“Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From” by Tony Joseph

Harappan "Priest King" from Mojenjo Daro (via Wikimedia Commons) Harappan "Priest King" from Mojenjo Daro (via Wikimedia Commons)

That use of first-person plurals in the title of Early Indians: The Story Of Our Ancestors And Where We Came From should not put non-Indians off. Tony Joseph has, based on and catalyzed by the most recent genetic research, written a clear, readable and, for those unfamiliar with the subject, fascinating history of Indians as a people. It will also serve both as a primer to the way the ability to read the human genome is revolutionizing archaeology as well as a salutary alternative to the eurocentric perspective of many if not most treatments of early human history.

What is now India had, it turns out, the world’s largest human population some 20,000 years ago. This is partly because modern humans got to India  early, something like 65,000 years ago—there is some argument about this date, and whether isolated bands might have it made it there earlier, but suffice it to say that this is far earlier than homo sapiens made it to Europe, the route to which seems to have been blocked some combination of poor weather and neanderthals. “The Onge in the Andaman Island,” he notes, “are descendants of the original OoA [Out of Africa] migrants.”

The genetic ancestry of these first Indians “still constitutes between 50 and 65 per cent for most population groups”. (In Europe, by contrast, “the percentage of the original hunter-gatherer ancestry has gone down to single digits” due to a couple of large population replacements in the past 10,000 years.)

The people of the first Indian civilization—the Harappan, but which others of a certain generation might know as the “Indus Valley civilization”—came from Zagros region in what is now Iran. They spoke proto-Dravidian, itself related to Elamite, whence developed the languages still spoken in southern India, an overlay on the original First Indian population. Finally, the self-styled “Aryans” arrived around 4000 years ago with the horse and chariot, and what would become Sanskrit and the Vedas.

Joseph goes into mostly readable detail about how genetic fingerprints are read and compared to deduce this.

Joseph’s extensive of the first-person plural makes it clear whom he is writing for.

Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From,  Tony Joseph (Juggernaut, December 2018)
Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, Tony Joseph (Juggernaut, December 2018)

The author’s enthusiastic embrace of the subject matter notwithstanding, little of this is particularly controversial—outside, it seems, India itself—nor necessarily dependent on DNA data. Indeed, genetics has, on the whole, confirmed and augmented what had already largely been deduced by archaeological and linguistic evidence.

It has been known for a couple of centuries that Sanskrit was part of the language family now called Indo-European, which includes everything from English and Spanish to Greek, Persian and Hindi but not the Dravidian languages of southern India.

The confluence between archaeology, history, linguistics and geography was nailed a decade or so ago by David W Anthony in The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, a work Joseph cites liberally. When horses, wagons, words for these items, pastoralism and Indo-European languages show up somewhere, they all show up together.

It had also been noted that both the Harappans and the Dravidian languages predated the arrival of these Indo-Europeans and that one might suppose (and did) that the Harappans could well have been (proto-) Dravidian. The Harappan script has never been deciphered, so there was no direct written evidence although there were some hints, one of the most striking of which is that a modern language in Balochistan, Brahui, is related to Dravidian.

That isn’t to deny the value of recent genetic research in confirming these suppositions. Indeed, recent research has, as Joseph notes, made the picture far more detailed and nuanced. India for example has, it appears, a level of genetic diversity that is matched only in Africa. Research has also made it clear that the Indian population is, in the author’s not entirely elegant metaphor, a “pizza” with a genetic crust of First Indians dating back some 60-70,000 years, with sauce and toppings of the various peoples that came later.

The book deftly ties a great deal of recent research together, drawing on results from the Americas—which provide evidence of how fast stone age people can disperse and populate entire continents—Europe and Australia, to put his Indian narrative in a broader context.

Joseph is writing in, and explicitly pushing back against, a pernicious political environment.

