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The Myth of Aryan Invasion

During the 18th and 19th centuries linguists began to notice many striking similarities between Sanskrit and most European languages. They came to the conclusion that these similarities were due to their belonging to the same family: the Indo-European languages, as they were called. Mentalities in the 19th century, when England dominated the industrial world were colonialist, and these linguists then imagined an “Aryan” invasion of India coming from the West, that would have occurred around 1500 BC. Much has been written about these mythical “Aryan invaders” who subjugated the indigenous peoples of India, imposed Sanskrit, replaced local traditions with a Proto-Vedic culture and a system of iniquitous caste, which gradually spread from Northern India to the plains of the Ganges. The theme of the Aryan invasion justified (in the eyes of some British) the colonization of India. According to the Sanskritist H.H. Wilson in 1958, “was to a certain extent the reunion of the great Aryan family, with the aim of civilizing and Christianizing India”. However everyone did not agree: the famous British biologist Julian Huxley rejected this linguistic association as well as the alleged Aryan family. The philologist Isaac Taylor meanwhile felt that the theory of the Aryan invasion was based on very dubious grounds. Some great figures of Indian independence, such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, and Ambedkar (father of the Indian constitution) proclaimed that this famous theory did not appear in any ancient text of India, and further, that the European Sanskritists distorted the translations of ancient Indian texts in order to support their theory.

The discovery of the Indus-Saraswati civilization by John Marshall, director of the Indian archaeological service, in 1856 had cast a first shadow on this theory: “It was previously thought that the pre-Aryan peoples were of an underdeveloped level, but it turns out that 4,000 years BC the men and women who lived in the cities of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa had a civilization well in advance of ours”[1]. In other words, this reversal revealed that the natives were the civilized peoples whereas the Aryan invaders were shown to be semi-primitive nomads. Despite this, the theory of the Aryan invasion continued to form the basis of all the history books of India.

In 1934, the archaeologist V. Gordon Childe remarked: “There is no trace of weapons in either Mohenjo Daro or Harappa, contrary to what was found after the brutal end of ancient Egypt or of Babylon, and none of the pottery depicts scenes of war.”[2]

The defenders of the Aryan invasion continued to argue that the fortifications of Mohenjo Daro were extremely thick, “which would denote the fear of invasion.” However, the American archaeologist Kennoyer retorted, “we have never found evidence of breaches produced by battles on these fortifications.” Another thesis of the fanatics of the theory of an Aryan invasion: skeletons found in Mohenjo Daro, on which were found traces of injuries, and who “would have been killed or wounded during the Aryan invasion”. But recent carbon-14 tests have shown that these skeletons belonged to different stages of the Indus-Saraswati civilization and that the wounds had healed before they died[3]…

In fact, the American archaeologist, Kennoyer’s mentor, George F. Dales, had written: “There was no destruction during the last period of Mohenjo Daro, nor even traces of fire; no skeleton of a soldier dressed in armor and surrounded by weapons of war has ever been found, despite extensive excavations. So there is not the slightest proof of armed conquest or even destruction by an alleged Aryan invasion.”

Today, defenders of the Aryan invasion are beginning to step back. Instead of “invasion”, they use the word “migration”, that of peaceful nomadic tribes who introduced Indo-European languages in India. But again, no archaeological evidence of any “peaceful” Aryan invasion has been found either on the banks of Saraswati or on the banks of the Indus. As pointed out by the French archaeologist Jean-Marie Casal who directed excavations in Mundikak, another Harappan site: “there is no ‘Aryan’ archaeological definition, because no objects or weapons have been found which differ from those of the Harappan civilization[4].

Nor is there, contrary to what the defenders of the Aryan invasion have long claimed, a spiritual and cultural break between the Harappan and post-Harappan civilizations. In the one and the other we also note the same veneration of Mother Saraswati, of Shiva’s lingam, or of yoni (the sacred sex of women). This is why the archaeologist Marshall, who was one of the great specialists of Mohenjo Daro, found the Harappan culture “so typically Indian that it would be difficult to distinguish it from Hinduism as it still lives at present.” This was said in 1931 – yet it is still true today.

The latest research that also questions the Aryan invasion comes form the fields of anthropology and genetic science. Indeed, for a long time it was admitted as a fact that the Aryans had a lighter skin than the Dravidians in the South, who are black-skinned. Thus, this theory of the Aryan invasion has divided India between white-skinned, Brahman and Kshatriyas (warrior-caste of which the Maharajas are a part), and those with darker skin, Untouchables and the lower castes. Politically, even today, this myth of the Aryan invasion is exploited for electoral reasons: politicians in Tamil Nadu, for example, complain about the imposition of the Hindi language, which they regard as derived from Sanskrit and therefore of “Aryan” origin. There were even riots in Tamil Nadu in the 1980’s to protest the imposition of Hindi. Even today, the Anglican missionaries (mainly from Australia and the United States) convert the Untouchables, the lower castes and the tribals to Christianity by telling them: “You are the true inhabitants of India, you were there before the Aryans, you have nothing to do with the Hindu religion – convert!” This missionaries’ aplomb comes from the fact that for decades British or even Indian anthropologists, such as Dr. D. N. Jha, wrote: “The first Aryans were generally light in color, while the native people were of a much darker complexion. The color of their skin must have been an important sign of their identity”. Unfortunately for Professor Jha and his ilk, a lot of recent genetic research led by anthropologists such as the famous SR Walimbe who studied the skeletons of Mohenjo Daro in comparison with skeletons from other periods, taken at random, have come to the conclusion that there is “a genetic continuity between the Harappans and the Indians who inhabit this region today”.

