The Indo-Aryan migration to the Indian subcontinent

The piece is up at India Today. The headline and title are of course optimized for clicks. I would, for example, say that the Indo-Aryans came from the west, not the West.

In the course of writing this it has become clear that many people have very specific commitments on this issue. I think it is clear I do not. Genetic inference methods have wide shoulders of confidence in particular dates. So I’ll leave it to those with more archaeological knowledge to argue over specific date. But it strikes me that the dates point to a likelihood that much of the expansion and diversification of Indo-Aryans may precede their expansion into the Gangetic plain ~1500 BCE, the date preferred by many scholars.

Apparently we shouldn’t have to wait too long for ancient DNA from Rakighari (months, not years). But I doubt that will settle anything, as opposed to being preliminary and setting off new debates.

35 thoughts on “The Indo-Aryan migration to the Indian subcontinent

  1. I have favored a date in the 1900s BCE based on Cemetery H dates for the transition from inhumation to cremation and based upon the arrival date for metallurgical innovations in South Asia. It is also a better fit to the idea that the arid 4.2 ky event was an important driver of Harappan civilization’s collapse and a subsequent migration in to fill the political vacuum that created, and a better fit to the inferred admixture date and Y-DNA haplogroup expansions that you cite in your piece.

  2. Congratulations on the piece! You went quite a long away to try to accommodate the OIT folks, rather more than the evidence warrants perhaps. IMHO when you combine the linguistic evidence with the genetic evidence, the case is watertight.

    What really opened my eyes was that David W Anthony and folks picked out the Yamnaya contribution to Europe based purely on linguistics and archaeology and their thesis remained extremely controversial in archaeological circles. Then when Haak et al published, it was a stunning vindication!

    For India, the last remaining big piece in the puzzle was was the discovery of Zagros farmers and their genetic contribution. Now all that remains is details – when, which route, the relative contributions of Sinthasta, BMAC, Indus Valley, and more hypothetically Elam. The arrival and establishment of Sahel crops remains a small puzzle as well.

    What the Hindu nationalists don’t realize is that modern Hinduism was eventually created in India, a eclectic mix of indigenous animism, Vedic Aryans, farming deities, goddess worship (from BMAC?). Mixed in with some remarkable philosophical and psychological insights from ~500BC mystics and poets. That the Vedic Aryans were originally wandering cow-herders with horses does not diminish this in any way.

  3. if i had to do with again i would emphasize chaubey more than sanyal as ‘other side.’ we at least could have a productive discussion on the genetics.

    i don’t give any credit to “OIT” theory….but for whatever reason (ok, u know why) that’s the ‘alternative.’

    the key question: what proportion of the ancestry of modern indians alive today derives from people who lived to the west of the indian subcontinent on the pleistocene-holocene boundary. in the 2000s the answer would be a minority. a number around 10% would be defensible. today i think the most likely answer is around 50%. the population genetic data is pretty clear, so the only way you can get to a number below 50% is assert isolation-by-distance btwn NW india and central asia & caucasus before 2000 BCE of a population which is still somehow random mating? i don’t find that credible.

    it seems clear that the indo-aryan language is intrusive to south asia. no matter what the genetic data say. though that got interleaved into the piece, i kind of resisted any sort of OIT mention re: origin of indo-european languages. but i guess in the indian social context it had to be brought up.

    finally, i think there is a substantial probability that some of the “ASI” ancestry derives from southeast asia after the pleistocene-holocene boundary.

  4. Razib: Could you tell us strangers to the culture of the Subcontinent, what is at stake in this dispute? Who is on which side, and why?

  5. May I answer Walter Sobchak?

    It is all about nothing!

    There are two groups, one of which is vested in a grand Indian history flowing to the present; the other says the same except not precisely the same endpoint. Both of these groups are high caste, urban educated chattering class.

    Unbothered by all these is the vast majority of the population (remember that more than 80% of the people earn $2/a day or less, and composed of backward, scheduled castes and Muslims). For the uninitiated, Hinduism posits the existence of four castes, but leaves a large majority as shudras or even completely outside the caste system. The people do not care where they come from or how magnificent their ancestors were, given the current situation. Do not believe the tall tales of modern India! 80% of the population resides outside the four-caste system and live under a 2 $/day yoke. These arguments of R1A1A from India or not, is less relevant.

