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Researchers Studying 4,500-year-old Female Genome Refute Textbook History of Aryan Migration Theory

The skeletal remains found in the upper part of the citadel area of Mohenjodaro belonged to those who died due to floods and not massacred by Aryans, as hypothesised by Mortimer (Wheeler), said a researchers.


Updated:September 7, 2019, 5:04 PM IST
Researchers Studying 4,500-year-old Female Genome Refute Textbook History of Aryan Migration Theory
A photo of burial associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation grave goods. (Courtesy CELL publication)

New Delhi: In a renewed pitch to debunk the Aryan Migration Theory, scholars associated with the study of the 4,500-year-old female genome derived from a Harappan site in Rakhigarhi have said that the theory is based on flimsy grounds, the Harappans were Vedic people, and agriculture was not learnt from outsiders but practised as an indigenous activity.

The claims were made at a press conference here on Friday.

Many theories about the origin of people of the Harappan civilisation have been explored and researched, mostly through linguistics and archaeology. But this time, researchers conducted the study using ancient DNA and archaeology — they obtained powder from 61 skeletal samples from the Rakhigarhi cemetery, which lies a kilometre west of the ancient town.

In the latest study, the researchers have rejected the theory of Steppe pastoral or ancient Iranian farmers as the source of ancestry of the Harappan population. The authors of the report are Dr Vasant Shinde, vice-chancellor of Deccan College; Niraj Rai, scientist at the Lucknow-based Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences; Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Nadin Rohland and David Reich from Harvard Medical School; and Nick Patterson from Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard. They worked on the report from 2015 to 2018.

Released in CELL publication on Thursday, the research has presented a hypothesis regarding the most complex and complicated civilisation by questioning the “mass human migration during Harappan time from outside south Asia or even before”.

The report is based on an ancient genome from the Indus Valley Civilisation. “These individuals had little, if any, Steppe pastoralist-derived ancestry, showing that it was not ubiquitous in northwest south Asia during the Indus Valley Civilisation as it is today,” it said.

The claims: “We were not given agriculture by others, it was local”

The ancient DNA study has indicated that the idea of farming in south Asia did not come with the people from the Middle East; it was developed by the indigenous people of south Asia.

“There is a hint that south Asian ancient farmers began to move towards the Middle East. Probably the idea of settled life and domestication went from south Asia to the Middle East,” said Shine and Rai while unveiling the study.

In a bid to reclaim the ancient Indian pride and point out the ignorance of the locals, Shinde said, “Agricultural practice was not given to us by any movement from outside, the indigenous people started it. The south Asian transformation was started by people living here in the subcontinent. With the help of linguistics, we cannot say anything about the Harappans, the archaeological evidence was not fully used. The genetic study has debunked the earlier conclusions about Harappans – they were Indo-Vedic people.”

The authors of the report further claimed that hunter-gatherers in south Asia were on independent origin and “they are the authors of the settled way of life in this part of the world. They do not contain any genome from either the Steppe region or ancient Iranian farmers”.

The study has tried to prove there was genetic continuity from hunter-gatherers to modern times, saying, “The same hunter-gatherer communities developed into agriculture communities around 7000 BCE and they are the authors of the Harappan civilisation founded in the third millennium BCE.”

“The genetic identity remained the same throughout but the development in the material culture continued as an ongoing cultural process resulting from the transformation from hunter-gatherers to agricultural communities and from a rural culture to an urban civilisation,” it added.

Clamour over Aryan Invasion theory, again

The researchers said that the report “sets aside the Aryan invasion migration theory. The skeletal remains found in the upper part of the citadel area of Mohenjodaro belonged to those who died due to floods and not massacred by Aryans, as hypothesised by Mortimer (Wheeler). The Aryan invasion theory is based on flimsy ground,” said Shinde.

Wheeler was the director general of archaeology for the government of India from 1944 to 1947 -- his research focused on the origins and development of the Indus civilisation.

The report said, “Vedic culture was developed by the indigenous people of south Asia. Our premise that Harappans were the Vedic people, thus, has received strong evidence based on ancient DNA studies.”

Further, the report said, “For the first time, the people of the Harappan civilisation are the ancestors of most of the population of south Asia with ancient DNA. For the first time indicated, there is a movement of the people from east to west.”

Not completely ruling out migration from different region

However, the report maintains that India had mixed population.

“The presence of Harappan people is evident at sites like Gonur in Turkmenistan and Share-i-Sokhta in Iran. As the Harappans traded with Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persian Gulf and almost all over south Asia, there is bound to be movement of people, resulting in mixed genetic history. India had heterogeneous population right from the beginning of settled life and all of them contributed to the development of the region,” it said.

The report also cautioned that the Harappans had built a complex and cosmopolitan ancient civilisation and there was undoubted variation in it, which the researchers cannot detect by analysing just a single individual.

“The insights just generate promise of ancient DNA studies of South Asia. They make it clear that future studies of much larger numbers of individuals from a variety of archaeological sites and locations has the potential to transform our understanding to the deep history of subcontinent,” said Shinde.

Making a point – Not much has changed

Tony Joseph, author of ‘Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From’, on Twitter said the part about the genome lacking ancestry from Steppe is a reiteration of the earlier finding that Steppe ancestry showed up in south Asia only after the decline of the Harappan civilisation, which means Steppe pastoralists who brought Indo-European languages to India came later.

“The part about the Harappan genome lacking ancestry from Iranian farmers is a new detail,” he said in another tweet.

“It means the West Asian migrants who mixed with the First Indians to form the population that spread agriculture in northwestern India and built the Harappan civilisation were not yet farmers when they came to India. They came before agriculture had begun anywhere in the world,” he said.

In a subsequent tweet, he said, “In other words, farming is likely to have begun independently in India (a point made strongly in my book ‘Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From’). In short, the Rakhigarhi DNA study confirms the earlier understanding that the Harappan civilisation was built by a mixed population of First Indians and West Asians, and that the Steppe pastoralists who brought Indo-Aryan languages to India were not present in the region then.”

“However, 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,” he said, picking up a direct quote from his book.

“The fact 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,” he continued.

The ancient-DNA results reject the theory of Steppe pastoral or ancient Iranian farmers as origin of the ancestry to the Harappan population, and questions the earlier hypothesis about mass human migration during the Harappan time from outside South Asia. It sets out to pitch Harappans as Indo-vedic people.

Author and historian DN Jha dubs this pitch of demolishing human migration from outside as "ignorance towards the historical processes".

“Anyone questioning it (Aryan migration theory) is clearly ignorant of the historical processes,” he said.

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