In Search Of The Ancestry

India’s DNA

Ashok Nag

What is India’s DNA? This rhetorical question can be addressed from two perspectives–from a political cum socio-cultural perspective or from a purely biological cum genetical perspective. What is summerised in this article is the current scientific consensus view about the uniformity or diversity of Indian populations in terms of their genetic profile or to use the oft-quoted term–DNA. This is necessary because every social formation seeks its legitimacy and differentiation from “Others” based on people’s perceived ancestry.

Any living organism is made of cells. DNA-or Deoxyribonucleic Acid is a molecule within the cell that stores genetic information and the hereditary material that defines what human beings are. ‘DNA is the carrier of all genetic information that our immediate parents and all ancestors bequeath to us.The modern biology has proven beyond doubt that DNA makes us what we are’.

Today, DNA based ancestry test can provide probabilistic estimates based on statistical correlation of the percentage of DNA of a given person that has been inherited from, say, European Ancestry. Technically speaking, searching for ancestry of extant population of a large country like India is always a work in progress. For example, when fossils of archaic humans (other species belonging to Hominin group) were discovered in Hathnora on the Narmada river-bank in 1982, it opened up the distinct possibility of interbreeding between the migrant Homo Sapiens from Africa with other types of Hominins unless these archaic humans had become extinct before Homo Sapiens arrived “out of Africa”. The discovered cranium was dated to 250000 years ago and the first wave of migration of Homo Sapiens from Africa is dated around 65000 years ago.

Given the current state of this branch of science, known as archaeogenetics–a combination of archaeology and genetics–two distinct ancestral components have been confirmed by most of the researchers on this subject. These are Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI). Ancestral North Indians were the ones who are genetically related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians, and Europeans. Ancestral South Indians are primarily from the subcontinent and the earliest “out of Africa” migrants. Besides these two main groups, some researchers have identified two other ancestries in mainland tribal population depending on their languages–these are–Ancestral Austro-Asiatic (AAA), and Ancestral Tibeto-Burman (ATB). The ancestry of inhabitants of Andaman is distinct from mainland population but “co-ancestral to contemporary Pacific Islanders”.

Apart from ancestry or ethnic origin of Indian people, other differentiating characteristics of populations are Morphology and Linguistic lineages. Based on morphology the distinct groups are: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Negrito. The classification engendered by linguistic lineages are Indo-European, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic. Some details of these attributes are given below.

The word Caucasoid refers to light-skinned people from Caucasus or Caucasia which mainly comprises Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Southern Russia. When the nomadic people from this area arrived at north-western India in second Millenium BC, there was genetic admixing with local urbanised dark people.

Mongoloid is a racial term used to define people of central and eastern Asia, particularly people of Chinese origin.

Australoid is originally used as a racial term to describe the people of Southeast Asia, South Asia, Melanesia, Australia, and other regions in East Asia. The distinguishing features of these people are: Long and narrow skulls, black, curly or silky hair, dark skin colour.

Negrito is Spanish version of the term Negro, literally meaning “little black person”. ‘‘Negritos’’ are restricted only to the Andaman Islands.

Linguistic Lineage
The homeland of Indo -European language has been in the landmass known as Asia Minor or modern Turkey. According to a recent study, the five major Indo-European subfamilies–Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian–all emerged as distinct lineages between 4000–and 6000-years BP (before present).

Dravidian is a quintessential Indian language family, spoken mainly in southern and central India. 2000 years old written texts in Dravidian languages have been found. This family of language had influenced Vedic Sanskrit. According to one research study this language family may have been a part in the formation of all modern Indo-Aryan languages, including even larger languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi and Marathi.

Tibeto-Burman language family is spoken largely across the wide swath of Tibeto-Himalayan region up to Myanmar (previously Burma). Kuki-Chin-Naga is one of the main branches of TB languages, spoken in North-East India.

Austro-Asiatic languages comprise three main sub-branches namely, Munda, Mon-Khmer, and Khasi-Khmuic. Munda is spoken only in India while the remaining two are spoken by tribals in North-East India to people of Mainland South-East Asia.

Three-Dimensional Tapestry of Indian Population
Genetically identified Ancestry, Morphology, and Linguistic Lineage are the three dimensions that build the foundation of any group of Homo Sapiens. This three-dimensional identity of people of India gave rise to the following broad distinguishable groups. We are using main characteristics of each Indian state in terms of these three attributes without considering admixtures that have happened over time. But such admixtures between various groups demarcated by their Genome defined Ancestry, largely abated from the time of Gupta regime (319–550 CE)–that is about 70 generations before present.

Group [ANI–Caucasoid, Indo-European]–Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, UP, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh.

Group [ASI–Australoid, Dravidian]–Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Group [Mixed Genomic, Australoid, Indo-European]–Odisha, West Bengal, and Assam.

The tribal groups of India are largely concentrated in North-Eastern Indian states. They are also found in Chhattisgarh and Jhark-hand in a significant proportion of the state’s population. One also finds them scattered in some parts of West Bengal and Assam. They are genetically either Ancestral Austro-Asiatic or Ancestral Tibeto-Burman. Morphologically, the North-Eastern tribals are Mongoloid while the mainland tribals are Australoid. As regards Linguistic lineage of these tribals, all North-Eastern tribals speak Tibeto-Burman languages, while mainland tribals speak Austro-Asiatic languages.

If state-wise Linguistic lineage and Morphology are drawn on a map of India, it would clearly reveal a separation between southern states and Northern and Western states. There is a complete consensus among researchers in this area that ancestors of people speaking Dravidian languages arrived from “out of Africa” much earlier than those came through North-Western route.

Despite this fact, the question arises how “Hindi” which traces its lineage to Indo-European language was accorded the status of “National Language”. To understand this, one needs to understand the Genome profile of caste population of India. The dominant views of the researchers on this topic are given below:

1.    From the point of genetic differentiation, the north-Indian populations are much closer to central Asians and Pakistan than their southern counterparts.
2.    The above noted closeness is greater for the upper-caste populations than the middle- or lower-caste populations.
3.    Even within the upper-caste populations of India, those of north India are much closer genetically to central Asians than those of south.
4.    Dravidian tribals were possibly widespread throughout India much before arrivals of Indo-European-speaking nomads (so called Aryans) through the North-western corridor. They got driven by the new migrants to southern India.
5.    The genetic differentiations among Indian population are much higher, both for tribals and non-tribals, as compared to the European populations.

The current dominant scientific view of Genomic features of Indian populations is based on a reading of highly technical subject by a non-technical person. Be that as it may, it is important to understand, as a concerned citizen, the root of any view about “othering” of some part of Indian society as “not us”. The felt supremacy of any group, demarcated from “others” by morphology, language, nationality, or religion would look somewhat infantile when one extends focussed view telescopically to 100K years before present. For example, imposition of Hindi over Dravidian languages will look completely irrational if people understand the sequence of emergence of different languages in India over thousands of years.

Political and policy formulation discourses need to be anchored in the genetical, morphological and linguistic lineage history of people of India before one gets swayed away with coloured history of only few centuries. As TS Elliot wrote in Four Quartet:

Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

[Note: Anyone interested in references can write to the author.]


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Vol 56, No. 17-20, Oct 22 - Nov 18, 2023