Indian genetics, part n of many

I put up close to definitive piece for me in relation to South Asian historical population genetics. At least until new research is published. I did leave out some stuff about my own vague thoughts…but I think the takeover of Hattian and Hurrian cultures by the Nesha (Hittites) and Haryannu (Mitanni) have something to teach us….

On the “Aryan” debate – the linguistics POV

There has been a recent flurry of activity online (mostly on Twitter and mostly by Indian Twitter trolls, not counting yours truly) around the Aryan invasion/migration issue sparked by one piece in particular – namely written by Mr Tony Joseph in the Hindu. The original piece can be accessed here. Since I have a few substantive points to make from a linguistics standpoint, and lacking any expertise in genetics whatsoever I will focus of the former.

The controversy, dating back to the colonial period and weighed down by a lot of colonial baggage, has essentially been around the origin of the various peoples of India, primarily in the North & the North-West. The idea that the basis of what we now call Hindu (or more generally Indic) culture is actually European in origin (and brought to India via the Aryans) was first mooted during the colonial period. With the expansion of the British Empire, British orientalists starting from Sir William Jones (one of the founders of IE linguistics and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta) and followed by people like James Prinsep (decipherer of the Kharoshthi and Brahmi scripts), Sir Marc Aurel Stein, Sir Olaf Caroe, Col James Tod, Alexander Cunningham and the suchlike, came to India and contributed to this general theme in various ways. Note that most, if not all, of them were first-rate scholars of history and driven by a genuine desire to research their subject with due diligence. However, even the best researcher has a context in which (s)he operates and for these colonial historians the idea of an exogenous origin of Indian culture had a strong pull. Furthermore, all this historical research work done on the general topic of the “Aryan invasion” was, by necessity, devoid of any substantiation by population genetics – simply because the field was not invented until the 1930s. The idea of noble Aryan invaders of the hoary past who brought civilization to barbarians clearly resonated with the 20th century Fascist regimes* too, who imbibed a half-arsed notion of Aryan-ness and usage of symbolism like the Swastika, also from Sanskrit svastikaH, a compound (or samAs) form of the phrase su-asti-karoti iti (lit. good-is-doing that).

It is the linguistic and cultural notion of what Aryahood really is (the old problem) that I am interested in. While population genetics can certainly shed some light on magnitude and timing of population transfers into the Indian subcontinent, it really cannot say very much about cultural and linguistic development because that information is not encoded in our DNA but rather in our literature, in our everyday language and to some extent in our socio-religious traditions.

did Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves Aryans, stream into India sometime around 2,000 BC – 1,500 BC when the Indus Valley civilisation came to an end, bringing with them Sanskrit and a distinctive set of cultural practices? Genetic research based on an avalanche of new DNA evidence is making scientists around the world converge on an unambiguous answer: yes, they did.

Therefore, when Mr Joseph answers the second clause of his question in a ringing affirmative based on genetic evidence, he is on really thin ice. Did these self-avowed Aryans (henceforth Arya, as that is the correct Sanskrit term) actually bring Sanskrit with them? Can they be called outsiders in any meaningful sense? Is the oldest extant literature composed by people who self-designated as Arya non-Indian? The answer is an emphatic no! to all three questions.

  • Let’s start with the they-brought-Sanskrit-with-them spiel first. It is well-hypothesized that Proto-Indo-Iranian (the putative ancestor of the Indic and Iranian language families) split off from Proto-Indo-European around 2500-2000 BCE, quite possibly a result of a drawn-out process of a feudal elite immigrating, influencing or inter-marrying with tribal chieftains across Central Asia. These people clearly had a technological edge in horse domestication and use of horses yoked (cf. Skt. yoga, lit. to join together, past-participle yukt) to chariots (Skt. ratha cognate with Latin rota or Old Saxon rath, i.e. wheel). The process of largely cultural transmission took around a good 500-1000 years, before we can date use of Sanskrit in India from ~1500 BCE.

