Rakhigarhi and After- I: What the Two Recent Genetic Reports Say

Rakhigarhi and After- I: What the Two Recent Genetic Reports Say

The 5th of September 2019 was a momentous day for researchers in ancient Indian history: two very long-awaited international genetic reports on ancient India, with huge potential for generating heated controversial debate, were released on one and the same day. These reports were:

1. “An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers“, Shinde et al.

2. “The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia“, Narasimhan et al.

The extremely intriguing phenomenon of these two reports both delayed for a long time under very suspicious circumstances (although the first report was kept a closely guarded secret while the second was unofficially published more than a year ago) being released on the same day, as well as the fact that both the papers  have four of the co-authors in common, and that statements and reactions to these two reports have led to conclusions diametrically opposed to each other, all indicate deep politics behind the whole process. The four common co-authors of both the papers, incidentally, are Vagheesh M. Narasimhan, David Reich, Vasant S. Shinde, and Niraj Rai.

The two papers, dealing with two different genetic issues, contain the following clear statements in support of the theory that Indo-European languages originated in the Steppes and were brought to India after 2000 BCE:

Narasimhan et al repeatedly refers to this “evidence […] for a Steppe origin for South Asia’s Indo-European languages ~ 2000 BCE“, and “evidence for the theory that these languages spread from the Steppe“. This point is also reiterated in Shinde et al, which also tells us that “a natural route for Indo-European languages to have spread into South Asia is from Eastern Europe via Central Asia in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE, a chain of transmission that did occur as has been documented in detail with ancient DNA. The fact that the Steppe pastoralist ancestry in South Asia matches that in Bronze Age Eastern Europe (but not Western Europe) […] provides additional evidence for this theory, as it elegantly explains the shared distinctive features of Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages“.

Things have been complicated by the fact that two of the co-authors of the two papers have been holding press conferences and giving interviews where they are reiterating in very strong and categorical terms that the theory of the Indo-European languages spreading into South Asia from the Steppes through Central Asia stands disproved by the genetic data in the paper Shinde et al. This has led to a veritable storm of articles in AIT-supporting papers and internet journals, questioning the motives and honesty of these two scientists with regard to their undeniably contradictory positions in the papers and in the media.

Some hostile articles which have recently appeared in the print or internet media (the second one below, from 2018, is included because it has been cited in the third one below by the same writer):

1. “Why a 4500-year-old skull is key to the politics of India’s Hindu-Muslim divide“, by Vir Sanghvi in This Week in Asia on 4/9/2019.

2. “Why Hindutva is Out of Steppe with new discoveries about the Indus Valley people“, by Girish Shahane in on 6/9/2018.

3. “Why Hindutva supporters love to hate the discredited Aryan invasion Theory“, by Girish Shahane in on 14/9/2019.

4. “New reports clearly confirm ‘Arya’ migration into India“, by Tony Joseph in The Hindu, on 13-14/9/2019.

5. “We are all migrants“, Tony Joseph interviewed by Siddhartha Mishra in Outlook, 12/9/2019.

6. “Two new genetic studies upheld Indo-Aryan migration. So why did Indian media report the opposite?” by Shoaib Daniyal in on 2/9/2019.

7. “Scientists Part of Studies Supporting Aryan Migration Endorse Party Line Instead“, by C.P. Rajendran, in The Wire, 13/9/2019.

I am sorry to say I cannot contest the criticism on this particular matter.

Further, none of the people, not favoring the AIT, interviewing the two scientists sympathetically, have thought it necessary to ask the really relevant questions to them: since you are also co-authors of the two papers, are you in agreement with the clearly worded statements (quoted above) in the two papers claiming genetic and linguistic evidence for the spread of Indo-European languages into South Asia from the Steppes? If not, do you disassociate yourselves from those quoted statements? And, if you do, what are your reasons for disassociating yourselves from them?

