A woman’s skeleton from 2500 BC has finally spoken. A team of Indian and international scientists and archaeologists — who conducted a genetic analysis of the remains of a woman buried in Rakhigarhi, a Harappan site in Haryana — have found no traces of the R1a1 gene, which is often loosely called the ‘Aryan gene’.
This new finding has set off a debate about history, politics and British colonialism online. The enduring “Who we were” question is not a simple one in India anymore. Which is why the ancient Rakhigarhi skeleton is our newsmaker of the week.
What are the findings
The DNA study titled ‘An ancient Harappan genome lacks ancestry from Steppe pastoralists or Iranian farmers’, published Thursday in the science journal Cell, shows that there is no “detectable ancestry from Steppe pastoralists or from Anatolian and Iranian farmers” in the remains of the woman’s skeleton.
It indicates that farming in the Indus Valley Civilisation started locally among indigenous populations and was not a lifestyle brought by those who migrated from the West and Central Asia.
It also indicates the Steppe pastoralists migrated to India after the decline of the Harappan civilisation and brought with them the Indo-European group of languages.
The Aryan ‘invasion’ debate
The finding is being called by many on the internet as a ‘setback’ to what is known as the ‘Aryan invasion theory’.
This theory is said to have been proposed during the British colonial rule to deepen the caste divide in India by claiming that members of the ‘high castes’ were the scions of Aryan invaders from Central Asia who conquered the Harappan Civilisation, and who are also the predecessors of modern Europeans.
Proponents of the Hindutva school of thought, however, argue that the ancestors of Indians were natives of this land, and established Vedic Hinduism. Hindutva ideologues argue that the entire Indian population has a unifying factor in its ancestry in the sense that ancient Indians developed farming and carried forward their civilisation on their own — and were not foreign invaders or migrants.
However, to reduce the study to say it is debunking the Aryan invasion theory is inaccurate and a misreading of history.
When the draft of the study was published earlier last year, Niraj Rai, one of the researchers in the project, told ThePrint that their findings simply implied that “Rakhigarhi residents hadn’t mixed with the central Asians till then”.
What the study really focuses on
The history of how humans advanced from being hunter-gatherers to settled farming communities has always been a question of enormous interest to anthropologists. This is because the shift signifies the birth of close-knit human communities, which led to the rise of civilisations, and eventually modern life as we know it.
The Rakhigarhi DNA study, using genetic data, also tries to establish how farming began in India. Since the Central Asian ‘Steppe’ gene — found in a majority of India’s populace today — was not detected in the Rakhigarhi skeleton, the researchers came to the conclusion that farming in South Asia arose from “local foragers” rather than from migrants from the West.
Media mucks its up & Twitterati goes berserk
Interpretations of genetic data are never straightforward or incontestable, which makes them difficult to cram into tweets or headlines that more often than not have a character limit.
A number of news reports chose to devote their headlines on the news study to the Aryan invasion theory, which does not find a single mention in the actual study. Some of the headlines were: “Rakhigarhi DNA study questions Aryan invasion theory” or “New DNA study debunks Aryan invasion theory”, “New Report Based On Genetic Study Questions Aryan Migration Theory, Draws Flak”, “DNA analysis of Rakhigarhi remains challenges Aryan invasion theory”, etc.
This question of ‘Who we really are’, an irrevocable consequence of the Rakhigarhi study, thus triggered the Twitterverse to erupt in outrage.
Tarun Vijay, an RSS and BJP worker, used the findings to say that “All #Indians belong to #India, #Harappan Civilisation”.
In a brilliant move top archeologists #VasantShinde #NeerajRai Presented #Rakhigarhi DNA sample findings at , @INTACHIndia demolishing strongly #AryanInvasionTheory. All #Indians belong to #India, #HarappanCivilisation. Time to include facts in history books pic.twitter.com/7f4PwqfS6F
— Tarun Vijay தருண் விஜய் (@Tarunvijay) September 6, 2019
Meanwhile, others argued that the study does not rule out the possibility of an Aryan invasion after 2500 BC. Famed author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik tweeted that people would now go to the extent of saying that “there was no Muslim invasion” and “British Raj” ever.
As I said, they will now say there was no Muslim Invasion as there is no record of them in Chanakya Arthashastra. And maybe no British Raj as there is no record of them in Shankara's Digvijayam. https://t.co/2wYjwvhFzT
— Devdutt Pattanaik (@devduttmyth) September 6, 2019
Some others questioned the presence of politicians at the press conference where the outcome of the study was announced, asserting that science should be left to “researchers”.
There is definitely no question on the credibility of the report. But why were people with political inclination present at an academic report launch?Leave it to researchers.#Rakhigarhi pic.twitter.com/8rG8HYn1nq
— Rohan Singh (@rohan18april) September 6, 2019
But perhaps the most enlightening revelations came from writer and journalist Tony Joseph who pointed out why the headlines of some news media reports were deeply problematic. This actually serves as a guide to those who want to correctly understand what the Rakhigarhi DNA study tells.
— Tony Joseph (@tjoseph0010) September 6, 2019
The research represents a culmination of various disciplines of scientific research.
Considering that the woman’s skeleton is over 4,500 years old, decoding its DNA was a mammoth task in itself. However, that one skeleton cannot be used as a basis to paint the whole picture of the Indus Valley civilisation. This settlement is described by scientists as ‘cosmopolitan’ — meaning it comprised a variety of populations from different parts of Asia interacting or intermingling with each other.
In fact, burials may not have been the only way to dispose of the dead. So, bodies that were cremated cannot be studied, which possibly means that scientists have data about early settlements and humans only from a limited section of the ancient societies.
The curiosity around one’s origins of ancestry is understandable, and has been the key idea behind many anthropological studies. But debating over the ‘Aryan invasion theory’ on the basis of such genetic studies takes away the focus from the achievements of scientists involved, and instead puts the spotlight on those societal elements who take great pleasure in misrepresenting scientific data to further their ideologies.
Before drawing sweeping conclusions on such scientific and social endeavours, it is better to let the research teams delve further into the available data and provide scientifically validated interpretations of our history.
The Rakhigarhi woman may not be done speaking.