Review: Who We Are And How We Got Here by David Reich

David Reich’s new book concludes there was definitely a large migration from Central Asia to India and suggests that those with ANI (Ancestral North Indian) genes are descended from migrants from the Steppes

books Updated: Apr 20, 2018 19:11 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
genome,Indra,India
Enduring mystery: Mohenjo Daro, one of many large pieces in the puzzle that is Indian ancestry.(Flickr Vision/Getty Images)
Who We Are And How We Got Here; David Reich; Rs 1302, 367pp; Pantheon

He is not a deity that Hindus worship a great deal these days but Indra, the warrior god, is pretty much the star of early Vedic texts. He rides a horse-drawn chariot, destroys the fortresses of his enemies (the dasa) and secures land and water for the Arya (or the Aryans, as they came to be called).

The Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, was composed around 4,000 years ago and was treated by early British historians of ancient India as a basic text in understanding the foundations of Hindu society. The historians were helped by linguists who pointed to the similarities between Sanskrit and many European languages, suggesting a common origin.

Historians used all this to suggest that the Aryans came from the Steppes region, in Central Asia, where they spoke a language that gave birth to both Sanskrit and European languages. The wars that Indra led his people into were the conquest of what we now call India. Perhaps ‘the dasa’ were a people called Dravidians, who were defeated and driven South.

Almost from the time these theories were propagated, they had political implications. The Nazis said they were descendants of the original Aryans (which, say, the Jews were not) and appropriated the ancient Swastika symbol for their murderous ends. In India, the notion of a so-called Dravidian identity (and its traditional enmity with the North Indians who had fought the Dravidians) became part of Tamil politics.

But was any of this true?

Yes, we had pretty conclusive linguistic evidence and the references in the Vedas. But other than that, there was nothing to suggest that any Aryan invasion took place. The discovery, in the 1920s, of the Indus Valley cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, encouraged Aryan invasion theorists.

All the available evidence suggested that this was a pre-Aryan civilization. There was no evidence of any ancient Sanskrit. (In fact, there has been no conclusive deciphering of the Indus Valley script/symbols to date). There were no horses. And nor was it clear that the inhabitants were Hindus.

The British historians seized on the Indus Valley excavations and suggested that perhaps this was the civilization that Indra and his invading Aryans had destroyed. Perhaps the inhabitants of these cities moved South and perhaps Hindu civilization, as we know it, took shape in India only after the Indus Valley cities had been destroyed.

Over time, archaeology has cast doubt on this theory. First of all, the Indus Valley civilization was not restricted to the Indus Valley; sites have been discovered in Gujarat, for instance. Secondly, there is no archeological evidence to suggest that the cities were destroyed by invaders or during a war. Current research suggests that the civilization may have withered away because of natural factors (drought, the drying up of rivers etc.)

This has now led to further politicization of the debate. One currently popular view is that the Aryans were always here. India was always a Hindu country. The Indus Valley Civilization (renamed the Saraswati Civilization by Dr. MM Joshi when he was HRD Minister) was a Hindu civilization.

Yes, there are linguistic similarities between Sanskrit and European languages but that could be because early Indians travelled out to Europe taking their language with them. In other words, the Aryans did not come to India; they went out from India.

There is a fairly obvious subtext to this. If Hinduism came to India from elsewhere, then it is not an entirely Indian religion (as say Jainism, Sikhism or Buddhism are) but one that people from abroad brought to India (like say, Islam or Christianity). So it matters (in political terms) to claim that India was always Hindu and always Aryan.

Over the last two decades, genetics has entered the fray. Geneticists have tried to see if there are genetic differences between the people of North India (the so-called descendants of the Aryans) and those from South India. The debate continues to rage but many scientists accept that there are two broad sets of genetic types in India. There are Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI). The ANI have genes that are related to Europeans and central Asians. The ASI have no connection to any European population and their genes are uniquely Indian. Most of us are a mix of ANI and ASI. But -- and this is the important bit -- before the mixing and intermingling began, the ANIs and ASIs were as different from each other as say, today’s Europeans are from the Chinese.

Terracotta figurine from Mohenjo Daro: No way of telling if this beauty was a representative of a particular genetic type. (UIG via Getty Images)

In this important and much debated new book David Reich looks at genetic evidence from all over the world but the chapter that will interest us is the one on India. Reich, a well respected scientist and an expert in the field, studied Indian genetic data over many years before coming to these conclusions:

✅ There is no doubt that there was a large migration from Central Asia to India, even if it wasn’t an invasion

✅ If, as some suggest, the migration was in the opposite direction, that Indians went to Europe, then there would be traces of ASI (the uniquely Indian ancestry) in areas where Indo-European languages (similar to Sanskrit) are spoken. There is none. So the migration was into India and not the other way around.

✅ The ANI ancestry dates back 4000 years, to the period when the Indus Valley Civilization collapsed and the Rig Veda was composed -- in other words, to the dates previously assumed for the arrival of the Aryans.

✅ Caste is an ancient Indian phenomenon. Analysis of genetic data from castes suggests an uniformity within each caste that is only possible if there had been no marriages outside the caste for centuries if not thousands of years. It is not, as some have suggested, that the caste system only hardened in response to such invaders as say, the Mughals or the British.

✅ Brahmins, all over India, tend to have more ANI ancestry than the rest of the population. You could plausibly make out a case that as the ANI (or “Aryan”) migration spread though India, the priestly class took the ANI religion (Hinduism) with it.

Read more: Indians come from four dominant ancestries: Study

So where does all this leave us?

Well, it suggests that people with ANI ancestry are descended from migrants who came from the Steppes. They may well have been the Aryans of legend and they brought their own language and religion with them when they came to India.

There was already an indigenous population in India before this Aryan/ANI migration. There is some evidence to suggest that these people (ASI) originally lived in the North and moved South but this is not conclusive.

The big mystery, of course, remains the Indus Valley Civilization. There are three theories. One: that the people of the Indus Valley were descendants of Iranian-related farmers who crossed over to India 9000 years ago. A second is that they were ASI, the original inhabitants of India. And a third is that they too came from the Steppes , part of earlier migrations that took place much before the big one that began 4000 years ago.

Early research into Indus Valley DNA has already spawned many controversies -- most of them political in nature. And it is still too early to come to firm conclusions.

But those controversies should not worry us unduly. There are two ways of looking at India. You can see it as a subcontinent that has welcomed people from all over the world and absorbed their religions and cultures.

Or you can see it as an Aryan nation, racially pure and untouched by nasty foreign influences till the Semitic people got here.

Which approach you choose probably says more about your politics than it does about science. And which approach wins out will determine the kind of nation India becomes in the years ahead.

First Published: Apr 20, 2018 19:11 IST