We can be proud of our identities and culture without insisting on its certainty
In February, researchers revealed a forensic reconstruction of the oldest known person to have lived in Britain. The 10,000 year-old “Cheddar Man” holds the secrets to the identity of the first Britons. So there was much surprise and even some consternation when it turned out that this most indigenous of indigenous Brits had curly hair and, of all things, dark to black skin.
This is a vexed moment in Britain, and Europe in general, regarding national identity and race. Right-wing forces across the continent are pushing back at what they see as the threat posed by immigrants and multiculturalism. Extremist groups like the English Defence League and Britain First have gained strength in the UK. Like nativists all over the world, they trade on a claim to authenticity, that their mostly white members are the true inhabitants of the land. The rights of whites to the life and direction of the country, they suggest, should be given more weight than those of others. Inevitably, their rhetoric seeps into the discourse of more polite conservative politicians and publications.
The past is a vivid and livid obsession of nativists. They see it as their terrain, the bedrock of who they are and what their country is supposed to be. A BBC programme on Roman-era Britain recently attracted their ire by depicting black characters. Critics claimed that it was ahistorical to include blacks in ancient Britain and that this insertion was proof of a politically correct plot to undermine white British identity. Historians pointed out correctly that there is plenty of evidence of Africans and Middle Easterners in Britain then, brought to the island by the Romans.
That the fossilised Cheddar Man – 8,000 years before the Romans – was black is not reason to claim that blacks (or any particular people) are truly indigenous to Britain. But the revelation does make a mockery of the feeble blood-and-soil appeal to indigenousness. The sands of history invariably shift too much to support the claims of nativists.
A new, large-scale study on the genetic formation of South Asia and Central Asia is bound to spark a furore of its own. The work of 92 scholars across several continents, the study’s findings further debunk the notion that Proto-Indo-Europeans (that is, the first speakers of the language family that would one day span northern India to Europe) came out of India. Hindutva irredentists insist that the culture of the Vedas had to originate in India, not come from elsewhere. Using genetic science, this new study confirms the outlandishness of that theory.
The groups that made up ancient India comprised mixtures of South Asian hunter-gatherers (the oldest inhabitants of the subcontinent), Iranian agriculturalists (who appeared in the subcontinent as early as 4700 BCE) and Steppe pastoralists from Central Asia (who moved into South Asia between 2000 and 1000 BCE). Of course, there was movement in multiple directions, not just into the Indian subcontinent; a few outlier individuals found in Turan (the term for the broader area around Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan) have South Asian hunter-gatherer DNA. However, the significant arrival of Steppe pastoralists into the Indian gene pool traces conventional understandings of the movement of Indo-Europeans into the subcontinent. The authors claim that their study offers for the first time DNA evidence of “large-scale genetic pressure from Steppe groups in the second millennium BCE,” consistent with physical archaeological evidence. The study also includes data that suggests current Brahmin groups contain more DNA from these Steppe pastoralists than other caste groups in India.
Together, these findings add nuance to the accepted scholarly understanding of the formation of the Indian population, but they reject the Hindutva-espoused idea that the Indo-Europeans had to originate in India. It suggests that Indians – like almost every other people in the world – are the product of waves of migration.
That said, it is much easier to imagine the past than to know it. I confess that I have never been fully convinced by the promise of genetic science, which seems so contingent and liable to change. I also am uneasy with the idea of conflating DNA with culture, your beliefs and customs and language can change no matter your chromosomes. History demands our humility, our recognition of the limits of our knowledge.
I always find it puzzling and a little sad how nativists cling to the wishful purity of their vision of the past. We can still be proud of our identities and our sense of place and culture without insisting on its certainty. Why allow yourself to be humiliated by the likely fact of migration? Why let yourself be so wounded by that knowledge? If your sense of self is dependent on insisting that you are a purer and a truer Indian than others, then you have bigger problems than the inconvenient findings of genetic science.
Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories
The views expressed are personal