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16 August 2016

How Old Is India?

When archaeology, archaeogenetics, anthropology and palaeontology are introduced to the discourse, we hardly find an era where there was no such thing as an Indian society

The recent reports that say Varanasi in particular and India as a land in general are at least 8,000 years old have led to some consternation in the community of historians. While the Marxists among them are deliberately looking the other way, as though no such revelation has taken place, even those who are anti-left find the Times of India stories “sensational” [details in Swarajya’s July issue in print].

Historians, geologists, archaeologists, evolutionary anthropologists and palaeontologists follow different paths to establish the past of a place under study. Ideally, the historian must emerge at the end of the process when the others have reached their respective conclusions. But most in the profession narrate the past as told by their predecessors through published books. For a scientist, on the contrary, a research project must be approached with no pre-conceived notions; the past is at best an indicator, not a binding rule. The reader may walk along with us in all these explorations to draw his own inferences.

If Varanasi has been found to be as old as the Harappa civilisation, can the oldest relics unearthed from the area by IIT-Kharagpur’s scientists be dismissed as Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), Neolithic (New Stone Age) or Chalcolithic (Copper or pre-Bronze Age)? Can we pooh-pooh the Times of India reports as sensationalist, saying that it’s no big deal as fossils of even hominids have been found in different parts of the country dating 2 million years ago? It is difficult to believe that the human-like creatures that walked on the soil of Varanasi 8,000 years ago were hominids and not Homo sapiens. If even Marxists agree that we were here 5,500 years ago, we could not have evolved from hominids in a matter of just 2,500 years while, in the same time span, we might have learnt how to make alloys. That is, Varanasi 8,000 years ago has got to be Bronze Age, not Stone Age.

We are certainly not considering the Hindu right wing that claims India has existed since Satya Yuga, as human beings like us did not even surface on the face of the earth so early. The Vishnu Puarana says that the Satya Yuga lasted 17,28,000 years and that came before 12,96,000 years of Treta Yuga, 8,64,000 years of Dwapara Yuga, and 3,000 odd years of the 4,32,000 years of Kali Yuga that we have already lived.

Other opponents of Marxists argue that this nation must be older than Harappa and Mohenjodaro, if not as old as the Satya Yuga. It is this group that will be excited by the finding that we are older than the Indus Valley Civilisation by at least 2,500 odd years.

This is not the first time we are looking for further antiquity of our land and its people. A group of marine scientists had, way back in 2002, told us that an archaeological site off the west coast of India could be 9,000 years old. Pottery and wooden blocks from the Gulf of Cambay were too advanced to be Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age). The 7,000 year old Nandeeshwara Temple at Malleswaram in Karnataka and evidence from genome sequencing that revealed that farmers from India moved to Iran 7,000-8,000 years ago certainly point towards a way of living—namely farming—far more advanced than the cave dwelling prevalent in the Stone Ages. And that the stories dated 2016 cannot be sensationalist! Is it anybody’s case that the BBC, as much as the ToI, is sensationalist?

If these findings have largely been reported during the NDA governments (2002, 2015 and 2016), under the UPA regime in 2008, too, archaeologists discovered 15,000-20,000-year old stone weapons in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal. The last three years of UPA 1 coincided with a watershed period for this subcontinent’s archaeology. The Hindu reported in 2007 that the soil beneath Bhirrana, a Harappan site in the Fatehabad district of Haryana, yielded “a red potsherd with an engraving that resembles the ‘Dancing Girl’, the iconic bronze figurine of Mohenjodaro”. Dawn reported Pakistani archaeologists’ finding of a city older than Mohenjodaro at Lakhian Jo Daro near Goth Nihal Khoso in the district of Sukkur. That year, evidence of agricultural practices—cereals, oil-yielding seeds, custard apple, etc—surfaced in Tokwa in the Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh, where the Belan and Adwa rivers meet. While the cereals were Neolithic, the seeds and fruits were of the early Iron Age.

