I’m spending a lot of time reading about the Corded Ware for my series on the steppe. The Corded Ware is a culture that appeared that abruptly in Northern Europe between 2900 and 2800 BC, covering a vast territory of Central and Eastern Europe in a century. The name derives from the unique marks left on their pottery.

For decades scholars have argued whether they were an indigenous development out of the farmers who occupied this region for thousands of years, or whether there was a mass migration out of the steppe. More realistically, there was a synthetic position between at some point. Perhaps the farmers were influenced by a few elite bands migrating out of the steppe?

Today due to ancient DNA we know more. The Corded Ware culture in its mature phase is about 70% Yamnaya and 30% farmer. The farmer’s ancestry almost certainly comes exclusively through women. The Y chromosomes of the farmers were G2. There is very little of that within a few generations. It is almost all R1a.

But that leaves us with the question: where did the new pots come from? The answer is straightforward: the men from the steppe took wives from the farmers. They killed their fathers and brothers and took them to their homesteads to bear them children. These women knew how to make pots because they did not come from nomadic backgrounds. They adapted their techniques to making pots that exhibited marks that made them resemble the baskets that their husbands brought in their wagons.

The miracle of the immediate emergence of a new pottery technique is due to the fact that the nomads didn’t learn to work in clay. Their wives already had the skill.

Why is this posted on this weblog? That’s a question that does have an answer…


Multiple hearths of agriculture in ancient South Asia

Patrick Wyman’s Tides of History podcast is tackling South Asia and prehistory. He wrote up a Substack for it too, Ancient South Asia – Farming and People in India and Pakistan. I agree with Patrick here, though my confidence is low:

…It seems unlikely that a group living 1400 miles to the east would have chosen precisely the same suite of domesticated plants and animals as their related brethren in the Fertile Crescent. It’s intriguing that a fourth distinct group, as yet unsampled by geneticists, might have been living in the Fertile Crescent alongside their relatives 10,000 years ago or more. But the most likely, in my opinion, is that the group ancestral to later South Asians was living somewhere between the Indus Valley and the Zagros, perhaps on the Iranian Plateau: close enough to adopt some pieces of the Fertile Crescent farming package, close enough to head a short distance east, through the Bolan Pass, and into South Asia.

My confidence in this part is higher:

Yet they were not alone in South Asia, nor were they the only ones engaged in farming. Further to the east, along the Ganges River, the indigenous foragers were also experimenting with plant cultivation. In fact, there were no fewer than five places in South Asia where we see evidence of independent plant domestication. Mung bean, urd bean, horsegram, several varieties of millet, and rice were all cultivated extensively. These crops had the benefit of being able to grow during the summer monsoon season. South Asia was actually home to multiple Neolithics of its own.

In Southeast Asia and Europe, the hunter-gatherer populations contributed 20% or less to the ancestry of modern groups, who descend mostly from farmers and pastoralists. In South Asia the “Ancient Ancestral South Indian” (AASI) ancestry is ~50%. What’s the difference? I think the likelihood is that AASI populations were moving toward agriculture is a likely reason why they were much more demographically robust and impactful.


How the BJP Became the Bahujan Janata Party

Much of the ire of Indian elites and those left of the Indian political center simply boils down to one thing – the poor and lower-castes aren’t voting the way they want them to. Over decades, an assorted motley crew of political parties has taken the votes of India’s subalterns for granted. Through sops and social engineering, a steady support was built over the years. If you are of X caste, you must vote for Y party. And don’t ask why.

Yet, a party that venerates the idols of old has now become an iconoclast breaking the idea of voting one’s caste rather than casting one’s vote. The BJP, for years known as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party reserved for the privileged and so-called upper-castes, has shattered traditional caste calculus and come up with a new formula making established Indian political equations void. Today’s BJP is one that has been given a brute mandate by India’s Bahujans (the so-called lower-castes of India) along with its old upper-caste base. A united Hindu vote is beginning to coalesce, something that is sending shivers along the spines of the BJP’s political opponents.

But to truly understand the magnitude of these ramifications, we must peer into the past and understand the tradition of caste to grasp the revolution we are witnessing today.

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To the victors go the glory!

