The Unravelling of the AMT

The thought of writing this article came as I recalled a recent interview of Vagheesh Narasimhan with the Caravan magazine, where he explains how in his view, the Indo-Aryans must have spread across South Asia.

Before coming to what Vagheesh said in the interview, let us take a brief detour so that his comments could be understood in its proper context.

The Textual Evidence for AMT

Except for the truly ignorant on the subject, it is clear as daylight to all scholars, whether Indian or Western, that the Rigvedic geography is centred in North India, more specifically around Punjab, Haryana & Western UP.  The westernmost lands mentioned in Rigveda are the eastern regions of Afghanistan and these were certainly peripheral in the scheme of things of Rigvedic Aryans.

Yet, through the last two centuries several attempts have been made to parse out some sort of evidence from Rigveda or any of the early Vedic texts, in the form of memory or otherwise, that could support the argument of an extra-Indian homeland of the Rigvedic Indo-Aryans. However all such attempts have come to naught.

Let us go through the opinion of the mainstream western Indologists on the matter so that there remains no room for doubt on the matter.

Edwin Bryant notes in his seminal book,

The first prominent note of discord between traditional exegesis and Western scholarship was sounded because of the lack of explicit mention, in the Vedic texts, of a foreign homeland of the Aryan people. As mentioned previously, this conspicuous silence had been noted even by nineteenth-century Western scholars (e.g., Elphinstone 1841). The absence of any mention of external Aryan origins in traditional Sanskrit sources is, to this day, perhaps the single most prominent objection raised by much of the scholarship claiming indigenous origins for the Aryan culture. (pg 59)

Already in the middle of the 19th century we have scholars such as Curzon (1855) who argues, “Is it legitimate … to infer that because the Aryans early spread to the South . . . and extended themselves over the peninsula, they also originally invaded, from some unknown region and conquered India itself?” (pg 65) and Muir(1860) who notes that “none of the Sanskrit books, not even the most ancient, contain any distinct reference or allusion to the foreign origin of the Indians” (pg 63)

Bryant quotes Srinivas Iyengar, who in 1914 quite pertinently said,

The Aryas do not refer to any foreign country as their original home, do not refer to themselves as coming from beyond India, do not name any place in India after the names of places in their original land as conquerors and colonizers always do, but speak of themselves exactly as sons of the soil would do. If they had been foreign invaders, it would have been humanly impossible for all memory of such invasion to have been utterly obliterated from memory in such a short time as represents the differences between the Vedic and Avestan dialects. (pg 59)

Bryant refers to Indian scholars as early as the latter half of the 19th century who object to the external origins of the Indo-Aryans, which should clear the doubts of those who think that opposition to AIT/AMT is a modern Hindutva invention.

As per Bryant, “… the fact that the Vedas themselves make no mention of any Aryan invasion or immigration reveals a major epistemological concern in this debate. ” (pg 59)

Bryant concludes the chapter thus, “The sequence of texts does seem to suggest a movement of the Brahmanic geographical horizons from the Northwest to other parts of India. Nonetheless, the Indigenous response needs to be considered: the texts give no obvious indication of a movement into India itself. Indigenous Aryanists, on the whole, are prepared to accept a shift of population from the Sarasvatl region eastward toward the Gangetic plain…But they do not feel compelled to then project this into preconceived hypothetical movements into the subcontinent itself in the pre- and protohistoric period.”

Hans Henrich Hock, a well-known linguist and Sanskritist, in his contribution to this major volume, The Indo-Aryan Controversy, also observes,

Some publications claim that the Rig-Veda contains actual textual evidence for an Aryan in-migration…suffice it to state that none of them provide unambiguous clues that the point of origin for these travels was further (north-)west or outside of India/South Asia, or that the direction of travel was to the east or further into India/South Asia. (pg 290)

Hock rather candidly tells us that “…the passages cited by Biswas and Witzel do not provide cogent evidence for Aryan in-migration and thus cannot be used to counter the claim of opponents of the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” (e.g. Rajaram and Frawley 1997: 233) that there is no indigenous tradition of an outside origin.” (pg 291)

Another major linguist George Cardona concurs that “… there is no textual evidence in the early literary traditions unambiguously showing a trace of such migration. “(pg 38)

Cardona goes one step further and analyses a particular passage Michael Witzel, an ardent proponent of the AMT, cites from the Baudhayana Srauta Sutra, to support his argument of textual evidence.

