A Burst of Genetic Clues Thumbs Down Hindutva Camp’s ‘Aryan Claim’

DESPARDES NEWS MONITOR — A burst of genetic clue from more than 4,000 years ago is shaping the story of migration and heritage in South Asia, and at the same time upending Hindu Nationalists’ Aryan trumpeting –after publication.

It’s the largest number of ancient genomes reported in a single paper, all made possible by an ancient DNA “factory” the geneticist David Reich has built at Harvard. 

Even before its publication, rumors were swirling in India about what the ancient DNA would show, and how it would play into the politics of the Hindu-nationalist ruling party.

And reportedly the two studies combined have rung bells in India’s Hindutva camp.

The preprint of the publication in December generated controversy, after the finding that many Indians have ancestry from steppe pastoralists.

Hindu nationalists believe that Aryans are the source of Indian civilization. This is contradicted by ancient DNA that finds the population history in India itself contains far more mixing and migration.

Further complicating things, Nazis had co-opted the term Aryans to mean something different, a master race of European origin. The publication drew criticism from a prominent Indian Member of Parliament (MP) who even attacked the research, tweeting out an article titled, “There Are Lies, Damned Lies and (Harvard’s ‘Third’ Reich and Co’s) Statistics.”

In India, this ancient DNA has generated intense interest, says Tony Joseph, the author of Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From. He said his book, published last December, is already in its seventh printing.

The first study in the publication is a sweeping collection of genomes—300 to 12,000 years old—from a region spanned by Iran, Russia, and India. By comparing the results with modern South Asians’ genomes, the study showed that South Asians today descended from a mix of local hunter-gatherers, Iranian-related groups, and steppe pastoralists who came by way of Central Asia. The paper was made possible by an ancient DNA “factory” the geneticist David Reich has built at the Harvard University.

The second study focuses on just a single genome from the Indus Valley civilization: I6113, a woman who died more than 4,000 years ago. Her skeleton was the only one—out of more than 100 samples the researchers tested from 10 different Indus Valley–civilization sites—that yielded ancient DNA.

What’s intriguing about I6113’s DNA is what she lacks: any of the steppe ancestry that is widespread in contemporary South Asians. Instead, she appeared to have a mix of Southeast Asian hunter-gatherer and Iranian-related ancestry.

The results was bolstered when the researches found that I6113 was genetically similar to 11 people from the 523-genome paper who were buried not in South Asia, but in what is now Iran and Turkmenistan. 

The two studies piece together a history of how the people of the Indus Valley civilization are related to South Asians today.

For the record, the Indus Valley civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization, flourished 4,000 years ago in what is now Pakistan and India. It surpassed its contemporaries, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, in size. Its trade routes stretched thousands of miles. It had agriculture and planned cities and sewage systems. And then, it disappeared.

The end of the civilization was quite mysterious. No one alive today is sure who the people of the Indus Valley civilization were or where they went.

The original article was published in The Atlantic.