Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Aryan invasion - genetically dis-proved!

The second article on the myth of Aryan Invasion by

Dr NS Rajaram is posted here.

The first part can be read at


The Aryan myth in perspective-II
Aryan myth fostered in 'special conditions'

By NS Rajaram

The Aryan theory, which began life as a linguistic theory soon acquired a biological form. Scholars, mostly linguists, began to talk about not just Aryan languages, but also an Aryan race.

It is only a matter of time before this vestige of colonial politics disappears from the scene making way for a more objective approach to the study of ancient India.

It is useful to look at the 'special conditions' (as Huxley called it) that led to the Aryan invasion being foisted as the central dogma in ancient Indian history and historiography. This forces us to come to terms with the scientific evidence that will enable us to see this unfounded yet pernicious myth in true light.

The notion that Indians are one branch of a common stock of people who lived originally in Central Asia or in the Eurasian steppes arose in the late eighteenth century. It began as a linguistic theory to account for similarities between Sanskrit and classical European languages like Greek and Latin. From this modest beginning it soon acquired a life of its own when scholars, especially in Germany, concluded that Europeans and ancient Indians were two branches of a people they called Aryans and later as Indo-Europeans. A whole new academic discipline calling itself Indo-European studies came into existence whose very survival is now at stake.

The Aryan theory, which began life as a linguistic theory soon acquired a biological form. Scholars, mostly linguists, began to talk about not just Aryan languages, but also an Aryan race. Since Indology had its greatest flowering in nineteenth century Germany, it is not surprising that racial ideas that shaped German nationalism should have found their way into scholarly discourse on India. The Indo-European hypothesis and its offshoot of the Aryan invasion (or migration) theory came to dominate this discourse for over a century. The German born Oxford linguist Friederich Max Müller was the most influential proponent of this theory.

It is important to recognise that the people who created this theory were linguists, not biologists. Scientists, including German scientists had little use for it.
As far back as 1939, Sir Julian Huxley, one of the great natural scientists of the twentieth century observed:

"In 1848, the young German scholar Friederich Max Müller (1823 – 1900) settled in Oxford…. About 1853 he introduced into the English language the unlucky term Aryan as applied to a large group of languages.…"

Moreover, Max Müller threw another apple of discord. He introduced a proposition that is demonstrably false. He spoke not only of a definite Aryan language and its descendants, but also of a corresponding 'Aryan race'. The idea was rapidly taken up both in Germany and in England. (Ibid.)

Here is what Huxley had to say regarding the scientific view at the time (1939):

In England and America the phrase 'Aryan race' has quite ceased to be used by writers with scientific knowledge, though it appears occasionally in political and propagandist literature…. In Germany, the idea of the 'Aryan race' received no more scientific support than in England. Nevertheless, it found able and very persistent literary advocates who made it appear very flattering to local vanity. It therefore steadily spread, fostered by special conditions. (Emphasis added.)

These 'special conditions' were the rise of Nazism in Germany and British imperial interests in India. While both Germany and Britain took to the idea of the Aryan race, the courses taken this racial theory in the two countries were noticeably different. Its perversion in Germany leading eventually to Nazism and its horrors is too well known to be repeated here. The British, however, put it to more creative use for imperial purposes, especially as a tool in making their rule acceptable to Indians. The idea was to convince the Indian elite to collaborate with the British by suggesting that they were long separated kinsmen brought together after 2000 years. A recent BBC report admitted as much (October 6, 2005):

It [Aryan invasion theory] gave a historical precedent to justify the role and status of the British Raj, who could argue that they were transforming India for the better in the same way that the Aryans had done thousands of years earlier.