Cardona’s verdict,

It is beyond dispute that the interpretation Witzel gives to this passage does not accord with its syntax… one must conclude that, without resort to unwarranted liberty of interpretation, this text cannot serve to document an Indo-Aryan migration into the main part of the subcontinent. Witzel also notes (1995b: 338–9) that the Yadu-Turvaśa and the Anu-Druhyu had been established in the Panjab by the time the Rgveda was composed and that, ‘They retain only the dimmest recollection of their move into South Asia…’

As per Cardona, “…there is no clear textual evidence showing early Indo-Aryan remembrance of a migration…”

The Archaeological Evidence for AMT

Having thus laid out the Western Indologists’ view on the (lack of) textual evidence in support of the AMT, we may now move to the archaeological evidence and specifically to what Vagheesh Narasimhan said in the recent interview, the full excerpts of which can be read here.

In the midst of the interview, in its latter half, Vagheesh responds to a question and the following is part of his answer,

Similarly, if you ask archaeologists about transitions in culture in India, the evidence suggests that there is very little change in the material culture from the Harappan period to the post-Harappan period. The way people are eating, the way people are burying their dead, the way crops and grains are being grown and so on and so forth remain basically the same. Moreover, there is a striking difference in the cultural practices of the populations from the Central Steppe and populations in the Vedic period in India, including the most prevalent Vedic rituals of Soma and Homa, for which there is no precedent on the Steppe. Thus, in in South Asia, just as in Europe, the arriving steppe pastoralists who mixed into local populations clearly adopted local cultural practices, which we call today Vedic culture.

In other words, the supposed steppe pastoralist migrants abandoned their steppe cultural practices when they entered India and adopted the Harappan & post-Harappan cultural practices and through this developed what we know of as the Vedic culture.

So if we may recap, there is NO textual evidence to support an AMT or extra-Indian homeland of the Vedic people as per the Western Indologists themselves. This includes the Rigveda too, which is supposed to have been composed not too long after the Indo-Aryan migration. Further more, there is not a shred of archaeological evidence that suggests any intrusion of a steppe cultural element in the post-Harappan period in South Asia. Therefore, the migrating Steppe pastoralists must have abandoned their steppe practices and adopted the post-Harappan practices and totally blended in.

Yet they somehow managed to impose their language(s) across the entire swath of North India/Pakistan and renamed almost all of the places and rivers in North India in their own language. They also managed to preserve most perfectly the wheeled vehicle terminology among all IE groups even though the Harappans themselves knew wheeled vehicles for atleast 2 millenia before the AMT. They also managed to preserve the terms related to cattle and dairy in their own steppe derived language even though they happened to be nomads who were apparently getting acculturated into a group which had domesticated cattle about 5 millenia earlier.


Why should the Harappans stop using their own native terms, which they would have had considering their long acquaintance with these lifestyles, for the terms developed in the steppe language of these migrating nomads who clearly knew little of cattle and dairying ?

To put it most starkly, archaeologically the steppe migrants lost all cultural practices and adopted the post-Harappan South Asian cultural practices, yet linguistically they somehow largely preserved their Indo-European culture and myths and language which they shared with their steppe cousins.

How do you explain this paradox ?

Further Problems for the AMT

The lack of archaeological evidence for AMT has been known for several decades now and even James Mallory, one of the foremost proponents of the PIE steppe origin theory acknowledges it thus,

In any event, all three models require some form of major language shift despite there being no credible archaeological evidence to demonstrate, through elite dominance or any other mechanism, the type of language shift required to explain, for example, the arrival and dominance of the Indo-Aryans in India. (pg 150)

And further,

The archaeological evidence for an expansion from the steppelands across historical Iran and India varies from the extremely meagre to total absence: both the Anatolian and the Kurgan theory find it extraordinarily difficult to explain the expansion of the Indo-European languages over a vast area of urbanized Asian populations, approximately the same area as that of Europe. (pg 462)

To explain this lack of steppe material into South Asia, Mallory had suggested the kultur-kugel model whereby the Indo-Aryan steppe pastoralists adopted the practices of the BMAC people first before they migrated into South Asia and thereby they took BMAC cultural norms and not the steppe norms into South Asia.

