India’s revolt of the petite bourgeois Jatt class

What’s going on in India with the protests of farmers? The New York Times has a report, and that’s the sort of place many Americans will get their news from. But is that enough?

You might think this should be posted on Brown Pundits, but this story is an interesting illustration of how many international stories are about the United States, and its own tribal moods and affiliations, rather than “what’s really going on.” I talked to a friend who lives in India, and he provided his own perspective. This friend is a moderate BJP supporter, just to put his views in context.

One thing that I immediately asked about, because I’m crass and ignorant, was the caste/jati issues at play. The protests are driven by Jatt Sikh farmers in Punjab. Indians automatically know these things, but foreigners are unclear about communal identity and why it might matter. The New York Times mentions the Sikh aspect, but there are many Dalit Sikhs in Punjab, but since they are usually landless they are unlikely to be protesting.

The apportionment of land is highly skewed to Jatt Sikhs in Punjab for historical reasons. Though not really “upper caste,” the Jatts are not a marginalized community in Punjab. They are the ones who stock the rural gentry. They control the villages. For political and social reasons the British gave them title to the lands of the rural areas. If you do a little research you’ll see that Dalits are trying to claw back some of the land-grabs through legal means. The Green Revolution in India was to a great extent due to the revolution of farming in Punjab, away from marginal subsistence, to something resembling a modern economy. It was a massive benefit to Jatts.

In other words, the farmers are not incredibly poor subsistence farming peasants, but more prosperous rural landholders. The subsidies provided by the central government are a consequence of attempts to establish food security for India in the 1960s, and the general pattern across many nations of smoothing the volatility of farming as an enterprise for small-holders. Without massive subsidies often only large industrial scale corporations can engage in farming and make a profit over the long term.

We have farm subsidies in the United States, which are to a great extent the outcome of political compromises. The same is true in the European Union. Without massive subsidies, there would be depopulation in rural France, so society makes the calculation that the tourism value from rural areas exceeds the cost of the subsidies needed to maintain them economically. In the United States, one element of farm subsidies for families is that they maintain the Jeffersonian ethos that we are a nation of individual yeoman farmers.

Of course, we aren’t a nation of yeoman farmers. Fewer than 2% of Americans are farmers. Though farm families are often cash-poor, they are equity rich. One of the major complaints about farm subsidies in the United States is that they are transfers of funds to wealthier individuals and corporations.

Here’s one thing we can agree upon: farm subsidies maintain the status quo. I think one can make a case that in places like France, Japan, and the United States, there is a social good to retaining some number of farmers in rural areas, and not giving agriculture to rational corporations. These are rich societies. They can afford subsidies on various things. So why not to farmers? Even if they are somewhat rich.

But the situation in India is very different.  In India, 22% of the population are farmers (whether they own the land or labor on it). This is a very high number. I think one can make the case that in India it would be a good thing if corporations purchased rural land, and farming families declined in number. The case can be strictly economic, but it can also be cultural.

Rural Jatt society is very conservative and regressive in many ways. Punjab has the highest sex ratio imbalance in India and has to import brides from poorer regions. The culture of Jatts is very patriarchal and macho. Much of Diaspora Indian pop culture is actually Jatt pop culture. I’m not saying this to paint Jatts positively or negatively…but if The New York Times reported on the unique aspects of Jatt culture associated with these farmers its depiction of this group as villains or heroes would change a great deal.

Would it be a bad thing if rural villages in Punjab were depopulated as the children of farmers moved to the cities? That depends on your values. I, myself, think it would be good because caste is less salient in cities, and rural villages are oppressive culturally and socially. The old German saying is that “city air makes you free.”

Nevertheless, the bigger context is that the BJP is angering the farmers with attempts to restructure the subsidies, and the BJP and Hindu nationalism are “bad guys” for the respectable global liberal international, and The New York Times is a voice of that international. Since the farmers are against the BJP, the farmers are good, even if the farmers are sexist, racist*, classist, and chauvinistic Jatt farmers. Though the BJP is on some level deeply anti-liberal, how did it become the bête noire of the liberal international? I think this is a scholarly work that might warrant some labor because it seems that the invective and contempt against Hindu nationalism is greater than the ire directed toward Chinese Communism with its own national characteristics, even though in matters of human rights the latter dwarf the former as much as the Chinese economy dwarfs the Indian economy. To some extent, the same applies to Islamism, which seems to get less targeted anger than the BJP, even though Hindu nationalism and Islamism are similar in many ways.

Here’s my final assessment: this is a clash between a petite bourgeoise ethnic group and a national movement that is aiming to break down local solidarities in favor of broader identity markers (e.g., “Hindu”). If the BJP succeeds I do think this is going to be bad for Jatt Sikh farmers, who can’t extract as many rents as they would otherwise be able to. Creative destruction will go full blast on their communities.

Overall, I would suggest people be careful about figuring out who the “good guys” or “bad guys” are ahead of time. Dig deeper. And then decide.

* 90% of the trolls on Brown Pundits are racist Jatts who explain how they are genetically superior to black small ugly Indians due to being taller and lighter-skinned.


The Aryan Integration Theory (AIT)

Over the past week, there have been lots of reactions to the two papers which came out last week, The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia and An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers. The Insight is still on hiatus, but I managed to interview Vagheesh Narasimhan for my other podcast, so check that out. Like many people, Narasimhan is not keen on the “Aryan invasion theory.” Myself, I don’t have a problem with the term, but it turns out that many Indians dislike the connotations of “AIT” quite a bit.

Since I’m not very invested in semantics, I’m going to just move on and propose another term that identifies a real dynamic. I present then the new AIT, the “The Aryan Integration Theory.”

For various reasons, Narasimhan et al. propose that steppe pastoralists who flourished between 2000 and 1500 BCE are the most likely candidates for the “steppe” contribution to modern Indian genomes. In the Swat valley samples, which date initially to ~1000 BCE, the authors noticed over time the proportion of Iranian-farmer-related ancestry decreased over time to give way to steppe and Andamese-related ancestry.

This pattern over time is related to something you see in the geographical and communal distribution of ancestry in the “three-way admixture” you see:

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Genes, memes, and Mundas

The Munda languages of the northeastern quadrant of the Indian subcontinent are quite interesting because they are more closely related to the Austro-Asiatic languages of Southeast Asia than to the Indo-Aryan or Dravidian languages which are spoken by their neighbors. The Munda are usually classified as adivasi, which has connotations of being an ‘original inhabitant’ of the Indian subcontinent.

More concretely, the Munda have traditionally operated outside of the bounds of Sanskrit-influenced Hindu civilizations, occupying upland zones and governing themselves as tribal units, rather than being a caste population.

What the field of genetics tells us is that there are really no true aboriginal inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent in an unmixed form. That is, the vast majority of people in the Indian subcontinent have a substantial contribution of ancestry from the wave of migration out of Africa that occupied the southeast fringe of Eurasia beginning ~50-60,000 years ago. The modern adivasi generally are defined more by their social-cultural position within the landscape of Indian culture, as opposed to their long-term residence in the subcontinent.*

The term is a particular misnomer for the Munda because of the evidence that they are intrusive to the subcontinent from Southeast Asia. We have ancient DNA and archaeology which indicates that upland rice farmers, likely Austro-Asiatic, arrived in northern Vietnam ~4,000 years ago. This makes it unlikely to me that they were in India much earlier. The Y chromosomal data indicate that the paternal ancestry of the Munda derives from Southeast Asians, not the other way around.

