The water rises and Canute drowns

The Genetic History of Indians: Are We What We Think We Are?. The answer is that people of all races have always been what they always were. What we think about what we were…well, that changes.

“I KNOW PEOPLE won’t be happy to hear this,” geneticist Niraj Rai says over the phone from Lucknow. “But I don’t think we can refute it anymore. A migration into [ancient] India did happen.” As head of the Ancient DNA Lab at Lucknow’s Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (BSIP), he earlier worked at the CCMB in Hyderabad and has been part of several studies that employed genetics to examine lineages. “It is clear now more than ever before,” he says, “that people from Central Asia came here and mingled with [local residents]. Most of us, in varying degrees, are all descendants of those people.”

Some researchers, even those associated with the current study like Shinde, aren’t quite convinced that an ancient influx of people into the subcontinent from the northwest has finally been established by the latest findings. Shinde does not like the word ‘migration’. “It is better to say movement,” he says, implying a two-way pattern. “Everyone back then was moving to and fro. Some people were moving here and some were moving out. There was contact, yes. There was trade. But local people were involved in the development of several things. So I am not very sure of the interpretation.”

As Rai points out, the analysis of the DNA sample they will present will be of a period before the Steppe people supposedly arrived in India. If R1a is absent in the Indus Valley sample, it suggests that it was brought into South Asia, perhaps by a proto-Indo- European speaking group, from elsewhere. “How do I say it? See, I am a nationalist,” Rai says over the phone. “People will be upset. But that’s how it is. All the studies are showing that people came here from elsewhere.”

I’ve been hearing from Indian journalists that some of these researchers have only “evolved” over the last few months. First, it’s a credit to them if they changed their views on the new data. If the above is correct they got usable DNA from one Rakhigarhi sample. I predict it will be like “Indus Periphery”, but with more AASI. It seems rather clear they’re going to submit a preprint within a month or so (that’s the plan, but it’s been the plan for a year!), but the results are being written up now.

Meanwhile, the ancient DNA tsunami is going to come in further waves in the near future. Various groups have huge data sets from Central Eurasia that are going to surface. Unfortunately, samples are going to be thin on the ground from India, but we have enough now that in broad sketches most people are now falling in line with what happened demographically from the northwest. The “AASI” ancestry is deeply rooted in South Asia, and it doesn’t look like there’s much of an impact of this outside of the subcontinent aside from nearby regions.

The real action is now in understanding the cultural and archaeological processes involved in the perturbation in the years after 2000 BCE. I’ve talked to a few of the geneticists working in this area over the past month or so, and they agree.

Is everyone racist and I’m not aware?

Me, proudly culturally appropriating

The expulsion of two young black men from Starbucks is in the news, and people are sharing their experiences. To be honest I’m not surprised that this happened to young black men. What I am surprised by are South Asians who express their own fear of being seen to not buy anything (in part to highlight the privileges that white people have).

I’m a pretty standard looking brown person. Most people realize that I’m South Asian (or “Indian”) when they meet me. Sometimes when I have a very close buzzcut I’m pretty sure people assume I’m a black American (when I got burritos at a Mexican place someone referred to me as the “black guy” in Spanish once when my head was shaved). And a reasonable amount of time people have wondered if I’m a Mexican American, though less and less over the years.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Starbucks. When I’m traveling I always go to a Starbucks because it’s familiar (when I’m not traveling I rarely do anymore). Sometimes I’ll hang out for a while before someone shows up without buying anything. There have even been times where I never bought anything, but just met up with someone. I’ve never felt in any danger of being kicked out.

In fact, in the United States, my main worry about my race is in a very specific context: airports. Since I fly a fair amount I have a routine down. Always shave. Always get there way earlier. Prepare ahead so you don’t seem stressed or uncertain. It’s not super onerous, but I am conscious that I’m probably under more scrutiny.

