Ghosts of Ancestors Past

Tony Joseph’s Early Indians is a lucid and important work on the earliest Indians.

More than once through my reading of Early Indians, I paused to ponder upon the sheer wonder of the fact that Homo Sapiens has come so far from our origins in Africa.

It’s been such an odyssey, hasn’t it? We come from some species of great ape that we still don’t fully understand, that gradually evolved bipedalism and lost its hair, grew larger and larger brains, and started to speak, and then moved to creating shared imagined realities, to planning, to observing the universe, to wonder at it. From following great migrations of other species driven by the vast forces of climate change to spreading across the entire world, creating civilisations, fighting, building, to the hairless ape called “Anirudh”, who, sitting in a concrete jungle by the name of “Bengaluru”, wrote the review that you, through a marvel of silicon and signalling, are reading right now. How did that happen?

That is the kind of thinking that Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, in its best bits, provokes. This is what makes it, though not perfect, nevertheless an important, accessible and thought-provoking work on Indian prehistory.

From Africa to South Asia

The first few chapters of Early Indians are by far its strongest. Joseph is a former journalist who has extensively covered recent advances in Indian genetic history, and his ability to lucidly break down the results of studies shines through the book. His discussion of Y-DNA and m-DNA, of haplogroups and subgroups, and of how genetic drift and mutations work, are clear, illuminating, and logical. India’s population, points out Joseph, is like a pizza. The base was composed of the earliest migrants from Africa, and layers and toppings of various thickness and consistency have been added by subsequent migrations and interactions. This provides readers with a handy visual metaphor as well as the conceptual basis they need to understand the many problems surrounding our current understanding of Indian prehistory.

The first problem Joseph tackles is the general lack of popular awareness of the whys and wherefores of early human migration. This, he points out, was driven to a considerable extent by the climactic fluctuations that accompanied the ending of the last Ice Age. (The degree to which early humans were vulnerable to the climate – whether planetary cycles due to orbital variations or unexpected volcanic events – is remarkable. Joseph deserves credit for making the impact clear.) As the ecology shifted in response to the vagaries of the climate, huge herds of herbivores traversed the globe in search of greener pastures. And in their wake followed predators and foragers – including bands of the hairless ape known as Homo Sapiens.

Of course, the world into which they emerged was already populated by other species of humans. As nomadic bands of Sapiens followed the coast of the Persian Gulf down into South Asia about 65,000 years ago, they may have continued to stick to the coastline because archaic humans – possibly Homo Erectus – already occupied the inland. Astoundingly, Joseph points out, this coastal migration had, within a few thousand years, succeeded in spreading Sapiens all the way down to Australia.

It was further changes in the climate that forced Sapiens inland, forcing them into contact with the other species of humans that already inhabited the subcontinent, and pushing them into the highlands of Baluchistan, where they began to experiment with agriculture. There, genetic and archaeological evidence shows, they met migratory herdsmen from the Zagros mountains, and planted the seeds of India’s first urbanisation. This begins a segue into the most interesting section of the book: the Harappan civilisation.

What Works – and What Doesn’t

In general, Early Indians is a book of many profound questions with answers that range from interesting to unsettling. Joseph has done an excellent job in breaking down the scientific evidence and presenting the conclusions that researchers have arrived at, and, crucially, making the chain of inference clear enough for readers to understand. In his discussion of the Harappan civilisation, he raises a number of important and well-supported points: that the Harappans were descended from the contact between Zagrosians and descendants of the very first modern humans in South Asia, that the remarkable standardisation in Harappan buildings and urban planning may have been a result of political conflict and a centrally-imposed authority, and that they had deep and long-lasting ties with the earliest “globalised” civilisations of West Asia. He also makes clear the severe limitations of the material evidence, and places into stark contrast how little is actually known about this, the largest civilisation of its day, as compared to the Mesopotamian or Egyptian civilisation. All of these claims are supported by multiple sources of archaeological and genetic evidence, and shed light on an often-oversimplified textbook narrative of the Harappan civilisation that examines them almost in a historical vacuum.

Where Joseph stumbles is in linguistics, particularly in his discussion of the probable language of the Harappans, and whether they had a linguistic influence on South India. That they had a genetic impact on South India, leading to the formation of the “Ancestral South Indian” population group, is indisputable, supported by solid genetic evidence. In order to lend added support to this, however, Joseph uncritically presents a theory which argues that the Harappans spoke a form of proto-Elamo-Dravidian, which rests on a conjectural reconstruction of proto-Dravidian with a very small set of words – and that does not have anywhere near the same amount of solid evidence[1]. It seems that one of his working assumptions in doing so is that linguistic history is connected to genetic history – which is odd, considering that he himself points out in the book that the fact that modern Indians speak English is due not to interbreeding with British colonisers but rather due to cultural contacts. Therefore, it is quite puzzling that he chooses to substantiate the history of the Dravidian languages with this particular approach. This is not to rule out that the Harappan language was related to or influenced Dravidian, merely that there is insufficient scientific consensus to support his conclusions, which is quite jarring compared to the relatively careful tone adopted in the rest of the book.