Ofcourse, the claims of Narasimhan et al 2019, are in direct conflict with this since they claim that the steppe groups who migrated into South Asia apparently made little impact on BMAC but largely bypassed it before moving into South Asia. Further, there was apparently no genetic contribution of BMAC into the Harappans as well as the latter day South Asians. So the Kultur-kugel model goes for a toss because such a model demands the migration of acculturated Indo-Aryans of BMAC into South Asia who spread the Indo-Aryan language and culture in that region.

New emerging evidence

One of the central planks of the AMT theory since the last few decades has been that the Indo-Aryan migrants brought horse drawn spoked wheel chariots into India which was earlier unknown in the region.

However, the evidence suggests that the knowledge of spoked wheels was quite widespread across the entire Harappan domain from the Early Harappan period onwards. A recent paper by the archaeologist Krishnendu Das, in the Puratattva Journal published annually by Indian Archaeological Society collates all the available evidence from myriad different sites of the Harappan era and shows that the evidence of spoked wheels at Harappan sites is undeniable.

We also have the recent evidence of a chariot from the site of Sanauli at the eastern fringes of the Harappan civilization, and it is potentially the oldest known chariot so far, tentatively dated to between 2200-2000 BC.

(those interested only in Chariots can jump to 28:00)



Finally we may also note that the presence of horse bones and figurines from various Harappan sites is also quite well-documented.

Sandor Bokonyi, an internationally renowned Hungarian archaeozoologist, acknowledged the presence of horse remains at the Harappan site of Surkotada in Gujarat,

Through a thorough study of the equid remains of the prehistoric settlement of Surkotada, Kutch, excavated under the direction of Dr. J. P. Joshi, I can state the following: The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus L.) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size and form of incisors and phalanges (toe bones). Since no wild horses lived in India in post-Pleistocene times, the domestic nature of the Surkotada horses is undoubtful. This is also supported by an intermaxilla fragment whose incisor tooth shows clear signs of crib biting, a bad habit only existing among domestic horses which are not extensively used for war.

One may also note this tweet by Niraj Rai

So the early South Asians, before the advent of the chariot weilding steppe migrants already knew of horse and spoked wheels and also the chariot.

Genetics completes the AMT unravelling

In the same Caravan interview of Vagheesh, he mentions another very interesting point,

We also have evidence for the first time of a female-biased migration into Iron Age populations in the Swat Valley.

Please ponder upon this.

The Swat Iron Age samples are the only ancient samples from South Asia proper besides the solitary Rakhigarhi sample, and these 100 odd Swat samples are the earliest samples from South Asia who apparently show the ‘steppe’ ancestry. But this steppe ancestry largely came from women of the steppe as per the Harvard team. It should also be noted while y-dna R1a Z93 was overwhelmingly dominant in most 2nd millenium BC samples from the steppe, it was absent in Swat IA save 1 sample.

So did the steppe women bring the Indo-Aryan language and culture into South Asia ?  Vagheesh and his team argue that though the ancient Swat samples show a female bias in steppe ancestry, most modern South Asians show a male bias in steppe ancestry in the form of widespread presence of y-dna R1a-Z93. But is he really sure that R1a-Z93 spread into South Asia from the steppe ? Chaubey and his team are certainly going to contest this strongly when their paper on modern Indian R1a diversity comes out soon.

Assuming the steppe brought R1a-Z93 into South Asia, the present evidence forces us to think that it came to South Asia in small numbers and later on expanded within South Asia itself. This could only have happened after, as Vagheesh argues, the steppe migrants got acculturated into the post-Harappan civilization of South Asia to give rise to Vedic culture.

But initially it were mostly the steppe women who got assimilated. Steppe women marrying local South Asian men could not be construed as having preserved and spread the steppe IE culture into South Asia. Could it ? And that is also what Vagheesh is arguing when he points out the archaeological evidence where Vedic culture seems to have arisen out of the steppe migrants assimilating and acculturating into the post-Harappan culture of North India. yet

So let us recap what we discussed.