Does that mean Sanskrit isn’t native to India? Of course not. Languages aren’t things fixed in time and space, but evolving speech patterns. What we call (Vedic or pre-Classical) Sanskrit is a time snapshot of the language of Northern India and (what is now) Pakistan from around 1500 BCE (composition of the earliest Veda) to roughly 500 BCE (roughly contemporaneous with Panini) with a strong local substrate effect visible all through this period. This implies that whenever the native speakers of the old substrate language switched to a newer one, it was long before the existence of speech forms we now label Sanskrit, and Sanskrit itself evolved entirely on the subcontinent. Saying that Sanskrit is exogenous to India is as foolish as claiming that French is exogenous to France – which is obviously silly because even though (vulgate) Latin was picked up by the local Gallic-Celtic population of France under Roman rule, the French language developed entirely within what’s now France. The evidence of Sanskrit ever being used outside modern-day Indo-Pak geographical boundary is absolutely zilch!

 

  • What about Vedic literature’s cultural/geographical moorings? The actual content of Sanskrit compositions shows no cultural dislocation unlike, say, Turkish or Persian compositions by speakers of those languages who immigrated to India or by the bards of Old-Saxon in what’s now England. Old English epics like Beowulf are culturally and geographically located in Northern Germany and regions of Scandinavia further North. On the other hand, even the oldest compositions in Sanskrit can’t get enough of the Indus and its tributaries or of the Himalayas or the flora and fauna of Northern India. Sanskrit shows a very strong Dravidian substrate, which includes a entire series of consonants called retroflexes (or murdhanya in Sanskrit) which clearly are correlated with the Dravidian language family. Sanskrit speakers not only got the retroflex substrate but innovated on it – leading to aspirated retoflexes /Th/ and /Dh/ (where aspiration is a purely IE feature). This again is further evidence that the Sanskrit language could not have existed outside India. Further, Sanskrit also includes tonality characteristic of Austro-asiatic (of which Munda or Burmese are modern day forms). Latter-day North-Eastern IA Prakrits have Tibetan and Tai-Kadai substrate too (cf. Nepalese or Axomiya). Nonetheless, existence of substrates is not a weird or exotic feature of Sanskrit but a general natural condition of all languages. E.g. around 20-30% of all Germanic vocabulary is attributable to a substrate non-IE langauge that no longer exists.

 

  • Finally, I contend that the old use of the term Arya in the Indian context has primarily been a marker of culture and language use rather than racial classification. It is akin to the Classical use of the word Roman, which signified citizenship of the Roman state (senatus populus que romanus) and knowledge of (and fluency in) Latin literature and language. I do not know of a single unambiguous citation from the earliest of the Vedic scripture (which predates the oldest Avestan Gathas by half a millennium, give or take a century) that uses the term Arya for family or tribe – e.g. like the Rg Veda talks about the Bharatas, Pakhtas, Bhalanas etc. The term Arya is squarely used to define a linguistic culture and knowledge of or adherence to a specific canonical tradition, not as a tribal ethnonym. So one speaks and behaves like an Arya, if one’s educated in Sanskrit speech (vAk) and adheres to the orthodox Vedic ritual (vrata). The people who could not speak proper Sanskrit and had little/no knowledge of the Vedas were variously termed anarya, barbara (lit. stammerer, cf. Hindi verb baRbaRana to utter meaningless noise, Gk. barbaros uncivilized) or mlecchha. Going by that definition, even the Persians and Greeks were non-Aryans for the Indians – and the Mahabharata epic (probably composed originally, as Jaya, sometime around 900 BCE, with later additions up to 3rd century BCE) says so very explicitly. It terms the pArasikAH (Persians), yavanAH (Ionians/Greeks), chInAH (Chinese) etc as barbarians irrespective of their skin-tone or “racial” classification. E.g. Mahabharata Book 6 (bhISmaH parvaH), Chapter 10:

Among the tribes of the north are the Mlecchas, .. O best of the Bharatas: the Yavanas, the Chinas, the Kambojas, the Darunas, and many Mleccha tribes; the Sukritvahas, the Kulatthas, the Hunas, and the Parasikas; the Ramanas, and the Dasamalikas.

