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The cradle that is India

By Subhash Kak
March 07, 2005 17:10 IST
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Ideas about early Indian history continue to play an important role in political ideology of contemporary India. On the one side are the Left and Dravidian parties, which believe that invading Aryans from the northwest pushed the Dravidians to south India and India's caste divisions are a consequence of that encounter. Even the development of Hinduism is seen through this anthropological lens. This view is essentially that of colonial historians which was developed over a hundred years ago.

On the other side are the nationalist parties, which believe that the Aryan languages are native to India. These groups cite the early astronomical dates in the Vedas, noting these texts are rooted firmly in the Indian geographical region. But Leftist scholars consider such evidence suspect, politically motivated, and chauvinistic.

In recent years, the work of archaeologists and historians of science concluded that there is no material evidence for any large scale migrations into India over the period of 4500 to 800 BC, implicitly supporting the traditional view of Indian history. The Left has responded by conceding that there were probably no invasions; rather, there were many small scale migrations by Aryans who, through a process of cultural dominance, imposed their language on north Indians.

The drama of text-book revisions, both during the NDA and the current UPA governments, is essentially a struggle to impose one or the other of these viewpoints. In any other country, such a fight would have fought in the pages of academic journals; but in India, where the government decides what history is, it is a political matter.

'There is no absolute objective history'

Now, in an important book titled The Real Eve: Modern Man's Journey out of Africa (New York: Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2003), the prominent Oxford University scholar Stephen Oppenheimer has synthesised the available genetic evidence together with climatology and archaeology with conclusions which have bearing on the debate about the early population of India. This work has received great attention in the West, and it will also interest Indians tremendously.

Much of Oppenheimer's theory is based on recent advances in studies of mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the mother, and Y chromosomes, inherited by males from the father. Oppenheimer makes the case that whereas Africa is the cradle of all mankind; India is the cradle of all non-African peoples. Man left Africa approximately 90,000 years ago, heading east along the Indian Ocean, and established settlements in India. It was only during a break in glacial activity 50,000 years ago, when deserts turned into grasslands, that people left India and headed northwest into the Russian steppes and on into Eastern Europe, as well as northeast through China and over the now submerged Bering Strait into the Americas.

In their migration to India, African people carried the mitochondrial DNA strain L3 and Y chromosome line M168 across south Red Sea across the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. On the maternal side the mtDNA strain L3 split into two daughters which Oppenheimer labels Nasreen and Manju. While Manju was definitely born in India the birthplace of Nasreen is tentatively placed by him in southern Iran or Baluchistan. One Indian Manju subclan in India is as old as 73,000 years, whereas European man goes back to less than 50,000 years.

Considering the paternal side, Oppenheimer sees M168 as having three sons, of whom Seth was the most important one. Seth, in turn, had five sons which are named by him as Jahangir, H, I, G and Krishna. Krishna, born in India, is the ancestor of the peoples of East Asia, Central Asia, Oceania and West Eurasia (through the M17 mutation). This is what Oppenheimer says about M17:

South Asia is logically the ultimate origin of M17 and his ancestors; and sure enough we find highest rates and greatest diversity of the M17 line in Pakistan, India, and eastern Iran, and low rates in the Caucasus. M17 is not only more diverse in South Asia than in Central Asia but diversity characterizes its presence in isolated tribal groups in the south, thus undermining any theory of M17 as a marker of a 'male Aryan Invasion of India.'

Study of the geographical distribution and the diversity of genetic branches and stems again suggests that Ruslan, along with his son M17, arose early in South Asia, somewhere near India, and subsequently spread not only south-east to Australia but also north, directly to Central Asia, before splitting east and west into Europe and East Asia.

Oppenheimer argues that the Eurocentric view of ancient history is also incorrect. For example, Europeans didn't invent art, because the Australian aborigines developed their own unique artistic culture in complete isolation. Indian rock art is also extremely ancient, going back to over 40,000 BC, so perhaps art as a part of culture had arisen in Africa itself. Similarly, agriculture didn't arise in the Fertile Crescent; Southeast Asia had already domesticated many plants by that time.

Oppenheimer concludes with two extraordinary conclusions: 'First, that the Europeans' genetic homeland was originally in South Asia in the Pakistan/Gulf region over 50,000 years ago; and second, that the Europeans' ancestors followed at least two widely separated routes to arrive, ultimately, in the same cold but rich garden. The earliest of these routes was the Fertile Crescent. The second early route from South Asia to Europe may have been up the Indus into Kashmir and on to Central Asia, where perhaps more than 40,000 years ago hunters first started bringing down game as large as mammoths.'

This synthesis of genetic evidence makes it possible to understand the divide between the north and the south Indian languages. It appears that the Dravidian languages are more ancient, and the Aryan languages evolved in India over thousands of years before migrations took them to central Asia and westward to Europe. The proto-Dravidian languages had also, through the ocean route, reached northeast Asia, explaining the connections between the Dravidian family and the Korean and the Japanese.

Perhaps this new understanding will encourage Indian politicians to get away from the polemics of who the original inhabitants of India are, since that should not matter one way or the other in the governance of the country. Indian politics has long been plagued by the Aryan invasion narrative, which was created by English scholars of the 19th century; it is fitting that another Englishman, Stephen Oppenheimer, should announce its demise.

'The rise of Hindutva is going to put us back by at least a century'

External links:
Politics of Indology
Oppenheimer's work at the Bradshaw Foundation

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Subhash Kak