Idon’t nor­mally give much mindspace to an­cient In­dian his­tory. How­ever, my in­ter­est was piqued when Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor Kai Friese in­formed me about a new sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery on the In­dus Val­ley Civil­i­sa­tion (IVC), spe­cially in re­la­tion to Vedic cul­ture. This, ob­vi­ously, had some rel­e­vance, con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent dis­pen­sa­tion in the coun­try. There is an ef­fort to pro­ject the IVC as Vedic and back­date the ac­cepted chronol­ogy of the Vedas—In­dia’s most an­cient texts.

How­ever, now, thanks to ad­vances in ge­net­ics, the IVC has started re­veal­ing some of its se­crets. DNA sam­ples ex­tracted from Cit­i­zen I4411, a male who lived in the In­dus val­ley city of Rakhi­garhi, in mod­ern-day Haryana, ap­prox­i­mately 4,500 years ago, has ge­neti­cists in a tizzy.

The most star­tling as­pect is the com­plete ab­sence of the ge­netic marker R1a1 in I4411’s DNA. This is sig­nif­i­cant, be­cause R1a1, of­ten loosely and some­what mis­lead­ingly called the ‘Aryan gene’, is widely dis­persed in the mod­ern pop­u­la­tion of In­dia. The in­di­ca­tions are that the peo­ple of IVC are a closer match with South In­dian tribes. The ‘Aryan gene’ has been traced to peo­ple who mi­grated to In­dia from the Steppes of Europe, and ear­lier stud­ies have es­tab­lished that they are found more among the up­per castes of North In­dia.

Our ori­gins are a deeply emo­tive sub­ject be­cause po­lit­i­cal move­ments have sprung out of iden­tity pol­i­tics—the Dra­vid­ian par­ties in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s and, more re­cently, the up­roar over the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of Cit­i­zens in As­sam that aims to iden­tify ‘out­siders’.

One of the big­gest, long­est-last­ing mys­ter­ies on the sub­con­ti­nent is the ori­gin of the peo­ple of the In­dus val­ley, an early Bronze Age civil­i­sa­tion that flour­ished in north­west In­dia be­tween 3500 and 1800 BCE.

In his 2014 best­seller Sapi­ens, scholar and his­to­rian Yu­val Noah Harari de­votes sev­eral pages to the Sume­rian and Me­sopotamian civil­i­sa­tions of the Mid­dle East, but makes only a pass­ing ref­er­ence to the con­tem­po­rary IVC which, in fact, cov­ered an area twice their size. That’s be­cause while the cu­nei­form script of Sumer and Me­sopotamia has been de­coded, we are yet to find the Rosetta Stone that could un­lock the lan­guage of the peo­ple of the IVC. So while an­cient Sume­ria speaks to us and tells us sto­ries about the daily lives of its peo­ple and their fairly hum­drum ex­is­tence, IVC re­mains deaf­en­ingly mute. Un­til its writ­ing is de­ci­phered, we will never know how its in­hab­i­tants passed their time, who they wor­shipped, how they de­vel­oped their fas­ci­nat­ing ur­ban cul­ture of flush toi­lets, wa­ter sup­ply and sewage sys­tems and baked brick homes which parts of In­dia are still de­prived of four mil­len­nia later. We don’t even know, for in­stance, what they called them­selves or their mag­nif­i­cent walled cities—Mo­hen­jo­daro and Harappa are mod­ern names.

Our cover story this week, The Ex­plo­sive Truth, by Kai Friese, who has been track­ing this sub­ject for over a year and is pas­sion­ate about it, ex­plores these new rev­e­la­tions that em­pha­sise the fact that there were once sev­eral dis­tinct pop­u­la­tions in the sub­con­ti­nent, some of whom clearly reached these shores ear­lier than the oth­ers. It fits in with one of the the­o­ries that ge­neti­cist David Re­ich had listed on where the peo­ple of the IVC came from—that they were An­ces­tral South In­di­ans, a pre-ex­ist­ing mix of South Asian hunter gath­er­ers and Ira­nian farm­ers. These are con­clu­sions that fur­ther re­search needs to build upon.

While the new­est find­ings could up­turn some of our most re­cently held the­o­ries about the In­dus peo­ple, they in fact re­in­force ear­lier wis­dom that In­dia was es­sen­tially a melt­ing pot of cul­tures rather than a sin­gle civil­i­sa­tional con­tin­uum. At the very least, it will only serve to un­der­line one of our great­est strengths—unity in di­ver­sity.

Our Fe­bru­ary 11, 2002 cover

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