RAKHIGARHI: BURY­ING THE LEDE

India Today - - CONTENT - By Kai Friese

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

©VAS­ANT SHINDE/DCPGRI

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