Furthermore, Joseph’s case is not strengthened by a poorly-founded argument that the three major dynasties of early historic South India – the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas – were descended from nobility of the Harappan civilisation (after a wide historical gap of nearly 1,200 years), and the legend of North Indian kings being brought South by the sage Agastya! Considering that Agastya is also supposed to have eaten a shape-shifting demon in the form of a mutton curry and then farted him out[2], why should this myth be taken seriously in a book that is ostensibly about popular science?

On Being Indian

Indeed, while Early Indians is at its best when it is discussing the science of prehistory, it is arguably at its weakest when discussing history. While Joseph has clearly devoted plenty of attention to theories and counter-theories in periods that have recently come to light due to scientific advances, he does not appear to have done the same with periods that are already well-studied by historians. And this, unfortunately, detracts from the overall impact of the arguments made, especially for a reader who is relatively well-informed.

Take, for example, the final chapter of the book, which discusses the migration of the Indo-Aryans. Joseph makes a powerful case, supported by archaeology and genetic evidence, that the “Ancestral North Indian” population was massively impacted by the migration of male Steppe nomads who came to South Asia after the collapse of the Harappan civilisation due to a long-lasting drought. The intermixing of ANI and ASI populations up to around 100CE, after which caste endogamy set in, is strongly supported by genetic evidence. The prehistory is fascinating, the similarities presented between the Aryans and other Indo-European cultures striking, and there is much to consider about the implications for our present understanding of Rigvedic culture and the hybrid culture reflected in the Later Vedas.

Given the controversy that this raises, in the epilogue, Joseph also attempts to use Early Indians to construct an alternative idea of Indian identity based on a more pluralistic understanding of our ancestry that integrates scientific advances. This is a praiseworthy endeavour. It is a great pity that in his attempt to do so, he goes further and makes simplistic generalisations about the later course of Indian history and culture that are not supported by a historical consensus[3].

Early Indians is a book that tries to be many things. It attempts to do popular science, prehistory, and also to put forward a new narrative of Indian-ness. In many of these things, it manages to successfully untangle knotty debates and uncover the profound implications beneath. But in trying to do everything at once, it weakens its own academic case. Nevertheless, it is a book worth the read – not merely for all its interesting tidbits and lucid narrative, but also because it opens the doorways of prehistory to whole new audiences who are curious and wish to know the answers to the question of who we are and where we came from. It – and its message that understanding history needs to be based on science and academic consensus – are in many ways groundbreaking, at least in the genre of Indian popular history.

[1] Krishnamurti, Bhadriraju. The Dravidian Languages. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Joseph’s argument that Brahui is probably a trace left behind by migrating proto-Elamo-Dravidian speakers is also rather weak.

[2] This story is recounted in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata: “The great-spirited seer gave vent to wind, and Ilvala despaired when he saw the great Asura had been digested.”

[3] Take, for example, his description of the culture of Magadha (which he presents as being a beacon of rationality); his depiction of the Mauryan empire as being essentially a cosmopolitan haven that was built in rejection of Brahminical orthodoxy and pursued some form of social equality and that, by implication, Buddhism is somehow inherently more egalitarian in character; the idea that Buddhism as a world religion is somehow fundamentally “Indian” in character; the implication that the adoption of the caste system was due to the efforts of some sort of caste-based elite in “Aryavarta”; or the implication that Southeast Asian states adopted Indian culture owing to its superior attributes. All of these are based on outdated paradigms that have been explored at great length and nuance by many esteemed contemporary historians. Magadha’s success as owing to military hegemony and resource capture as opposed to “rationality” has been convincingly put forth by Thomas Trautmann (Elephants and Kings: an Environmental History. University of Chicago Press, 2015); the idea that Asoka Maurya was using Buddhism as a political tool as opposed to pure humanity has been discussed by both Romila Thapar (Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Oxford University Press, 2012) and Upinder Singh (Political Violence in Ancient India. Harvard University Press, 2017); the localisation inherent in the spread of Buddhism by Richard Salomon (The Buddhist Literature of Ancient Gandhara, Simon & Schuster, 2018), its unabashed elitism in the pursuit of patronage  by Walter Spink (Ajanta: History and Development, 5 volumes, Brill 2005-2009); the spread of caste across the subcontinent – including by South Indian elites – by Kesavan Veluthat; and the nuances of why Sanskritic culture was adopted by Daud Ali (Courtly Culture and Political Life in Medieval India, Cambridge University Press, 2004), and its adoption in Southeast Asia by Monica Smith.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.