We should be very careful in reading our modern-day biases into ancient history generally, and both the far-Left and Right in India have been quite guilty of it. Of course, they all have their own pet periods of Indian history to read their views into but the ramifications are similar. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have no skin in this hot Aryan-invasion controversy because they’re Arabs and Turks after all 🙂

I don’t really think the (more recent) question of genetics of the Indian subcontinent is very germane to the socio-politics of the subcontinent. Evidence that the composers of the Vedas had patrilineal descent – separated by roughly 20 to 40 generations – from people of (what is now) Eastern Europe can be an interesting factoid and quite possibly correlated with the spread of IE languages in this part of the world, but it really adds little to the study of the Indian language or culture from the Vedic period onwards (which both the Left and Right have strong opinions on). E.g. it cannot be used in any meaningful sense to dent claims of cultural nativism made by the Hindu Right. There are other effective ways to counter such pernicious chauvinism, but that’s a topic for another day.

 

 

[*] in which I include the Iranian Pahlaviyan Shahdom along with the Third Reich, who changed the name of the country to Iran in the 1930s (from Old Persian Airiyanam-khshathra lit. dominion of the Aryans).

Indian genetics, the never-ending argument

I am at this point somewhat fatigued by Indian population genetics. The real results are going to be ancient DNA, and I’m waiting on that. But people keep asking me about an article in Swarajya, Genetics Might Be Settling The Aryan Migration Debate, But Not How Left-Liberals Believe.

First, the article attacks me as being racist. This is not true. The reality is that the people who attack me on the Left would probably attack magazines like Swarajya as highly “problematic” and “Islamophobic.” They would label Hindu nationalism as a Nazi derivative ideology. People should be careful the sort of allies they make, if you dance with snakes they will bite you in the end. Much of the media lies about me, and the Left constantly attacks me. I’m OK with that because I do believe that the day will come with all the ledgers will be balanced. The Far Left is an enemy of civilization of all stripes. I welcome being labeled an enemy of barbarians. My small readership, which is of diverse ideologies and professions, is aware of who I am and what I am, and that is sufficient. Either truth or power will be the ultimate arbiter of justice.

With that out of the way, there this one thing about the piece that I think is important to highlight:

To my surprise, it turned out that that Joseph had contacted Chaubey and sought his opinion for his article. Chaubey further told me he was shocked by the drift of the article that appeared eventually, and was extremely disappointed at the spin Joseph had placed on his work, and that his opinions seemed to have been selectively omitted by Joseph – a fact he let Joseph know immediately after the article was published, but to no avail.

Indeed, this itself would suggest there are very eminent geneticists who do not regard it as settled that the R1a may have entered the subcontinent from outside. Chaubey himself is one such, and is not very pleased that Joseph has not accurately presented the divergent views of scholars on the question, choosing, instead to present it as done and dusted.

I do wish Tony Joseph had quoted Gyaneshwer Chaubey’s response, and I’d like to know his opinions. Science benefits from skepticism. Unfortunately though the equivocation of science is not optimal for journalism, so oftentimes things are presented in a more stark and clear manner than perhaps is warranted. I’ve been in this position myself, when journalists are just looking for a quote that aligns with their own views. It’s frustrating.

There are many aspects of the Swarajya piece I could point out as somewhat weak. For example:

The genetic data at present resolution shows that the R1a branch present in India is a cousin clade of branches present in Europe, Central Asia, Middle East and the Caucasus; it had a common ancestry with these regions which is more than 6000 years old, but to argue that the Indian R1a branch has resulted from a migration from Central Asia, it should be derived from the Central Asian branch, which is not the case, as Chaubey pointed out.

