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Dravidians, Aryans, and the question of how India/South Asia got its people

[This write-up is also available on the website Quora, here]

The humans (Homo sapiens) who first arrived in India were those early adventurers who left Africa – that is where our ‘modern human’ species first evolved – around 60000 years ago to reach India via land. Countless waves of migration happened later, and all of us Indians today are a healthy and vibrant product of those migrations and mixings.

The terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ as we conventionally understand them – in terms of north vs south Indians, or upper vs lower castes – are kind of useless in the whole story.

Of course it is hard to explain exactly what happened and how when it comes to the ‘peopling of India’: how did India get populated by such amazingly diverse people? I will attempt an answer here, basing my claims on the most recent and highly credible – but never infallible – scientific research. To me what follows sounds like the closest we have gotten yet in understanding our ancient ancestry and heritage. Many of the minor details will change with new research, but the general understanding – which has in fact held steady since the 1960s-70s through linguistic, historical, archeological, and now genetic research – will remain the same.

[The arguments and the data here, including the map below, are derived from scholarly articles listed at the end.]

The earliest humans in South Asia:

Let’s begin with a clean slate – consider a time there are no modern humans yet in South Asia (this does not refer to hominins present in the region). Modern humans, i.e., the species Homo sapiens, evolved in eastern Africa gradually over hundreds of thousands of years. The earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens appear in Ethiopia, around 200,000 years ago.

According to the current scientific consensus, these earliest ‘modern humans’ started to leave Africa around some 70,000 years ago. One group reached South Asia some 60,000 years ago. That’s when Homo sapiens first appear in our region. And that also partially answers the question asked here. The earliest people in India were these early humans, these ‘Africans’, who came here around, if I may, 58,000 BCE. Some authors call them the ‘First Indians’.

The hunter-gatherers of South Asia – stone tools:

For the next several thousand years, these humans, the ‘natives’ now, lived as hunters-gatherers. They were most probably joined by additional groups of humans who also arrived there from Africa. Evidence of their presence is abundant, especially in the form of stone tools: for example, the Hiran valley in Gujarat (around 57,000 years ago), Kalpi in northern India (about 45,000 years ago), and Nandipalli in southern India (about 23,000 years ago). [Reference: Upinder Singh’s A History of Ancient and Medieval India]

The hunter-gatherers of South Asia – art and culture:

As the centuries and millenia went by, these early humans also developed what we now consider art forms. For example, ostrich eggshell beads (used as ornaments) dating to 40,000 years to 25,000 years ago have been found in Bhimbetka and Patne. (Yes, ostriches lived in what is now India thousands of years ago.) And exquisite rock art, known as petroglyph, has been found in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, dating to some 12,000 years ago.

Farmer-migrants from West Asia (Iran) reach northern India and mix with the ‘First Indians’:

Some 9 to 10000 years ago, ie, around 7500 BCE, humans from what are today Iran and the surrounding regions, began migrating eastwards and reached the Indian subcontinent. These human communities had started to practice farming and animal domestication (as against previous humans who were mostly hunter-gatherers), and they brought their agri‘culture’ to India.

Now as we know, there were already hunter-gatherers in the South Asian region – the ‘First Indians’ or the native Indians – for many thousands of years. So the new migrants, or the West Asian farmers, mixed with the old hunters to form a hybrid population: compare it to what happens when Indians today go abroad and marry with persons there, raising a mixed-heritage family.

The Harappans/the Indus Valley Civilization:

The mixed-heritage population outlined above began emerging around 7000BCE and continued for several centuries thence as migrations and movements spread. This is also the time period which experts reckon marks the beginnings of what later became the sprawling Harappan/Indus valley Civilization. Since the incoming agriculturalists were from the West Asian (Iranian) region, the initial mixtures with ‘native Indians’ (the hunter-gatherers) happened in what are now northern Pakistan and India. These populations gradually became more urbanised and organized to form the famous urban centers of the Indus Valley.

In other words, the Indus Valley people were a mixture of ‘native Indians’ and agriculturalists from West Asia.