That is to say, the British presented themselves as a 'new and improved brand of Aryans' that were only completing the work left undone by their ancestors in the hoary past.
This is how the British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin put it in the House of Commons in 1929:

Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence… By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, "I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, …it is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible …brothers as you are…"

Need we say more? Today it is sustained by 'special interests' rather than special conditions that no longer exist. These new interests include political chauvinism in India and the survival of Indo-European studies as a discipline in Western academia. It is only a matter of time before this vestige of colonial politics disappears from the scene making way for a more objective approach to the study of ancient India. This is already happening. In the interim, the kind of dispute and controversy witnessed in California are only natural.

The seriousness of this struggle for survival of this academic discipline, and its practitioners cannot be underestimated. This existential fear is what is behind the desperate actions bordering on the bizarre of some Western Indologists, notably the Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel and his colleagues.

On the scientific side, the emergence of molecular biology and the growth of population genetics in the second half of the twentieth century have delivered the coup de grace to this pseudo-discipline. The story that science has to tell us is very different from what had been believed for well over a century. What follows is a summing up of the current state of knowledge of human populations inhabiting the world today. We begin with a brief summary of human population genetics.

Genetics on inherited and acquired traits

The Aryan invasion (or migration) theory is only one of several theories created during the European colonial period. Most of them start with the belief that civilisations in different parts of the world began with a massive migration from a central homeland. This belief is usually presented in terms of arguments based on the physical appearance of different population groups. Skin and eye color get extraordinary attention and importance in this 'science'. The emergence of genetics, which is the study of inheritance, has discredited the whole approach and all of its conclusions.

Two key concepts play a fundamental role in the scientific study of populations, including human populations: genotype and phenotype.
Genotype is what we inherit and phenotype is what is observable. The most common error is to confuse the phenotype, or an observable feature like skin color for an inherited trait (genotype) without taking note of the environment in which it evolved.

Here is the key issue: any phenotype (observable feature) is the result of the interaction between the genotype (inherited factors) and the environment. The same genotype can produce different phenotypes in different environments, or even if the environment changes over time as almost all environments do. This is why people in different parts of the world look different even though all of us are descended from Africans. By 'environment' we mean external factors that include food habits and diseases that result in adaptation as well as the elimination of those unfit to survive. (This is called natural selection, but can also be called natural elimination.)

Most changes brought on by the interaction between inherited features (genotype) and the environment take thousands to tens of thousands of years, if not more. A phenotype (like skin color) that we observe in an individual or a group today is the result of this long evolutionary history. To disentangle a specific original trait from features observed today is next to impossible since the environment has also changed with the phenotype. For example, Europeans today, whose ancestors came from South Asia some 40,000 years ago, most likely look quite different from how their ancestors did when they arrived in Europe.

To compound the difficulty, differences between individuals within a group are always greater than the differences between different groups. That is to say, human beings now inhabiting the world are extraordinarily close, genetically speaking, though they exhibit great variability in observable traits (phenotypes) like physical appearance. They are a complex mix of inheritance and environment. This fact makes it virtually impossible to trace the origin of any population based purely on physical appearance since the environment in which it evolved cannot be recreated. This means we have to find some inherited traits that have been preserved over very long periods and hopefully less sensitive to environmental changes.

Harvard geneticist Lewontin puts it this way: "Reconstructing the evolutionary past of the human species is almost as difficult as predicting the future, although both are common exercises that biologists engage in, especially when they address a nonscientific public."

In using genetic data to study ancient populations and their migrations, all we can do at this time is to look at some traits that are not affected by environmental changes—or at least preserved to some extent—and study their distribution among different human groups. It is important to note that this cannot be a phenotype or a superficially observable feature like skin color, which is the result of interaction between what is inherited and the environment over a long period of time.

A particular trait that we choose as characterising a population group is called a genetic marker. One such marker that has proven useful is the M17 genetic marker. (There are others, but M17 is chosen here to illustrate the point.) It is common in India and in adjacent regions but becomes increasingly rare as we move westward into Europe. This, combined with the fact that Indian carriers of M17 are genetically more diverse than European carriers shows that the Indian population is older than the European.

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