Then, an ancient urban settlement of about 25,000 people was discovered in the same year of UPA rule in Sisupalgarh near Bhubaneswar, which dated back 2,500 years. Beyond the present Indian territory, Afghanistan yielded square coins with icons of Vasudeva Krishna and Balarama Samkarshana engraved in them—believed to belong to a civilisation dated 180 BC when found in 2008. That very year, the Wadagokgre site near Guwahati came up with findings of remains of an octagonal temple of the 4th century. Once again in 2008, they found a 30-ft high mound in Moghalmari, a village 5 km away from Dantan in West Midnapore of West Bengal. The Times of India reported, “Archaeologists believe it is one of the missing monasteries mentioned in Hiuen Tsang’s memoirs that was yet to be found.”

The list above is not exhaustive; we have left out more instances of archaeological findings of the UPA period than we could enlist here. But the drift is clear. Whether a relic was of Stone Age, Bronze Age or Iron Age is only of academic import to the lay. Putting all these findings of artefacts belonging to different centuries and millennia together, we are led to an irrefutable conclusion that social life never ceased to exist in the region that is now divided between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Let’s begin with prehistory. The claim that south Indians migrated from Africa is disputed. Even if the Marxist theory of Aryan-Dravidian divide is accepted, Homo dravida as identified by Edgar Thurston were not Africans; they resembled Australian aboriginals to a greater degree. But this too was at best a hypothesis—derived from the warring traditions of Kallar and Maravar regions and tree climbers of the Anamalai hills. No DNA profiling of this group was done and matched with Australian natives to establish this story. There was another hypothesis by ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel that said Dravidians had a genetic affinity with Tibetan Mongoloids [The History of Mankind by Ratzel, 1898].

The story that was certainly politically motivated was the British Martial Races Theory. As some Indian communities sided with the East India Company or were conspicuous by their absence among the Indian armies that rebelled during the Mutiny of 1857, a Briton called Heather Streets, in his Martial Races: The military, race and masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914, hypothesised that Dogras, Gurkhas, Garhwalis, Sikhs, Jats and Pakhtuns or Pathans were “martial races” while other Indians were not quite valorous. Bogus! That followed equally phony theories by some officers of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) like Herbert Hope Risley (1908) and William Crooke (1915) in the form of a repeatedly revised book titled The People of India.

Subsequently, another Briton, Susan Bayly, Professor of Historical Anthropology in the Cambridge University Division of Social Anthropology and a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, dismissed Thurston and Risley as “disciples of the French race theorist Topinard and his European followers” who, she said, had “subsumed discussions of caste into theories of biologically determined race essences”. She dismissed Crooke not only as a “material or occupational theorist” but also as a “folklorist”.

It is a matter of academic shame that the post-independence Anthropological Survey of India, first established in Varanasi and then moved to Kolkata, adopted the same title The People of India (1992—…) and made a bunch of IAS officers do anthropological studies. This bunch of pamphleteers stooped to the extent of passing off castes as biological races. Nothing can be more unscientific. When Kumar Suresh Singh is described as a “tribal historian”, for example, the institution is clearly mixing up evolutionary anthropology with sociology. Indeed, the research paper titled “Indian Anthropology—History of Anthropology In India” by Abhik Ghosh, Senior Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, Panjab University, Chandigarh, says, “… those in sociology departments in Indian universities often tend to refer to themselves as anthropologists when dealing with issues of reflexivity”, citing Delhi University anthropologist Roma Chatterji’s dissertation dated 2005, page 173. The description of these ethnographers by Laura Dudley Jenkins is uncharitable to say the least.

When real science was introduced to the history of human beings in the subcontinent, the historian’s narrative stood discredited. Anthropologist Joseph Deniker found that while some Indians living to the south of the Vindhyas resembled both Indonesian and Australian natives, these people inhabited a big area leading up to the Ganga basin in the north—“into the middle valley of the Ganges,” he wrote. Physical anthropologist Carleton Stevens Coon then further decimated the theory of Aryan-Dravidian divide when he found that the so-called Dravidians resembled the Caucasoids of Europe too—going by the structure of their skulls! [Source: The Living Races of Man, On Greater India] It is to be noted that this Harvard scholar did not study India specifically; instead, while studying Caucasoids of Europe, he found that some of them lived in the region that is now called India. Therefore, the question of a political motivation—to disprove Marxist historians—behind his theory does not arise.

