The Hindu Prize 2019 Shortlist Books

‘The Indian population is a result of four migrations’: Tony Joseph

Tony Joseph talks about his book, ‘Early Indians’, the many ancient migrations into this land, and why genetic purity is a myth

The new understanding of global migrations has upended much received wisdom, says Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians, which is shortlisted for The Hindu Prize for Non-Fiction. An excerpt from a short interview:

Why has it been possible to write a book like Early Indians now and not earlier?

Over the last five years or so, we have gained far greater clarity into how different population groups formed across the world as a result of ancient migrations. This applies to Europe, the Americas, East Asia or Central Asia as much as to South Asia or India. This has happened mainly because in recent years, population geneticists have acquired the ability to extract and analyse DNA

‘The Indian population is a result of four migrations’: Tony Joseph

from the bones of people who lived thousands or tens of thousands years ago. Now we know which ancient population groups moved where and when. These new findings fit each other like pieces of a global jigsaw puzzle, and they are also in harmony with the latest discoveries from other disciplines such as archaeology and linguistics. It is because the book is based on findings that have resulted from the latest advances in technology across disciplines, including population genetics, that it could not have been written earlier.

Where do population groups in India draw their genes from?

Most population groups in the world used to assume that they have always been where they are today, and that they are ‘pure’ in some sense. The new understanding of global migrations has upended this received wisdom. All populations that exist today are the result of mixing between prehistoric/ historic migrant groups. Therefore, there is no such thing as race or genetic purity.

The Indian population, for example, is the result of four major migrations. First, Out-of-Africa migrants who reached here around

‘The Indian population is a result of four migrations’: Tony Joseph

65,000 years ago, whom my book calls the First Indians. Second, a population related to the farmers of Iran who were in the northwestern region from around 12,000 years ago and who mixed with the First Indians and together created the agricultural revolution that resulted in the Harappan Civilisation.

Third, a migration from East Asia around 4,000 years ago that brought Austro-Asiatic languages such as Khasi and Mundari to India. And last, central Asian Steppe pastoralists from regions now known as Kazakhstan who brought Indo-European languages to India 4,000 to 3,500 years ago and called themselves Arya. Almost all population groups in India today are a mixture of these four components, in differing proportions.

What are some of the ‘facts’ that have been proved wrong?

The understanding that our present demography is the product of four migrations leads to many surprising conclusions. For example, we now know that the Harappans are the ancestors of both north Indians and south Indians because when their civilisation declined around 3,900 years ago, they spread across the country, carrying their genetic and cultural heritage.

You could, therefore, say that the Harappan Civilisation is what holds us together, and is the fountainhead of our culture. Second, the language of the Harappans, most likely proto-Dravidian, continued to thrive in south India but was overlain by Indo-European languages when the Steppe pastoralists arrived in the north later.

Third, between around 4,000 years ago and 2,000 years ago, there was a great mixing between groups with different migration histories that left no Indian population group untouched (except perhaps the Andamanese). Fourth, endogamy, or the practice of people marrying within their own groups, began only around 2,000 years ago, which suggests that the caste system did not begin with the arrival of the Arya but was the result of political developments around the beginning of the Common Era. Fifth, almost all population groups of India carry 50-65% of their ancestry from the First Indians, no matter where in the caste hierarchy they stand, what language they speak, which region they inhabit or what religion they belong to.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jul 9, 2020 6:49:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-indian-population-is-a-result-of-four-migrations-tony-joseph/article30701183.ece

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