- What happened after migrants arrived in India? How did we get to have the current regional,linguistic and ethnic composition that we have today? Author and journalist Tony Joseph’s bookEarly Indians takes a look at how caste system did not originate with the arrival of Aryans
The story of our demography and population structure does not end with the arrival of the migrants; it only begins with it. What happened after they arrived? How did we get to have the current regional, linguistic and ethnic composition that we have today?
We need two keys to answer that question. The first key will open the door to what happened during the two thousand years between 2000 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era. The second will open the door to what happened during the two thousand years following that: from the beginning of the common era to now. These are two distinct periods in terms of understanding our demography, as we will soon see.
Let us try and open the first door: the period from 2000 BCE to the beginning of the Common Era. If someone were to ask which was the most tumultuous period in the history of the Indian subcontinent we should have no difficulty in answering it. Without doubt, that was the period between 2000 BCE and the beginning of the Common Era. Why is that? Imagine all that happened. The world’s largest civilization of its time, the Harappan Civilization, began to fall apart after 1900 BCE, because of a long drought. The people who had kept that civilization going for over seven centuries moved east towards north India and south towards south India, seeking new fertile land, while the old cities of the Harappan civilization began to crumble. A new set of migrants streamed in from the east, speaking a different, Austroasiatic language and bringing new plants and practices. Then again, another stream of migrants from the Steppe arrived through the northwest, bringing Indo-European languages and another new set of cultural practices and beliefs. The migrants from the Steppe had mastery over horses and metallurgy, and they established dominance over north India, forcing a language shift from pre-Aryan languages to Indo-European languages.
Genetic research says that this 2000-year period saw mixing of the kind that had never been seen before or after. By around 2000 BCE, all the four major components of the Indian population were already in: the First Indians, the West Asians from Zagros, the East Asians and the Central Asians. And what we see during the next 2000 years is mixing between these populations in such a way that no Indian population group is left untouched. If you today analyse the DNA of any population group, no matter in how remote a region, you will find that it carries mixed ancestry in varying proportions. The only population group that escaped this mixing was the Andaman islanders and that only because they were cut off from the mainland.
But what is remarkable is that genetic research says this mixing came to an end, sometime around 100 AD, when endogamy – or the practice of people marrying within their groups – took hold. Since endogamy is a distinguishing mark of the case system, we can surmise that this is the time around when the caste system fell around the ankles of the Indian society. In other words, the caste system did not begin with the arrival of the Arya, as is commonly believed, but began almost 2000 years later. My book suggests that one way to grasp this information is to look at the caste system not as a religious development, but as a political development that happened around 100 AD. The idea of endogamy or racial purity may have been present among a small subset of the Indian population before 100 AD, but after that period, that sentiment or approach to life that was practiced by a small group became the dominant social practice. We do not know what precise political developments led to this. Though my book offers some poin
ters, this is an area that definitely requires new and intensive research.
The practice of endogamy, or in other words, the caste system that has been in practice for 2000 years has left a major mark on Indian society, says genetic research. For example, the genetic difference between people in a single Indian village is two to three times that between North Europeans and South Europeans! So that is what the caste system has done – it has divided our population and increased the differences between them. To quote genetic scientist David Reich who has led the research based on ancient DNA: “People tend to think India with its more than 1.3 billion people as having a tremendously large population, and indeed many Indians as well as foreigners see it this way. But genetically, this is an incorrect way to view the situation. The Han Chinese are truly a large population. They have been mixing freely for thousands of years. In contrast, there are few if any Indian groups that are demographically very large... The truth is that India is composed of a large number of small populations.”
So this is one way to look at and understand the Indian population structure: four prehistoric migrations that provided the moving parts or basic components; a 2000-year period of mixing that ensured that almost all population groups in the country are a combination of these four components in different proportions; and then a 2000-year period of genetic segregation or endogamy that has created a large number of small populations.
There is also another, visual method that helps us understand the Indian population structure: the metaphor of the Indian demographic pizza, where the base is the ancestry of the First Indians, the descendants of the original out of Africa migrants who reached here about 65,000 years ago. This is because we know from genetic studies that the ancestry of the First Indians accounts for 50 to 65 per cent of the ancestry of most Indian population groups today. This is the most substantive part of the Indian or south Asian ancestry. Without this base, there is no Indian demographic pizza. You could also say that the edges of this pizza base are somewhat thin. That is because eastern and western borders of India have seen repeated mass migrations over the years, that they have to a comparatively larger extent replaced the First Indian ancestry.
On top of this base comes the sauce — which are the Harappans. Why is this so? Because when their civilization declined, the Harappans moved both to north India and south India, thus becoming the ancestors of today’s north Indians and south Indians. In many ways, the Harappans can be seen as the cultural glue that holds us together, because when they moved, the Harappans took with them many of the cultural practices and belief systems that they had perfected in the crucible of the Harappan Civilization and these have now become integrated into the lives and belief systems of Indians, both in the north and the south. For example, the way we build our houses around courtyards – that comes from Harappan practices. Or the way that we consider the peepul tree sacred – there are many seals in the Harappan civilization that show people bowing before a peepul tree with a deity inside.
In the north, the Harappans shifted the language they spoke from proto-Dravidian to Indo-European or Indo-Aryan languages after the arrival of the Arya. But in the south, their language continued to flourish, and went on to become Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and so on.
So that is about as much as we can say about the way our population is structured and distributed, based on current findings. Very broadly, one can expect the eastern parts of India to carry relatively more east Asian ancestry, the northern and western parts of India carry more west Eurasian ancestry, and the southern parts of India to carry comparatively more First Indian ancestry.
But what are the implications of this for us, as Indians? In what way does it — or should it — change the way we ourselves and each other? There are many things that are now clear.
These are seven of the most important ones:
1. We Indians are formed mostly out of four major prehistoric migrations: the First Indians, the West Asians, the East Asians and the Arya. Our culture and our civilization reflects this mix.
2. Most population groups in India today carry over 50 per cent of their ancestry from the First Indians, no matter where they live, what language they speak or what caste they belong to.
3. The ‘Arya-Sanskrit-Vedic’ culture is one of the important constituents of our civilization as it stands today, but it is not the only one or even the earliest one. The Harappan civilization precedes it by far.
4. When their civilization declined, the Harappans spread to both north India and south India, thus becoming ancestors of both. The culture they spread in both regions is, in many ways, the glue that holds us together.
5. The tribals are not very different from the rest of the Indian population. All of the rest of the population shares the maximum genetic ancestry with them.
6. The caste system did not originate with the arrival of the Arya. It fell in place almost two thousand years later. It has to be seen as a political development that had, and has, no real rational basis.
7. But the most important lesson of all is this: we are all migrants and we are all mixed. The genius of India is that it has created a unique, highly influential civilization out of the disparate streams that flowed into it at different times in its long history. The sources of our common culture, therefore, are many, not singular.
(Excerpts from Tony Joseph’s book Early Indians)