But when Marxist historians had to cling to a semblance of science, they latched on to the basis of languages that somewhat endorsed the “Caucasoid” view. Some present Indian languages were found to have descended from the lingo of the Sintashta culture of the European steppes that travelled to India via the Bactria-Margiana culture of Central Asia. [Source: DW Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language] One can see why Marxists love this story. It supports their pet Aryan migration theory!

However, language cannot be a stronger scientific base than skull shapes and other biological traits to establish the roots of a people of a land.

Digging deeper into the basis of languages, the Indians-came-from-Central-Asia theory stands exposed, too. The Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI) began mixing genetically in 2,200 BC. [Source: “Genetic evidence for recent population mixture in India” by P Moorjani, K Thangaraj, N Patterson, M Lipson, PR Loh, P Govindaraj, and L Singh in The American Journal of Human Genetics] And they were not all Central Asians; there were also Ancestral Tibeto-Burmese and Ancestral Austro-Asiatic peoples in the mix. Since this theory says they all became endogamous—marrying within an ethnicity or clan—at a later stage, how did the biological differences between them blur? It is an undeniable fact today that the people of India, except a few tribes in the Northeast, show no remarkable genetic differences among them.

This wing of anthropology makes another Marxist theory doubtful—that the immigrants from Central Asia pushed the natives down south. For, proto-Dravidians themselves are supposed to have been brought in by farmers of Iran. If high-resolution analysis of Y-chromosomal polymorphisms reveals signatures of population movements from Central Asia to south India—rather than from Central Asia to present-day Pakistan that housed the Indus Valley Civilisation—do Marxists mean that one group of Central Asians pushed another group of Central Asians down south?

This, and the theory mentioned earlier that Dravidians might have Tibetan genes, too, together implies that the Aryan migration theory is not adding up.

Finally, since anthropology in India is not a matured or advanced science, we move on to the next parameter to know how old and how continuously we have been living here.

Animal husbandry and palaeontology
The Geological Survey of India officiates over this field of studies involving exploration of extinct (and some living) animals and plants of the land. The fossil parks that the GSI maintains should tell us what living things accompanied human beings through the millennia, but they don’t. So, we study such an animal that still lives. The originally Indian cow Zebu or Bos indicus, inseparable from the Hindu faith, has several breeds.

The Gir (referred to as Gyr by some Americans) cattle, which produces the largest volume of milk among all breeds, originated in Gujarat. The Sahiwal originated in Punjab on the present India-Pakistan border. The Red Sindhi originated in Sindh, the Rathi in Rajasthan, the Deoni and the Khillari in Maharashtra, the Kankrej in Bhuj of Gujarat, the Ongole in Guntur of Andhra Pradesh, the Amritmahal and the Hallikar in Karnataka, the Kangayam in Coimbatore of Tamil Nadu, the Vechur in Kerala, among 17 other native breeds, are some of the other varieties. The Gir has also been taken from India and bred in Brazil and the United States.

According to the Marxist migration theory, the “Aryans” came into India, herding their cattle. If so, how come the European breed reared in Central and West Asia, which is Bos taurus, so few and far between in India? If the so-called immigrants dominated and occupied the whole of north India and settled here with their livestock, as Marxists claim, most of our cows should be of the Bos taurus breed. They aren’t. Most of them are indigenous species mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Hariana breed of Zebu cattle in north India; they are indigenous; they did not come from Central Asia
The preceding Marxist theory was one of “invasion”, wherein the “Aryans” were supposed to have arrived in this land riding horses. This story was debunked when they couldn’t produce evidence of a battle in the region that is now Pakistan to have occurred in the period between 3,300 BC and 2,600 BC. No fossil of embattled horses could be traced in the archaeological sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. However, it could be established that horses accompanied people in a period predating the Indus Valley Civilisation by about 2,000 years. In fact, they existed in India in the prehistoric period, too—the extinct Equus namadicus in the Pleistocene levels (2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago) and a related species, prehistoric Equus sivalensis, in the Himalayan foothills, for example. [Source: “Antiquity of the Narmada Homo erectus, the early man of India” by Arun Sonakia and S Biswas of the Palaeontology Division, Geological Survey of India] Nearer in history, the Equus ferus caballus Linn was found to have existed from 2265 BC to 1480 BC in and around Allahabad and from 1500 BC to 1300 BC in Karnataka. [Source: The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture by Edwin Bryant]

These were domesticated, not wild, horses—meaning that they were part of a human civilisation. Edwin Bryant and Edwin Francis Bryant write in their book, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate, “… the supply of horses… has been a preoccupation of the rulers of India from nearly one end of its recorded history to the other…” quoting Thomas R Trautmann [page 119]. And the Bryants are talking about Equus ferus caballus Linn.

