Early Indians: how migrations created the Indian melting pot

A review of the book, “Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From.”

By Vikram Aditya

Race, religion, culture, language – these ideas have been debated throughout history. Nationalist groups have used these constructs to emphasize their supposed uniqueness, antiquity and superiority over other groups. Similar claims have also been made by groups, who claim to be the “original inhabitants”, and therefore the rightful inheritors of their national culture.

Tony Joseph’s 2018 book, however, debunks these claims. In “Early Indians: the story of our ancestors and where we came from”, Joseph argues that populations the world over have undergone multiple waves of displacements, replacements and all sorts of combinations ever since modern Homo sapiens dispersed from its African homelands. Although every individual is unique, each of us a combination of genes inherited from various population groups over 300,000 years. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ ethnic group, community or individual in the world today. Everyone is a mix, and everyone is a migrant.

Tony Joseph is a journalist and former editor of Business World and Economic Times. The book focuses on the ancestry of modern Indians. He discusses the recent advances in population genetics, comparative linguistics, archaeology and history which led to new insights on the pre-historic population movements that created the multitude of communities making up the population of the sub-continent today. The metaphor that Joseph uses is of a pizza. If you imagine India’s population mix as a slice of pizza, then the first Indians who arrived from Africa around 65,000 years ago would form the base, their descendants who mixed with Iranian agriculturists and built the Harappan civilization would be the sauce, the Steppe pastoralists who brought Indo-European languages to India and mixed with the Harappan descendants would make up the cheese, and the toppings would be the numerous other subsequent population movements into India that followed. This mirrors our genetic makeup today, which carries DNA from the first out-of-Africa Indians, the Iranian agriculturists, the steppe pastoralists, the Austroasiatic speakers (today’s Santali and Munda language speakers of Jharkhand and Odisha), the Tibetan highlanders, the Arabs, the Siddis and the European colonialists in various proportions. Particularly, Early Indians focuses on how the descendants of the first Indians and Iranian agriculturalists created the Dravidian languages. It also discusses in detail the migration of steppe pastoralists around ~2000 BCE that vastly influenced our genetic composition and spread the Indo-European languages, a vast family including English, German, Farsi, Sanskrit, and its daughter languages such as Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati etc, across the sub-continent. The implications of these migrations are evident, and Joseph touches upon why modern social notions of caste and race are problematic in several ways.

The strength of the book lies in the vast body of scientific evidence, including the most recent advances by some of the biggest names in archaeology, genetics and linguistics that Joseph synthesises to answer these questions. He particularly discusses at length the work of population geneticists Cavalli-Sforza and David Reich, and Indian archaeologists R.S. Bisht and R. Korisettar. Joseph neatly debunks myths of any racial separation between the various ethnicities of India, particularly the speakers of the Indo-European and Dravidian languages. The narration is lucid and reasoning is logical, making the book very easy to follow.

One critique, however, is that Tony Joseph focuses heavily on the contribution of steppe pastoralists and early Indians to our modern population mix, but merely skims over other later migrations that have contributed to India’s diverse demography, including the Austroasiatic speakers of today’s Santali tribes and the Sino-Tibetan language speakers of Arunachal Pradesh. While Joseph clearly states that the purpose of the book is to understand how pre-historic population movements have structured India’s population by employing evidence from ancient DNA, a deeper examination of how the rich history of medieval India contributed to this would have added richness to the narrative.

About the author

Vikram Aditya currently works as a postdoctoral research associate in ATREE in the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-being (NMBHWB). His PhD was on mammal diversity and distribution patterns in the Eastern Ghats.

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