A new genome-wide analysis of the Southeast Asian fraction of Munda ancestry suggests that it can be as high as ~30%. The paper is The genetic legacy of continental scale admixture in Indian Austroasiatic speakers:

Surrounded by speakers of Indo-European, Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman languages, around 11 million Munda (a branch of Austroasiatic language family) speakers live in the densely populated and genetically diverse South Asia. Their genetic makeup holds components characteristic of South Asians as well as Southeast Asians. The admixture time between these components has been previously estimated on the basis of archaeology, linguistics and uniparental markers. Using genome-wide genotype data of 102 Munda speakers and contextual data from South and Southeast Asia, we retrieved admixture dates between 2000–3800 years ago for different populations of Munda. The best modern proxies for the source populations for the admixture with proportions 0.29/0.71 are Lao people from Laos and Dravidian speakers from Kerala in India. The South Asian population(s), with whom the incoming Southeast Asians intermixed, had a smaller proportion of West Eurasian genetic component than contemporary proxies. Somewhat surprisingly Malaysian Peninsular tribes rather than the geographically closer Austroasiatic languages speakers like Vietnamese and Cambodians show highest sharing of IBD segments with the Munda. In addition, we affirmed that the grouping of the Munda speakers into North and South Munda based on linguistics is in concordance with genome-wide data.

The paper already came out as a preprint many months back, so I’ve already mentioned it. The big finding, to me, is that it uses genome-wide methods to estimate an admixture in the range of ~4,000 between the southern Munda Southeast Asian and South Asian ancestral components. It also confirms something that has been pretty evident for nearly ten years of genome-wide analysis of South Asian population genetics: the Munda have less West Eurasian ancestry even after you account for the Southeast Asian admixture than any mainland Indian population outside of the Tibeto-Burman fringe.

In Narasimhan et al. the authors present a model that fits the data where:

  1. The proto-Munda mix with an “Ancient Ancestral South Indian” (AASI) population that has no West Eurasian admixture in India’s northeast
  2. Then, mix more with an “Ancestral South Indian” (ASI) population that has some West Eurasian admixture

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The blood on brown hands is a legacy of all of history

Yesterday I put up a tweet which went a bit viral (I won’t embed since it has a vulgarity). It was the result of my frustration with a very liberal Indian American who was using unfortunate tensions in the Indian subcontinent to attack “white supremacy.” My frustration was due to the reality that a major conflict between India and Pakistan would not just impact India and Pakistan, though that is dire enough. In a globalized world, a war involving the world’s fifth largest economy, situated athwart the southern flank of Asia, would impact many people outside of the subcontinent. In the midst of this, the fact that someone was using this to promote their own ideological hobbyhorse was offensive to me.

But the construct of “white supremacy” was presented specifically in the context of a particular history with the British. That is, British policies in the 19th and early 20th centuries laid the seedbeds of conflict between Hindus and Muslims, along with the tortured borders of the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. This is a complicated issue. It is simply manifestly true that the British administered most of the Indian subcontinent from the beginning of the 19th century down to 1947, to various degrees. And, the British were at the center of defining and delineating the borders and divisions which frame the current tensions within the Indian subcontinent.

And yet, the reality is that I believe all these were contingent. That is, imagine an alternative history where the Sepoy Mutiny succeeded in winning independence for several states within the subcontinent, even if the British also retained some of their territories. Presumably, when the British receded, more independent states would emerge. Would the subcontinent be one of amity and low tension, with the much milder historical footprint of the British? In such a timeline the Amritsar Massacre may never have happened (I presume the British would be more likely to retrench to the coastal areas to the east, south, and southwest).

I don’t believe that that is so. Since I am not Pakistani I did not know what the “Two-Nation Theory” (TNT) was before I ran the Brown Pundits weblog. Basically, this is the idea that the Indian subcontinent has within it two religious nations, the Hindu and Muslim. This is not a theological assertion as much as an ethno-sectarian one. The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was not a devout Muslim. His personal mores were more that of an upper-class Brit (he enjoyed his whiskey). But, his ethnocultural identity was clearly that of an upper-class Muslim. As a lawyer, he defended a man who killed a Hindu who the man believed had blasphemed against Islam. Jinnah’s defense was motivated by his communal loyalty. Even if he himself was not pious, the offense was against the Muslim nation, and he stood with the Muslim nation.

This highlights the fact that the 1947 partition was not driven by the all-powerful British, but also native Indian groups. Though the British, as imperial rulers, implemented the specifics, the underlying demand was from the Muslim League, with the tacit acceptance of many Hindus who were happy to remove a substantial proportion of the subcontinent’s non-Hindu population into another state (some extremely religious fundamentalist Muslims actually opposed partition, since their goal was to convert the whole subcontinent, for which a united India would have been more efficient!).

If you had asked me at a younger age my unconsidered opinion would have been that India should have stayed united to avert the bloodiness of the partition, whose death toll is estimated from the hundreds of thousands to millions. But upon further reflection and thought, I think the TNT captures the essential fact that the Muslim upper-class of Northern India would never be able to reconcile itself well with secondary status within the state, and, with ~25% of the population being Muslim, would always have a huge vote bank so that they could not be ignored. Perhaps a confessional state with a divided balance of power such as Lebanon could have been attempted, but I doubt the Lebanese solution would scale to a polity which covered the whole Indian subcontinent. A more feasible scenario might be a confederation.

The separation of East Pakistan, what became Bangladesh, within a generation of the partition, actually proves to me the point about the Muslim upper-class of Northern India and its general attitude toward power-sharing. Though the Muslim League was quite successful in East Bengal before the partition due to the salience of religious divisions in the region, with the emergence of a Pakistani state the party became the instrument of an elite whose cultural focus was on the northwest of the subcontinent. These were people who saw themselves, quite often genealogically in a valid sense, to be heirs to the Mughal tradition. They dreamed of the time when they had been part of the dominant ruling class (albeit, often subordinate to Turks and Persians).

This was quite separate from the Muslim Bengali identity, which existed more at an equipoise between an Islamic self-consciousness and a Bengali one, which connected them culturally in a deep sense to the Hindu Bengalis who resided across the border in India. The Muslim elite of West Pakistan saw the Bengalis of East Pakistan, even when Muslim as the majority were, to be a culturally and racially inferior group. Culturally inferior because of their embrace of a Bengali high culture which was originally pioneered by Hindus such as Rabindranath Tagore, and racially inferior because they were a smaller and darker-skinned people, who could clearly not make the pretensions toward non-Indian West Asian ancestry common among the post-Mughal Muslim elite.

Now, imagine this same elite having to deal with the Hindu elites of a united India!

What this shows is that the cleavages that exploded into violence in 1947 with the partition were long pregnant within India, before the British ever arrived. The reason I have no patience for the constant indictments of the British is that South Asian elites had their own agency, and their own history, long before the British became the major power in the subcontinent, and retained that agency after. First, one has to remember that the British domination of the subcontinent in a sense we’d recognize it probably dates to the defeat of the Marathas in the Second Anglo-Maratha War of the early 19th century. This puts British rule across much of the subcontinent at 150 years, and even then many of the Princely States administered themselves.

Obviously, India has a history before the British period and that history as preserved and maintained amongst its ruling elements continued down into the British Raj and reemerged after the independence of India and Pakistan. From the period after the emergence of the Delhi Sultanate in ~1200 to the decay of Mughal power in the early 18th century, Turkic conquest elites espousing the faith of Islam were the dominant ruling class of South Asia.

