Tony Joseph, author of Early Indians, gave a super enlightening #ReadInstead Lit fest Masterclass on ‘Who Are Our Ancestors, And Where We Came From’. His book Early Indians has won several awards like Atta Galatta Bangalore Lit fest Award for Best Non-Fiction Book 2019, the TATA Lit Live! Book of the Year Award for Non-fiction 2019, and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2019.


Here are some key takeaways from his stupendous session:

  • Interestingly, even a few years ago, it would have been very difficult to answer the question of who we are and where we came from in any convincing manner. Of course we could make various guesses based on evidence based on archaeology, philology, linguistics, epigraphy, and all other history related disciplines. But that was about it. Now that has changed, thanks to a relatively new discipline called Population Genetics
  • Population geneticists today can access, extract and analyze DNA from people who lived tens of thousands of years ago, and based on that they can then figure out which population groups moved where and when.  
  • When these genetic findings are put together with existing understanding from other disciplines such as archaeology, linguistics, philology etc, we get a very good resolution of our prehistory around the world. For example, we now know today that the European population is the result of three major migrations, two of which happened in just the last ten thousand years.
  • We also know that the original American population was the result of three migrations from Asia through Siberia around 16,000 years ago or later. 
  • There is a way to put a structure to the several migrations that have happened and resulted in different populations. The way to do that is to understand the four major classes of migrations that were responsible for shaping a lot of the world’s demography. Each of those four classes of migrations were driven by a global force. When we look back, we can see why those migrations happened when they did.

The four classes of migrations are as follows: 

  1. ‘Out of Africa’ Migration: This happened about 70,000 years ago when a small subset of the then existing African population moved into the Arabian peninsula and went to populate the rest of the world. The last continent they reached was the Americas around 16,000 years ago. The answer to the questions – who were the first Indians, who were the first Japanese, who were the first Australians, who were the first Americans, who were the first Europeans – is all more or less the same. They were all ‘out of Africa’ migrants. During this peopling, the Glacial Age intervened which lasted for thousands of years and much of the world became uninhabitable. During this period, these expanding groups of modern humans got separated from each other which meant that they accumulated minor genetic differences. But it is important to bear in mind that all modern humans today share 99.9% of their DNA. So the differences that we talk about are really minor in the larger scheme of things. 
  2. The end of the Glacial Age about 12,000 years ago gave birth to interesting things in several places around the world. For example, modern human populations began to experiment with agriculture such that they could become farmers from hunter-gatherers. Some of the early farming communities were the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Indians and the Chinese. The result was a population explosion, because settled farming populations grow at a much faster rate than hunter-gatherer populations do, which then result in further migrations. This is the second class of migration that shaped much of the world’s demography. The driving force in this case was human mastery over nature.
  3. The third class began when a modern human population group in Central Asia figured out how to ride a horse and then combined it with existing mastery over metallurgy. This gave them a mobility that no other modern population group then could even visualise. These groups could then move to expand to significant parts of the world, for example, they moved from Central Asia to Europe and changed its demography. They of course changed the demography of Central Asia itself, West Asia, South Asia and all the way up to China. 
  4. The fourth class of migrations were colonial migrations. Some modern human population groups in Europe figured out how to travel large distances over the seas in steam ships, went into already populated regions and changed the demography. The demographics of the Americas changed significantly and so did that of Australia and many other parts of the world. 

How did these migrations change Indian and South Asian demography? 

  • The colonial migration left very little mark on our demography. They did perhaps leave a large mark on our culture but not on our demography.
  • The ‘Out of Africa’ migration reached India around 65,000 years ago. Even today, most Indian population groups carry 50-65% of their ancestry from the first Indians. If you look at the Indian demography as a pizza, the first Indian ancestry is what forms the base.
  • The 2 agriculture related migrations, one from West Asia and one from East Asia, began when agriculture itself began in a place called Mehrgarh in the Balochistan province of today’s Pakistan. This goes back to around 9,000 years ago. This spread all across northwestern India over thousands of years finally leading to the Harappan civilisation. These people who drove the agricultural revolution in northwestern India were a mixture of the first Indians and a population connected to the West Asian farmers of Iran. 
  • When the Harappan civilisation declined around 1900 BCE because of a long drought, the people moved to other parts of north and south India, and thus, became the ancestors of people from both North and South India. So the Harappan civilization forms the sauce on  the pizza.
  • The third migration happened from East Asia around 4000 years ago. This happened as a result of China taking to agriculture which resulted in population expansions and migrations. These migrants brought Austroasiatic languages with them which are Khasi and Mundari which are spoken by tribals in Central India and Eastern India today. 
  • The fourth migration was from the Central Asian Steppe region which came between 4,000 to 3,500 years ago. They spoke Indo-European languages and called them selves Aryan. They dominated northern Indian and their arrival spread Indo-European languages in north India. 

So by this time, all the major components of the Indian demography are already in. Today any population group in India is a mixture of these four population groups in differing proportions. 

  • Around 100 CE, this mixing stopped because the practice of endogamy set in which is the practice of people marrying within their own communities. This is a distinguishing feature of the caste system. So the answer to the question of when did the caste system begin is that the caste system began around 2000 years ago, much after the arrival of the migrants from the Steppes who called themselves Aryans. We have to see the beginning of the caste system, therefore, as a political development and not as a necessary or natural consequence of the migrations that happened 1000-2000 years ago. 
  • Most of the Indian population often looks at the tribals as people who are different from them. But we now know that the Indian population has no closer relatives anywhere in the world than the tribals. As we know, even today, most Indian population groups carry 50-65% of their ancestry from the first Indians. 
  • These findings are significant in their capacity to help us change the way that we look at ourselves and people around us. 

Read his book ‘Early Indians’ on the Juggernaut App now!


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