DNA and Aryan debate: Why articles in The Hindu on Indus are missing the larger point

The Aryan dispute isn’t just about ‘how we looked’, but ‘who we are’ and ‘where did we come from’.
DNA and Aryan debate: Why articles in The Hindu on Indus are missing the larger point
DNA and Aryan debate: Why articles in The Hindu on Indus are missing the larger point
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In 2010, a famous television producer in the UK, one known for the most successful archaeology and history TV show in all of UK television, came to our class for a guest lecture. We were midway through our archaeology MA course, and we were all excited to meet the man who played a significant part in taking archaeology out of the college ivory towers and into homes.

After talking to us about the show and why they make it, the producer asked each of us in the class that day -- 12 students from the US, UK, and India -- why we wanted to get into archaeology.

And when my turn came to speak, the producer placed a condition: I cannot talk about the glorious Indian history, he said dismissively.

I was a little stumped. It was racist not just because the UK and US students could freely talk about the history of their respective countries, it seemed to dismiss much of south Asian history and archaeology.

I have thought about this over and over again in the seven-odd years since. And once again recently, when the Indus civilisation and its mysteries have come back into some focus.

Archaeology needs to answer two big questions. Who am I? Where did I come from? These two questions are also, in my mind, the two questions that are most pertinent to being human. By studying materials, and material culture, archaeology can take a very educated guess at the two questions. And over many years of practicing, the answers can get quite near the truth.

But it is not exact. It is not a science.

DNA mapping, and genetics, are a science. At least, its supporters say so.

Which is why perhaps, Tony Joseph, in his two articles in The Hindu, on the Indus civilisation, sets much store in DNA analysis to discover who the builders of Indus cities were.

The first article, published in June 2017, and titled ‘How genetics is settling the Aryan Migration debate’, claimed that genetic studies showed that there was indeed a large migration of people - mostly men - from Central Asia to the Indus cities, and that the human remains from the sites show a large-scale mixing of population between the two groups.

There are some questions raised, but equally a lot of hasty conclusions. Over and over, in the piece, Tony Joseph equates DNA with language. DNA cannot say that person X spoke an Indo-European language. DNA cannot tell us if the incoming group was friend or foe, it cannot tell us if the two groups spoke each other’s languages and were aware of each other’s culture. 

The second article, published a few days ago, and titled ‘Who built the Indus civilisation?’, discusses in detail the genetic study of human skeletons recovered from a village in Haryana, which could have been a thriving city at the very edge of the Indus civilisation.

He writes,

“The DNA analysis will also help figure out their height, body features, and even the colour of their eyes. In other words, we will know, rather intimately, and with a fair degree of certainty, who lived in the Indus Valley city of Rakhigarhi. It is in that sense that the Rakhigarhi ancient DNA project is unlike any other archaeological excavation that has been done in India. As Professor Shinde says: “We may have excavated a lot of burials, structures, pottery and seals. But what is new in that?”

It is true that DNA analysis will help figure out a person’s height, weight, body features and colour of the eyes. But only to a certain extent. DNA analysis can also tell us what the Rakhigarh person -- when alive -- would have eaten. Whether their diet was rich in animal proteins or fish proteins, or vegetables. We know that the land was rich and fertile, and cows were plentiful, and so the Rakhigarh man could have been a beef eater who occasionally nibbled on some vegetables for variety. DNA analysis can tell us only (and with a certain factor of error built into it) a person’s physical features.

DNA analysis will NOT let us “know, rather intimately, and with fair degree of certainty” who this person was. We will never know for sure what language they spoke. Which gods they prayed to. What they considered value. The question of ‘who’ is more than the question of eye colour. A civilisation is not just its people. A civilisation is not measured in blue eyes and blonde hair and 6 feet skeletons. Civilisation is -- what did they speak? how did they dress? what did they read? how did they trade? what was their daily routine like? where did they pray, if they prayed? what did they make? who lived with them? what did they value?

These are question for an archaeologist working on the ground. A professor - someone I consider my mentor - was famous for saying ‘Archaeology is Rubbish’. And it is true. By studying what was cast aside as rubbish, we can make very good assumptions and estimations of who the people were.

It goes further. Studying the material. Studying the land. Seeing where people built their houses and where cities placed their rulers and temples. Understanding that how a city is laid out could influence the language of the people, or more accurately, the language people spoke could influence the space they lived and worked and socialised in.

Archaeology is studying pot sherds and stone tools and marvelling at the artistry of that early ancestor who not only made something of utility, but also of beauty. Archaeology is looking at a bit of square clay and wondering at the lines and symbols inscribed into it, and understanding that perhaps it is more than just beautification, that it is language. It is a message that here lived a powerful priest-ruler whose symbol of office is a jar, and who lived in the western citadel of the city with four main roads. Being completely taken in by the beauty of those carnelian beads that adorned every burial, and seeing the same beads appear over and over again, from north west to south east, from mainland to island, from east coast to west coast, and tracing the journey of the people who built those massive cities and created that intriguing, enigmatic language, and gave us what we call our culture. Archaeology is all this.

Archaeology is what Professor Shinde, in Tony Joseph’s article, easily dismisses as “We may have excavated a lot of burials, structures, pottery and seals. But what is new in that?”

It may not be new, but it is what will give you the answer to “who lived in Indus.”

And who lived in the Indus is no longer just an academic question. It is now becoming fodder for political games and sectarian hate. As fascism spreads, and language and identities are being exploited for power and money, the question of what made our culture, and who made it, becomes the shield that protects us.

Unfortunately both Professor Shinde and Tony Joseph seem to lay more emphasis on people’s physical measurements, and not their culture. On the colour of the eye, and not the words of the tongue. Understanding our past needs to be about both.

Archaeology - the patient plodding through of material culture, of studying the land and the evidence it may contain - will give that understanding. DNA science is just one aspect of the larger study of people. It cannot be the end. Archaeology - Indian archaeology - needs to answer the ‘who am I?’ as much as it seems to now answer the ‘how did I look?’

When we get to that point, perhaps, we can then begin to answer even more important questions of who am I. But till then, we must continue keep searching for truth on the ground, and fight politicians and TV producers, wherever they seek to dismiss our past as an insignificant thing.

Note: Views expressed are the author's and not of The News Minute. 

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