Any account of history leaves a reader with the
impression that every word has the weight of gospel. But that is deceptive as
history depends entirely on source material. Until relatively recently that was
a collection of contemporary texts, on paper, parchment or stone. Thus, we know
about the greatness of Ashoka or the wickedness of Aurangzeb only through the
written records of their times
Histories have to be updated as and when new materials turn up. But in the last two centuries science has become an independent and indispensable tool for verifying the written record, whether through archaeology, numismatics, radio carbon dating, geology, or more dramatically, palaeontology and genetic studies of ancient DNA. The last is solely responsible for the radical new theory that all humans, beginning with the archaic Homo erectus, radiated out of Africa in waves going back about 1.9 million years. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens started moving out about 300,000 years ago.
Equally remarkable, we in the subcontinent seem finally to be on the way to learning our own ethnic and migratory history, thanks to a study titled “The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia”. Its 92 authors belong to prestigious institutions such as Harvard Medical School, the Russian Academy of Sciences, Max Planck Institute, Germany, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad. As an example of scientific rigour it is hard to beat though the study was not peer reviewed at the time of publication.
Its key contribution is the clear light it shines on the genetic composition of ancient Indian peoples. The conclusions strengthen the case for “into-India” migrations as a central component of its civilisational and cultural heritage. The study does not find evidence of South Asian genetic ancestry among early Iranian agriculturists; “the patterns we observe are driven by gene flow into South Asia and not the reverse”. The one thing it does not do is clear up the confusion about the Indus valley (also known as the Saraswati civilisation) people.
The reason for that omission is simple; the research teams did not have access to ancient DNA from Indus sites. So that question must wait until the evidence is available from the Indus site at Rakhigarhi, Haryana. One thing it does, however, is throw cold water on the increasingly clamorous claims of an insular origin for Indus cultures and the “out-of-India” theories for Indo-European languages and religions. The “Aryan migration” thesis seems more likely with the new evidence, though the picture of an advancing tide of pale skinned, blue-eyed horse riders is as fanciful as ever. Steppe pastoralists come into the picture around 2,300 BCE when the Indus civilisation was in decline. In this connection, the most provocative indication is that the priestly or Brahmin class seems to have more Steppe DNA than others. These groups may thus have been central to the spread of Vedic culture.
More interestingly, the study sees a distinct possibility that the Indo-European languages may have originated among the Bronze Age Yamnaya Steppe people from the Black Sea-Caspian Sea region. It is a geographically reasonable hypothesis as an east-west radiation is more likely than a westward movement from a remote eastern terminus. Indo-European languages are absent east of the subcontinent or north of the Himalayas.
A survey of these points alone indicates that we need to make radical adjustments to our views about ourselves. Once information from Rakhigarhi is in we should be on more certain ground about the facts. But even without that information we must realise that our languages, our culture and religious practices and our ethnic identity have an increasingly melting-pot feeling about them. We have to come to terms with the probability that our ideas of spiritual superiority and “linguistic hegemony” are highly exaggerated. Sanskrit may not be the “mother of language” but the product of a “late proto Indo-European” tongue. Discomfiting as all this may be it clears the ground for a better understanding of ourselves.
Information about Indus site DNA should provide a better idea both of origins and subsequent changes down the millennia. That gives us a solid platform for a revised history of India in every sense of the word. Along the way we will have to give up some hardwired dogmas but that is the price if we are interested in the truth rather than a reconfirmation of old prejudices.