To be sure, not all of them were Turkic. Many were Iranian, Afghan, or Arab, and some were slaves from the Caucasus and Africa. But all of them were swept up in the invasion of the Indian subcontinent driven by Central Asian Turks. This is not exceptional to India, Turkic military elites were often the ruling class of Iran (e.g., the Safavids and Qajars) and many parts of the Arab Near East after 1000 AD. Once in India, the Turks transplanted their Central Asian civilization as best as they could on the very different soil of the subcontinent. A migration of Persians, and even some Arabs such as Ibn Battuta, occurred so as to allow the development of a fully-functioning Islamic civilization co-located within a landscape dominated by diverse Indian traditions that we would today call Hindu (which was at that time was just the generic term for Indian).

Ibn Battuta, in particular, illustrates the fact that within India a whole Muslim world had been transplanted which nevertheless remained not of India, as his own reflections are that of a Muslim moving through Muslim lands, not an Arab in a non-Muslim territory.

The imperialist nature of the conquest dynasties should not be underemphasized. Because of its size and population density, India was attractive to rent-seekers and fortune-hunters. Like the Mongol rule in China, the dominance of a Muslim military elite within India culturally and ideologically distant from the local Brahmin elite opened up an opportunity for West Asians to find favor at court. Ayatollah Khomeini’s paternal grandfather was born in the Indian city of Lucknow. His own ancestors had been invited by the rulers of the region, who were migrants from Nishapur in Iran. Khomeini’s grandfather’s Persian ancestors had left Nishapur and settled in India to receive the patronage and provide service to the rulers who were Shia Muslims of Persian origin such as themselves.

These enclaves of Muslims with recent foreign ancestry have given rise to the ashraf quasi-caste. In White Mughals the author asserts that just as a poor European noble might marry the daughter of a wealthy merchant, so ashraf of pure blood could elevate the lineage of prosperous native stock Indian Muslims.

This digression is to emphasize how the Islamic civilization of South Asia was to some extent a West and Central Asian society intercalated with indigenous elements. The court language of the Mughals, who were in their paternal lineage Timurid arrivistes from Central Asia, was Persian. The camp language was Turki. There were centuries of migration of West and Central Asians into Islamic courts and camps in South Asia that connected India with the Muslim regions to the west and northwest. The non-Indian pretentions of upper-class Muslims from the northwest of the subcontinent are not totally off base. To be sure, the reality is that the vast majority of the ancestry of modern-day South Asian Muslims, even those from the northwest, is indigenous.

Though South Asia remained an overwhelmingly non-Muslim domain, rather early on Islam took on something of the patina of an imperial religion due to the dominance of Muslim military elites. To give an example, in the early 1400s a certain Raja Ganesha, a Hindu, usurped rule in Bengal (which had been under a Turkic dynasty). One concession that mollified Muslim elites toward this usurpation was that he agreed that his son would become a Muslim. And so he did so that Raja Ganesha’s son and grandson ruled Bengal as Muslims. To me, this is reminiscent of the selection of Eugenius as a puppet of the pagan general Arbogast in the West Roman Empire in the late 4th century. Though Eugenius was tolerant toward pagans, he was a Christian. The norm of a Christian ruler of the Roman Empire had already been established by the 390s, even though Christians were only a minority of the population at this time. The Emperor was a Christian ruler of a pagan Empire.

The existence of Islam as an imperial religion resulted in the emergence of an “Islamicate” civilization. Though Rajputs and Pandits remained devout Hindus, they emulated aspects of the elite culture of the Muslims whom they served as vassals or courtiers. Eventually, Muslims of a more native Indian background also came to the fore. Though the powerful ruler of 18th century Mysore, Tipu Sultan, claimed distant West Asian ancestry, the realistic depictions of his features indicate he is clearly an Indian and the descendant of converts to Islam. The Mughal Emperor Akbar exhibits his Turco-Mongol and Persian heritage in his features, while his grandson Shah Jahan looks like the Rajput Indian that three of his four grandparents were. And yet Shah Jahan was a Muslim Mughal prince in culture, and a proud Timurid who wed the daughter of Persian migrants, even if three of his four grandparents were Hindu.

Though any objective analysis shows that the Muslims of South Asia are overwhelming of indigenous ancestry, the cultural and historical imprint of West Asia is indelible upon them, in particular among certain elements of the elite of the northern cities. Their appearance, food, and language, tie them to South Asia. But their religious commitments and romantic attachment to a greater Islamic civilization pull them west.

But of course, there were other people in South Asia. Today we call them Hindus, but that used to be the term for an inhabitant of the Indian subcontinent more generally. Hinduism encompasses a wide range of traditions, from local folk religion to the elite philosophical schools. Perhaps the two things that define Indians, and Hindus, to outsiders are karma and caste. As in Iran the conquest of India did result in some synthesis between the intrusive element, and the native substrate. In the Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier the author argues that the rule of the region by Turkic and Afghan Muslims without investment in Sanskrit allowed for the emergence of a native Bengali linguistic tradition. Meanwhile, in Crossing the Threshold: Understanding Religious Identities in South Asia, the author argues that before the assertion of orthodoxy during the Mughal period, many ethno-religious groups in South Asia were liminal to both Islam and Hinduism. The Meo community may be a relic which reflects some of the sub-elite and peasant practices which have vanished.

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Hinduism before India

Azar Gat is one of my favorite scholars. He does not seem to be one who bows before fashion. If you haven’t, I recommend War in Human Civilization a great deal.

With that being said, perhaps an overlooked work is his more recent Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. It is a reasonable antidote to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson’s book is apparently one of the most assigned works to undergraduates in the United States, and I saw it cited so often that I went ahead and read it to see if there was any “there there.” Alas, that was not to be. I have come to conclude that those who find profundity in Imagined Communities are superficial thinkers, and want “information for free.” That is, a theory that can explain history without having to learn many facts.

Gat’s Nations is not a simplistic argument that the specific nations we see around us today have deep roots in antiquity. The chasms between Arminius, Luther, and Bismarck, are great indeed. But for Gat the conceptual framework of nationhood is derived from primal constituents and extends itself naturally from a common human set of cognitive reflexes and the selective sieve of cultural evolution. A late Roman Republican politician could understand broadly the process of the formation of the creation of modern Italy from various constituent polities which shared a cultural affinity, just as the Roman Republic itself was a fusion of tribes.

This is on my mind because of a post over at Brown Pundits, India Never Existed. In the post, there is a quote from a scholar of South Asia who is seemingly at the center of constant controversy with “Hindu Twitter”:

In the old days, India was not united. And there was no cohesive Hindu identity. Literally, “Hindus” did not call themselves Hindus in premodernity.

So far as today, Hindutva is an ideology of hate, based on early 20th-century European fascism, that derides religious minorities.

Overall I think this is an unhelpful and polemical way to present the facts. I am not a Hindu nationalist. But neither am I secular Indian. In the Indian context “secular” means a very precise thing which is not covered simply by being an irreligious atheist (which I am). As an American who has an intellectual, but frankly no deep emotional, interest in South Asian affairs it is up to Indians to sort out their cultural and political conflicts. But, just as the “Out of India” Hindu nationalists strike me as in the wrong, it seems clear that some secular Indian intellectuals engage in polemics unfounded in fact, or shading the truth in a manner that serves their ideology rather than the facts on the ground.