The sum result of all this is an extremely piquant situation where everyone seems determined to make a mess of everything, and everyone seems to be colluding with each other in diverse ways in order to keep things ambiguous: the two scientists want to please the powers-that-be in India at the moment by announcing that the theory of external origin of the Indo-European languages stands disproved even as they keep their geneticist colleagues happy by lending their names to the reports which claim that the theory stands proved. Those who support the external-origin theory are happy that they can expose this doublespeak in order to claim that this shows that the external-origin theory is right. Those who oppose the theory are careful to avoid embarrassing questions even as they quote these scientists and make them repeatedly reiterate that the external-origin theory is wrong. No-one dares to call a spade a spade, when it comes to the question of Genetics. It is up to the geneticists who claim that the external origin of the Indo-European languages is not proved by the genetic evidence, to state, if possible in a joint statement, and definitely in writing, that Genetics can tell us about the different ancestral strands in any individual or population, but it cannot tell us about the languages spoken by the original carriers of those ancestral strands, and that that can only be shown by the linguistic, archaeological and textual data and evidence. Further, it is up to these geneticists to ask the other geneticists and non-geneticists, who are claiming that the “genetic evidence” proves this Indo-European expansion from the Steppes after 2000 BCE, to first disprove my chronological case for the Rigveda showing the date of the Old Rigveda to be far before 2500 BCE in a purely Indo-European environment within India in Haryana to the east of the Sarasvatī – without this, the “genetic evidence” is a big zero, and all discussion on this “genetic evidence” is pointless. This sane logic, and sane advice, has already been given by me umpteen times, but the vested interests can simply stonewall it, which they will not be able to do when these geneticists speak up. It is time people stopped playing safe and indulging in double-games and doublespeak, while all the time continuing to draw linguistic conclusions out of genetic data in defiance of and in direct contradiction to the linguistic, archaeological and textual data and evidence, and thereby muddying the waters and turning the whole discussion into a joke. The only casualty is the Truth.

Let us leave the two scientists to speak for themselves. Here I will only concentrate on and examine a few anti-Hindu comments of those who are using the two reports to reiterate the Aryan Invasion Theory or AIT, without mincing words or pussyfooting around the relevant aspects of the whole debate in order to save face for anyone.

But before going into that detailed exercise, let us in fact examine in short what the data in the two papers (Shinde et al and Narasimhan et al) really says, and which of the conclusions of these papers are warranted, and which are unwarranted, and why.

I. What the Two Reports Say.

First, Narasimhan et al. According to the earlier Reich genetic report by 92 scientists, unofficially put on the internet in 2018, which was the subject of Tony Joseph’s book “Early Indians” and of my dissection of his claims in my book “Genetics and the Aryan Debate“, there are three ancestral strands in the ancestry of all Indians: the First Indians or Onge (who spread into India in 65000 BCE), the Iranian agriculturists (who spread into India in 7000 BCE and started mixing with the First Indians after 4700 BCE), and the Steppe people (after 2000 BCE). That report suggested that there were two different civilizations or cultures in ancient India, the Harappan and the Vedic, and that both of them were initiated or inspired or had their roots in external stimuli: the Harappan in external stimuli brought by Iranian Agriculturists (nothing to do with present-day Iranian language speaking Iranians), and the Vedic by external linguistic and religio-cultural stimuli brought by Steppe immigrants.

The present report differs from the earlier one only in the following respects:

1. As Tony Joseph tells us above The Hindu, 13-14/9/2019), the earlier version was “not peer-reviewed and was merely released in a pre-print server“, but the present version “has now been peer-reviewed and published in the most reputed of journals, Science“.  Also, the list of eminent scientists who are co-authors has increased; “It has 117 scientists as co-authors, significantly up from the 92 last year. The paper is now titled ‘The Formation of Human Populations in South and Central Asia’“.

