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The Taste With Vir: How genetic testing has opened up a new battlefield for fights about who we are and where we came from

23 And Me is the service I used but, all over the world, people are going to hundreds of such companies which track down your ancestry and help put your DNA to a variety of uses.

more lifestyle Updated: Feb 06, 2019 14:47 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times, Delhi
Vir Sanghvi,The Taste With Vir,The Taste With Vir Sanghvi

I don’t know how familiar you are with 23 And Me. I first heard about it during a visit to San Francisco two years ago and found the idea fascinating. A friend got us the kits and we discovered that all we had to do was to spit into a container. This container went back to 23 And Me’s headquarters in America, where they isolated the DNA and analysed it.

Many weeks later, they mailed us our reports. Not only did these reports contain a list of diseases and conditions that we might be genetically susceptible to, it also analysed our ancestry. And it included the names or intials of a lot of people (from among those who had sent their DNA to 23 And Me) who we were related to (even distantly), nearly all of whom we had never heard of before.

My wife, who is a Punjabi from the area around the Jhelum had wondered if there would be traces of Greek DNA in her results because Punjabis are said to carry the genetic imprint of Alexander the Great’s invading army.

No such luck. There was nothing Greek about her genetic make-up. (Well, Alexander did get here in 326 BC which is quite a long time ago.) On the other hand, there were many surprises. The report said that part of her ancestry was Middle Eastern (which may explain those eyebrows), East Asian (those high cheekbones) and bizarrely, Scandinavian. (What? Scandinavian? She is hardly a Viking.)! Most of her DNA suggested South Asian ancestry as you would expect, but the cocktail of her ethnicities took us by surprise.

The list of her genetic relatives followed from this. Though she was born a Hindu she shared genes with many Muslims (I guess, most Punjabis from the Jhelum region do) and many people who, judging by their names, were probably white. (Vikings? Who knows?)

My results were much less exciting. I was nearly 100 per cent South Asian. There were no Chinese people or Vikings in my ancestry. And when I looked at the list of my genetic relatives, they were all Gujaratis.

23 And Me is the service I used but, all over the world, people are going to hundreds of such companies which track down your ancestry and help put your DNA to a variety of uses. In America, the focus is on finding exact ethnic origins because it is a country created by immigrants and nearly everyone has a different cocktail of ethnicities in their genes. To a lesser extent, Europeans also have complex ancestry.

But because 23 And Me is not particularly interested in India, they are content to identify a general South Asian ethnicity rather than look for the categories that serious scientists have listed. Some of us have Ancestral North Indian (ANI) DNA. Some have Ancestral South Indian (ASI). Some have other origins. And nearly all of us are a mixture of the various genetic types that characterise the subcontinent.

This is fine, right? And it is good to know who our ancestors were, isn’t it?

Er, yes. Unless you live in today’s India, alas.

David Reich is one of the world’s foremost genetic researchers. (I reviewed his book Who We Are and How We Got Here for HT last year), but even he has had to come to terms with the problem faced by anyone carrying out DNA research in India. As he wrote in his book, “the tensest 24 hours of my scientific career came in October 2008 when I travelled to Hyderabad to discuss these initial results...”

The results he refers to suggested that Indians were descended from a mixture of two highly divergent ancestral populations. One such population was what Reich called “West Eurasians”. The results of his research were complex but one thing he was certain about was that there was a migration to India from the Steppes thousands of years ago and that many Indians carried some Steppe DNA. He called it West Eurasian because people in that Steppe region still had the same DNA suggesting a kind of Central Asian-European ancestry for many of us.

Those of you who paid attention in class may find this vaguely familiar. You were probably told that we were descended from Aryans who invaded India and pushed the Dravidians South. You were also told that one branch of the Aryans went West and set up European civilisations.

This was the view of British historians and there was some evidence for this view. Linguists suggest that Sanskrit and Latin were derived from a common source language. Archaeology suggests that one group of Indians arrived later than those who had set up existing civilisations in the subcontinent. And the languages of the South seem different from those of the North.

The problem was that a) there was no real evidence of any kind of invasion and b) the British used this theory for their own ends, suggesting that the Upper Caste North Indians (who were fairer) were kind-of-European like the Brits and therefore, that these Upper Castes were their natural allies.

This theory was already in place when, in the 1920s, Mohenjodaro and Harappa were discovered. British historians had no idea that such a civilisation (which they called the Indus Valley Civilisation) had even existed and they struggled to put a date to it (1500 BC was one estimate) and tried to fit it into their Aryan-Dravidian model.