I have written an introductory post (it’s free), Entering Steppelandia: pop. 7.7 billion, to a series of posts (mostly paid) that I will write about the Eurasian steppe. So I’m thinking and reading a lot about this topic. This is relevant to “Brown Pundits” because we subcontinental people have been stamped by the steppe.

First, there were the Indo-Aryans. About 15% of the ancestry of modern South Asians comes from these people (averaged across region and caste). Then there were the Iron Age Iranian pastoralists, Scythians, and assorted other related groups. There is no strong evidence right now of a major genetic impact, but I think the statistical power is not such that I can definitively ignore this possibility.

Finally, there are the Muslims. They had the least impact. But they are most reviled. Why?

They lost.  The lesson is to not lose. The rest is commentary.


The Mughals!

The Brown Pundits Clubhouse channel hosted a discussion on “the Mughals” yesterday that went on for a while. There seem to be two polarized extreme views

1) The Mughals were great Indians! Long live the Mughals.

2) The Mughals were genocidal colonizers and induced inter-generational trauma.

Most people occupy a position in the middle. As for myself, I think it is clear that the Mughals were to some extent an alien and occupying influence because that is how they viewed themselves more, or less. They were Turanian Muslims of Turco-Mongol provenance. No matter how much Rajput or Persian blood they had, their paternal lineage came down from the Turk Timur. The maternal lineage of Babur was Genghiside. If India had been mostly Islamicized this would have changed. But it wasn’t. Despite the deep cultural synthesis between Mughal culture and that of India and their indigenization of the generations, there remained a connection between ashraf Muslims and Persia and Central Asia. They were not equivalent to Muslim Bengali peasants or Ismaili traders in Gujurat.

And yet the flip side of this is that the Mughals, and Muslims as a whole, in particular Turks, drove change within Indian society. To some extent, the native reaction and response in the dialectical synthesis can only be understood in the light of the Islamic shock. More generally, an Islamicate civilization evolved that extended beyond the Mughals and included the Rajputs and Marathas (reciprocally, the Mughals internalized many Rajput values, but this is to be expected due to their long residence in India and intermarriage with Rajputs).

Those Hindus who are traumatized by the impact of Islam are free to feel this way, but I am genuinely curious about an Indian culture stripped away of Islamic influence. What would that look like? Perhaps Odisha and Sri Lanka might come close?

More generally, the excited and emotional response of both Hindus and Muslims and their inability to engage in epoché makes me think that the prospects for deeper analysis are poor. Emotion has reason by the leash.


On the historicity of the Vedas

BPer Mukunda and I were having a discussion on Twitter, which I want to elevate and push to the blog, because it’s somewhat important.

When I was young (20th century) I read stuff about how the Indo-Aryans described the natives of the subcontinent as dark and “snub-nosed.” That their arrival in some ways was a meeting of two different races.

In the 2000’s I read other books and works that suggested that actually, these descriptions were metaphorical. Terms like “dark” in other words reflect an ideological or tribal conflict, with the descriptions pointing to tropes that signal which side is evil and which side is good. This is not a crazy view. The anthropology is clear that a certain level of fictitious dehumanization occurs with inter-group conflict.

So I accepted this view and moved on with my life.

But in the 2010’s things changed. I am now convinced that 3,000-4,000 years ago a people who resembled what we would term “white” expanded within the Indian subcontinent. If modern Armenians are white, then the Indo-Aryans were white. At least initially. In the subcontinent, they met a variety of people. Some of them, such as in Sindh, were of brownish complexion. Others, to the south and east, would have been considerably darker. I also assume that the Vedas were constructed in situ in the Indian subcontinent. That is, they reflect a milieu of people who were encountering the northwest of the subcontinent, and had recently traversed through BMAC (Indra may actually be a BMAC diety).

What’s the upshot here? I know think that the metaphorical view of the physical descriptions should be set next to the literal view. The reality is probably a mix. But the fact is that groups with very different physical appearances did interact in ancient India. The Aryans were almost certainly very light-skinned, with “sharp features”, in comparison to many of the people they encountered. Though one can construct hybrid scenarios, where Indo-Aryan enemies were described in inaccurate ways precisely because those tropes were associated with tribes and peoples the Indo-Aryans had conquered.

Someone who has deep knowledge of the Vedas in Sanskrit and genetics needs to look into this. That’s obviously not me.