A certain school of scholars, who seem to be engaging in a culture war against Hindu nationalists, present the genesis of Indian identity as a pure reaction to the engagement with Europe. That is, Indianness develops as a mimic of Englishness. Before 1800 there were  jatis, Muslims of various ethnicities, and curious minorities like Parsis, all coresident across South Asia, but there was no Hindu identity except as a disjoint set of characteristics and cultures which were not included amongst Muslims, Christians, Parsis, etc.

This view is extremely misleading. The genetic evidence seems clear that the ethnogenesis of modern South Asians dates to the period between two and four thousand years ago, between the last massive phase of admixtures between different continental elements, and the emergence of an endogamous caste system. The antiquity of caste is genetically attested and spans much of North and South India. As far back as the time of the Greeks and Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent were known to those outside as a distinctive and coherent element, and the Hindu religious traditions certainly predate 1800. Adi Shankara, an 8th-century thinker who arguably outlined the core tenents tone of “elite Hinduism” as we know them today, was a Brahmin from the far South of the subcontinent.

It is true that the indigenous traditions of the Indian subcontinent were a diverse mix, and many communities (now termed “tribes”) were outside of the caste system and Hindu society. But by the time that Islam arrived in the subcontinent the influence of Brahmins had certainly spread a particular elite culture patronized by most rulers, with those who were skeptical often being devotees of religious groups more distinct from Hinduism (whether it be Buddhists or Jains). It is correct to point out that most people in the Indian subcontinent did not subscribe to Brahmin religious thought, but most of the population of Europe in 1000 AD practiced a very inchoate Christianity, and yet we do not hesitate to term this a Christian civilization, seeing as how much of the continent was bound together by a priestly elite which obtained sponsorship from kings and nobles.

To be frank, some of the anti-Hindutva scholars seem to be engaging in semantic games to win arguments with their ideological enemies. It is clear that Indian national identity in a political sense is recent, and is not analogous to that of China, which is ancient. But should one then say that a “European” identity did not exist in 1000 AD because most European polities were bound together by personal rule and the Christian religion, rather than geography and nationality as we understand it? It is clear that the outlines of what became Europe emerged in the wake of the Roman collapse, and the rise of Islam. Just because courtiers in the court of Charlemagne did not term themselves “Europeans” does not mean that the general outlines of Europeanness did not predate the ideological formulation in the early modern period, as Christians became Europeans.

A bigger framework is that we can see patterns across societies in time and space, and draw analogies and inferences. Human social and political institutions are commensurable. The development of Europe in the wake of the fall of Rome and the shock of the barbarian invasions is neatly analogous to the emergence of native Indian religious traditions in the wake of the shock of the arrival of Muslim Turks. There are differences, but Europe and Europe’s experience is not sui generis. One could state that France “did not exist” until the French Revolution, and the 19th century drives toward assimilation of local dialects and the emergence to prominence of “standard French.” But it is clear that something “French” clearly motivated the elites, Protestant and Catholic, who battled in the 16th and 17th centuries, at the intersection of religion and nationality. Even though most peasants had a rural and local identity, the stage was set for the national passions which inflamed the Revolutionary regime of the 1790s.

Similarly, the Indian republic has had its issues, but it is not a coincidence that it has managed to maintain continuity and integrity through all its ups and downs. Indian identity is clearly somewhat an artificiality because a unified Indian state was imposed relatively late in history, and only for a short period by a Mughal elite which was not in cultural solidarity with the diversity of its subjects. But across the cultural diversity, there is a level of affinity which has historical roots. An analogy here can be made to Indonesia, a diverse archipelago which was never a unitary state, but whose cultural cohesiveness is a product of history rather than politics. The regions of India and Indonesia, Kashmir and the northeast for India, and the eastern islands for Indonesia, are those regions with less cultural affinity and oftentimes no shared history with the central elite.

My understanding of these sorts of issues are informed by two things:

  • Specific attention to details of history, which is hard to obtain without just reading
  • A general understanding of human social development informed by evolutionary anthropology

Some systems of thought constrain comprehension in a semantic straightjacket. So, for example, there are those who would argue that “religion” in a Western context is qualitatively different from “religion” in an Eastern context. I think this is ridiculous. All religions exhibit cognitive features, which are the outcomes of our evolutionary history, which is shared. There is the idea that a nation-state has to be understood as a crisp definition which emerges in the period between the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution. That the nation-state was born in Western Europe, and all successor nation-states the world over are derived from Western European ideas.

There is some contingent truth to this. Modern nation-states are fundamentally Westphalian. The language and the framework of modern diplomacy are European. In particular, it comes out of the second half of the 17th century. But the European nation-state is not sui generis, and diplomacy was not invented by Europeans. The concept of a geographically delimited polity associated with a standing army and civilian bureaucracy is not just something particular to early modern Europe. The Romans, Chinese, and Muslims created such political systems. The Roman system collapsed in Western Europe, while the later European system overwhelmed the Chinese and Muslim political systems.

But even in their accession to the European forms, native societies retained their uniqueness. Their own deep roots. This is evident in both China and Japan, whose political systems outwardly are replicas of European ideologies and frameworks. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a peculiar hybrid of European and indigenous. When Western scholars deride Hindutva as based on “early 20th-century European fascism”, they remove from Indians any agency. As if Hindu nationalism is simply a curry-flavored form of European fascism. Like Baathism, Chinese Nationalism after the purge of the Communists, and the military regime of interwar Japan, there were clear influences from Europe, but all exhibited strong indigenous roots and bases as well.

There are things particular, and things general. It was almost inevitable that a traditionalist Hindu renaissance would develop long before the ferment of right-wing ideologies in early 20th century Europe. The small-scale decentralized Indian cultural complex which weathered the storm of Islamic rule was unlikely to ever maintain itself in the face of modernity (contra Gandhi). It was going to evolve in various directions, and one of them would be reactionary, even if that reaction was toward an imagined past which synthesized future hopes informed by the present with past solidities.

The past was very different. And other cultures are very different. But they are not incomprehensibly different. Outside of Europe the antecedent of the present is not simply the past of Europe. Other societies differ from Europe and reacted in various ways to the colonial experience, but the European shock is not the sum totality of what they are and what they will be. The terms and concepts we use to scaffold our comprehension of the world around us are important in their details, but they are not what we are comprehending. Just because we see the past darkly through the mirror does not entail that we should simply refashion the past in our easier imaginings.


India vs. China, genetically diverse vs. homogeneous

About 36% of the world’s population are citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China and the Republic of India. Including the other nations of South Asia (Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.), 43% of the population lives in China and/or South Asia.

But, as David Reich mentions in Who We Are and How We Got Here China is dominated by one ethnicity, the Han, while India is a constellation of ethnicities. And this is reflected in the genetics. The relatively diversity of India stands in contrast to the homogeneity of China.

At the current time, the best research on population genetic variation within China is probably the preprint A comprehensive map of genetic variation in the world’s largest ethnic group – Han Chinese. The author used low-coverage sequencing of over 10,000 women to get a huge sample size of variation all across China. The PCA analysis recapitulated earlier work. Genetic relatedness among the Han of China is geographically structured. The largest component of variance is north-south, but a smaller component is also east-west. The north-south element explains more than 4.5 times the variance as the east-west.

