Book Summary: Genetics and the Aryan Debate by Shrikant Talageri- I

Book Summary: Genetics and the Aryan Debate by Shrikant Talageri- I

There are two theories regarding the history of ancient Indian civilization. The first is the AIT or the Aryan Invasion Theory, postulating that a group of people from South West Russia speaking Indo-European languages (or Aryan languages) entered India in the second millennium BCE; and conquered North India establishing their language, culture, and religion all over. A modified version is the AMT or the Aryan Migration Theory, which holds that there was no invasion, but a gradual and a trickling migration into an existing culture. The semantics may be slightly different, but the implications remain the same. This AIT/AMT story has a two-century history of propagation and relies on three academic disciplines: Archaeology, linguistics, and textual/inscriptional data. The textual data is mainly the Vedas.

The author says that the weight of the evidence in the above three fields strongly support, in fact, the rival theory called the OIT or the ‘Out of India’ theory, which sees India as the original homeland of the languages and people of the West. The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) group of languages started the speculation of an original Indian homeland in 1800, but it went into complete hibernation as scholars vigorously propagated the AIT theory for more than a century. The reasons were many.

Koenraad Elst in his wonderful preface says that the political applications of the racially interpreted AIT include:

  • The colonial justification of the rule by the pure Aryans (the British) over the mixed Aryans (the upper castes) and the black aboriginals (the lower castes)
  • The perfect illustration of Nazi scheme of rule by the pure Aryan race and the degeneracy of India-based Aryans through mixing with lower races
  • Anti-Brahminism
  • Dravidianism, claiming that the Aryans pushed out the Dravidians from the original Harappan homelands to the South of India.
  • Ambedkarism, claiming that the lower castes were the aboriginals subdued by the Aryan invaders and forced into lowly labour (even though Ambedkar himself strongly opposed the AIT)
  • British-cum-missionary construction of the tribals as Adivasis (or aboriginals), a neologism created in the 20th century creating the message that the non-tribals were the invaders
  • Some Western advocates of Russian homelands attach PIE with the European race and an inherent European intellectual superiority.

Talageri, Koenraad Elst, Nicholas Kazanas, Russian scholars Igor Tonoyan-Belyayev, and Aleksandr Semenenko are some OIT scholars arguing their case strongly as the theory gained ground once again in 1990. The AIT scholars, when confronted with evidence shaking their very foundations took the following routes to respond: by calling it a migration rather than an invasion; by denying it completely; by questioning the validity of the data; by questioning the personal identities and moral values of the authors; by avoiding them in public forums on the issue; and finally, by shutting their eyes and ears, completely ignoring them.

But a saviour came. A saviour called Tony Joseph riding on a shining horse called genetics. Tony wrote a series of articles, finally culminating into a book called the ‘Early Indians’ where he collects all the genetic evidence to finally show that Aryans did enter India and create the caste system. The AIT proponents are no wonder ecstatically hugging him. There is complete ignoring of the archaeological, linguistic, and the textual sources, and they recede into the background. And now Talageri steps in.


The Indus or the Harappan script is not yet deciphered, but it is antique predating the Indo-Iranian languages and the Vedic Sanskrit of North-West India. The Harappan language even predates the Davidian languages spoken in the South. In the absence of any recorded foreign invasions historically, it would be reasonable to assume that the Indus or Harappan language would have been an ancestor to the Indo-Iranian language family of the same region, used at a much later date.

AIT proponents are very keen to establish by circular reasoning that the Harappan language is the precursor to the Dravidian family of languages; and that the evidence for linking Harappan to the Indo-Iranian language family is absent. Remember the Aryans came from outside to establish their language of Sanskrit by force.

Talageri says that the evidence for linking the Harappan language to the Dravidian language family is even ‘more absent’. It is more logical to think of a continuity as the Harappan language developing into the Indo-Iranian languages of the North. But that would be a deathblow to the entire edifice of the Aryan-Dravidian debate and the chronology of events where the Aryans forced their way into a Harappan culture and drove then South.

