The Aryan chromosome
Where did the Aryans come to India from? When did they migrate? Genetics is now beginning to affirm archaeological and literary evidence.
(Illustration: C R Sasikumar)
Genetics is now in a position to act as an umpire between competing theories on the Aryan question. Earlier genetic studies dealt with mtDNA, which is transmitted by the mother; these studies pertain to much earlier periods. Since societies were male-driven and migrants would have been accompanied by very few women, studies of Y-chromosome variations which track the male line are far more important for establishing correlations with historical periods. These studies show that about 4,000 years ago, there were migrations from Central Asia into Iran and north western India. The conclusion will come as no surprise to scholars who have been examining the relevant linguistic, literary and archaeological evidence in an open-ended manner. There is, however, a very strong non-scholarly ideological dimension to ancient Indian history.
Lexical and grammatical similarities between people in India and those to the country’s west have been explained by postulating the existence of Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIE) who at one time lived together and subsequently dispersed in stages. Indo-Iranians were part of this family; they are the only peoples who have left behind literature, with the Rig Veda being closer to the Zoroastrian text Avesta than to the later Vedas.
In all other cases, we only have surviving vocabularies as guides.
A clue to the geographical location of the original PIE homeland is provided by the fact that there are a number of IE loan words in Finno-Ugric languages. For example, the Finnish vasara for hammer is cognate with Indra’s weapon, vajra. The Finno-Ugric homeland is confidently placed in the northern forest zone in northern Europe. PIE can then be allotted the contiguous territory to the south that is the resource-less steppes bordering the Caspian and Black Seas. The Sanskrit maks and the Avestan maksi, fly, correspond to the Mordvinian meks, but do not have an equivalent in other Indo-European languages. This borrowing must have taken place after the European branches had already migrated.
Commonality in vocabulary suggests that Indo-Europeans were already familiar with the wheel, metal (copper or bronze), and horse before their dispersal began. Domestication of the horse is a major event in world history. It transformed PIE society. Ox-driven vehicles had been very slow; horse owners could now move swiftly and cover large territories.
Copper was first extracted in the 5th millennium BCE in the Kuhrud Mountains in east Iran, while the appearance of wheeled vehicles anywhere in the world is not earlier that the 4th millennium BCE. Thus, the IE dispersal could not have taken place before the 4th millennium BCE. The Indo-Iranian speakers first moved eastwards followed by a southward migration that began in about 2,000 BCE.
This time was one of great upheaval for ecological reasons. Prolonged failure of rains caused acute water shortage in a large area, causing the collapse of sedentary urban cultures in south central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran, and India, and triggering large-scale migrations. Inevitably, the new arrivals came to merge with and dominate the post-urban cultures.
The physical attestation of migrations comes from the discovery of accidentally mummified corpses in the Chinese Xinjiang province (east Turkestan). The oldest mummy, of a woman, is dated about 2,000 BCE. From their features, the dead have been identified as Indo-European speakers.
As for the Indo-Iranian speakers, south central Asia became their first destination. Rivers fed by the snows of Hindu Kush and the Pamirs would have been less severely affected by the drought. Accordingly, the delta of river Murghab (Greek Margiana) and the middle plain of the river Amu (Bactria) became the home of the Indo-Iranian people.
Archaeology cannot tell us anything about the languages spoken, but the arrival of new people can be discerned from changes in material culture, funerary practices and religious motifs. Another indicator is the presence of linguistic groups in the same geographical area in historical times.
Remarkably, the post-urban Namazga VI in south Turkmenistan shows a pedestal decorated with a swastika, an absolutely new motif. The Bishkent culture in Tajikistan shows graves where the cremated remains were buried. These graves match the description given in the famous Rig Vedic death hymn (10.18).
Thorough archaeological exploration of the Central Asian republics and north Afghanistan was carried out during the Soviet era, but the important area of south Afghanistan has remained largely unexplored. This is unfortunate because both the Iranians and the Indic speakers would have passed through south Afghanistan before reaching their historical destinations.
The Avesta is familiar with central Asian geography but not with the river Indus. It mentions in equivalent terms, the rivers Sarayu and Saraswati as well as the land of seven rivers, sapta-sindhvah; all these are known to the Rig Veda as well. Presumably, the same geographical feature is meant in both the texts. In sapta-sindhvah, Sindhu is used in the generic sense of a river. Later, the name was given to a specific river, the Indus. All attributes assigned to river Saraswati are transferred to the Indus in a later hymn. This suggests eastward movement of the Rig Vedic people.
There were a number of Indic groups which spoke related dialects. The Rig Veda, however, was the creation of just one of them. The Indo-Iranians display interesting linguistic divides. There is an s-h divide between the Rig Vedic and the Avestan peoples: S in Rig veda becomes H in the Avesta (soma/haoma). But both use r instead of l. Later Vedic texts abound in l (rohia/lohita). Here, we have examples of an expanded catchment area for the post-Rig Vedic literature.
An examination of the new material and cultural features in the post-Urban Harappan sites suggests the arrival of Indic speakers in three prominent waves. The first Indic speakers to arrive in India made their presence felt in Swat (Rig Vedic, Suvastu), and Gomal river (Rig Vedic Gomati) in Balochistan during 2,000-1,800 BCE . They do not seem to be connected with the Rig Veda. The Rig Vedic people are estimated to have arrived in India in Swat and Punjab about 1,400 BCE after a 3,00-year sojourn in south Afghanistan.
After the pioneering extensive male-line related Y-chromosome studies covering vast areas, the time has now come for India-specific work. Such investigations would take ancient Indian history beyond the realm of speculation and place it on a firm footing. Kochhar is author of ‘The Vedic People’