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The maturation of the South Asian genetic landscape

The above is a stylized map from the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia. In broad strokes, it says some things that are very expected, and some things that are not so expected.

The abstract is long, but I’ll reproduce it in full:

The genetic formation of Central and South Asian populations has been unclear because of an absence of ancient DNA. To address this gap, we generated genome-wide data from 362 ancient individuals, including the first from eastern Iran, Turan (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), Bronze Age Kazakhstan, and South Asia. Our data reveal a complex set of genetic sources that ultimately combined to form the ancestry of South Asians today. We document a southward spread of genetic ancestry from the Eurasian Steppe, correlating with the archaeologically known expansion of pastoralist sites from the Steppe to Turan in the Middle Bronze Age (2300-1500 BCE). These Steppe communities mixed genetically with peoples of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) whom they encountered in Turan (primarily descendants of earlier agriculturalists of Iran), but there is no evidence that the main BMAC population contributed genetically to later South Asians. Instead, Steppe communities integrated farther south throughout the 2nd millennium BCE, and we show that they mixed with a more southern population that we document at multiple sites as outlier individuals exhibiting a distinctive mixture of ancestry related to Iranian agriculturalists and South Asian hunter-gathers. We call this group Indus Periphery because they were found at sites in cultural contact with the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) and along its northern fringe, and also because they were genetically similar to post-IVC groups in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. By co-analyzing ancient DNA and genomic data from diverse present-day South Asians, we show that Indus Periphery-related people are the single most important source of ancestry in South Asia — consistent with the idea that the Indus Periphery individuals are providing us with the first direct look at the ancestry of peoples of the IVC — and we develop a model for the formation of present-day South Asians in terms of the temporally and geographically proximate sources of Indus Periphery-related, Steppe, and local South Asian hunter-gatherer-related ancestry. Our results show how ancestry from the Steppe genetically linked Europe and South Asia in the Bronze Age, and identifies the populations that almost certainly were responsible for spreading Indo-European languages across much of Eurasia.

First Turk Empire

Though the abstract is focused on South Asia, the preprint actually has quite a bit about Inner Asia, because of the provenance of the samples. We often view the typical person in the past as a peasant in an agricultural society, and therefore relatively immobile over their lifetime. The story we like to tell ourselves is that non-elites in premodern societies, on the whole, had narrow horizons, delimited by their home village, or the neighboring network of villages.

But results from this work and others show that mobile populations where individuals spanned vast areas of Eurasia across their lifetimes, were not that uncommon for pastoralists. We know this historically, as empires such as that of the Turks and Mongols were defined by a ruling elite whose writ extended from eastern to western Eurasia. The Sintashta samples, which exhibit genetic heterogeneity, with some individuals very different from the norm in their settlement, is exactly what you’d expect from a social and political culture which was united in some fashion over huge distances.

As the sample sizes for ancient DNA have increased it seems rather clear that demographic dynamics that we see in later historical expansions of Inner Asian polities extends back to the Bronze Age. With expanding populations across the ecologically friendly landscape, the ancient proto-Indo-Europeans seem to have mixed with the local substrate wherever they went, just as Turks did later. As they moved west, they mixed with late Neolithic Europeans, as they went east, they mixed with Siberian populations, and as they conquered south they mixed with descendants of West Asian farmers.

One of the primary aspects that I think one needs to keep in mind is that one can’t just imagine that this was defined by simple diffusion dynamics. Historically the boundary between pastoralists and peasants could be fluid, but when political resistance collapses pastoralists have been able to use their military prowess to swarm across the lands of agriculturalists. In other words, centuries of gradual inter-demic gene flow might be interrupted by a rapid “pulse” admixture. There’s no reason that pre-literate polities couldn’t exist. The Inca were one such example, the homogeneity of the Uruk civilization in the 4th millennium BC is strongly suggestive of an imperial hegemony or paramountcy.

Another dynamic is that pastoralists are highly mobile, and so may leapfrog over territory which is unsuitable. Or, they may move so rapidly that there isn’t much mixing with populations in between point A and point B.

This is apparently the case with the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex. These people were mostly descended from people related to the eastern farmers of West Asia, those in modern day Iran. Some of their ancestry had affinities with Anatolian farmers, and there is some evidence even of Siberian admixture in this region. But there are three important takehomes of this preprint in relation to this area 1) the BMAC did not contribute much genetically to South Asia at all, 2) steppe ancestry, related to that of the Yamna culture of the Pontic region, only shows up in BMAC ~2000 3)  there is actually evidence of South Asian (Indus valley?) migration into the BMAC.

The fact that Yamna-like ancestry shows up in the BMAC region so late is a strong reason to suspect that Indo-Iranian peoples did not move to Iran and India until after 2000 BC. In earlier comments on this issue, I was rather vague about timing, because the Corded-Ware people show up in Europe before 2500 BC, and I was going along with the parsimonious idea that this was part of one single cultural and social revolution.

I was wrong. Going back to the Turkic analogy, there were multiple waves of migration and folk wandering by Turkic pastoralists. By different Turkic groups. One of the major ones occurred due to the rise of the Mongols, and the Mongols were not even Turks. The same seems to be true of Inner Eurasian Indo-European groups.

Moving on to South Asia, there are two primary constructs which come out of this preprint. “Indus Periphery” and “Ancient Ancestral South Indians.” I’ll call the former InPe and the latter is termed AASI. To some extent these complement and replace the earlier terms “Ancestral North Indian” and “Ancestral South Indian” (ANI and ASI). The AASI are the ancient hunter-gatherers of the Indian subcontinent. The authors suggested that divergence of this group from other eastern Eurasians occurred very early, that the division between the ancestors of the Papuans, Onge, and AASI was even polytomic (that basically separated very quickly without discernible structure).

The InPe samples are from eastern Iran and the BMAC. They’re unique in having AASI ancestry, at variable fractions (indicating contemporaneous admixture). They also resemble samples from Swat Valley which date to 1200 BC and later, with one major difference: the Swat Valley samples have steppe ancestry.

There are no samples from the Indus Valley proper, so the authors suggest that the InPe are reasonable proxies. Additionally, they assert that ASI can best be modeled as a mixture between InPe and AASI. In other words, there were two admixture events. Their Pulliyar samples are actually pretty good proxies for the resultant ASI, while the Kalash of Pakistan are good proxies for the ANI, who are presumably now modeled as a mixture of steppe populations with the InPe.

This resolves the enigmatic result that Priya Moorjani reported to me last year: less than 4,000 years ago “pure” ANI and ASI people existed. She was presumably going off admixture timing estimates. These results suggest that in some form ANI and ASI still exist, and the first admixture occurred with the creation of InPe.

Using a new method the authors contend that InPe emerged 4700-3000 BC. If this is true then the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) was a compound of AASI and Iranian agriculturalists (sampled from the eastern end of the cline of admixture with Anatolians, that is, they had none of that ancestry). They also post the first arrival of agriculture to Mehrgarh by 2,000 years at the least. I suspect that it will turn out there were earlier admixtures, which are not being detected. For various ecological reasons the West Asian cultural complex was portable only to the northwest fringe of South Asia, and there it persisted for ~4,000 years. This served as a natural eastern limit for cultures which were migrating out of the West Asian zone, and a point where AASI hunter-gatherers constantly mixed into the local population.

As the IVC sites begin to get sampled in the future I predict that instead of a homogeneous transect of admixture over time and space we’ll see a lot of heterogeneity.