Joseph’s extensive of the first-person plural makes it clear whom he is writing for. That may be slightly annoying for the non-Indian reader, but doesn’t really detract from the book, and in some ways grounds it; furthermore, for Western non-Indians, it’s merely getting a taste of our own medicine.

Joseph is however writing in, and explicitly pushing back against, a pernicious political environment. These findings discomfit those whose model is of a unique Indian culture and people dating back to the dawn of the Vedas and who therefore have trouble with the idea that Harappa, India’s entry in the ancient civilizations stakes, constitutes a separate tradition. (It is rather as if Remainers were to claim Stonehenge as an “English” legacy in their Brexit battles.)

In this context, then, Joseph argues not just the science, but also—again, rather uncontroversially—that Indian culture is itself, like the population, the result of diverse sources, Harappan among them. “There is,” he writes,

 

a disconnect between the earliest Vedas and the culture and practices of the Harappan Civilization, but a connect between the later Vedic corpus and the Harappan Civilization because these by then incorporate some of the ideas and themes of the Harappans.

 

These terms, “connect” and “disconnect”, are surely the result of the political undercurrents. Joseph quotes another scholar in this context: “unity in diversity”.

And then there is the matter of caste. Joseph reports the (somewhat disturbing) result that “the traditional custodians of the Sanskrit language, the upper castes in general or the Brahmins in particular” have “elevated Steppe ancestry”. Joseph however quotes new studies that show that

 

between 2200 bce and 100 ce, there was extensive admixture between the different Indian populations with the result that almost all Indians had acquired First Indian, Harappan and Steppe ancestries …

 

This intermixing stopped around 100 CE, from which, Joseph says, one can conclude that

 

the caste system in India is not coterminous with the arrival of the ‘Aryans’ in the subcontinent. It fell in place around the ankles of Indian society only about two millennia later.

 

That’s as may be, but those so inclined can, from the first result, still conclude that caste has some basis other than being a mere social construct.

This all leads into some uncomfortable terrain. It’s one thing to use genetic research to help determine, in the interests of history, which people went where when and thereby to counter some exclusionary national myths. But it may prove a two-edged sword to then use science to build a new, if not myth, then narrative, that regardless of its appeal to tolerance (“We are all Indians. And we are all migrants.”) nevertheless has considerable genetic content.

Joseph writes with an infectious enthusiasm.

Readers already familiar with application of genetics to history and archaeology can skim over Joseph’s long explanations. Indeed, some of the most interesting parts of the book have little to do with genetics.

One of the best sections is that describing the Harappa civilisation, which has been something of the poor relation among the great ancient civilizations, sometimes covered only once the Sumerians and Egyptians have had their due. This is perhaps due to its having eschewed large monuments and lavish burials for town planning, water management and proper sewage; it may also be due to the fact that the Harappan script has never been deciphered, so the people cannot speak to us as can their contemporaries farther west. It may also be, of course, that while Sumer and Egypt’s cultural legacies are apparent in the West, Harappa’s lie in India. Joseph makes a persuasive case that Harappa, likely the largest in both extent and population of these ancient civilizations, should have its stature upgraded.

Joseph also fills in a number of specifically Indian details that I cannot remember coming across in books for the general reader about this period. One is the linguistics used to establish connections between Elamite, Harappa and Dravidian. It turns out that the Akkadian word for sesame, ellu, a supposed Harappan export to Mesopotamia, is the same as that in a number of south Indian Dravidian languages today. And the migration of peoples from East Asian some 4000 years ago brought not only some Austroasiatic languages which still persist in India, but also hybridization of the indica and japonica rice subspecies.

 

Joseph writes with an infectious enthusiasm. Despite the fact that the research continues apace, and that, therefore, the picture may not remain quite as Joseph describes it, Early Indians is both a readable overview of India’s early history as well as how advances in human genetics—but also linguistics and other sciences—have revolutionized our understanding of pre-history.

The book’s subtitle will likely mean that this fascinating tale will not circulate outside India as much as it deserves to. The story merits an “international” edition.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.