    However for the ruling class, it is important to establish a truly-from-India continuously-ruling Indian origin story that will make everyone feel part of the great society. It is the same feeling that you get when your football team wins some bowl.

    Razib, the article was excellent, but the English was too modern. The Indian English is probably much more simpler and archaic, and I feel something will be lost in translation. Not that you hve the time to translate to Indish.

  6. vijay, there is a hindi language translation fwiw. but it was more ‘modern’ than that before. the editor made a fair number modifications and i didn’t object as long as the substance was the same.

  7. Has anyone put to Chaubey the question how it’s possible for R1a to be native to India when there are now ancient Eastern European forager samples (from Karelia, Estonia and Ukraine!) that belong to R1a and don’t even show any admixture from Iran (because they lack Basal Eurasian ancestry), let alone South Asia?

    Isn’t he aware of this, or is he simply ignoring it and hoping for a miracle?

    This isn’t a big deal anymore, since the evidence for R1a being intrusive to India and Iran is already overwhelming, but it’s alarming to see someone who is apparently qualified to understand these sorts of data being so wrong and so dogmatic about it.

  8. in his defense, Y can outrun autosomal ancestry. but yeah, the reasonable explanations (as in, they are not impossible) strike me as kind of complicated and unlikely.

  9. Congrats on getting published.

    The Rakhigarhi paper will be out in September! Honestly, that’s the most exciting thing I got out of the article.

  10. Excellent article, Razib! But given that you acknowledge the existence of minority positions (low probability, but as yet not conclusively disproved), I suspect the naysayers will clutch onto those positions as vindication of their own political biases. I can’t wait for September!

    Vijay, the English in the article seems to be of a similar standard to what I usually see in the India Today magazine (I’ve been reading it on and off since the 80s), though it’s more Americanized than most readers are likely used to. Even though a lot of Indians slip into “Indish”, especially in speech (myself included), that doesn’t mean standard English goes above our heads.

  11. have no idea who you are. what’s your handle on twitter? the person indicated he didn’t leave comments on my blogs so i doubt it.

    which comment was censored? u sure you aren’t in a spam folder? (too many links)

    there are a lot of frog nazis. not a reference to your handle (if you have frog in it on twitter)

  12. Thanks very much for clarifying. I thought “frog nazi” meant a reference to the handle “froginthewell” with which I comment here or on brownpundits, especially because the tweet said “anon aryan”, and since the tweet seemed to have appeared shortly after I submitted my brown pundits comment. I don’t have a twitter handle, I just sometimes read your tweets by going to the URL

  13. @Vijay what’s with your chip on the shoulder? Great, you don’t like India and anybody can look up the stats on poverty of Indians. But, that has nothing to do with what is being debated and why. Even if poor, ignorant and oppressed, people still deserve dignity and truth about their history.

    @ Walter Sobchak

    There are three groups of people who seem to be emotionally invested:
    1) South Indians whose political motto was that Aryans (i.e. North Indians) were invaders. Indus Valley civilization (IVC) is assumed to be built by Southies who were driven South and made to play second fiddle in national politics. Second, Brahmins who were Northern Aryan imports has a history of being rich and practicing social oppression. This group wants Aryan Invasion to hold to justify their resistance to the entire Brahminical system.

    2) Hindus who care about and have a lot of emotional investment in Veda being indigenous and ancient (read: more importantly *pre-Indus Valley*). They keep dating Mahabharata (the one containing famous “Gita”) story to be a real war that occurred ~5k BP and since Veda was composed earlier than that it must older than ~5k BP. So, the whole Aryan Invasion cannot be true if it occurred later than IVC collapse.