The standard story claims that Aryans developed their Sanskrit and wrote the Vedas; and the Dravidians- dominated and subjugated- continued with altered forms of an original Harappan language. The evidence for all these speculations is very weak according to Talageri. Palli is a word for a village or a hamlet, and it is a Dravidian word. The name places in coastal and south-western Maharashtra have a lot of –vali or –oli as suffixes which could be derivation of the word –palli. And thus proved, that the Dravidians migrated along these places on coastal and south-western Maharashtra to the South of Vindhyas!

What about the Brahuis of Baluchistan, an isolated Dravidian language in Pakistan? Tony Joseph quotes the now abandoned theory that some pastoralists stayed back in Baluchistan, while the urbanites moved south. However, it is very clear by the voice of many scholars that the Dravidian languages mainly concentrate in the south, though there are a few in the tribal areas of the Bengal region. The presence of Dravidian language in the Baluchistan region is the result of a recent northward migration from the south, as all linguists now accept.

Talageri says that the idea of the urban and pastoralist segments of the Harappans referred to by Tony Joseph is strange and funny. One of the proofs that the Rigvedic Aryans are not identifiable with the Harappans is that the Rigvedic Aryans were ‘pastoralists’ and not ‘urbanites,’ according to AIT groups. Talageri quotes scholars who strongly feel that the Vedic collection is not the output of wandering pastoralists, but rather well-fed priests in a prosperous urban community!

Similarly, if palli as root of the words vali and oli come to usage in the geographical reconstructions of migrations; then the author suggests that the Greek place name suffix –polis (as in Persepolis, Heliopolis, Annapolis) can also be rooted in the same word palli. And that could imply even a westward migration of the Greeks from a Dravidian area to Greece! Finally, the evidence which Tony Joseph shows in the downward migration of the Dravidian languages is on flimsy evidence and shows a great level of bias and a lack of scientific nature, according to Shrikant Talageri.


Aryan or the Indo-European migration from across Asia came as a theory because of a discovery of common features in the languages between northern India and Europe sweeping across many regions and countries. This ‘language family’ had to be a result of a common origin from where the original people migrated to different parts, where new languages developed, albeit with strong links to the parent language.

So, where is the origin? The Steppes of South Russia, say the unanimous voice of the scholars. At least the voice of the AIT/AMT scholars. From the Steppes of Russia to North West India is the traced migration of these Aryans where they encountered the local Harappans, drove them South, established the language of Sanskrit and then wrote the Vedas.

The Indo-European languages are twelve living and extinct branches of languages. From the west to the east they are: Celtic, Italian, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Greek, Anatolian (extinct), Armenian, Iranian, Tocharian (extinct), and Indo-Aryan. The common ancestral language gets the term PIE (Proto-Indo-European). The whole theory is purely based on linguistic analysis and only on the logic of a common origin of languages in a geographically-restricted ‘Homeland’ from where the migrations took place. Talageri now constructs the time periods for these events and the route taken by these invaders/migrants in the dominant discourse.

  1. Around 3000 BCE, from the PIE, the Anatolian and the Tocharian branches separated. Then the European branches separated in the following order: Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and Slavic. The five last branches to remain in the Homeland were Albanian, Hellenic (Greek), Armenian, Iranian, and Indo-Aryan. The last five existed in an area of mutual interaction and developed many New linguistic features. The Indo-Aryan migrations hence would start long after 3000 BCE.
  2. The Indo-Aryan and the Iranian branches have a lot of common linguistic, textual, ritual, and religious features as seen from analysing the Rigveda and the Avesta respectively. So, this combined family, long after 3000 BCE migrated together from the Steppes to Central Asia (Bactria) region.
  3. The third stage is the separation of Indo-Aryans from the Iranian branch and their migration towards the southern Saptasindhu area/ northern Pakistan, into the area of the Harappans. According to Tony Joseph book claims, around 2000 BCE, the Indo-Aryans went across the Ural mountain range and spread eastwards across the Steppe.
  4. And finally, between 1400 BCE and 1000 BCE, the Rigveda came into being by the Aryan people after driving the Harappans down south. Clearly, the Rigveda had to before 600 BCE too, the dating of the Buddha. At the time of Buddha, the entire Vedic literature was well in place.

