A good work of detective fiction will leave enough things to doubt, ponder over and marvel at even after the crime is solved. A real-life historical thriller -- a world of abstract symbols and broken seals, decayed teeth and unknown languages – is even more capable of retaining an essential mystery in its womb. The story of the Harappan civilisation, true to type, is one of alternating light and darkness. In the fourth and third millennia BC, the subtropical sun shone on a culture of astonishing order and symmetry. Then a long night descended. The curtain parted only a century ago: the spectacle hazy to begin with, but the mist lifting slowly as a sheer richness of detail presented itself…. Then, because this is a world where ‘interpretations’ can be more resilient than ‘facts’, the fog of war descended. At long last, a cold, sober light is cutting through the opaque air to reveal a landscape of hard truths. Many of these had long been sussed out through archaeology and linguistics, but genetics has now lent a blade-edge sharpness to our mental picture.
Rakhigarhi is a newly important Indus site—among the oldest, perhaps the biggest. Important also because, for India, the two iconic sites of Mohenjodaro and Harappa had gone to Pakistan, and it needed something big to compensate itself psychologically. And lying on the banks of the archaeo-channels of the Ghaggar river in Haryana, often spoken of as the vanished Saraswati, it allowed a rival narrative to be woven. A woman who lived in Rakhigarhi, all of 4,500 years ago, has now become the first Harappan individual to be DNA-analysed. But before we converge on this mysterious city of mounds, let’s disperse. Zoom out, to see the world in which it is being born. The Harappan culture is itself a vast mesh of GPS lines—crisscrossing from Gujarat to Afghanistan, from the river-fed flatlands off Delhi to ships bobbing off the coast of Sindh. But this network, by turn, is set amid a wider web of interactions, essential to unlocking the Harappan riddle.
Mehrgarh (7000-2600 BC): On the highlands of Balochistan, down from the Bolan pass, this is the natal ward of Harappa. Here, in small goat- and cattle-herding village clusters, crops such as barley are first sown—heralding a shift from Neolithic life; and leading, in an unbroken line over a few millennia, to the mature urbanism of Indus Valley. This, and other such sites of proto-farming, notably Bhirrana near Rakhigarhi, leave open the question of independent, separate evolution of agriculture in India.
Shahr-i-Sokhta, ‘The Burnt City’, eastern Iran (3200-2100 BC): Closer to Mohenjodaro than Delhi is to Bombay, and springing up 700 years before it, it was one of the biggest cities of the world in its time. Lest you think the Harappan culture evolved in a vacuum, imagine a planned city just the other side of a mountain pass, brimming with thousands of residents, separate residential and industrial areas, monumental buildings (one with 93 rooms), ceramic sewage pipes, and such innovations as an artificial eyeball (sewn on with a golden thread), brain surgery and games like backgammon and dice. Think also of the Helmand river, by which it nestled, as one of the putative candidates for being the Saraswati.
Gonur, Turkmenistan (2500-1700 BC): In thegilded Mouru region that finds mention as the Third Nation in Zoroastrian texts, this is the capital of what goes by the unromantic short-hand BMAC (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex). Early farming here, in the delta of the Murgab river that flows northwest from the mountains of Afghanistan, dates back to the 7th millennium BC. Contemporaneous with Harappa (with whom it naturally traded), this is a whole parallel civilisation: a network of turreted fort-cities, breathtaking artefacts, everything you want in a Discovery programme.
Sintashta (2100-1800 BC): A bucolic world far from those bustling metropolises of the south, up in the wind-swept Steppes of Kazakhstan and Russia, a world with a quiet hum of its own. Semi-nomadic herders on the fringes, a seeming priestly elite and warrior class in the centre. They invented the spoke-wheeled chariot—big people have it buried along with them, as also maces (gada). There’s bronze. There’s horse and cattle sacrifice. Descended from the older Yamnaya who ranged all over those vast grasslands, part of the ‘Andronovo horizon’, they always have one eye on the trail….
