Note: This post is a supplement to the podcast below.
People get hung up on particular words a lot. This post is to clarify some terminology from my own perspective. It needs to make clear here that I am a semantic instrumentalist. Words don’t have power or meaning in and of themselves but point to particular concepts and patterns. If we disagree on words while agreeing on the concepts and patterns, the disagreement is semantic.
To give an illustration about the “power of words,” I have read works on “Western history” which begin the narrative in Egypt and Sumeria. As the centuries proceed, the focus moves north and west, and eventually, the Near East is excluded from the West. Clearly, most people can agree that the Near East is, and became, very distinct from what we term “the West,” but if our history is to deal with Northwestern Europe, it will start with the Roman period, and its roots clearly owe something to the earlier Near East. The reality is that the West that the histories outline developed much later (arguably after the fall of the Western Roman Empire), but its roots are diverse and broad, inclusive of Near East antiquity.
When I use the world “Indic,” please keep in mind that I am focused in particular on the civilization which had crystallized by the Gupta period across South Asia. The civilization which gave rise to concepts which form the basis of the Dharmic family of religions. Moving forward, and moving backward, this is the reference cluster of characteristics.
In the podcast below I made the assertion that the precursors to Indian, Indic, civilization from the north to the south are rooted in prehistory. That the adoption of a set of religious ideas and identities promoted by Brahmins across much of South India several thousand years ago was not a coincidence, because South India was connected in some deep ways to North India in the prehistory period after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) 4,000 years ago.
Shortly I will have a book review in India Today on a work by Tony Joseph which tries to synthesize archaeology, linguistics, mythology, and genetics. Though I knew many of the details in the book, Joseph brings the strands together which clarified and solidified some general intuitions I have developed.
First, I do think that the most likely point when the Indo-Aryan eruption into South Asia occurred is around 1500 BC. Earlier I had been very vague about the timing because there had not been any ancient DNA. But the presence of people with a “steppe” genetic profile, which is ubiquitous in much of Northern India today, seems to date to the period after 2000 BC. Additionally, 1500 BC is when Indo-Aryan rulers (albeit, culturally assimilated) seem to become dominant in the Upper Euphrates are of Syria.
One can push the date a few centuries earlier (there is a possible Indo-Aryan text in Syria dated to 1750 BC), but not too much earlier. And, Joseph claims that the dominant metal in the earliest Vedas was copper, not iron. Since the Iron Age in India starts around 1200 BC that definitely puts a lower limit on when the Aryans arrived (though the earliest genetic samples in the Swat Valley with “steppe” ancestry shows up around 1200 BC, so we already knew this).
So we can put the ethnogenesis of the Indo-Aryan Indic component in Northwest India in the centuries around 1500 BC.
But they did not come into an empty subcontinent. The Harappan society, the IVC began to go into decline around 1900 BC. There are various debates as the regional continuity of this civilization down to 1300 BC, and as to why it declined. Though more archaeology needs to be done, here is my own personal position as of now:
– The IVC was likely fragile and in decline before the arrival of large numbers of agro-pastoralists
– A good model for the arrival and cultural domination of the Indo-Aryans may be the situation of post-Roman Britan or the post-Roman Balkans, where large numbers of barbarians arrived and assimilated peasant cultures whose elites had disappeared
– In the Near East the Indo-Aryans, and later the Iranians, show no overwhelming ideological reason to destroy civilizations that were existent prior to their arrival. On the contrary, agro-pastoralist elites aim often to take over elite positions in those societies so that they can extract rents and become wealthy. The problem is that sometimes the arrival of these people destabilize weak or declining societies, and the social order rearranges and regresses.
We don’t know the details of how the IVC was organized, but its relative uniformity of architectural design and layout indicate large-scale elite coordination of some sort. The societies and subsequent to the IVC seem simpler and less indicative of large-scale coordination. This sort of “unwinding” was common to earlier societies.
But we also need to move beyond the focus on the Indus Basin the Doab.