From the 1990’s, the genetic study of populations, which had already been tested in the West, was applied to South Asian populations in general and the hypothesis of the Aryan invasion in particular. Geneticists have been able to isolate Y-chromosome mutations passed down from father to son on Harappan skeletons and compared them to contemporary Indians living in formerly Harappan regions and in various parts of India. Their conclusions are convincing: the geneticist Partha Majumder postulates that “we find an obvious unity of the Y-chromosome Harappan in all regions of India, despite a linguistic and cultural diversity extremely important.” Another geneticist, Toomas Kivisild conducted from 1999 a series of research on all populations of South Asia, from Burma to Afghanistan. He came to this conclusion: “The alleged Aryan invasion of India, if it ever existed, had no major impact on the Indian gene pool. The Caucasian traits of Indians can be considered pre-Caucasian, that is to say, part of the genetic reservoir of North Africa and North-East.”

In the year 2000, the anthropologist Susanta Roychoudhury and his colleagues performed genetic tests on ten different Indian ethnic groups and noticed “a fundamental unity of the genetic links of all these groups”. These researchers also observed that the haplogroup U, common to Northern Indians and of the Caucasian type, that is to say a group of humans having the same common ancestor in patri-lineal or matri-lineal lineage, is also present among tribes of East India, such as the Lodha and the Santal. Their analysis of the dominant presence of haplogroup M, frequently used by early supporters of the Aryan invasion theory, demonstrates that “the haplogroup M is found on 60% of the Indian population, including tribes and low castes, whatever their geographical location”. This conclusion thus completely dismantles the simplistic theory of an Aryan invasion, which would have created a very marked genetic distinction between the upper and lower castes. Indeed, Kivisild and his colleagues also discovered that “even high castes share more than 80% of genetic links with lower castes and tribes”.

A second study focused on the genetic inheritance of the early Indians through examination of the Y-M17 chromosome haplogroup, which was also considered to be the genetic mark of the Aryans. Kivisilid discovered these chromosomes among two tribes of South India, one of which the Chenchus, was genetically close to several high castes. “There is no striking genetic disparity between Indian castes and tribes,” the researchers concluded. In 2010, the geneticist Underhill led a study on the relations between the Y chromosomes of South Asian populations within the same RLA haplogroup, also supposed to be specific to Indo-Europeans. These studies came to the same conclusion as the previous ones …

It is important to insert a word here about those tribes called in India the Adivasis (the first residents), which many historians claim to be the original inhabitants of India. Anthropologists have often speculated that today’s tribes are descendants of the original inhabitants of India. This concept, which originated in nineteenth-century anthropology, shaped Indian thought as well as social, political and economic relations. There is still a latent conflict between the North and the South, between Sanskrit and Tamil, the Brahmans and the Untouchables, and an obsession with white skin which makes millions of Indian women buy cheap creams, thinking that it will help them attain lighter skin. However, all the great ancient texts of India (such as the Mahabharata, an epic poem comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer), which gives us a glimpse of the customs of ancient India, do not differentiate the tribes of the time and the populations of other castes. The contemporary anthropologist Michel Boivin notes that “firstly, many of these ancient tribes climbed the social ladder of castes and became, for example, Kshatriyas”.

Other genetic studies, on the Adivasis (Untouchable and Indian aboriginals), show that they too possess Y chromosomes similar to those of other Indian castes and that for example, high castes of the North and South are not particularly genetically related, whereas the southern castes and the southern tribes are very similar in Y chromosome terms. This, once again, challenges the theory that Adivasis and low castes are descendants of the original inhabitants of India. Moreover, an even more recent study by M. Reddy (2014) shows “that there is no significant difference in terms of DNA between Indian castes and tribal populations”.

One of the pillars of the theory of the Aryan invasion is that the people speaking the Dravidian languages today (Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu) would be the descendants of the indigenous Indians who fled the North and settled in the South following the Indo-Aryan invasion, which is to say that the Harappans spoke a Dravidian language. Unfortunately, few genetic studies have endorsed this theory, as noted by the geneticist Noah A. Rosenberg, who compared several groups speaking Indo-European languages with those using Dravidian languages. On the basis of studies of thirty-six Indian castes and groups, the geneticist Sanghamitra Sengupta claimed that the genetic landscape of the Indian subcontinent was formed long before the period of the so-called Aryan invasion.

A team of genome experts and archaeologists further broke in the myth of the Aryan invasion. The team was comprised of scientists from Harvard Medical School, Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, Lucknow, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology under the CSIR (Hyderabad), Max Planck Institute ,Leipzig, Germany and University of California,USA & Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, Pune.

The research which focussed on DNA samples collected from a the skeleton of a 4,500-year-old female genome collected from a Harappan site in Rakhigarhi, Haryana, showed that there is no trace of any foreign genetic presence in them « which proves that people belonging to the Indus Valley Civilization had distinct genetic lineage,” stated Prof Thangaraj of CCMB, Hyderabad.

Prof Vasant Shinde, director, Deccan College further says: « we discovered that there was no detectable ancestry from Steppe pastoralists or from Anatolian and Iranian farmers, suggesting farming in South Asia arose from local foragers rather than from large-scale migration from the West ».

[1] John Marshall, Mohenjo Daro and the Indus Civilization, Vol-i (1931).

[2] Gordon Childe, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins, Kegan Paul (London), 1926.

[3] Ibid

[4] Jean-Marie: Mundigak excavations. (Mémoires de la Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan, Tom. XVII.) Librairie C. Klincksieck, Paris 1961.

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