How we, the Indians, came to be


Before you begin to read this, take a chair and sit down comfortably. Because this is going to take some time, and it is going to address some of the most fundamental questions about how we, the Indians, or South Asians more generally, came to be.

The answers you are going to read are taken from an extensive new study that has just been released, titled ‘The Genomic Formation of Central and South Asia’. It is co-authored by 92 scientists from around the world and was co-directed by Prof David Reich of Harvard Medical School. Reich runs a lab at Harvard that has no equal in its ability to sequence and analyse ancient DNA at scale and speed, and he has co-authored multiple studies in recent years that have changed the way we understand the prehistory of much of the world. His just-released book, ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here’, is currently making waves.

Among those 92 co-authors are scientists who are stars of an equal measure in their own disciplines, like James Mallory, archaeologist and author of the classic ‘In search of Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth’; and David Anthony, anthropologist and author of the ground-breaking ‘The Horse, The Wheel and the Language: How Bronze Age Raiders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World’.

Archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller and archaeologist Nicole Boivin are familiar names in India for the work they have done in the country. Vasant Shinde is the vice-chancellor of Deccan College, India’s premier institution for archaeology. K Thangaraj, head of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology is a co-director of the study while Niraj Rai of the Birla Sahni Institute of Paleosciences is a co-author, along with Priya Moorjani of University of California, Vagheesh Narasimhan and Swapan Mallik of Harvard Medical School and Ayushi Nayak of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Germany.

This list of names is noteworthy not just because of the weight they carry, but also because of the variety of fields they come from. Thought was obviously given to the often-raised criticism that population geneticists do not sufficiently take into account archaeological and historical contexts in their studies.

As important as the names, are the data that the study is based on: ancient DNA from 612 individuals, 362 of them reported for the first time.

These ancient individuals come from many regions and periods: Iran and “Turan” which includes Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (5,600 to 1,200 BCE); western Siberian forest zone (6,200 to 4,000 BCE); the Steppe east of the Ural mountains, including Kazakhstan (4700 to 1000 BCE) and the Swat Valley of Pakistan (1,200 BCE – 1 CE). This data was then compared and co-analysed with genome-wide data from present-day individuals – 1,789 of them from 246 ethnographically distinct groups in South Asia. It is this comparative analysis using both ancient DNA and present-day DNA across regions and periods that allows the study to arrive at clear conclusions about who moved from where and mixed with whom.

The Quint for more

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