Forgotten Masters: Indian artists during the Raj

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to e-attend (over Zoom) a lecture organised by London’s Royal School of Drawing on Indian artists during the Raj. Titled Reflections on Forgotten Masters, the talk by William Dalrymple (the famous Scottish historian) and Xavier Bray (the director of the Wallace Collection) followed the eponymous exhibition organised by the Wallace Collection and co-curated by William Dalrymple last year.

The Wallace Collection is not as well known as other London museums such as the British Museum or the Victoria & Albert Museum. Originally built around the private collections of the nineteenth century British aristocrat Sir Richard Wallace, they have a wide repertoire and organise a number of interesting exhibitions, including on themes related to the subcontinent. I had previously attended their exhibition on Indian medicine titled Ayurvedic Man, which was excellent. Unfortunately the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown last year meant that I couldn’t physically visit the Reflection on Forgotten Masters exhibition, and had to view it online.

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The (Original Brown) Pundits: Spies, Explorers and Scholars during the Great Game

Galwan Valley, Pangong Lake, Karakoram Pass, Doklam Plateau, Mishmi Hills. These obscure geographical features and landmarks in the high Himalayas separating India from China have suddenly made their way back into the public consciousness. The catalyst this time is the increased friction between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India. I use the phrases “way back” and “this time” deliberately. To scholars and enthusiasts of the Great Game, these names and the surrounding context are eerily familiar: shadow boxing between an ascendant, assertive superpower (Tsarist Russia) trying to throw its weight around in its immediate neighbourhood and an ostensibly weaker but rising middling power (British India) trying to protect its interest in its backyard.

The original Great Game, which played out over the course of the nineteenth century between the British Indian and Russian Empires in South and Central Asia, had all the characteristics of a bestselling novel, filled with action, adventure and intrigue. It also had its set of glamorous characters: Sir Alexander ‘Sikunder’ Burnes- the famous British spy with oodles of charm and dashing good looks to boot- was the James Bond of his era. He was matched on the Russian side by Captain Yan Vitkevich, the enigmatic Polish-Lithuanian orientalist and explorer. Mercifully, there was very little by way of direct bloodshed between the principal protagonists, although things did come close to getting out of hand on a few occasions. No wonder the Russians evocatively called the contest “The Tournament of Shadows”.  It was compelling drama and the public- in Britain, India, Russia and beyond- lapped it up. The romance and zeitgeist of the times was captured by the great Victorian author Rudyard Kipling in his famous novel, Kim.

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The Sindhi homeland of the “Dravidians”

Peter Bellwood in First Farmers presents a hypothesis for the expansion of the Dravidian languages into southern India in the late Neolithic through the spread of an agro-pastoralist lifestyle through the western Deccan, pushing southward along the Arabian sea fringe. At the time I was skeptical, but now I am modestly confident that this is close to the reality.

There is always talk about “steppe” ancestry on this weblog. But there are groups that seem “enriched” from IVC ancestry, as judged by the Indus Periphery samples. The confidence is lower since we don’t have nearly as good a sample coverage…but I think I can pass on what we’ve seen so far: groups in southern Pakistan, non-Brahmin elites in South India, and some Sudra groups in Gujarat and Maharashtra, seem to be relatively enriched for IVC-like ancestry. Then there is the supposed existence of Dravidian toponyms in Sindh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. And, their total absence in the Gangetic plain.

There have been decades of debate about Brahui. I’ve looked closely at Brahui genetics, and they are no different from the Baloch. Combined with evidence from Y chromosomes (the Baloch and Brahui have some of the highest frequencies of haplogroups found in IVC-related ancient DNA), I doubt the thesis they are medieval intruders (if they are, their distinctive genes were totally replaced).

Genetically, we know that some southern tribes, such as the Pulliyar, have some IVC-related ancestry. But other groups, such as Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, have a lot more. How does this cline emerge? My conjecture is that there were several movements of “Dravidian” people from Sindh and Gujarat into southern India, simultaneous with the expansion of Vedic Aryans to the north into the Gangetic plain. The region the Vedic Aryans intruded upon, Punjab, was not inhabited by Dravidian speakers. Like Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley Civilization was probably multi-lingual, despite broad cultural affinities developed over time.