The Onge (<60,000 BP-): The deepest part of the Indian mystery—also the deepest part of who we are. ‘Onge’ or ‘Andamanese’ is one of the proposed shorthands for Southeast Asian Hunter-Gatherers; another is Ancient Ancestral South Indians (AASI). Both may be misnomers: Andamanese proper could be returnees from the east, and it’s ludicrous to call a pan-subcontinental people ‘South Indian’. More accurately, think of them as India’s oldest people (author Tony Joseph rightly calls them ‘First Indians’)—from the earliest ‘Out of Africa’ stock of modern humans who settled here, splitting off from those who went on to people East Asia and Australia. They are in nearly all Indians; their genetic imprint covers even the Pathans, the ‘pure Aryan’ Kalash, ancient ‘Vedic’ Swat Valley, and the Gypsy Roma who wandered all the way to Europe. Though known the least, much of India’s distinct cultural gene probably owes to them…music, mythos, medicine, yoga, dreams, deities. (For those inclined to the genetic alphabet soup, the Y-haplogroup H1a1 and the mtDNA haplogroup M1 are far sexier than the much-touted ‘Aryan’ R1a1.)
How does all this relate to Harappa? At a banal level, when DNA from the old lady of Rakhigarhi was studied, it threw up a striking profile: roughly two-third ‘Iranian-type’ (more on that later) and a smaller ratio of ‘Andamanese’. This was matched against 11 individuals from Shahr-i-Sokhta and Gonur—‘outlier’ individuals, somewhat distinct from the local population and dubbed the Indus Periphery Cline. Almost near-match: 58-85 per cent Iranian-type, 14-42 per cent Andamanese. No trace of Sintashta’s Steppe DNA. (Some mistakenly tweeted: no R1a1! But that’s a Y-haplogroup, and a woman has no Y chromosome.) What does that mean for the politics of identity that so roils us today?
Top, Gonur, in Turkmenistan, was the capital of BMAC, a civilisation coterminous with Harappa; above right, a necklace with rock crystal beads from Gonur; above left, axe-head from a BMAC site..
The Indo-Aryan Question (or Answer)
Social media had been agog before the September 5 press conference by Deccan College archaeologist Prof Vasant Shinde, the chief impresario at Rakhigarhi for years, and geneticist Niraj Rai that was to reveal the DNA findings published in Cell journal hours before. “Wait for 5th September. Final nail on conspiratorial theory of Aryan Invasion to be announced…” tweeted the mild-mannered Hindutva commissar, Tarun Vijay. And later, an avalanche of triumphal tweets and headlines: ‘Aryan migration theory bites the dust!’ and such like.
What enabled this outburst of naïve enthusiasm? The subtle menu of assertions and teasers Prof Shinde and Rai put forth in public, which walked a brittle line between scientific verities and plausible fabulism. They spoke of: 1) deep indigeneity -- the Rakhigarhi DNA matching “the largest source of ancestry” for modern Indians (right); 2) there being “no break till modern times” (only partly right); “no detectable ancestry from Steppe pastoralists” in Rakhigarhi (right); farming having evolved locally (possible); and finally, the holy grail of Hindutva, the ‘Out of India theory’ (well….) To those innocent of its claims, OIT holds Vedic Hinduism and Sanskritic culture to be native-born (‘autochthonous’), recasts Harappa as part of a ‘Sindhu-Saraswati culture’, and to account for the vast Indo-European linguistic map that stretches all the way to Iceland, asserts India as the source of a world-conquering language gene.
Now, to anyone who read the paper, it was blindingly obvious that its conclusions were dramatically different on the core points of contention (read Tony Joseph interview). For the media and public, the scientists had clearly conjured a safe cocktail of independently valid facts, speculative leading suggestions, and a few concessions to ‘sentiment’ (Tarun Vijay was seated right on the front benches). Yes, there was no Steppe gene in Rakhigarhi. Would that disprove such a genetic influx half a millennium later? That’s like “taking a walk in 13th c Delhi and saying there was never any British rule in India,” said someone on Twitter, pointing to the obvious non sequitur. The remedy: to not heed what the scientists said they said (in hijack conditions), but to read what they actually wrote. Rather than “debunk” Aryan migration, it comes closer to settling it in favour of the older consensus—indeed, it’s an important piece of work, rigorously researched, which moves the point of scholarly curiosity deeper back in time and disturbs another consensus. The real question is not ‘Aryan’. It’s ‘Dravidian’—or, to recast the riddle, ‘Iranian’.
