RAKHIGARHI: BURYING THE LEDE
The enduring mystery of the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) just became a little less mysterious last week. Or did it? The carefully coordinated nearsimultaneous release of two long-awaited papers, analysing the DNA of ancient Harappans (and others), offers complex answers to the questions of who these people were, where they came from, what became of them and how they relate to the citizens of India today (NRC-certified or not).
Despite the admirable clarity of both papers, it was only a matter of hours before they were being bowdlerised in the media and, of course, social media to suggest diametrically opposed conclusions.
But history, they say, repeats itself. In this case, the contradictory narratives surrounding the two research papers in question had already been extensively aired. Recent years have witnessed a raucous dispute between a Hindutva-inflected indigenist position, which
maintains that the Harappan civilisation was itself ‘Vedic’, and an emerging scientific consensus that South Asia and Northern Europe were both impacted by bronze-age migrations of pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe—and that in India this was an event associated with the end of the Harappan civilisation and the advent of a Vedic culture and associated Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit. This has been a politically charged issue, particularly since the BJP came to power in 2014, with ministerial pressure and patronage allegedly exercised to promote the indigenist narrative. These dynamics also provoked considerable speculation over the fate of the project to extract Harappan DNA from the ancient site of Rakhigarhi. Last March, a team of researchers, led by the geneticist David Reich at Harvard University, seemed to anticipate the results of the Rakhigarhi project led by the archaeologist Vasant Shinde of Deccan College: the Reich team put out an online ‘pre-print’ of a study that identified the bodies of several individuals from non-IVC archaeological sites in Iran and Turkmenistan as ‘outliers’, with origins in the Harappan civilisation. Now, more than a year later, the Rakhigarhi paper (Shinde et al) and the Harvard paper (V. Narasimhan et al) have finally been officially released in scientific journals in a carefully choreographed exercise of academic cooperation, with researchers from each team appearing as co-authors on the others’ paper.
To be sure, there is much in the two studies that should excite scholars and lay enthusiasts without stoking the bonfires of Indian identity politics. Shinde et al finds that the IVC population modelled on the samples in both studies derived from a combination of ‘tribal southern Indians’ related to the Andamanese huntergatherers of today and an ancestry that branched off from the lineage of ancient Iranians some 12,000 years ago. This contradicts earlier theories that suggested a more recent connection to early Iranian agriculturists and raises the possibility that farming began in northwestern India without direct contact with the ‘fertile crescent’ of West Asia. Both papers also affirmed that IVC ancestry continues to thrive in the subcontinent as the most significant component in the genomes of modern Indians.
At a recent press conference in New Delhi, Shinde did his best to dwell on this point and the ‘pride’ Indians should feel at this ancient continuity. “The Indian gene has not been replaced,” he said. But Shinde seemed at pains to obscure what was arguably the headline of greatest interest to the Indian public: that the significant Steppe ancestry of modern Indians is absent in the IVC and must indeed be the consequence of a largescale movement of Indo-European-(or ‘Indo-Aryan-’) speaking people into South Asia after the decline of the IVC in the 2nd millennium BCE. Instead, the veteran archaeologist chose to bury the lede in a series of peculiar assertions that were not reflected in either of the papers he had co-authored. “At no stage do we find the introduction of foreign cultural traditions into India,” he offered, and his press release went so far as to claim that “our premise that the Harappans were the Vedic people thus has received strong corroborative scientific evidence based on ancient DNA studies”.
While these statements are difficult to square with the text of the two studies in question, they were enthusiastically received in Hindutva-indigenist circles and have provoked confusing and misleading messaging in the media. Thus while Shinde et al attests that “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 BC, a chain of transmission now documented in detail with ancient DNA,” Shinde in the Economic Times pronounced that “there was no Aryan invasion and no Aryan migration”. Despite the consternation such statements may provoke among people who have actually read the two papers, perhaps some admiration is in order. Doublespeak may well be an effective strategy for scholars engaged in politically sensitive research in India. ■
The findings of the two papers have been bowdlerised in the social media to suggest the opposite of what they say