    3)Nationalists who may not always be in to Vedic Hinduism. Due to colonial history, there was always some resistance to quick dating of Rg Veda to be ~3k-3.5k BP old by Max Mueller(who apparently thought that it cannot be older than some Biblical events and tried to fit it to that chronology). Other colonial thoughts re. Indians being ALWAYS poor and dumb: e.g.Sanskrit cannot be native to India given the sophistication of the language, IVC couldn’t have descendants left, Rg Veda is nothing but sacrificial rituals of nomads. So, there is a lot of emotional baggage from those controversies from linguistics.

    So, the rise of nationalistic right and more communist-leaning left (and 1990s liberation policies that put a lot more free time and internet within the reach of middle class) led to shouting behind pro- and anti-AIT* for a variety of above reasons.

    Hope this helps. Others may have a more nuanced view of this.

    (*I am calling it as anti-AIT since geneticists aren’t behind OIT as much as some Indologists are).

  14. @Violet: all the three groups of people you mentioned do exist, but I think the emotional investment comes more from current politics (e.g., consider the “Aryans go back” chant during the Basirhat riots). I would love to add more, but that would be outside the topic, not of interest to a general audience here, and this is not an open thread. Moreover, comments like those from Vijay and Massey above scare me considering Brandolini’s law of bullshit asymmetry, and the fact that perceived burden of proof in Indology is generally stacked against people of a non-leftist persuasion.

  15. Don’t be scared by anything I say – I might reproduce bullshit some time, but solely out of ignorance rather than malice, and I’m very ready to be corrected in such cases by people who know better.

    And I have no persuasion in any direction. There is just the Truth, and I have no interest in anything but the Truth, whatever it might be.

  16. @Violet, @froginthewell: The flipside of many south Indians arguing in favor of AIT is that many south Indian Brahmins are heavily invested in debunking that theory. Because it is widely accepted that Brahmins are descended from north Indian immigrants, an indigenous origin of the “Aryans” would make them less foreign to the south than if the Aryans originated in Russia or thereabouts.

    @John Massey, the scroll article seems to play fast and loose with the facts, though it has a kernel of truth. There’s no evidence that the Mitanni spoke a lick of Sanskrit, just that they had names that Sanskrit-speakers could relate to. Sanskrit, and whatever language the original Mitanni dynasts spoke, were likely descended from Proto-Indo-Aryan, but there’s no conclusive evidence to claim that they are one and the same. (There’s also the slim possibility that the Mitanni were immigrants from India, rather than straight from Andronovo or BMAC. At least, I don’t think that this has been disproven.)

  17. John Massey: sorry, from your reply it seems I probably over-reacted.

    I was quite disoriented by how things get credibility just because they “sound right”: Vijay fabricating facts like “80% of the population resides outside the four-caste system”, or the author of the scroll piece you linked to providing absolutely zero evidence for Sanskrit being recorded in Syria other than that some Mittani folks share common names with people mentioned in Rig Veda (which is already well-known to both pro-AIT and anti-AIT folks: that the Hittites, Mittani etc. are Indo-Europeans who spoke a derivative of some variant/form of a proto-Indo-European). So the article IMO is a mix of well-known but irrelevant facts and a few factually wrong conclusions stated loudly.

    Yes, genetics is genuine science, and it broadly supports some form of AMT/AIT. But sadly this, together with the fact that there do exist nuts among people of my political persuasion, seems to have resulted in lowered standards of evidence that is expected from non-geneticists who support the AIT.

    [Update: Took too long to type the comment and numinous beat me to it. He/she has expressed the overlapping topic better than I did.]

  18. @Numinous – thank you for the enlightenment. I will delete it from my bookmarks.

    Not having a dog in the fight, so to speak, I should just have shut up in the first place. My understanding from reading is that the Truth re: AIT vs OIT will be settled conclusively in time, and rather sooner than later.

    And thank you for using my full name. I am fine with that, or John, or Mr Massey, but I find being referred to as ‘Massey’ to be deeply offensive. I know the English don’t, but I’m not English. Yeah, I know, special snowflake, etc., but I have a real thing about it.

  19. froginthewell – No apology needed, but accepted with thanks anyway. As already said, I should have just shut up and stayed out of it.

    I have already deleted the bookmark for the scroll article. I’m sorry I wasted the time to read it in the first place.