In the Swat samples, the authors see two correlated trends, an increase in steppe ancestry, and an increase in AASI ancestry. No doubt this dates to the “great admixture” which occurred between 2000 BC, and some time before 1000 AD (the Bengali admixture with East Asians dates to between 0 and 1000 AD, as does that of Brahmins who left the North Indian plain and mixed with local populations elsewhere).

Finally, the authors detect a skew toward steppe ancestry among some populations, in particular, Brahmins. The skew is in relation to Iranian farmer ancestry, the two being the primary constituents of ANI ancestry. In Who We Are and How We Got Here David Reich says some of the ANI admixture is much more recent than the rest, judging by tract length. And also going by the BMAC and Swat samples it seems that the time period for when Indo-Aryans arrived in South Asia has to be in the interval between 2000 BC and 1200 BC.

There’s another aspect of the preprint which allows for dating. The arrival of Austro-Asiatic people in South Asia probably has to postdate the expansion of the same group in Vietnam about 4,000 years ago (though not necessarily obviously). But the Munda Austro-Asiatic people of northeast India exhibit curious genetic patterns. They clearly have East Asian ancestry related to other Austro-Asiatic populations in Southeast Asia, but they have a lot less “West Eurasian” in their ANI/ASI mix. The authors resolve this by suggesting that the Munda arrived in South Asia when there was still heterogeneity among the ASI, and unadmixed AASI.

After 2000 BC the IVC went into decline. Various groups of Indo-Aryans were expanding and admixing. From the other end of the subcontinent arrived rice cultivators from Southeast Asia. At some point, they ran into an ASI population that had some Iranian admixture, but not as much as typical. All of this probably occurred in the period between 2000 BC and 1000 BC. I know that some researchers have argued that the Gangetic plain was inhabited by Munda speaking peoples before it was inhabited by Indo-Aryans. The main issue I’ve had with this is that modern Munda peoples are very genetically distinctive, and there’s no evidence of East Asian ancestry in most populations of the Gangetic plain (the main exceptions are those which have experienced Tibetan influence/contact).

So here is my interpretation of the genetic and historical evidence:

1) IVC emerges out of a matrix that was a synthesis of West Asian farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers. I would not be surprised if later genetic work recapitulates the findings in Europe of an initial period of separation, and then a “resurgence” of indigenous ancestry as the barriers between the two groups break.

2) The period between 2000 BC and 1000 BC is the beginning of the transformation of the South Asian genetic and ethnolinguistic landscape, with the intrusion of two different groups from different directions, Indo-Aryans to the west and Austro-Asiatics from the east. Austro-Asiatic rice culture was superior to western wheat culture because rice is more delicious than wheat, but the Indo-Aryans ultimately established cultural supremacy across South Asia by the Iron Age.

3) The situation in South India is more complicated and confused. The admixture of groups like Pulliyar from InPe and AASI into the classic ASI configuration seems to be more recent than 2000 BC (their low bound dates go as late as 400 BC). The admixture may have occurred in various places, not just in South India. The evidence from this paper suggests that the Andronovo/Sintashta cultural zone was characterized by some genetic heterogeneity due to variation in admixture with neighboring peoples, and the same could be said for the IVC then. I would not be surprised if northern IVC locations had more AASI than southern IVC, as the latter were more insulated from the east due to the Thar desert (the results are consistent with earlier work that suggest modern populations in the lower Indus basis have less Indo-Aryan and more Iranian, with less AASI).

4) We need to be careful about assuming that everything here is a linear combination of distinct and separable atomic units of cultural integrity and wholeness. What I mean is that though Brahmins and some other North Indian groups are enriched for steppe ancestry, it is not only their purview. Rather, it may be that these upper caste groups simply mixed less with the other populations with Iranian and AASI ancestry. The statistics in this paper do not detect enrichment of steppe ancestry in South Indian Brahmins. I believe this is simply an artifact of the reality that South Indian Brahmins mixed with Iranian-enriched elites, like Reddys, when they emigrated to the south.

Though the model outlined in the preprint is much more complicated than a simple ANI/ASI mix, it still simplifies the demographic histories of many populations. For example, own survey of the data suggests that Brahmins who left the Indo-Gangetic plain mixed with local elites wherever they went (Bengali Brahmins have East Asian ancestry, just as South Indian Brahmins have more Iranian-like ancestry).

5) Language is important but is not determinative. R1a1a-Z93 arrived in South Asia relatively late with groups from the steppe. Its frequency is highest in the northwest, and among upper castes. That is, it is correlated in a coarse manner to steppe ancestry. But R1a1a-Z93 is pervasive throughout South Asia irrespective of caste and region. Even in Dravidian speaking southern populations, some groups have quite a bit of R1a1a-Z93.

The analogy that presents itself here is Southern Europe, where some groups with high frequencies of R1b, such as the Basques and Sardinians, are clearly descended in the main from pre-steppe populations. What this suggests is that a broad social-culture prestige network mediated by males extended itself into regions where its cultural hegemony was not assured. Additionally, the autosomal genetic impact was modest, even if privileges given to particular male lineages allowed them to sweep other groups out of the gene pool.

Tamil history precipitates out only a little later than that of North Indian Indo-Aryan civilization. I suspect that this is not a coincidence, that South Asia after the collapse of the IVC and the arrival of the Indo-Aryans and Mundas, could be thought of as a brought mixing cauldron genetically and culturally. In many regions, Dravidian languages persisted in the face of the expansive Indo-Aryan, but there was a cultural influence, likely reciprocal. This is why once Indian civilization reemerged its coherent unity set against peoples to the west and east was not strange despite the linguistic gap between the north and the south.

The only exception here might be the Munda. As I have said, R1a1a-Z93 is pervasive. But it is nearly unfound among the Munda, who tend to carry relatively exotic Southeast Asian Y lineages such as O. I believe that the Munda were in some way losers in a cultural conflict, but they maintained themselves in the hills above the Gangetic plain.

Finally, two reflections, one navel-gazing, one big picture. Genome bloggers in the years around 2010 actually anticipated many of these results. There’s some hindsight bias here because you remember the times you are right and not the times you were wrong. We were right that there was more than one ANI pulse. Additionally, we were looking at the ratio between “Eastern European” and “West Asian” ancestry years ago and noticing the skewed patterns, with North Indian Brahmins biased toward the former and South Indian elite non-Brahmins skewed toward the latter. Chaubey 2010 suggested to us that something was different about the Munda not only in their East Asian ancestry but in their ANI/ASI ancestry. They just didn’t seem to have any Indo-European ancestry (steppe), and a lot of ASI. Over the past few years I’ve been suggesting that Dravidian languages were not primal to South India, but the product of a recent expansion (though part of this is due to scientific publications).

The truth was out there. It just took ancient DNA and the analytic chops of the Reich group and their collaborators to prune the tree of possibilities so that we could zero in on a few precise and likely models.

In the general, I wonder about the role of clines, diffusions, and pulses. The models that the foremost practitioners of the science of ancient DNA utilize tend to assume pulse admixtures, rather than isolation-by-distance gene flow. This isn’t always a crazy assumption. But there was a discussion in the paper of a west-east admixture cline between Anatolian farmers and Iranian farmers. Is this cline due to admixture, or was it always there? A paper from a few years ago implied that early farmers were highly structured, structure that broke down later.

