prove.

Genetic data may help us determine ancestral strands in the DNA of individuals, family, community or a people. But it cannot link people to a language or group of languages; nor can it account for spread and movements of languages. Joseph is aware of the problem and solves it by offering R1a1 DNA, which he describes as the “genetic signature” of “Aryans”.

“How do we know that R1a DNA and its subgroups are linked to Indo-European language speakers in India? There is an easy way to check: look at the distribution of R1a among Indian population groups and see if they are linked to the traditional custodians of the Sanskrit language, the upper castes in general or the Brahmins in particular”.

On checking, however, we find that the signature is not authentic. The Brahmins are described by Joseph as the custodians of “Sanskrit” as also of “texts written in Sanskrit” and therefore identified as “Aryans”. Ironically, R1a1 DNA is found in much higher or comparatively similar percentage in non-Brahmin castes like Khatris (67%) and Gujarat Lohanas (60%), and even in non-Aryan speakers like the Manipuri people of the east (50%) and purely Dravidian tribes of the South like the Chenchu (26%) and Kota (23%), as compared with most Brahmin communities: the Iyengars have 31%.

In fact, the idea of linking genetic make-up with custody of traditions is highly tenuous. The endogamous “Aryan” Parsis in India and the endogamous Zoroastrians still in Iran, “the traditional custodians of the Avestan language“, have less than 20% of R1a1 DNA (many Iranian groups going as low as 0-3%), while the non-“Aryan” Semites to their west include the Shammar Arabs in Kuwait (43%) and the Ashkenazi Levites of Israel (52%): the Ashkenazi Levites are “the traditional custodians of the Hebrew Old Testament text and language“!

Dismissing these pathetic attempts to prove AIT on the basis of esoteric data and wild claims as mumbo-jumbo, Talageri says that there is really solid  evidence to show that Vedic Sanskrit and related languages were deeply entrenched in northern India at least in the third millennium BCE if not much earlier. This evidence is provided by ancient texts like Rigveda and Avesta in conjunction with dated inscriptions and documents of peoples like Mitannis and Kassaites.

The Rigveda, the oldest book in the world and the most primary source of knowledge about ancient India, consists of 1028 hymns divided in ten books or mandalas. There is strong and massive internal evidence in the Rigveda itself that all of it was not composed at the same time. There is a general agreement among scholars that Books II to VII, known as “family books”, are older, whereas Books I, VIII, IX and X came later. Of the family books, Books III, VI and VII are the oldest, II and IV are the Middle Books and Book V represents the transition from the old books to the late ones.

Now, Rigveda and Avesta have a lot in common—names of people, animals, meters, geography. However, the Early Books of Rigveda have very little in common with Avesta while the Middle Books have a little more. But it is the Late Books of Rigveda that have a lot in common with Avesta, pointing to a period of contemporary development.

The next question is: in which area were the Early and the Middle Books composed? Where were the Vedic Aryans living in the period before the development of this joint Indo-Iranian culture? The geographical evidence of Rigveda is very clear and unambiguous. It shows that the Vedic Aryans, in the period of the Early and the Middle books, were inhabitants of interior parts of India, to the east of the river Sarasvati and were only just expanding into and becoming acquainted with areas further west.

Then there is some more evidence from ancient Mesopotamia that could help us determine a lower limit for the Vedic Age. The Mitanni, who ruled northern Iraq and Syria around the 15th century BCE, spoke Hurrite, a non-Indo-European language unrelated to Vedic Sanskrit. But their kings and other members of the ruling class bore names which were corrupted versions of Vedic names: Mittaratti (Mitrātithi), Dewatti (Devātithi), Subandu (Subandhu), Indarota (Indrota), Biriamasda (Priyamedha), to mention a few. In a treaty with the Hittites, they invoked Vedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra and Nāsatyas (Aśvins). A Mitanni manual on training of chariot horses by Kikkuli has words like aika (eka, one), tera (tri, three), panza (pancha,  five), satta (sapta, seven) na (nava, nine), vartana (vartana, turn round in the horse race). Another one has words like babru (babhru, brown), parita (palita, grey) pinkara (pingala, red) and so on. Many centuries must have elapsed between the entry of their Vedic ancestors into West Asia and this loss of language leaving behind just a super stratum of Vedic words. The Kassite conquerors of Mesopotamia (c. 1677 BCE) had a Sun god Surias, perhaps also Marut and may be even Bhaga (Bugas), as also a personal name Abirattas (Abhiratha).

What is notable is that the ancestral Vedic names used by the Mitanni kings, and the one known Kassite name, all belong to the names which are common to the Avesta and the Late Books of Rigveda. So the ancestors of the Mitanni and Kassites must have migrated from northwestern India in the period of the Late Books. This places Late Books of Rigveda in the late third millennium BCE at the latest. The Middle and the Early books of Rigveda must have been composed much earlier. Please note that this is the lower limit for the date of Rigveda. There is nothing here that precludes a reasonably earlier date.

Between Joseph’s wild claims based on paltry data of dubious veracity and the clear and consistent case presented by Shrikant Talageri, the choice is clear.

In short, Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From is a calculated and audacious attempt to revive the colonial Aryan Invasion Theory through impressive-sounding but hollow rhetoric. It is based on the recent research led by racist, Hinduphobic Harvard geneticist David Reich of Harvard Medical School. Many scholars+ have debunked this research for its flawed methodology and incorrect racist interpretations of pre-historic past, invalidating the conclusions based on it. The resurgent India needs to be on its guard against such clever attempts to mislead and divide its people.

Notes

  1. Genetics & The Aryan Debate: “Early Indians” Tony Joseph’s Latest Assault by Shrikant Talageri. Publishers: Voice of India, New Delhi. The volume has been brought out as part of a publication initiative by Ram Swarup-Sitaram Goel Memorial Fund.
  2. The Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex, also known as the Oxus civilization, is the modern archaeological designation for a Bronze Age civilization of Central Asia dated c. 2400-1600 BCE located in present-day Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and Western Tajikistan, centred on the upper Amu Darya (Oxus river).

See also

Shiv Sastry in “Migrations, Yes. But ‘Aryan’ Migrations? Not really”, Aravindan Neelakandan in “Here we go again. Why they are wrong about the Aryan Migration debate this time as well”, A.L. Chavda in “Propagandizing the Aryan Invasion debate: A rebuttal to Tony Joseph”, Koenraad Elst in “Genetics and the Aryan Invasion debate” and Michel Danino, with a rebuttal by Joseph “The problematics of genetics and the Aryan issue”.

›  Punarvasu Parekh is an independent senior journalist in Mumbai.

Human migration out of Africa to India and India to Europe.


 

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