Unfortunately, there are lot of problems with this story. Most importantly, there is absolutely no archaeological evidence, not a shred, to support this remarkable migration from the Steppes of Russia to North West India and the full-blown development of Sanskrit/ Rigveda in a remarkably short span of less than two thousand years. Archaeology of the Harappan area shows an extremely stable civilization without any cataclysmic changes propounded by the forced entry of the Aryans from 4500 BCE to 500 BCE. Again, archaeology is a nail in the coffin of AIT, because whatever evidence it has, it is more in favour of an exact opposite trend of migration, from out of India to the west!

Studying the Rigvedic data shows clearly that the Indo-Aryan speaking Vedic people were present in a wide area from South- East Afghanistan to westernmost UP. The Rigveda does not contain a single reference of any tradition, name, or place in memory of its previous journeys from the Russian steppes. Also, the river and place names have no connection to the Dravidian languages who were allegedly living there before. Rivers in Europe carry the original names even after the influx of European languages, but this does not funnily seem to happen in the North West India. All the names and places are Indo-European. The area is, in short, purely Indo-Aryan in the Veda itself.

A very populous Dravidian civilization in a short span from 2000 BCE to 1200 BCE could not have just left the area for the invading or the trickling nomadic Aryans to become completely obliterated from any reference whatsoever. There is no reference in the Vedas or archaeology which records such great cataclysmic events.

The other Samhitas follow the Rigveda: the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. Then there are the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads, and the Sutras. Each of these have their own chronological periods showing linguistic changes indicating that they were of different periods of time; but all before the Buddha. This squeezes the entire period of the Vedic corpus into a narrow window of 400-600 years. Remarkable!

For the AIT/AMT to hold, the period between 2000 BCE to 1000 BCE is extremely important, as this is the period when everything related to Aryan migration into India, driving away the Harappans/Dravidians, development of the perfect language of Sanskrit and writing the entire corpus of the Rigveda happened. The major problem comes that all evidence from archaeology, textual/inscriptional analysis, and even linguistics show the presence of Indo-Aryans much before 2000 BCE. In fact, evidence from above can show a reverse migration as the OIT (Out of India) proponents aggressively suggest.

And now comes the superhero for the AIT- genetics.’ A paper written by ninety-two scientists called ‘The Genomic formation of South and Central Asia’ apparently proves for Tony Joseph that multiple waves of Steppe pastoralist migrants between 2000 BCE and 1000 BCE from Central Asia into South Asia brought Indo-European languages and new religious/ cultural practices.

The migrations may be a fact based on genomics; but the conclusion of bringing in languages and culture is pure speculation of the AIT/AMT proponents who still want to hold on to the period 2000-1000 BCE says Talageri. All the recorded evidence in the three important branches of archaeology, textual corpus, and linguistics show evidence to the contrary. Genetics should hold its findings in confirmation to established evidence, but not in confirmation of theoretical speculations. It is an attempt to fit forcibly the data into a pre-supposed theory. The science may not be bad here, but the interpretations are suspect.


There are two components to the claim of Tony Joseph in the book. The first is that between 2000-1000 BCE, multiple waves of Steppe pastoralist migrants from central Asia entered south Asia, and could be a fact. The second component is that they brought Indo-European languages and new religious practices into an existing civilization and completely changed the pattern of civilization without any force. It is almost like one entering a random beautiful mansion peacefully and asking the owners to leave. The latter do so willingly without any resistance leaving the mansion to the people who asked so politely. Obviously, the second part is pure speculation and doubtful if genetics can make any such claims, as Talageri says.

Genetics is a super science no doubt and it has made great contributions in tracing ancestries and migrations of humans across the globe. Adam Rutherford in his book, ‘A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived’ traces the ancestry of all humankind brilliantly. Adam Rutherford says, ‘a few thousand years back, a few thousand men were the ancestors of all people who are living now. Hence, a Chinese, a Russian, an Indian, a European, an African, an Arab are all living in your and my DNA as information, some expressed and some not. We are all related and not only that; we are all related to the Neanderthals too, whom we successfully eliminated or integrated with. About 2-3% of genes belong to the Neanderthals. Yes, we procreated with them. Humans have been certainly very promiscuous.’ Some do not agree to the Neanderthal bit though.

Genes can track the movements of species across various geographical locations; and it is nearly clear that we all came out of Africa. The humankind presently populating the entire globe started as a small group of people in Africa who started walking. The unifying message of Rutherford’s book is we are all one; but each one is unique. What a wonderful way to celebrate!