All that being said I’ve never had a problem in American airports. I have had problems in Europen airports, after a fashion. An example might be a flight in Germany when security was stopping every young non-white male, whether black, brown or Asian before we got on the flight (after we’d made it through the checkpoints). And, when I was in Italy in 2010 on a trip the racism was more palpable. At one point I was denied service by a street vendor, and when I was at a bookstore my wife (then girlfriend) told me I was getting suspicious looks, and there was a misunderstanding with one of the clerks (I don’t speak Italian).  I definitely felt there was more racism in Europe day to day than I’ve experienced in this country, and I speak as someone who grew up in eastern Oregon.

And yet I’m not here to deny the racism that other South Asian Americans face. Their experience is their experience, and so is mine. What’s the difference here? Are people giving me dirty looks that I don’t even notice? Or are other people hyper-aware of what’s going on around them and perceive slights that might not be intended?

I should add that this tendency is common in my family. We don’t seem to perceive racism around us. Perhaps we’re just oblivious?

What do I think though? Honestly, I think there are different levels and types of racism. If you are South or East Asian you are not going to be under the same scrutiny as a black male. Certainly, there is white privilege in relation to being a brown person. Or at least I’m told there is…I’m not white and can’t pass as a white person, so I can only trust people like Linda Sarsour who are nonwhite by choice that life is a lot easier for whites.

I do a real good SJW impersonation because I have good verbal skills and “present” as nonwhite. But it always seems fake to me. I’ve experienced racism in this country, but it’s not pervasive. I felt under more scrutiny in the Middle East to keep to my lane, and that’s despite my “Muslim name.”

I’m curious as to other peoples’ experiences. The above are just mine.

A quick note on BP housekeeping

As per the request of Kabir I’ve closed comments on the post below. I’ll delete it soon. His new blog is here: https://kabiraltaf.wordpress.com/.

A few quick notes to be clear:

  1. Three people have admin privileges here. Omar, Zach and myself. In various ways, we’ve been associated with this blog eight years now.
  2. Myself, honestly I have only occasionally read blog posts by those besides Omar and Zach. Those I found interesting I did read. Until recently I very rarely read comments except on my posts.
  3. To be honest, “some shit went down.” I don’t know the origins (posts have been deleted) or the relationships or the origins of the beefs, though I waded in a bit. The only people I added as contributors to this incarnation of BP are Omar and Zach.  I honestly have no idea who anyone else is.
  4. I’ve been noticing the increased Indian traffic with wonder and concern. Wonder because talking to people of your own nationality/culture all the time is boring, concern because cultural differences are difficult to bridge.  I know this personally because I was a commenter and a little bit a contributor to the Sepia Mutiny blog, and the cultural differences came up and aroused hostility between people of good will. To give a concrete example a front page contributor told their story of rape and some of the India-born commenters said some things that they thought were helpful but no one born in the USA would think were helpful…rather, they were offensive. At least to us.
  5. Zach and I have come and gone (I have another blog and write stuff elsewhere when I feel like it), Omar is the one person who has kept blogging here over the years. If only Omar contributed that would be sufficient. He’s busy right now with moving so Zach and I are having to step into this mess.
  6. Some of you are mad at me because I’m offensive to you in what I post or mean to you in the comments. If I’m offensive to you (or Zach or Omar or anyone) you don’t have to read this blog. We are not monetizing it. As for the comments, I would not engage/read comments unless I was frank about who should or shouldn’t contribute. Comment sections which are  laissez faire turn into shit-shows quickly and the blogger usually never reads them. I’ve traditionally been very active in comments when I control the means of production (I don’t read comments when I contribute to National Review or India Today or when I contributed to mainstream media).
  7. Some fair warning that I am very sensitive about two things: comments which might be indicative of physical intolerance of atheism, and comments which make imputations about my life. The first is just because I know people who were friends with murdered Bangladeshi bloggers. I’m not the most sentimental person about the country in which I was born, but I would never visit in the current climate. The risks are low, but I have a family, a wife and kids, and I can’t take the risk (people in my lab used to make fun of Bangladesh for atheist killing, and it was kind of funny since I was the most atheistic person they knew). And about that, people need to stop commenting about what they think they can glean about me in regards to my personal situation. I’ve been more open recently partly because I wanted to talk about my kids’ genetics, so  I had to admit in 2011 I was married and that I was going to be a father. But really I try to keep that shit offline. As for my personality, Omar has met me in person and can vouch for the reality that I don’t really have a separate “online persona” (as can many scientists who know me more from real life than the internet).