The Srubna culture, the Scythians, and the people of the Altai today, all bear the “Indian” branch of R1a. First, these substantially post-date 6000 years ago. I think that that is likely due to the fact that South Asian R1a1a-Z93 and that of the Sbruna descend from a common ancestor. But in any case, the nature of the phylogeny of Z93 indicates rapid expansion and very little phylogenetic distance between the branches. Something happened 4-5,000 years ago. One could imagine simultaneous expansions in India and Central Asia/Eastern Europe. Or, one could imagine an expansion from a common ancestor around that time. The latter seems more parsimonious.

Additionally, while South Asians share ancestry with people in West Asia and Eastern Europe, these groups do not have distinctive South Asian (Ancestral South Indian) ancestry. This should weight out probabilities as to the direction of migration.

Second, I read some of the papers linked to in the article, such as Shared and Unique Components of Human Population Structure and Genome-Wide Signals of Positive Selection in South Asia and Y-chromosomal sequences of diverse Indian populations and the ancestry of the Andamanese. The first paper has good data, but I’ve always been confused by the interpretations. For example:

A few studies on mtDNA and Y-chromosome variation have interpreted their results in favor of the hypothesis,70–72 whereas others have found no genetic evidence to support it.3,6,73,74 However, any nonmarginal migration from Central Asia to South Asia should have also introduced readily apparent signals of East Asian ancestry into India (see Figure 2B). Because this ancestry component is absent from the region, we have to conclude that if such a dispersal event nevertheless took place, it occurred before the East Asian ancestry component reached Central Asia. The demographic history of Central Asia is, however, complex, and although it has been shown that demic diffusion coupled with influx of Turkic speakers during historical times has shaped the genetic makeup of Uzbeks75 (see also the double share of k7 yellow component in Uzbeks as compared to Turkmens and Tajiks in Figure 2B), it is not clear what was the extent of East Asian ancestry in Central Asian populations prior to these events.

Actually the historical and ancient DNA evidence both point to the fact that East Asian ancestry arrived in the last two thousand years. The spread of the first Gokturk Empire, and then the documented shift in the centuries around 1000 A.D. from Iranian to Turkic in what was Turan, signals the shift toward an East Asian genetic influx. Alexander the Great and other Greeks ventured into Central Asia. The people were described as Iranian looking (when Europeans encountered Turkic people like Khazars they did note their distinctive physical appearance).

We have ancient DNA from the Altai, and those individuals initially seemed overwhelmingly West Eurasian. Now that we have Scythian ancient DNA we see that they mixed with East Asians only on the far east of their range.

The second paper is very confused (or confusing):

The time divergence between Indian and European Y-chromosomes, based on the closest neighbour analysis, shows two different distinctive divergence times for J2 and R1a, suggesting that the European ancestry in India is much older (>10 kya) than what would be expected from a recent migration of Indo-European populations into India (~4 to 5 kya). Also the proportions suggest the effect might be less strong than generally assumed for the Indo-European migration. Interestingly, the ANI ancestry was recently suggested to be a mix of ancestries from early farmers of western Iran and people of the Bronze Age Eurasian steppe (Lazaridis et al. 2016). Our results agree with this suggestion. In addition, we also show that the divergence time of this ancestry is different, suggesting a different time to enter India.

Lazaridis et al. accept a mass migration from the steppe. In fact, the migration is to such a magnitude that I’m even skeptical. Also, there couldn’t have been a European migration to South Asia during the Pleistocene because Europeans as we understand them genetically did not exist then!!!

I assume that many of the dates of coalescence are sensitive to parameter conditions. Additionally, they admit limitations to their sampling.

Ultimately the final story will be more complex than we can imagine. R1a is too widespread to be explained by a simple Indo-Aryan migration in my opinion. But we can’t get to these genuine conundrums if we keep having to rebut ideologically motivated salvos.

Related: Ancient herders from the Pontic-Caspian steppe crashed into India: no ifs or buts. I wish David would be a touch more equivocal. But I have to admit, if the model fits, at some point you have to quit.