Another genetic study—a much more magisterial one, studying the DNA of 523 carefully chosen individuals who lived over the last 8,000 years, taken from key sites in Central and South Asia—was coincidentally updated and published in Science that same night. Rather than contradict each other, the two papers are so complementary and mutually reliant as to suggest collaboration: one neatly fills the other’s gaps. What novel points do they say make? A brief summary:
Steppe by Steppe
Theold Yamnaya people had exploded out of the Eurasian Steppes over 5,000 years ago like an amazing genetic snowball (think of the way the Arabs expanded dramatically out of the desert circa 700 AD, reaching both Spain and Sindh). Originally hunter-gatherers, then herders, they first went west: to eastern Europe. Thence they looped back a few centuries later, to the Central Asian Steppes, now carrying an admixture of East European Hunter-Gatherer Genes. As they moved, they absorbed some local West Siberian Hunter-Gatherer genes, becoming the Sintashta people, most likely speaking an early forebear of Sanskrit. Then, finally, they move south. But when? No genetic trace of them is to be found even in BMAC sites of 2300 BC: they show up here in 2100 BC. By 1800 BC, they are part of the Gandhara culture of Swat. Their near-iconic R1a1 haplotype is distributed frugally: it’s just a few men who have migrated, the women are local. By modern times, their imprint is all over mainland India, right down to southern adivasi groups like the Chenchu and Pallar. The R1a1 footprint is high among Brahmins, but the latter too are composed of everything else Indian. (That’s why one can look like the Bengali hero Basant Choudhury, and the next one like Geronimo, or a Thevar chieftain.) The putative India origin of the parent R1a gene—of which the Steppe gene is perhaps a later, much-mutated form that ‘returns’—still looms.
Dravidian: An Irani Rakhi?
A third millennium BC Indian woman is already a mixed type. The mystery pertains not to her ‘Andamanese’ component—that’s deeply Indian—but to the larger element, the ‘Iranian’. Who were they? Also deeply Indian, it turns out. The one genuine advance the Cell paper makes is to refine our understanding of an old question. Did Iranian-origin farmers migrate east to spark off organised agriculture and urbanism in ancient India? This has been a long-held view among Harappan scholars, many of whom clung first to a troubled unanimity in ascribing a Dravidian imprimatur to Harappan culture (everyone from Parpola, to Fairservis, through to Mallory either propagated or accepted it)—and then to imply the arrival of that culture/people from the west. (Hemphill et al spoke of a population disruption in Mehrgarh after the Neolithic stage, based on cranial studies; geneticist David Reich accepted an ‘Iranian’ provenance as recently as 2018.)
While tentatively concluding that Harappans spoke a form of Dravidian, this also meant ascribing, with stunning variations, a western origin to Dravidian language and culture itself. Philologists of the last two centuries had ranged as far and wide as ancient horse-back nomads in the search for language family resemblances. Right from the early Rasmus Rask to the pioneering Dravidologist Bishop Caldwell, a ‘Scythian’ link to Dravidian was in the air. This was soon extended: considerable energy was expended on exploring a link between Dravidian on the one hand and ‘Uralic-Altaic’ (Mongolian-Turkic), Korean, Japanese, even Finnish—not to speak of the illusory Nostratic. German linguist K.H. Menges splashed around long in these waters; even in the ’90s, the ‘Out of Africa’ enthusiast C.A. Winters was speaking of a Nubian-origin Dravidian culture conquering all of Central Asia, forming the lingua franca there for two millennia, leaving traces everywhere, before settling in India! Our own B.B. Lal had long ago offered an analogous path, tracing the Black and Red Ware of (‘Dravidian’) Indus all the way back to Egyptian Nubia. A presumed link to the ancient Iranian language of Elamite proved especially resilient. Needless to say, a fabulist myth of origins—and a chauvinism paralleling that of Hindutva—was quite the mood among southern ideologues such as Pavanar, who spoke of Tamil as the “proto-world language”!
