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