Finally, some of you know I’ve been at the forefront of communication about South Asian genetics. Like many things, this kind of fell into my lap because I know genetics, and I don’t live in South Asia and so am not part of any major social-political groupings (I’m not left-wing and some Hindutva types attack me as a Muslim). But honestly, I’ve been impressed by how clear-eyed and honest many Indian journalists and thinkers have been about the new research. And this has made me more optimistic and engaged in Brown Pundits’ future direction.

Also, BP has a twitter account. Most it pushes content right now from this blog.

Brown fat, the bad kind

Unless you have been hiding under a rock you know that people of South Asian are at more risk for metabolic disease than is the norm. More concretely we tend toward “skinny fat.”

My current BMI 24. By normal calculators I’m normal weight (barely), because the cut-off is 25. But for South Asian we should be worried if we’re above 23.

There is the caveat that muscle is heavier, so one shouldn’t take BMI literally, as opposed to seriously. You know if you have too much visceral fat, you don’t need to weight yourself. The phenomenon of brown guys with big bellies due to years of self-indulgence is a thing. And excess weight among South Asians who reach a certain affluence level seems a thing the world over.

So here’s a question: for those of you who have managed to keep the weight off and stay trim, how do you do it? Exercise? Diet? Both?

Brown Pundits, big in India!


I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll reiterate something I’ve noticed recently: this website is getting bigger and bigger in India. More precisely, though traffic is increasing in the USA, traffic is increasing from Indian IPs even faster.

Here is the breakdown for the last month:

Country % Users
United States 35%
India 29%
UK 6%
Canada 5%
Pakistan 5%
Australia 2%
Germany 1%
France 1%
UAE 1%
Bangladesh 1%

In terms of where the traffic is coming from, the map above shows the cities.

I’m of two feelings about this.

  1. This is going to cause issues because of cultural differences. Educated Indians speak English, but norms and idioms differ. In general, my personal strategy is to hegemonically impose American norms.
  2. Over the past few years I have become bearish on the United States, and bullish on India and China. I’m very curious what people in Asia think, because I think the Asian future is coming at us more quickly than I’d anticipated just a few years ago (American decline, rather than Asian ascension being a cause).

Our existence is an offense to moderate Muslims!

I’m really not incredibly invested in these internecine BP conversations, but this kind of comment honestly convinces me of deep incommensurability:

Perhaps if you don’t go around publicly announcing that you are an ex-Muslim, you will face less problems.

There are lots of “Muslims” who barely practice the religion. But for form’s sake, we say that we believe in Allah and in the Prophet of God. Especially if we have family in Muslim countries.

First, I don’t face problems. But I sympathize with people who are being murdered on account of their irreligion in Muslim countries. I have friends who are Bangladeshi immigrants who were friends with people who were murdered for their lack of belief. It’s pretty disturbing.

So why do I announce my atheism? Because in this country I can. I’m an ex-Muslim only from the perspective of Muslims and anti-Muslim racists. The two groups actually agree on a lot. Because Muslims and anti-Muslims assume I’m a Muslim theist of some sort, of course, I have to announce it so they won’t be confused.

It’s my own conceit and privilege to be wedded more to substance than forms. Now, there are American Muslims like Omar Ali who seems at peace with the substance as well as privileges of Western liberalism (I believe the above individual is an American Muslim?). So I’m not going to full Islamophobe, but these sorts of attitudes suggesting it’s more seemly that we irtidads go back into the closet so preserve public sensitivities really make me suspicious of the Submitters.

I guess this sort of exchange has actually made me more sympathetic to “internet Hindus.” When judgment day comes, go with the side less likely to kill you!