Where do we stand on all this now? Well, it seems ‘Iranian’ is perhaps too loose a moniker for a vastly dispersed group of populations that stretched from the Fertile Crescent and the Zagros hills of Iran to at least the Yamuna. The Shinde-Rai paper says these groups branched off from a common parent around 12,000 years ago: the western ones got mixed up with Anatolian and Levantine, the east-wallahs with Siberian-origin types…and Andamanese. This last admixture, unique to South Asia, happened way before Indus cultures matured—perhaps as far back as 5400 BC. They birthed this astonishing culture on their own, sui generis, they assert. It’s possible. Convergent evolution is a thing: two different cultures can independently arrive at ‘an idea whose time has come’, if a ‘state of readiness’ is achieved. Migration isn’t a prerequisite for cultural diffusion. Farming can have, well, cropped up in many places on its own. We just don’t know: all we have now as evidence is a few hoofprints in the snow across a vast tundra.
The Alphabet Gene Soup
The Science paper says both the modern Dravidians and north Indians were born at the same time: the first, as post-Indus people moved south and interbred further; the second as they absorbed the Steppe gene. It also semi-endorses that tantalising line: that perhaps the Harappans spoke proto-Dravidian. After a feverish century, all we can say is: it’s likely, but we still don’t know. Maybe they even spoke several languages—the Mohenjodaro people are known to have been ethnically quite distinct from other Harappans, for instance. And the idea still rests on speculative theories, such as the concordances drawn up by Finnish scholar Asko Parpola, which still involve a leap of faith. But, broadly speaking, the Indus people seem to have been already a Dravidian-type mix of Iranian + Andamanese…a pool that watered all of modern India. And so ‘Dravidians’ are not just some folks who live down south, but just about everyone on the mainland. As for language, who among the original Harappan mix spoke Dravidian first: the Iranian or the Andamanese? We don’t know again.
But as the fog lifts, we are beginning to see more things clearly. Linguists had always known of one facet about Sanskrit. “It’s the only old Indo-European language that makes a distinction between two sets of ‘t’ and ‘d’ sounds. Think of the Hindi words daant (tooth) and DaanT (to scold),” says linguist Peggy Mohan. “Even Vedic Sanskrit’s closest sibling, Avestan, does not have that distinction. The earliest Rigvedic Sanskrit didn’t have it. This feature, retroflexion, is Dravidian in origin and came into the Rigveda from spoken Sanskrit, formalised centuries later as hymns were collected from Brahmin families who had begun reciting them with this feature.” David Shulman has written about Sanskrit progressively absorbing a feature called left-branching from Dravidian. All of it syncs with one fact: it’s Sanskrit that came in, and adapted and grew in the local ecosystem. Peggy Mohan is now putting the finishing touches on a book that advances a provocative, but persuasive thesis: that all northwestern Indian languages, Punjabi and Pashto included, exhibit a Dravidian substratum. “Features like retroflexion and ergativity were absorbed by Sanskrit. They’re also found in all languages of Pakistan, Punjabi, Hindi, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi and Konkani…that tells us about the languages spoken in the Northwest before Sanskrit arrived.”
A few points on Out-of-India: a single source for everything is what they call a hyperdiffusion model; often it’s a case of extreme self-love. At various points, such claims have been advanced on behalf of Latin America, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Africa, South India, Brahmins, China, the ‘White Man’…even aliens. Aversion to the idea of the Vedic people as migrants is a new one: a century ago, Tilak was happily speculating, in a scholarly way, about an ‘Arctic homeland for the Vedas’. It’s contemporary politics that has inverted this—so as to distinguish ‘native’ Hindus from ‘invading’ Muslims. It’s one type of political imagination that sees Rakhigarhi as Indian, Harappa as Pakistani, Shahr-i-Sokhta as Iranian and Sintashta as Kazakh, rather than everything as part of a fascinating Eurasian continuum. ‘Aryan migration’ debunked? Well…. ‘Because I say so’ is not science, it’s power. ‘If you say day is night, I’ll say the same’ is not science, it’s a Bollywood song.
A shorter, edited version of this appearerd in print