By the 1940s, the very word Aryan had fallen into disrepute in the West after Adolf Hitler hijacked it to refer a master race that was superior to gypsies, Jews, Eastern Europeans and others. And after the British left, Indian archaeologists discovered that this civilisation spread far beyond the Indus Valley; new sites keep being discovered, including many in Gujarat.

The origin of the Harappan civilisation is one of the most fascinating mysteries of Indian history. Who were these people? Why had we never heard of them before?

The debate has continued to rage but there are broadly three theories. A) They were part of an unknown civilisation who vanished when their civilisation perished. (This is what Pakistanis tell visitors to Mohenjodaro). B) They were part of a Dravidian civilisation that withered away. C) They were the original Hindus.

Most of us would be happy enough with any of these explanations if the truth could be established. But the problem is that while we now have written corroboration of the ways of the Harappa civilisation (from abroad; it had links with Mesopotamia which recorded their interactions) we still haven’t (even after a near century!) been able to decipher the Harappan script. So all we have is archaeology, which is fascinating but inconclusive.

Over the last decade, DNA has entered the picture. As Dr. Reich found, the DNA evidence suggests that there were many kinds of Indians. There were the First Indians who have been here for tens of thousands of years. Then came a wave of Iranian agriculturists who immigrated to India. Around 5000 BC, the early Harappa civilisation was established. In 2100, the Steppe people started moving to India. In 2000 BC, migrations from China reached Eastern India.

None of this is about invasions or Aryans or Dravidians. It only suggests that what 23 And Me calls “South Asian DNA” is a lot more complex than we realise.

Fair enough. So why does it lead to so many controversies that Dr. Reich had the tensest 24 hours of his career while telling people what Indian DNA was?

Well, because politicians and their followers have always been reluctant to accept the diversity and complexity of India. The DMK, which wanted Tamil Nadu to secede from India in the 1950s, saw Indian history through the prism of Dravidians who had battled Aryans for millennia. The Dravidians were a separate and distinct people (except perhaps for the Brahmins who, it was claimed, had been suborned by the Aryans) and deserved their own country.

And now, there is the problem of the Hindu Right. It rejects the notion of different people arriving in India at different times and says that Indians have always lived in India and they have always been Hindu; till the Muslims got here.

For this to be true, the Harappa civilisation has to have been a Hindu civilisation. There can be no migration from the Steppes. The suggestion that the Steppes people brought an early form of Sanskrit with them is misplaced. Sanskrit is purely Indian. The Harappa language was a form of Sanskrit – it just hasn’t been properly deciphered yet. The Harappa gods were Hindu gods. And so on.

As all of this is difficult to prove, battles break out over archaeology. Historians say that the Harappan people were not big on horse-drawn chariots. So every time archaeologists find a cart, it is claimed that this is a chariot. If a single horse fossil is found from the later Harappa period, then this is taken as proof that historians were wrong.

But archaeology is easier to dispute than DNA. If scientists can say with some certainly that ANI (or the Steppe DNA) entered India only towards the end of the Harappan period then this is hard to dispute. So the scientists are called charlatans and anyone who believes them is anti-Hindu.

Besides, say the objectors, given that we don’t have access to much Harappan DNA, how do we know that this so-called ANI was not already in the veins of the people who built Mohenjodaro, etc. etc.

When the mounting DNA evidence is hard to fight, a new theory turns up. How do we know that all the people with so-called Steppe DNA in central Asia did not originally come from India? Why should we assume a migration into India? Why not outwards?

Because you don’t find ASI DNA in those areas, retort the scientists. If there was a migration out of India then surely other Indian DNA types should also be found? But the sceptics are unconvinced.

For most of us, the debate is not one where we want to take sides. Does it really matter to us whether the people of Harappa were Hindus or not? We are proud of an ancient Indian civilisation regardless. (For the record, I have also heard Jains say that the Harappans were the first Jains.)

It is slightly worrying though that while scientists just look for answers without any preconceptions, the people who oppose them with a fanatical zeal tend to be members of the Hindu right. The Sanghis have made up their minds. And any answer contrary to their view, they believe, can only be the result of an anti-Hindu conspiracy.

As DNA technology advances, expect more such battles. We may have had plastic surgery missiles, satellites, nuclear weapons etc. in ancient India --- as the Hindu Right tells us -- but I doubt if we had DNA sequencing.

And so this battle will never end. Science may look for answers. But activists will always seek to rearrange the past to suit the politics of the present.

Note: An excellent book on the subject is Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, which has just been published.

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First Published: Feb 06, 2019 14:46 IST