Another myth which the Rutherford successfully blows up are the claims of discovery of genes for complex human traits like sexual orientation or alcoholism. That is almost always fictitious science something akin to phrenology which predicted human behaviour by looking at bumps on the skull. Genetic code is very complex for most human traits with hundreds and thousands of genes being involved in each human trait. And all the genes interact in a highly-complicated manner with the environment they are in. The behaviour of humans is simply too complex to have the paradigm of one gene leading to one disease or one trait. In such a situation, it might be difficult to conceive of language and cultural migrations based solely on genetic studies. Language and culture are components of evolution mechanisms, independent of genetics with maybe some interlinking, in the words of authors Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb (Evolution in Four Dimensions), but a study of the genes themselves to predict linguistic movements is tricky science.

Anyway, according to Tony Joseph, the only criterion for the identifying genetic evidence of the influx from Central Asia is the dating of the Rigveda also between 2000 to 1000 BCE. Vedic composition is between 1400 BCE to 1000 BCE, claims Tony Joseph on the authority of Michael Witzel. It is important for the Aryan theory bringing in Indo-European languages to also have a linkage in the linguistic sense. This means tallying with the dating of the oldest of the Vedas too.

The philosophy of science has a deep principle of falsification. If there is falsification of a key component of any theory, then the whole theory stands to scrutiny. If the Vedas are older than 2000 BCE, then the whole edifice of the Aryan invasion or migration theory collapses. This is what Talageri proves repeatedly that the Vedas are at least beyond 3000 BCE. And the AIT/AMT school shuts itself from Talageri and indulges in neither proving or disproving his contrary claims. And that is bad science.


The Rigveda is the oldest manuscript in the world. It is also the longest inscription from the ancient world. The Rigveda consists of 10 mandalas or books; 1028 suktas or hymns; and 10552 mantras or verses. The Rigveda is amazing in the sense that its preservation has been in a perfectly pristine form for over thousands of years in an oral form. The textual form came much later. Every word, every syllable, and even the tonal accent to pronounce the words has an exact preservation across time and space. They are a tape recording of the Vedic era transmitted orally; and hence, an autobiography of the time when composed. The names of places or persons refer to contemporary sources of that time; and this is the unanimous opinion of great scholars, both Indian and western.

The Rigveda is an inscription telling us about the Vedic age. Unfortunately, there is no exact dating of the Vedic texts in a direct manner. However, Talageri says the dating becomes possible when compared to other related data from the Avesta and the Mittani records.

Scholars after deep study have concluded the division of the Rigveda into the New books and the Old books. The Old books are 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and the New books are 1, 5, 8,9,10. There is also another division as family books which are basically the Old books along with book 5; and the non-family books which are the New books except book 5. There are several add on verses called the redacted hymns which are present only in the Old books and they come as an addition either between the verses or at the end of the book. The redacted hymns were additions at the time of writing the New books.

So finally, the Old Rigveda are the books 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 with 280 hymns and 2351 verses after subtracting the redacted hymns; and the New Rigveda are books 1, 5, 8, 9, 10 with 686 hymns and 7311 verses. The 62 redacted hymns with 890 verses form a late appendix to the Old Rigveda- a kind of grey area between the two epochs.

The author’s scholarship comes into the fore in this chapter where Talageri discusses the differences between the Old and the New books of the Rigveda. The differences are in the authors, the structure of the verses, the meters used, the sacred numerical formulae, categories of words, usage of personal names, usage of suffixes or prefixes in forming compound words, grammatical forms, certain mythical and sociological concepts, categories of words, differing meaning of same words, totally new words in the New books, and so on.

The conclusion from all the above is that the two parts of the text fall in two distinct chronological eras; the era of the Old Rigveda followed by the era of the New Rigveda.

Featured Image: The Hindu

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Dr Pingali Gopal

Dr Pingali Gopal is a Paediatric and Neonatal Surgeon practising in Warangal, Telangana. He has a keen interest in Indian culture and does his little bit to correct the many wrong narratives which hurt India at many levels. Opening his eyes rather late to the wonder called India, it is now a continuous journey for him to sip bits from the oceanic nectar of Indic Knowledge Systems.