There is no textual evidence, from any of the Vedic texts including the Rigveda, for the AMT. This is surprising given the fact that Rigveda is not very far removed in time from the period of the suppossed migration.

There is no archaeological evidence of the steppe migration into South Asia since there is not a single element of the Bronze Age steppe culture in the post-Harappan period in South Asia.

The argument of the steppe Indo-Aryans bringing the innovation of horse drawn spoked wheeled chariot into South Asia also falls flat as all of these are clearly present in the Harappan archaeological record.

The ancient DNA evidence suggests a female biased steppe migration into South Asia.

Now let us be honest. After this survey, does the AMT theory for Indo-Aryans in South Asia appear to be on solid footing ? Or does it even have the ground beneath its feet ?

24 thoughts on “The Unravelling of the AMT”

  1. Congratulations, I agree with almost everything, but not with this: “there is not a shred of archaeological evidence that suggests any intrusion of a foreign cultural element in the post-Harappan period in South Asia”. In Jhukar and Cemetery H cultures, we have elements compared with BMAC or Iran, like stamp seals and figures on pottery.

  2. Jaydeep until you address the elephant in the room, AMT/AIT will continue to be unassailable.

    Why is there no Aryan DNA in South Asia before the alleged date of the Aryan arrival, yet after this proposed date, we find Aryan DNA? This is full proof evidence of Aryans originating outside the region.

    I also think your points against AMT/AIT are not convincing at all. A number of ancient population migrations did not leave oral/written records of their ancient homeland, nor did they result in a change in material culture that would be observable via archaeology. But we know they happened.

  3. The ancient DNA evidence suggests a female biased steppe migration into South Asia.

    i pointed out to VR that in that region you have non-indo-european burusho. i think the swat ppl were latecomers to indo-aryan.

    also, the genomewide vs Y data today is pretty clear in showing steppe bias in male mediated ancestry all over. there were clearly lots of anamolies in the mixing process (AHG goes up all across NW during iron age).

    1. Do we have any info regarding large scale deaths due to epidemic akin to black deaths from the steppe migration period in Indian subcontinent ? We already know that Harappans were in decline & natural changes were happening. Will this not create a possibility for ‘Male bias’ in these samples ? Why only see it from ‘invasion’ perspective ?

      1. I have wondered about this as well. Did the steppe migrants bring with them disease and disease resistance that allowed them to establish a much larger genetic and cultural footprint in the South Asian gene pool? There is some recent evidence that this may have been the case in Europe with Yamnaya migrations.

  4. we need more mitochondrial DNA discussions. I want to know more about my skymother. More information about my jungle father would be good too.

    Sky= steppe

    We focus a lot on skyfather.

  5. Giacomo,

    Thanks for pointing that out. I am aware of the BMAC influence and should have used a better choice of words. I have edited out that part.

  6. MMK,

    Yes I was struck by that part about dog burial as well. Therefore, if as Anthony and others say, dog burial was an inherently Indo-European custom, it further cements the IE identity of the Sanauli warriors.

  7. No particular scholarly comment. I just find the reference to insertion of female steppe DNA into the South Asian genome as “steppe women marrying local South Asian males” touchingly quaint. 🙂

    1. If I am not mistaken, our own thewarlock (according to himself) is an example of this case. The truth is that this contradicts ‘There is no archaeological evidence of the steppe migration into South Asia…’ but it is original on the global scale.

      Very well Roma B. Maybe the first draft of Rig Veda was created hundreds or thousands of years before arrival to SA. Roughly, some tribes (future Russians) left Vinca and crossed Carpathian m. about 4500 years ago, some reached SA 4000 years ago. It means that some trips lasted for 500 years. It is interesting connection with Irish mythology. Maybe, this is a key thing. I like to see at least some speculations about this connection. Much more interesting than dog burials. If chariots existed before Aryans arrival, it does not mean that their migration did not exist.

      Of course, not mentioning of thousands of Aryan toponyms…

      (“The Aryas do not refer to any foreign country as their original home, do not refer to themselves as coming from beyond India, do not name any place in India after the names of places in their original land as conquerors and colonizers always do, but speak of themselves exactly as sons of the soil would do – Srinivas I, 1914”)

      …and if Indo-Aryans did not exist, what about Tibeto-Aryans, Afghano-Aryans, Chino-Aryans, Irano-Aryans, Yaggu-Aryans, etc.?