South Asians and “communalism”

In Who We Are and How We Got Here one of the things that David Reich states is that while China consists to a great extent of one large ethnic-genetic group, India (South Asia) is a collection of many ethnic-genetic groups. To some extent, this is not entirely surprising. People from the far south of the subcontinent look very different from people from Kashmir or Punjab.

But that’s really not what Reich is talking about. People in Hebei look quite different from people in Guandong. Perhaps less different than a Tamil from a Kashmiri, but still quite different. But these regional differences grade into each other along a cline.

South Asia is different because strong genetic structure persists within regions. Both Tamil and Bengali Brahmins share some distinctive genes with local populations, but genetically they’re still a bit closer on the whole to Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh (I say this because I’ve looked at a fair number of genotypes of these groups). Similarly, Chamars from Uttar Pradesh and Dalits from Tamil Nadu share more with each other than either do with Brahmins from their own regions (though again, Chamars share more with Brahmins from Uttar Pradesh than Dalits from Tamil Nadu, in part because of gene flow from Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists into almost all non-Munda people in the Indo-Gangetic plain).

When I read Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India in the middle 2000s it seemed a persuasive enough argument to me. I had read other things about caste during that period, by both Indians and non-Indians. The authors were historians and anthropologists and emphasized the cultural and social preconditions variables shaping the emergence of caste..

The genetic material at that time did not have the power to detect fine-grained differences (classical autosomal markers) or were only at a single locus (Y, or, more often mtDNA). By the middle to late 2000s there was already suggestion from Y/mtDNA that there was some serious population structure in South Asia, but there wasn’t anything definitive.

A full reading of works such as Castes of Mind leaves the impression that though some aspect of caste (broad varnas) are ancient, much of the elaboration and detail is recent, and probably due to British rationalization. The full title speaks to that reality.

This is one reason I was surprised by the results from genome-wide analyses of Indian populations when they first came out. On the whole, populations at the top of the caste hierarchy were genetically distant from those at the bottom, and the broad pattern of the differences was mostly consistent across all of South Asia.

To give a concrete example, there are “lower caste” groups in Punjab which may have more steppe pastoralist ancestry than South Indian Brahmins. But within Punjab “highest caste” groups still have more ancestry than “lower caste” groups.

But this wasn’t the most shocking aspect. That was the fact that many castes are genetically quite distant, and anciently so. In a recent paper, The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia:

We identify 81 unique groups, of which 14 have estimated census sizes of more than a million, that descend from founder events more extreme than those in Ashkenazi Jews and Finns, both of which have high rates of recessive disease due to founder events.

Some of this is due to consanguinity among Muslims and some South Indian groups, but much of it is not. Rather, it’s because genetically it looks like many Indian communities stopped intermarrying ~1,500 years ago. This reduces the effective number of ancestors even in a large population due to increased drift. At a recent conference, an Indian geneticist suggested that this might have something to do with the crystallization of caste Hinduism during the Gupta period. I can’t speak to that, but anyone who has looked at the data sees this pattern.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, assume ~1% introgression of genes from the surrounding population in a small group. Within 1,500 years 50% of the genes of the target population will have been “replaced.” The genetic patterns you see in many South Asian groups indicates far less than 1% genetic exchange per generation for over 1,000 years in these small groups.

But this post isn’t really about genetics. Rather, I began with the genetics because as an outsider in some sense I’ve never really grokked South Asian communalism on a deep level. Yet the genetics tells us that South Asians are extremely endogamous. It is unlikely that this would hold unless the groups were able to suppress individuality to a great extent. Though people tend to marry/mate with those “like them”, usually the frequency is not 99.99% per generation.

In the United States, things are different. Interracial marriage rates were ~1% in 1960.* This was still during the tail end of Jim Crow in much of the south. Since then the fraction of couples who are in ethno-racial mixed marriages keeps increasing and is almost 20% today. There is still a lot of assortative mating, and ingroup preference. But fractions in the 10-20% range are worrisome for anyone who is concerned about genetic cohesion over a few generations.

