Who are we, the people of India?

WHO ARE we? Where did we come from? When did we get here? How many communities are we? How are we all related? These questions have been asked by many groups of people, in many places and at different times. Each group has had its own answers ó in the form of legends, oracles, divine revelations and collective memories.

Some tribes in ancient Middle East believed themselves to be the chosen people of God. The legend of the Great Flood occurs in Judeo-Christian as well as in Hindu traditions. Post-Rigvedic accounts talk of the Primeval Universal Man (Prajapati) who created all humanity out of himself, and the four castes out of his different limbs. How historically accurate and verifiable are these oral and written traditions?

Anthropology attempts to look at these issues in a rigorous manner. It deals with the origins, physical and cultural development, racial and ethnic characteristics, as well as social customs and beliefs of mankind. It covers a vast canvas, and uses a large number of diverse disciplines to do so. Archaeology unearths fossils and man-made artefacts, and dates then in a self-consistent manner. Physics, chemistry and geology help in many analytical ways.

Modern biology has turned out to be a powerful tool in such understanding of the history of the earth and of organisms present there. We now have the valuable help of genetics in this endeavour ó a field that has exploded in the last 50 years. Central to the development of this tool has been the use of the genetic material of organisms, their DNA. It has been possible for scientists to tease out the DNA from fossilised remains of microbes, plants, animals and humans, and use the information contained in the DNA to build family trees. This is anthropology at the molecular level, when the biologist turns into a historian.

Such an effort has recently been made by Professor Partha Majumder and colleagues of Kolkata. The effort is grand ó it has attempted to look into the origins and ethnicity of the people of our land. Published in the October 2003 issue of the journal Genome Research, this paper gives an authoritative genomic view of ethnic India, with special reference to how the land has been populated over the millennia.

Look at the complexity of the task. India is not a collection of one or two, or even a handful of ethnic groups. The Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) had taken up the heroic and mammoth task of collecting and cataloguing information about the linguistic, geographic and sociological features of all ethnic groups across India.

The results are an authoritative 43-volume set called “The People of India”, published in 1992. (For duds like me, they also have an easier-to-read, but not dumbed-down, summary volume). They tell us that we Indians are a mosaic, a patchwork quilt and a rainbow coalition of 450 tribal communities speaking over 750 dialects. These are classified into the Austro-Asiatic (AA) Dravidian (DR) and Tibeto-Burman (TB) language families. The tribals make up 8 per cent of India. The non-tribals speak languages that belong to the Indo-European (IE), or Dravidian (DR) families. The IE and DR have contributed in a major way to the development of Indian society and culture. But they are also known to be affected by waves of migration into India since prehistoric times. And then there is the stratification into castes, a mode unique to India. When did this occur from 4000 years before present (or ybp), or can we be more accurate through the use of DNA?

In order to address these issues of the peopling of India, Majumder and colleagues collected blood samples from over 1200 men and women belonging to 44 geographically, linguistically, and socially disparate ethnic populations across India ó all castes, religions and tribals ó isolated the DNA from each and compared them. Matrilineage was determined by studying the mitochondrial DNA, patrilineage from the Y-chromosome DNA, and the composite lineage from that of the other 22 chromosomes. What did the group find? Let us summarise the major conclusions:

All Indians have emerged from a small number of founding female lineages. Either a small number of females entered India, or a small number was drawn from an ancestral population. My wife dubs this the `Fecund Draupadi’ phenomenon.

The tribal population is distinct genetically from the caste-population. The tribals are more ancient. Also, there has been considerable admixture with Central Asians and West Asians during the formation of the caste system. It also appears that many new female lineages were introduced by the Indo-European (IE) speakers. All these inferences from DNA analysis are consistent with the suggestions of anthropologists and some historians (Thapar, Ratnagar).

The Austro-Asiatic speaking tribals may be the earliest inhabitants of India, estimated as about 55000 ybp. This conclusion is interesting since it supports the suggestion of some linguists and historians (Pattanayak, Thapar) but not others (Keith, Guha).

A major wave of people entered India through the North-Eastern corridor. This inference agrees with that of an earlier DNA analysis, suggesting that Tibeto-Burman (TB) speakers entered India from the Yellow River basin, crossing the Himalayas. (It also appears from Majumder’s current work that a fraction of AA speakers, perhaps the Khasis, too entered through the Northeast). It seems thus that the TB and AA groups may have shared a common habitat in Southern China but separated in time.

The Dravidian tribals were widespread throughout India before the arrival of the Indo-European (IE) nomads. This conclusion is consistent with historical and linguistic inferences (Thapar, Renfrew). The latter suggest that when the ranked caste system was formed after the arrival of the IE speakers about 3500 ybp, many indigenous DR people embraced (freely or forced) the caste system. As the IE speakers advanced into the Gangetic plain, many of the DR tribes retreated to the Southern parts of India to avoid dominance.

The Central Asian populations have contributed to the genetic profiles of upper castes, more so in the North of India than in the South. They are also genetically closer to the upper-caste than to the middle or lower-caste populations.

This finding is in agreement with an earlier DNA analysis by some Andhra University scientists (B.B. Rao, M. Naidu, B.V.R Prasad, and others). It also suggests, in keeping with the point above, that even after the DR speakers retreated to the South to avoid elite dominance, there has been admixture between Central and West Asians and Northern Indian populations in peninsular India.

As a final point, the Majumder group concludes that all this historical gene flow has pretty much obliterated genetic histories of the contemporary populations of India today. As a result, there is now no clear congruence of genetic and geographical or sociocultural affinities. India is thus both a rainbow coalition and a melting pot of tribes, communities and ethnic groups.

On reading these conclusions, one cannot but wonder how remarkably close they are to many of the inferences that scholars from `softer’ disciplines (anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, history) have made. It is worth recalling what Jacob Bronowski said in his Ascent of Man: “In every age there is a turning point, a new way of seeing and asserting the coherence of the world. Each culture tries to fix its visionary moment, when it was transformed by a new conception either of nature or man. But in retrospect, what commands our attention as much are the continuities ó the thoughts that run or recur from one civilization to another”.