‘The govt’s version of history is less dependent on science, more on divine sayings’

Journalist Tony Joseph debunks the myth of India being the homeland of the Aryans and offers a scientific chronicle in his latest book. Here, he speaks to Down To Earth about it

By Joyjeet Das
Last Updated: Monday 18 February 2019

Ganesha writing the Mahabharata, dictated by Vyasa. Image: WikipediaYou have, in your book Early Indians, written about how Out-of-Africa hunter-gatherers of South Asia mixed with settlers from what is now Iran, who knew agriculture. At the same time, there are evidences of indigenous development of farming in sites like Lahuradewa in Uttar Pradesh. Is it possible the original inhabitants started settling down on their own?

Yes, the book mentions this clearly. It is incorrect to assume agriculture started in West Asia and then spread everywhere, even though the most detailed archaeological records of agricultural transition we have are from West Asia. It is also a fact that around 7000 BCE, agricultural experiments were going on in places such as Lahuradewa. So it is quite possible that the first Indians had also begun experimenting with agriculture in northwestern India. The arrival of new migrants from West Asia could have speeded up the agricultural transition.

You have used various evidences — genetic research, archaeological records as well as linguistics — to come to the same conclusion that historians have been talking about since colonial times: “Aryans migrated into India”. Do you think this will put to rest contrary theories?

The peculiar thing is that there is no contrary theory that has ever been fleshed out. Many people put forward "Out of India" as an alternative explanation for how Indo-European languages came to be distributed around the world. But the fact remains that the "Out of India" theory never became anything more than a kind of clever and angry retort. There has never been a single, peer-reviewed scientific paper published anywhere that has calmly argued the case for "Out of India" and said: "This is how it happened, in this period, through this route, and here is the supporting evidence!" Despite such lack of evidence, the "Out of India" theory has managed to have a magical life of its own, even though it has rarely been taken seriously in the academia.

Historians have earlier surmised that migrants from Steppes came in batches. Is it possible to confirm or contradict that through the recent findings?

No, we do not have sufficient genetic evidence yet to talk about multiple groups of migrants. But this indeed is the most reasonable conclusion to arrive at, based on other evidence. Ancient texts talk about conflicts between different groups of Indo-European language speaking people — and that is indicative of multiple migrations and/or groups. My book also provides linguistic evidence for the idea that there were multiple groups. The kind of differences that we see in Indo-European languages in India today could be a distant reflection of the history of many migrations of many groups.

The paper Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, which you have cited in your book, was based on data from a sample scattered across India. Would you say the sampling was exhaustive? Are there chances to understand the Indian demography better through studies with more detailed sampling?

This is a study that used standard methodologies and it has been very well-accepted within the discipline. I see no reason to think that the conclusion of the study will change with more sampling. A more detailed study perhaps could throw up a finer chronology of how endogamy started taking hold in different regions of the country. But I suspect for this to be conclusive, we will need to get ancient DNA as well, which could prove to be a stumbling block.

What should be the government's role in facilitating such studies and promoting their results? Should school textbooks include these new aspects of our history?

Absolutely. My book argues that our history textbooks today create a distortion because they begin with the Harappan Civilisation or sometimes with the Vedic period (with people often wrongly conflating the two), thus marginalising the history of the earliest migrants, the first Indians. This was understandable because until recently we did not have enough information about this early period. But this is no longer the case. So this distortion needs to be corrected by beginning our history textbooks where they should begin—the arrival of the first Indians around 65,000 years ago. This is all the more important because the ancestry of the first Indians form 50 to 65 per cent of the ancestry of most Indian population groups today. It should become part of our common understanding that the Indian population, as it exists today, is the result of at least four major prehistoric migrations.

Today, the government seems to be promoting a version of historic understanding that is dependent less on science and data and more on divine sayings or compositions. Wherever and whenever people have privileged religion more than science, they have paid a heavy price in terms of lack of progress.

(An edited verison of this interview will be published in Down To Earth's March 1-15, 2019 print edition)

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