2. The new version is now modified on the basis of the other (Shinde et al) report that was released on the same day, which has the four above-named co-authors in common, and now accepts that the Harappan civilization at least is not rooted in external stimuli brought by Iranian Agriculturists – and in fact that the entire civilization from its very roots is thoroughly indigenous. Even agriculture was developed independently and not brought in by the Iranian Agriculturists (who are more or less identical to or related to Anatolian agriculturists) from whom these “Iranian” ancestors of the Harappans had separated 12000 years ago, long before the development of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent of West Asia. [Let me clarify here that I have not carried out a word-for-word comparison of the two versions, and am relying only on the statements of not only these two Indian geneticists but on what David Reich himself has said in an interview].

It must be noted that this possibility (of the independent development of agriculture) was hinted at by Joseph in his book, and his hint was noted in my book.

However, the paper continues to reiterate the second part of the earlier story: that Vedic civilization or culture was rooted in external linguistic and religio-cultural stimuli brought by Steppe immigrants. In this respect, the paper is exactly as was described in detail by Tony Joseph in his book “Early Indians“, and my complete dissection and total annihilation of their case in my book “Genetics and the Aryan Debate” therefore continues to be just as fully valid for the revised version of the paper as for the earlier version. There is nothing new in that respect in this paper, and therefore, short of copy-pasting my entire book here, there is nothing new left for me to say here. Everything has already been said in the two above books about this paper.

Second, Shinde et al. This paper pertains only to the DNA analysis of the Rakhigarhi specimen, the sole available specimen of examinable DNA from ancient India from the Harappan area and period. It nowhere contains any data and analysis of the post-2000 BCE genetic analyses from the other paper, but, as quoted above, towards the end of the paper, it makes a totally extraneous and gratuitous reference to that alleged paper and its conclusions in order to reiterate that the Indo-European languages spread into India after 2000 BCE through Steppe migrants entering from Central Asia!

As that is an extraneous and gratuitous conclusion, there is no need to waste time discussing this paper here. We can simply accept the conclusions of this paper that the Harappan people were a mixture of the First Indian and the (people who still continue to be referred to as) Iranian Agriculturist people (who were different from the Iranian/Zagros/Anatolian Agriculturists, having, as the geneticists now accept, separated from them 12000 years ago. Where and how this separation took place is not clear, but it is not strictly relevant to the issue here).

The gratuitous conclusion that the Harappan people were not speaking Indo-European languages, because these languages only entered India with Steppe immigrants after 2000 BCE, cannot be proved by any amount of genetic data and quibbling, and can only be proved by conclusively disproving my case for the composition of the Old Rigveda before 2500 BCE in a core “Aryan” area centered around Haryana and westernmost Uttar Pradesh. As the phrase goes, bākī sab bakwās hai.

What were the expectations from this paper, and how valid were those expectations? The expectations of almost everyone were exactly what they turned out to be: that the Rakhigarhi DNA would show the two earlier ancestries (First Indian and “Iranian“), but no Steppe ancestry. The only differences, both before this report came out as well as after it came out, were in the interpretations of this:

1. The AIT side expected this result because the Rakhigarhi specimen was dated before 2200 BCE, and so it was before the Steppe immigrations into India after 2000 BCE, which this side claimed had brought in the Indo-European languages.

2. The anti-AIT side expected this result because their claims all along were that the Harappan civilization was a purely Indian civilization with indigenous origins, and because they identified the Harappan civilization as Vedic, and did not associate either the Harappan or the Vedic with origins from Steppe people.

3. As genetic ancestry has no connection with language, the results could have shown anything. But I also expected this result, because the analysis of the DNA of the three Indus Periphery individuals in the Reich report (2018) showed no Steppe ancestry, but only First Indian and “Iranian” ancestry. I accepted the evidence of the three Indus Periphery individuals as logical and valid, and wrote in my recent book: “Tony Joseph tells us: ‘Scientists have managed to recover DNA from the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi in India, but the study has not yet been published. Credible news reports about the unpublished study, however, suggest they support the conclusion of a mixture between Zagros agriculturists and the Harappans’(p.93,fn)“, and “he is probably right. On the evidence of the Indus Periphery individuals, it seems unlikely that it could show First Indians + Zagros people + Steppe people ancestry. And in the unlikely case that it throws up a purely First Indians ancestry, it will revolutionize India’s genetic history.