Also, the polytomy at the base of the eastern Eurasian human family tree, where all the major lineages diverge rapidly from each other, makes me wonder about gene flow vs. admixture. It seems possible that the polytomy may mask a phylogenetic tree topology which had gradually bifurcating nodes, if periodically a single daughter population replaced all its sister lineages in a local geographic zone. Much of history in human meta-populations may be characterized by isolation-by-distance and gene flow, erased by the extinction of most lineages and expansion of a favored lineage.


The Elephant, dragon and eagle

The relationship between China and India is clearly one-sided: India is obsessed with a China which is approaching lift-off toward becoming on the verge of a developed nation within a generation (certain urban areas are already basically developed, albeit not particularly wealthy in comparison to Hong Kong or Singapore).

Often when I see interviews with regular Chinese about their opinions of the other country the fixation is upon the manifest Third World nature of India, which seems to be changing much more slowly than their own nation. For me GDP is less important that vital statistics like child mortality or life expectancy. And it is in these sorts of statistics where you see the gap opening up between the two nations. India is developing…. but China is leading, and converging faster with developed nations.

It is in this context that this piece in The New York Times jumped out at me, Amazon, in Hunt for Lower Prices, Recruits Indian Merchants:

While has sellers hailing from many countries, Mr. Cheris said that India and China are the two most important places for Amazon to recruit new merchants since both nations are sources of cheap manufactured goods.

Unlike China, where local companies dominate e-commerce, India is also a huge domestic market for Amazon. Although most of India’s commerce is conducted offline, Indians are coming onto the internet at a rapid clip through their smartphones. Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, views India and its 1.3 billion residents as vital to his company’s future, and he has vowed to spend at least $5 billion building up his India operations.

a, I was aware that Amazon really hadn’t gotten any traction in the Chinese market. I did not know that Amazon was so competitive in India, though Flipkart is still dominant there.

The story outlined seems to be part of a bigger trend whereby India is on a very different path from China in its relationship to the rest of the world. China’s economy is big enough and insular enough that it sees the world as either an export market or a source of commodities. It is quickly taking back its place of old as a lumbering hegemon. India, in contrast, seems to be developing a more integrative relationship with large economies such as the United States, despite its command and regulatory economy legacy.

Of course, the India-USA relationship is nothing like “Chimerica” in terms of magnitude, but the Sino-American relationship strikes me as very transactional. Despite the recent tendency of Indian society to espouse a stronger Hindu nationalist line, which is at odds with the West, it seems that there is more cultural exchange between elite Indians and Western societies in the deep sense of values, than has occurred with the Chinese and the West. And, yoga and aspects of spirituality notwithstanding, most of the cultural exchange seems to be toward cosmopolitan elites Indians assimilating to global values which draw from the mode of the West.

Ultimately all of this seems to have geopolitical implications. I’m assuming smarter people than me are keeping track of these trends….


Castes are not just of mind

Before Nicholas Dirks was a controversial chancellor of UC Berkeley, he was a well regarded historian of South Asia. He wrote Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. I read it, along with other books on the topic in the middle 2000s.

Here is Amazon summary from Library Journal:

Is India’s caste system the remnant of ancient India’s social practices or the result of the historical relationship between India and British colonial rule? Dirks (history and anthropology, Columbia Univ.) elects to support the latter view. Adhering to the school of Orientalist thought promulgated by Edward Said and Bernard Cohn, Dirks argues that British colonial control of India for 200 years pivoted on its manipulation of the caste system. He hypothesizes that caste was used to organize India’s diverse social groups for the benefit of British control. His thesis embraces substantial and powerfully argued evidence. It suffers, however, from its restricted focus to mainly southern India and its near polemic and obsessive assertions. Authors with differing views on India’s ethnology suffer near-peremptory dismissal. Nevertheless, this groundbreaking work of interpretation demands a careful scholarly reading and response.

The condensation is too reductive. Dirks does not assert that caste structures (and jati) date to the British period, but the thrust of the book clearly leaves the impression that this particular identity’s formative shape on the modern landscape derives from the colonial experience. The British did not invent caste, but the modern relevance seems to date to the British period.

This is in keeping with a mode of thought flourishing today under the rubric of postcolonialism, with roots back to Edward Said’s Orientalism. As a scholar of literature Said’s historical analysis suffered from the lack of deep knowledge. A cursory reading of Orientalism picks up all sorts of errors of fact. But compared to his heirs Said was actually a paragon of analytical rigor. I say this after reading some contemporary postcolonial works, and going back and re-reading Orientalism.

To not put too fine a point on it postcolonialism is more about a rhetorical posture which aims to destroy what it perceives as Western hegemonic culture. In the process it transforms the modern West into the causal root of almost all social and cultural phenomenon, especially those that are not egalitarian. Anyone with a casual grasp of world history can see this, which basically means very few can, since so few actually care about details of fact.

Castes of Mind is an interesting book, and a denser piece of scholarship than Orientalism. Its perspective is clear, and though it is not without qualification, many people read it to mean that caste was socially constructed by the British.

This seems false. It has become quite evident that even the classical varna categories seem to correlate with genome-wide patterns of relatedness. And the Indian jatis have been endogamous for on the order of two thousand years. From The New York Times, In South Asian Social Castes, a Living Lab for Genetic Disease:

The Vysya may have other medical predispositions that have yet to be characterized — as may hundreds of other subpopulations across South Asia, according to a study published in Nature Genetics on Monday. The researchers suspect that many such medical conditions are related to how these groups have stayed genetically separate while living side by side for thousands of years.

This is not really a new finding. It was clear in 2009’s Reconstructing Indian Population History. It’s more clear now in The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia.

Unfortunately though science is not well known in any depth among the general public. The ascendency of social constructionism is such that a garbled and debased view that “caste was invented by the British” will continue to be the “smart” and fashionable view among many intellectual elites.


Indian genetic history: before the storm

Over at Brown Pundits I’ve mentioned the continuing simmer of controversy over a recent piece, How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate. This has prompted responses in the Indian media from a Hindu nationalist perspective. One of these notes that the author of the piece above cites me, and then goes on to observe I was fired from The New York Times a few years ago due to accusations of racism (also, there is the implication that I’m just a blogger and we should trust researchers with credibility like Gyaneshwer Chaubey; well, perhaps he should know that Gyaneshwer Chaubey considers me “unbiased” according to an email exchange which I had with him last week [we all have biases, so I think he’s wrong in a literal sense]).

I was a little surprised that a right-wing magazine would lend legitimacy to the slanders of social justice warriors, but this is the world we live in. Those who believe that everything written about me in the media, I invite you to submit your name and background to me. I have contacts in the media and can get things written if I so choose. Watch me write something which is mostly fact, but can easily be misinterpreted by those who Google you, and watch how much you value the objective “truth-telling” power of the press all of a sudden.

There’s a reason so many of us detest vast swaths of the media, though to be fair we the public give people who don’t make much money a great deal of power to engage in propaganda. Should we be surprised they sensationalize and misrepresent with no guilt or shame? I have seen most of those who snipe at me in the comments disappear once I tell them that I know what their real identity is. Most humans are cowards. I have put some evidence into the public record to suggest that I’m not.

Perhaps more strange for me is that the above piece was passed around favorably by Sanjeev Sanyal, who I was on friendly terms with (we had dinner & drinks in Brooklyn a few years back). I asked him about the slander in the piece and he unfollowed me on Twitter (a friend of Hindu nationalist bent asked Sanjeev on Facebook about the articles’ attack on me, but the comment was deleted). It shows how strongly people feel about these issues.