  20. I would like to disagree with one of the points you make in the original article at India Today. If R1a Z93 is found among the Rakhigarhi samples dating to between 2500BC – 2300BC, it would be very significant.

    Let me tell you why :-

    1. The whole Indo-European origin question was first and foremost raised by the linguists and it is they who remain hugely influential in terms of PIE origin and dispersal models. The geneticists would not really care to prove or disprove a Aryan Migration as well as the IE migration into Europe, had the theory not been so eagerly supported by the linguists.

    2. According to the linguistic model of PIE dispersal, it was the Graeco-Armeno-Aryan grouping that stayed back into the PIE homeland while the the others groups moved out. Later the Greeks, Armenians, Albanians moved out while the Indo-Iranians were the last to leave the PIE homeland. It is for this reason that the Indo-Aryan migration is also dated so late in the 2nd millenium BC, as opposed to the late 4th millenium & early 3rd millenium BC date for Europe. This whole theory has to be revised and there is no quick fix for it. It also destroys the archaeological argument proposed by Anthony and Kuzmina that propose the Sintashta people are precursors of the Indo-Iranians, who can only be dated to 2100 BC earliest.

    With Indo-Aryans already in South Asia by 2500 BC, this dominant linguistic and archaeological model therefore is terribly compromised. If Indo-Aryans were already in South Asia by 2500 BC, when did they reach Central Asia and when exactly did they leave the steppe ? In 3000 BC ? That would be around the Yamnaya period. There is zero archaeological evidence for any movement from the steppe into Central Asia in that period, let alone South Asia. Nor can this explain the proposed (linguistic model) late dispersal of Indo-Iranians from their PIE homeland.

    P.S. Are you sure that the aDNA from Rakhigarhi only dates to 2500 BC ? I was under the impression, going by some early media reports, that the earliest samples from Rakhigarhi could be as early as 5500 BC.

  21. @John Massey: regarding “As already said, I should have just shut up and stayed out of it.”, I would like to think that I got to at least slightly update my priors on when to get scared, so it was useful for me.

  22. Vijay fabricating facts like “80% of the population resides outside the four-caste system”,

    that seemed wrong.

    i did RT the piece on ‘sanskrit’ in syria though it couldn’t have been. but most non-indians don’t know the indo-aryan element among the mitanni.

  23. P.S. Are you sure that the aDNA from Rakhigarhi only dates to 2500 BC ? I was under the impression, going by some early media reports, that the earliest samples from Rakhigarhi could be as early as 5500 BC.

    they may only have been able to amplify some of the samples for the september release. i don’t know all the details.

  24. I originally had posted this over at brown pundits, but in retrospect I think is was more a response to comments I have read here. Where are the dravidian comments?!:

    “There are two groups enriched for Iran_N ancestry:
    1.Lower caste groups, especially from South India.
    2.Populations in southern Pakistan.”

    In all these postings I see plenty of usage of the word “Indo-aryan”, this (Iran_N ancestry) seems to indicate the other group in India, “Indo-dravidians”. Not only does this give more credence to a dravidian type ancestry stretching from Elam to India, but also bolstering theories of the original inhabitants of the IVC. I see plenty of responses from the hindutva/OIT leaning persuasion, and accusations from some of these posters about the a supposedly vociferous dravidian nationalist element from the south, but I have heard nary a peep from this other group (so called dravidian nationalists). I’d like to hear also about dravidians as well, as they are the other major component of Indian ancestry that seems to be either ignored or attacked for having their identity.

  25. i think the dravidians are from iran. we just don’t know much about them, and since they are limited to india….

    there were lots of obscure language isolates in ancient middle east. elamite might not even be related to dravidian. the ppl of urartu in what is today armenian (or was armenia) spoke a non-indo-european non-semitic language.

    i think IVC may have been dominantly dravidian, but perhaps indo-aryans arrived right before it collapsed?

  26. Thank you Razib for sharing that! I guess that makes sense to hear more about Indo-aryans as dravidian language/ethnic groups are found nowwhere outside India, albeit a few Brahui isolates all the way to I think Iran. it would be nice though to hear more about them in these commentaries/debates,as no one, not even those I’m assuming are the “indian” background commentators seems to care about what the amazing results of these research findings mean in relation to this other component(dravidian ancestry that is).