Though some level of group solidarity exists, explicitly among minorities, and implicitly for non-minorities, individual choice is in the catbird seat today. This was not always so. By the time I was growing up in the 1980s social norms had relaxed, but a black-white couple still warranted some attention and notice. In earlier periods interracial couples had to suffer through much more ostracism from their families and broader society.

In some South Asian contexts, this seems to be true to this day. But unlike the United States the situation is much more complex, with numerous ethno-religious-linguistic subgroups operating in a fractured landscape of power and identity.

I have wondered in part whether the South Asian fixation on sensitivity and feeling when it came to offense and insult is a function of the strong communal/collective aspect to honor, identity, and decision-making. Muslims outside of South Asia are similar to this, and in the Islamic context the rationale is quite explicit: non-Muslims and heretics are tolerated so long as they don’t challenge the public ethno-cultural supremacy of Islam. For example, atheism is punished less because of deviation from religious orthodoxy and more because it destabilizes public order and is seen as a crime against the state.

The conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in relation to religious parades have their clear analogs to strife between the dominant Catholics and the new Protestant communities in Latin America. But among Hindus the same tendencies crop up in inter-caste conflicts. The sexual brutalization that is sometimes reported of lower caste women by upper castes in parts of the Gangetic plain is a trivial consequence of the power that land-holding upper castes have over all the levers of power over low castes in certain localities. Lower caste men are powerless to defend their women against violation, just as in the American South enslaved black men couldn’t shield their womenfolk from the sexual advances of white men.

Will any of this change? I suspect that economic development and urbanization is the acid that will start to break down these old tendencies and relations in South Asia. It also seems clear that all South Asian communities which are transplanted to the more individualistic West have issues with the fact that collective and communal power is not given any public role, and in a de facto sense has to face the reality that individual choices in mates and cultural orientation are much more viable in the West.

This is particularly important to keep in mind on a blog like this, where many people are reading from South Asia (mostly India) and many are reading in the USA and UK. The conflict of values and signifiers occasionally plays out in these comments! For example, a Hindu nationalist commenter once referred to me as “Secular.” As an atheist, materialist, and someone who is irreligious in terms of identity and affiliation, secular describes me perfectly…in the West. But I was aware of the connotations of the term in India in particular, I told him that in fact, I wasn’t “Secular” in the way he was suggested. The reality is that unlike Indian Americans I don’t take a strong interest in what India does so long as it’s a reasonably stable regime, and so don’t signal my affiliation with Hindu nationalism or anti-Hindu nationalism.

* Latinos were not counted as part of this in 1960, so the rate looking at those numbers is 0.4%. I assume this is an underestimate because of Latinos.

White presenting, women presenting, person defends Dharmic terminology from white people

Not sure if I would have believed this tweet existed if it didn’t. But it does.

But wait, it gets better! More white presenting people defending the cultural sensitivities of people of the Dharmic persuasion.

Now, I do think it is true that Dharmic religious perspectives tend to be made light of on occasion. For example, Hindus have “mythologies.” As opposed to the presumably real Abrahamic “God of history”?

But I don’t think this is going to help the situation. In fact, these sorts of public posturings are more about the person posturing than about what they are posturing about.

From the entry on Newspeak:

In “The Principles of Newspeak”, the appendix to the novel, George Orwell explains that Newspeak usage follows most of the English grammar, yet is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.

Not all Aryans are Indian, though most Indians are part Aryan, and most Aryan ancestry is in India

Ossetian boys

This post needs to published mostly to clarify some issues in relation to terminology. The genetics is moving fast, and people are going to get overwhelmed.

First, the term Aryan, or Arya, is not exclusive to South Asia. As most of you know it was used by many (though not all!) Iranian peoples. The Indic and Iranian branches of the Indo-European language family are close enough they form a very tight clade. The only comparison might be Baltic and Slavic, though some have asserted that that is due to the fact that Baltic peoples have lived so close to Slavic peoples for such a long time.