While both the reports claim in writing that the Indo-European languages were brought in by immigrants from the Steppes entering India through Central Asia after 2000 BCE, there is nothing in the genetic data itself to suggest such a circumstance. The purely gratuitous claim is based on two extremely subjective and extraneous arguments:

1. The Steppe immigrants entered India only after 2000 BCE (more on this later), and this fits in with the dates previously claimed by Indologists.

2. The report gives an additional linguistic argument: “it elegantly explains the shared distinctive features of Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages“. It further clarifies: “it provides a plausible genetic explanation for the linguistic similarities between the Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian sub-families of Indo-European languages, which despite their vast geographical separation share the satem innovation and ruki sound laws“!

This single inter-related shared feature (the satem innovation and ruki sound laws) explains shared genetic features which show that Indo-Iranians came from Eastern Europe! Nothing shows the linguistic ignorance of these geneticists more than this argument:

a) The satem-innovations-and-ruki-sound-laws phenomenon is a development which in fact indicates an-east-to-west movement from Central Asia to Eastern Europe. As the well-known detailed linguistic study by Johanna Nichols (1997) tells us: “the long-standing westward trajectories of languages point to an eastward locus, and the spread of IE along all three trajectories points to a locus well to the east of the Caspian Sea. The satem shift also spread from a locus to the south-east of the Caspian, with satem languages showing up as later entrants along all three trajectory terminals. (The satem shift is a post-PIE but very early IE development). The locus of the IE spread was therefore somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Bactria-Sogdiana.” (NICHOLS 1997:137).

b) The particular branches with which Indo-Aryan and Iranian share fundamental linguistic features are not Baltic and Slavic, although, as the last stragglers of the “north-western” group of branches, the Baltic and Slavic branches (but only in an Indian Homeland Theory, not in a Steppe Homeland Theory) do share some minor features (see my books) with the last two branches to remain in the Homeland: Iranian and Indo-Aryan. Baltic and Slavic fall in one (“north-western”) group of dialects with shared linguistic features which includes Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic. On the other hand, Indo-Aryan and Iranian fall in a different (“southern”) group with shared linguistic features from the last stage of unity which includes Albanian, Greek, Armenian, Iranian and Indo-Aryan: these features include a “complete restructuring of the entire inherited verbal system” (GAMKRELIDZE 1995:340-341, 345) only in these five branches, with the formation of athematic and thematic aorists, augmented forms and reduplicated presents. Also, the prohibitive negation *me, the preservation of voiceless aspirated stops, and many distinct developments in vocabulary, phonology (s>h only in these branches, though restricted in Indo-Aryan only to some westernmost dialects), and grammar. But there are no special shared genetic features between the speakers of these five branches, again showing the fallacy of trying to identify linguistic and genetic identities.

The publication of these two reports has therefore not brought any new factor or change whatsoever in the debate so far as the alleged genetic case for the Indo-European languages spreading into India from Central Asia after 2000 BCE is concerned (although it has brought a positive rejection of the earlier idea that Iranian migrants in 6500 BCE brought agriculture from West Asia and provided the stimulus for the formation of the Harappan civilization). So my recent book, “Genetics and the Aryan Debate“, still provides all the answers to the genetic claims, and my chronological and geographical analysis of the Rigveda still remains the only factor which decides the case.

In the next part, we will examine the anti-Hindu politics that is surfacing, or rather bursting forth, after the publication of these two reports.

Featured Image: Outlookindia

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Shrikant Talageri

Shrikant Talageri is a scholar and acclaimed author of "The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis", the seminal work on the Aryan Invasion debate. His latest work is "Rigveda And Avesta The Final Evidence".