  27. @John Massey,

    Thanks for providing your point of view regarding the comment. I was short with Vijay not based on this one comment but the history of comments which don’t add value in terms of knowledge or devotion to truth. I regret showing that impatience. I apologize to you, him and Razib for that display.

    OTOH, Sanskrit may indeed be elsewhere, but that fact was not proven when Max Mueller was learning Sanskrit. So, the balance of probabilities point to racist nature of studies at those times to make comments like Sanskrit can’t be of Indian origin.


    The issues have a long history and I agree that they are more loud and more recent due to more recent politics. I think the near future always looks like more urgent and more important, let’s wait 10 more years and things are either normalized or pendulum would swing back. India has largest youth population that is newly wealthy. Once both those things grow old, we could hope to see more maturity in the discourse.


    It may be true, but South Indian Brahmins who still are invested in their Brahminhood belong to second category, and are more motivated from religious belief than social politics. I don’t see any Brahmins using their caste for political power in South India (even though Jayalalitha was Brahmin, it is often downplayed, and there is no place for Brahmins between Reddys, Naidus, Gowdas etc in other south political fields for caste-bloc voting, afaik). PV Narasimha Rao was another prominent Brahmin, who again, wasn’t playing caste politics; just politics.

    or, I am just an old person overly influenced by Iruvar movie :).

    Perhaps, you may present another POV.

  28. “Vijay fabricating facts like “80% of the population resides outside the four-caste system”,”

    I should rewrite this as 80% of the population (shudra and outside) has no interest in pursuing the dominant narrative.

    I base it on an approximate calculation, given a caste-based census is not yet available:

    OBC = 40%
    SC= 15%
    ST = 7%
    Muslims = 14%
    Christian = 2.3%
    Sikh = 1.9%

    Total = 80%

    And Hence the lack of interest in establishing an Indian origin for either R1A (used as a marker for AIT) or Dravidan (origin from Western Iran and beyond).

  29. @ Vijay,

    If you are indeed counting all OBC = shudra or outside, then there are at least couple of ways your stats are off.

    1. FC (forward castes) in South India are still shudras. There are Brahmins and non-Brahmins, but no “other twice-born”. This puts Reddy, Naidus (the continuous stream of chief ministers for Andhra Pradesh and newly formed Telengana) Gowdas and others as both FC and shudra. So, there is an under-count.

    2. Muslims and Christians are counted under OBC list for reservation purpose (at least in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, where Urdu was the second official language). There is a double count if you are adding OBC and other religions simultaneously.

    I am not entirely sure what is dominant narrative, but to think that most Indian citizens don’t care about origins of their religion seems to run in contrast against the numbers in pilgrimage (as one criteria). Where do all these people visiting Varanasi, Tirumala, Amarnath, Sabarimala, Kumbh Mela etc coming from and why are they displaying the faith in action (often at a great personal costs given their poverty) if they didn’t believe in the myths of the religion itself?

  30. The question was “Could you tell us strangers to the culture of the Subcontinent, what is at stake in this dispute?”

    My response was that the dispute was outside the scope of normal thought in India, and was being used by some to create a storyline of origin in India for creating a manufactured nationality. To these people (They are from both, the present government and the past), Muslims and English were the outsiders, and those that attempt to divide (the already fractured society) based on invasions from far past, is against nation-building.

    This is absolute nonsense since:

    The entire existence of the caste society overflows from invasions in the past. That is not to say that the Pre-Aryan society was free from such prejudices. Each and every caste group uses raw power to torture those outside and below their stratum. To an average Indian (from the 80% I refer to), this argument provides no respite. They are all aware that they are a complex admixture with even the baseline Dravidan may be from some other part of the world.

    It is unclear why the origins of the religion came into the discussion. “Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes” is almost based on KM’s observation of oriental societies.

    Pointing to a few OBC CMs does provide us nothing – if anything, the CMs will move power nowhere outside a few close family members and colleagues.

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