The Neolithic, indicative of a transition from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and farming, began in South India after ~2500-3000 BC (depending on the source). While the IVC was flourishing, a zone of agro-pastoralists seems to have pushed south along the western edge of the Deccan. Joseph (and others) reports that placenames of Dravidian origin seem to be common in both Maharashtra and Gujarat. Curiously, he notes that Dravidian placenames do not seem to exist in Bihar or Bengal.
Recent phylogenetic work on the extant Dravidian languages indicates diversification beginning 4,500 years ago. This is 2500 BC. A possible beginning date for the South Indian Neolithic.
When the IVC was a mature civilization it seems that some farmers pushed the frontier further. While the IVC was unwinding in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, I believe that their “country cousins” in South India continued with their small-scale society.
The “Ancestral South Indians” (ASI) have now been shown by the Reich group to be about ~25% “West Eurasian” in ancestry. This is almost all “Iranian Farmer.” That is, the ancestry derived from western Iran before there was much mixing between Iranian farmers and Anatolian farmers (which occurred before the rise of civilization). Today there are tribal and low-caste groups in South India whose ancestry is nearly all ASI.
I believe that this ASI population formed during the South Indian Neolithic when ash mounds were common through the fusion of people out of the IVC with indigenous people, Ancient Ancestral North Indians (AASI).
But South India is not all ASI. There is in fact caste genetic stratification between Dalits and Adivasis on the one hand, and local non-Brahmin peasant and elite groups (e.g., Reddy). The latter has more “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI), specifically, Iranian farmer.
I believe this is a function of the second wave of continuous migration out of northwest India, likely via the lower Sindh and Gujarat. These people assimilate and conquered the earlier agro-pastoralists and likely absorbed the remaining hunter-gatherers. The relatively deprived position of the original ASI populations is indicative to me of their long-term marginalization by the new arrivals.
But these people were not simply “Dravidian traditionalists” who were fleeing their homelands. A quick survey of Y haplogroups shows that R1a, associated with the Northwest, and upper-castes, is found through India. Though in far lower frequencies, it is found among Dravidian peoples, even Dalits, and Adivasis in the South.
To me, this is suggestive that the Dravidian-speaking populations that moved south along the western coast of India were, in fact, a synthetic people who were expanding out of a hybrid cultural zone. Some of the populations, tribes, in this hybrid zone, were Indo-Aryan. Likely the dominant element was. But some of them retained their Dravidian language, though they assimilated some Indo-Aryan groups in their mix. The linguistic diversity may have been greater than this, as indicated by the presence of Burusho, a linguistic isolate.
The later expansion of polities such as that of the Maurya to the south on the edge of history then is not an expansion into alien territory, but a conquest of a related set of peoples, distinct, but nevertheless connected.
Obviously, the push east out of the Doab, and down the Ganges, would have resulted in an encounter with Munda people. The people who were moving eastward were Indo-Aryans, who had possibly assimilated Dravidian peoples in the region of Harappa (most of the ancestry even of Brahmins from the Gangetic plain remains non-Indo-Aryan, as is the case for the Kalash of Pakistan). The Munda seem to have arrived after 2000 BC, and admixed with another AASI population. This suggests that Northeast South Asia was not touched by the movement of Dravidian peoples that affected the Deccan. Additionally, the extant Munda tribes lack Indo-Aryan ancestry.
The final point I’d like to make then is that the prehistoric roots of what we term perceive to mature into Indic civilization by the period of the Gupta as its Classical form has its roots in the synthesis between 2000 BC and 1000 BC. First, as the IVC as a civilization defined by widespread coordination and uniformity unwound, and Indo-Aryans enter into the matrix as a hegemonic agro-pastoralist group who introduced a way of life accessible to many local non-Aryan elites, who were assimilated into their culture. Meanwhile, other groups remained Dravidian speaking, while assimilating into themselves some groups of Indo-Aryans, and following a southward trajectory that had been pathbroken by cultural relatives centuries earlier during the IVC.