    2. Even more delicate way of putting thngs is: David Reich while talking of increased Steppe component in Iberial populations says ‘ Steppe people had a preferential access to Iberian females’

      I like the term ‘preferential access’ to females or males. That makes unequal social processes lot cuter

  8. Yes AMT has solid footing in all terms. They had already arrived by mature phase. Rigveda is book of hymns not attestations from which place they turned up. Probably, it would have taken a generation for them to arrive to South Asia.(they themselves may have not known where their fathers came from).
    Harappan language is lost. All archaic PIE daughter languages have survived including proto-bangani(centum langauge)relates to R1b haplogroup.
    Asvins dieties or dual kings, using honey-beer, wool threads (kanva brahmans) belongs to PIE. Cremation of dead, using gold in the mouth. Each PIE could have variety of different culture.
    Atharaveda(book 1&10) similar parallels to Irish mythology.
    Vedic culture is amalgamation culture of PIE+Indus+Folklore of South Asia.

  9. Interesting article. Some very ill informed comments on Aryan gene – no there is nothing called Aryan gene. Don’t start with a supposition and then work backwards.

    The female mediated minor steppe genes at around 1000 BCE, and then gradual build up during later periods clearly tells that the steppe nomads came there as part of trade routes, and locals were the dominant folks taking their women as wives. The steppe % then builds up in the interior heartlands over next few centuries, perhaps even millennia to reach a max of 20% in some pops in South Asia. But, none if it can be thought of bringing IE, too little, too late, no archaeology of an external cultural memeplex.

    At this stage it has to be explored how the Iranian like ancestry spread the IE language to Europe and beyond.

  10. Bro jaideep why do u fret so much ?

    How does it matter where we came ( or didn’t come ) from. We aryans (N-indian Hindus ) rule India anyway ??

  11. Great article, Jaydeep, People are overawed by the Reich lab and there is no reason to be. When the Narasimhan et al. preprint went up on bioRxiv last year, they were claiming that “Iranian agriculturalists” migrated to the Indian Subcontinent bringing agriculture with them similar to how Anatolian agriculturalists brought agriculture to Europe (“A Tale of Two Subcontinents”). I wrote in the comments in bioRxiv that this could not be true because a paper published in 2004 showed that mtDNA haplogroups shared between Iran and India had diverged before 25,000 years ago. Lo and behold, they have abandoned their idea and now in their Science paper they say that the “Iranian agriculturalists” in India and the “Iranian agriculturalists” in Iran diverged before 12,000 years ago i.e. before agriculture was invented anywhere.

    Their claim of demonstrating the migration of Steppe people into the Indian Subcontinent depends only on the fact that they were able to model modern Indians as a combination of Indus_Periphery, AHG and Steppe_MLBA. But qpAdm models do not necessarily prove anything. Other populations in place of Steppe_MLBA will likely work as well or better. One suggestion I have proposed is “Aigyrzhal_BA”.

    In view of the excellent evidence that you have marshaled in your article, it is Narasimhan et al. who have to review their work.

  12. I wrote in the comments in bioRxiv that this could not be true because a paper published in 2004 showed that mtDNA haplogroups shared between Iran and India had diverged before 25,000 years ago.

    this is a dumb objection though. no way the “iranian” groups are that diverged. just incomplete lineage sorting stuff.

  13. I am very confused about what Vagheesh said in Caravan magazine:
    1. Steppe population came to India in large numbers
    2. Steppe adopted Indus cultural ways but not their language
    3. Instead leftover Indus people adopted Steppe language.

    How can a large group of immigrats take up cultural practices but not the language? All modern migrant groups point the other way, they rather keep their culture but switch the language.
    Also, which people would teach Steppe the Indus ways but not the language? What are they using to communicate?

    All of this points to Steppe being invaders than immigrants. They can force people to communicate to them in a Steppe language, but they can’t force people to change their cultural ways (particularly in populations dispersed over a large area).
    It also seems to gel with what Islamic and English invaders did later.

    But I don’t know how Reich group would sort out their story and not sound too implausible.

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