Man had, of course, learnt to tame horses as early as in 3,500 BC as evidenced from fossils in Kazakhstan. [Source: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W Anthony] Thereafter, wherever they have been located as born and bred in captivity—marked by reduction in average size due to limited diet and restricted space in stables—it can be undeniably deduced that these were domesticated horses, thus proving the existence of civilisation in that epoch [ibidem].

Another piece of evidence of domestication lies in the fact that the breeds that were not domesticated turned extinct. The Equidae, for example, were all dead in the western hemisphere towards the end of the Ice Age [Stephen Budiansky’s The Nature of Horses]. Even in the wild, horses used to live in groups. Therefore, they naturally took to herding, making them more comfortable in human company, which extended their life expectancy.

Importantly, the horses written about in this article are not those that were propagated by some Hindutva websites and debunked by a Harvard University Indologist and a comparative historian commissioned by Frontline for its 13 October 2000 issue. The horses this article speaks about were discovered as fossils and not imagined or theorised out of Indus Valley seals.

Going by the nature of this discipline, one could have included this in the section on anthropology (evolutionary, not sociological). However, we are going by the category that the scientific community has decided for it. Arguably the real “breaking news” that we received under this classification was a Nature story dated 23 September 2009. It said conclusively that most present-day Indians shared a DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) pattern, which also happens to be indigenous. Bringing together the studies of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, India, the International HapMap Project and the Human Genome Diversity Cell Line Panel of 51 global populations, the magazine said that, while there were two genetic streams that made Indians historically, there has been too much of a cross-breeding between the two and, therefore, now the gene pool is wholly Indian. That is because, about 50,000 years ago, the ancestral node of the phylogenetic tree of all the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) types—among the South Asian strain and a mix of Central, West Asian and European strains—not only converged but many of the strains from Central Asia, West Asia and Europe were also found in the South Asian variety, thus proving that even the “foreign” component was not, or might not have been, entirely foreign [“Archaeogenetics: DNA and the Population Prehistory of Europe” edited by Colin Renfrew and Katie Boyle].

As the report in Nature says, if the DNA strains of South Asian and Central/West Asian and European Caucasoid groups are similar, we cannot say for sure that the component that was European was actually, wholly and originally European. Maybe it was South Asian, too! In all likelihood, thus, people were moving in and out of India and the theory that Indians—or at least the ANI—came in wholly as a group from some other place is at best facile.

Mitochondrial DNA, being inherited by a human individual solely from the mother, is a good indicator of ancestry although 16,569 base pairs of it constitute merely 37 human genes. There is genetic unity in Indian sub-populations’ mtDNA. This was reported by the study, “The Place of the Indian Mitochondrial DNA Variants in the Global Network of Maternal Lineages and the Peopling of the Old World” in Genomic Diversity, “Mitochondrial DNA Diversity in Tribal and Caste Groups of Maharashtra (India) and its Implication on Their Genetic Origins” in the Annals of Human Genetics, and “Trends in Molecular Anthropological Studies in India” in the International Journal of Human Genetics.

The timeline of Indian history, beginning with the prehistoric period of 2000000 BC – 100000 BC, Early Neolithic Age of 9000 BC, beginning and end of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the period 3300-2600 BC, cultures of less duration in between, Mauryan Empire (321-232 BC), Gupta Empire (320-554 AD), etc, has several gaps. But when archaeology, anthropology and palaeontology are introduced to the discourse, we hardly find an era pertaining to which fossils indicating social living, including human-animal cohabitation, have not been discovered. Finally, when archaeogenetic findings are included in the study, we find the Indian population to have biologically (or genetically) united about 50,000 ago.

All this put together makes a compelling argument to dig deeper to ascertain whether, as a civilisation, Indians never ceased to exist. Civilisation, after all, is not just about emergence and collapse of kingdoms. It is fundamentally about society—people living in interactive groups.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.