My Substack piece is up, Stark Truth About Aryans: a story of India. I’m pretty proud of this, as it wasn’t a single-sitting blog post, but something I worked over several times. Since it’s for paid subscribers I’ll post the first few paragraphs below, with an infographic that I think illustrates a lot of what’s going on.
Nearly one in four human beings lives in the Indian subcontinent. The region’s genetic and cultural diversity are unparalleled, spanning a vast spectrum from blue-eyed Muslim Kashmiris in the north who speak a tongue distantly related to English, to dark-skinned animistic Tamils in the far south whose language has no known relatives outside South Asia. Though Indian genetic research goes back decades, a legacy of P. C. Mahalanobis, the “father of Indian statistics,” only over the past twenty years has our understanding of the present genetic and physical variation and its roots expanded to a point where we can confidently trace the origins of South Asia’s bewildering diversity.
But science doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What the latest findings mean to Indians is still an issue subject to public debate, long after the data has been collected, reported, and analyzed. What does it mean to say that half the ancestors of modern Indians were related to the people of the Andaman Islands, and the other half to Europeans? Or that this synthesis of lineages occurred only within the last 10,000 years? Instead of being ancient and primal, a child of the Pleistocene tens of thousands of years in the past, to be genetically Indian is to be younger than the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Indian diversity is the result of a massive mixing between various streams of humanity that occurred thousands of years ago to produce a mosaic with startlingly different shades and features. European pastoralists, farmers from the subcontinent’s northwest reaches, and hunter-gatherers who clung to the Indian-Ocean shores on the southern fringe of India, came together to stitch a complex tapestry.
Though the Indian press and public take a keen interest in how their genetic origins map onto the history of their storied civilization, interpretation of any empirical results is inevitably politically fraught. Geneticist David Reich recounts in his book Who We Are and How We Got Herealmost losing a 2009 paper right before publication due to its potential social and political ramifications. As Reconstructing Indian Population History was coming out, he had to navigate treacherous socio-political shoals. Indian collaborators made it clear that there were limits to what he could explicitly conclude because of cultural red lines. If Reich’s lab insisted on concluding that there was a massive migration of people into the subcontinent from the northwest, the Indian researchers would have to withdraw their cooperation, and therefore their essential data.
Reich’s work showed that all the nearly two billion people of Indian subcontinental origin emerged out of a fusion of two very distinct ancestral populations, which he termed “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI) and “Ancestral South Indian” (ASI). This amalgamation was then thought to have occurred only about 4,000 years ago. The closest contemporary relatives of the ASI are the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands, while the ANI are genetically similar to today’s Europeans and Middle Easterners.