Ancestral South Indians and Ancestral North Indians:

The Harappan civilization reached its peak around 2600 BCE, after which there was a gradual decline (the reasons for which are not important here, except that it did not decline due to any violent conquests by any sort of invaders, as British colonial writers believed). Very interesting things happened around this time, i.e., around 2000BCE, as the map below shows. [From here]

Here the (1) represents the spread of agriculturalists from today’s Iranian region we saw earlier. This happened around 7500–7000 BCE. Then the South Asian region saw the arrival of yet another big group of people – the pastoralists from the European Steppe region, shown as (2) and by the uneven red circle in the map.

Let’s pause and look again at the different parts of India around this time. The Indus valley civilization in northern and northwestern India is in decline. Here most communities are mixtures of native hunter-gatherer Indians and West Asian agriculturalists (A+B = C). The rest of India, in the peninsula, still mostly has hunter-gatherer communities with little contact of Harappans.

Now as the north-dwelling Harappans left their initial settlements, they moved southward in the peninsula. They also mixed with the hunter-gatherer populations there, and thus gradually we see the rise of new kind of mixed population (C+A). This has been labeled by researchers as the Ancestral South Indian population (ASI).

It is also likely that some of the original West Asian agriculturalists independently moved southward and mixed with the hunter-gatherers there. The ASI are most probably derived from both these kinds of mixtures.

The pastoralists from the Steppe region, as they entered South Asia, encountered the Indus Valley people in northern India/Pakistan. Their mixture produced another new population which scholars have named the Ancestral North Indians (ANI). These pastorialists were the speakers of early forms of Indo-European languages which eventually developed into Sanskrit, Marathi, Bengali, etc.

Almost every South Asian person today can trace their genetic ancestry to a mixture of these ASI and ANI peoples, which gradually happened over the next centuries until around 1 CE when mixtures became less and less common as endogamy (marriage only within one’s community) became entrenched in South Asian society.

Where does this leave us with respect to ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’? Well here are a few general conclusions we can draw as of now:

  • No person or community in India has any sort of ‘pure’ genetic ancestry. All of us are mixed, and all of us have some ancestry from the very first Homo sapiens who arrived in India 60000 years ago.
  • There occurred two important waves of migration in more recent history. The first one was of the West Asian agriculturalists who came around 7500BCE onwards and mainly contributed to the Indus Valley Civilization. The next was of the European Steppe pastorialists who came around 2000 -1500 BCE (which are what European colonial writers in the past called the ‘Aryan invasions’, though the evidence points more to social-cultural dominance than violent political conquest).
  • “The Harappan people didn’t vanish into thin air. Over centuries of being unable to sustain their cities due to growing aridity, they went rural. Went back to living a more primary economy. And migrated. And mixed. Their knowledge systems too went into hibernation, Shinde believes, only to resurface in the Indian cultural gene whenever the circumstances became more conducive. We still build the same way. Even our bricks are in the ratio they invented—1:2:4 in depth, width and length—even if the size is smaller, says Dinesh Sheoran in Rakhigarhi.” [From here]
  • Importantly, We Are All Harappans
  • The fact that all of us Indians from different regions tribes religions castes communities, originate mostly from a common genetic ancestry (the ASI-ANI mixture) does not mean there was no domination or subjugation of one group by another. That, including caste-based rigid hierarchies, was and is real, and has been described well in this long essay (look esp for the sub-headings ‘Ancestry, power and sexual dominance’ and ‘The antiquity of caste’).
  • While we cannot make any serious claims regarding ‘original inhabitants’ and ‘outsiders’ for Indian citizens of the present, it is true that the Harappan people derived their ancestry partly from the agriculturalists coming from western Asia, and that the Vedic culture was brought to South Asia from outside, the Central Asian/European Steppe region. But I would not jump to say that the Vedic culture, and then its ultimate derivative Hinduism, are themselves ‘foreign’ to India. This is simply because while the earlier versions came from outside, the ultimate products have been ‘Indian’, enriched by the descendants (of those people) who were born in India and generally showered the place with affection.
  • As is with the originally foreign Vedic people, so is with the originally foreign Turks and Mughals. Though Islam and Muslim cultures too came to this region from other places, over time the ultimate products have been ‘Indian’, enriched by the descendants (of those people) who were born in India and generally showered the place with affection.
  • There are hundreds of thousands of different cultures in India, including tribal cultures. Privileged and elite Indians (like most of us who use Quora) tend to ignore these and their history. In other words, we must never forget that there’s a whole lot of India, equally big and equally important, outside the ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ labels.

Scholarly references:

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