Though in the main Iranian peoples are in close proximity to South Asia, or in West Asia (e.g., Kurds), one group is exceptional in that it has no connection to West or South Asia: the Ossetes.  These people on the northern fringes of the Caucasus are descended from Iranian steppe pastoralists who never went south. You know them as Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans.

To my knowledge these northern Iranian peoples never called themselves Arya, so perhaps the world itself was some sort of loanword? (internet resources are of differing opinions on the provenance)

Second, the division between Indo-Aryans and Iranians predates the  arrival of the latter into the Indian subcontinent and to West Asia. The latest genetic work indicates that steppe signal did not show up at BMAC until ~2000 BC. We also know that a group of Indo-Aryan provenance was in Upper Mesopatamia 1500 BC. In contrast, Iranian peoples show up to the east of Assyria ~1000 BC, and there were Iranian peoples to the north of Turan deep into antiquity (the Sarmatians who harried the Pannonian frontier were Iranian heirs to the Scythians).

The “Indo-Aryans” who were integrated into the kingdom of Mittanni/Hanigalbat may never been resident within South Asia. Where the major pulse of migration went to the India subcontinent after 2000 BC, another wave probably sent outriders to the west.

But where the Indo-Aryans in South Asia would have  encountered collapsing IVC order, the societies of West Asia bounced back reasonably from the time of troubles around the turn of millennium, when barbarians from the northern and eastern peripheries (“wild Guti”) collapsed the Third Dynasty of Ur and Semitic pastoralists took the reins of Mesopatamian civilization.

There are suggestive but very clear Indo-Aryan aspects of the Mitanni elite culture. But, by and large it was absorbed into the Hurrian substrate of the region. The analogy here might be what happened to the Turkic Bulgars in what became Bulgaria, as they were cultural absorbed by the Slavs over whom they ruled (or, the Scandinavian Rus).

Let’s call these steppe people “Aryans.” Iranians and “Indo”-Aryans.

How many are there around today? Let’s say 10% of South Asian ancestry is Aryan. This is very conservative (see this post). That’s 150 million people, 0.10 x 1.5 billion. There are ~200 Iranian speakers. There’s no way that 75% of the ancestry among this group is steppe. It is high in Turan and eastern Iran, but in populous western Iran and in Kurdistan the steppe fraction declines (Haber et al. found 7% “pure steppe” signal in Lebanon, so it’s not trivial even in western Iran, but it’s probably not going to be more than 50%).  Most of the Aryan ancestry in the world is in India.

That being said, one should not confuse South Asian culture with Aryan culture and Aryan culture with South Asia. The two are distinct. It is hard to deny that South Asian culture was strongly shaped by the Indo-Aryans; most of us (or our recent ancestors) speak an Indo-Aryan language. The Hindu priestly caste seems to have more Indo-Aryan ancestry, and some of their rituals and customs date back to the Vedic period. Only a few groups have zero evidence of steppe ancestry, even in South India.

Indus Valley artifact

But Indian culture and Indo-Aryan culture in South Asia are not exclusively Indo-Aryan. The “Hindu religion” is diverse, but it is clearly not present outside of South Asia, except as reflux as South Asian polities and peoples moved to the margins of Turan (e.g. the Shahi kings), or through cultural and demographic diffusion to Southeast Asia (there is robust evidence of Indian genetic impact in places like Cambodia and Bali).

I do not believe that Hinduism, and Indian culture more generally, can be understood without consideration of its non-Aryan component. The cultural archaeology of this is beyond the purview of this post, but I believe that like the Greeks the Indians were strongly shaped by pre/non-Indo-European currents.

As Indian culture in the 1st millennium BC can only be understood as a synthesis between Aryan culture, and non-Aryan culture, the expansion of Buddhism into other parts of Asia, and more specifically to Turan, was not just of Indianized Aryan culture, but of an Indian culture which was a synthesis of Aryan and non-Aryan. It was something new, novel, and distinctive, that was exported throughout Eurasia.