I’m in a weird position because I’m brown and have a deep interest in Indian history. But that interest in Indian history isn’t because I’m brown, I’m pretty interested in all the major zones of the Old World Oikoumene. Aside from some jocular R1a1a chauvinism I don’t have much investment personally (I just told said Hindu nationalist friend who turns out to be R2 to clean my latrine; joking of course, though I’m sure he resents that I’m descended on the direct paternal line from the All-Father & Lord of the Steppes and he is not!).

In the aughts I accepted the model outlined in 2006’s The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations. But to be frank it always struck me as a little confusing because the tentative autosomal data we had suggested that many South Asians were closer to West Eurasians than deep divergences dating to the Last Glacial Maximum would suggest. Since I’ve written something like 5 million words in 15 years, I actually can check if I’m remembering correctly. So here’s a post from 2008 where I express reservations of the idea of long term deep heritage of Indians separate from other West Eurasians. The reason I was so impressed by 2009’s Reconstructing Indian Population History is that it resolved the paradox of South Asian genetic relatedness.

To recap, Reich et al. proposed that modern Indians (South Asians) could be modeled as a two way mixture between two distinct populations with separate evolutionary genetic histories, Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI). How distinct? ANI were basically another West Eurasian population, while ASI was likely nested in the clade with Eastern Non-Africans. Additionally, there was a NW-to-SE and caste admixture cline. In other words, the higher you were on the caste ladder the more ANI you had, and the closer your ancestors were from the north and west, and more ANI you had. The difference between Y and mtDNA, male and female, could be explained by sex-biased migration.

But there were still aspects of the paper which I had reservations about. After all, it was a model.

  • Models are imperfect fits onto reality. The idea of mass migration seemed ridiculous to me at the time, because even by the time of the Classical Greeks it was noted that India was reputedly the most populous land in the world (to their knowledge). But ancient DNA has convinced me of the reality of mass migrations.
  • I wasn’t sure about the nature of the closest modern populations to the ANI. The researchers themselves (in particular, Nick Patterson) told me that the relatedness of ANI to Europeans was very close (on the order of intra-European differences). But modern Indians do not look to be descended from a population that is half Northern European physically. Again, ancient DNA has shown that there was lots of population turnover, and it turns out that Europeans and ANI were likely both compounds and mixed daughter populations of common ancestors (also, typical European physical appearance seems to have emerged in situ over the past 5,000 years).
  • The two way admixture modeled seemed too simple. I had run some data and it struck me that North Indian populations like Jats had something different than South Indian groups like Pulayars. In 2013 Priya Moorjani’s paper pretty much confirmed that it was more than a two way admixture along the ANI-ASI cline.

This March BMC Evolution Biology published Silva et al’s A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. It has made a huge splash in India, arguably triggering the write up in The Hindu. But for me it was a bit ho-hum. If you read my 2008 post it is pretty clear that I suspected the most general of the findings in this paper at least 10 years back. It is nice to get confirmation of what you suspect, but I’m more interested to be surprised by something novel.

Nevertheless A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals has come in for lots of repeated attack in the right-wing Indian press. This is unfair, because it is a rather good paper. I suspect that it wasn’t published in a higher ranked journal because most scientists don’t consider the history of India to be that important, and they didn’t really apply new methods, as opposed to bringing a bunch of data and methods together (in contrast, the 2009 Reich et al. paper was one of the first publications which showed how to utilize “ghost populations” in explicit phylogenetic models with relevance to human demographic history).

As it happens I will be writing up my thoughts in detail in an article for a major Indian publication (similar circulation numbers as The Hindu). This has been in talks for over six months, but I’ve been busy. But a month or so ago I thought it was time that I put something into print for the Indian audience, because I felt there was some misrepresentation going on (i.e., the Aryan invasion theory has not been been refuted by genetics, but this is what many Indians assert).

For any years people have told me there are certain topics that shouldn’t be talked about. I have offended people greatly. There are many things people do not want to know. I have come to the conclusion this is not an entirely indefensible viewpoint (though if you accept this viewpoint, I think acceptance of authoritarianism is inevitable, so I hope people will toe the line when the new order arrives; knowing their personalities I think they will conform fine). But my nature is such that I continue to have nothing but contempt for the duplicitous and craven manner in which people go about these sorts of private conversations. I assume that as someone with the name “Razib Khan” I will be attacked vociferously by Hindu nationalists, who will no doubt make recourse to the Left-wing hit pieces against me to undermine my credibility. The fact that these groups are fellow travelers should tell us something, though I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

I will write my piece that reflects the science as I believe it is, without much consideration of the attacks. That is rather easy for me to do in part because I live in the United States, where denigrating the deeply held views and self-esteem of Hindu nationalists is not sensitive or politically protected (unlike say, Muslims). And Hindu nationalists are less likely to kill me by orders of magnitude than Muslim radicals, and they have far less purchase in this nation then the latter (though you may be interested to know that very conservative Muslims follow me on Twitter; they’re actually more open-minded than many SJWs to be entirely honest).

Let me go over some general points that I see coming up over and over on the relationship between Indian (pre)history and genetics in the critiques .

One of the major critiques has to do with the nature of R1a-Z93 and its subclades. Basically this Y chromosomal haplogroup, the greatest that has ever been known, exhibits a strong signature of very rapid expansion over the past 4,000 years or so. It is divided from Z282. While Z93 is found in South Asia, Central Asia, and Siberia, Z282 is European, with its dominant subclade the one associated with Eastern Europeans. Both of these clades of R1a have gone through massive expansion. In the Altai region R1a is 40% of the heritage of peoples who are now predominantly East Eurasian today. But they are Z93. Additionally, ancient DNA from the Pontic Steppe dated ~4,000 years ago from Srubna remains is Z93, as are Scythian remains from the Iron Age.

Much of the argument comes down to dating, and citing papers that give deep coalescence numbers between difference branches of R1a1a. Hindu nationalists and their fellow travelers point to recent papers which give dates >10,000 years ago, and so place the origin of Z93 plausibly in the Pleistocene. The problem is that Y chromosomal coalescence dating is something of a mug’s game. Often they use microsatellite data whose mutational rates are highly uncertain. In contrast, using SNP data, which has a slower mutation rate but requires a lot more data, you get TRMCA (common ancestry) between Z93 and Z282 around ~5,800 years ago. But coalescence estimates often have wide confidence intervals of thousands of years. And even with these intervals, the assumptions you make (e.g., mutation rate) strongly influence your midpoint estimate.

The Y chromosomal data is powerful, but its interpretation is still buttressed upon other assumptions. The really big picture framework is the nature of ancient genome-wide variation across Eurasia. Lazaridis et al. 2016 condition us to a prior where much of Eurasia was subject to massive population-wide genetic changes since the Holocene. Therefore, I am much less surprised if there was massive genetic change in India relatively recently. The methods in Priya Moorjani’s paper and in other publications make it obvious that mixture was extensive in South Asia between very distinct groups until about ~2,000 years ago. In fact, Moorjani et al. using patterns of variation across the genome to come at a number of two to four thousand years ago as the period of massive admixture.

Though we don’t have relevant ancient DNA from India proper to answer any questions yet, we do have ancient DNA from across much of Europe, Central Asia, and the Near East. What they show is that Indian populations share ancestry from both Neolithic Iranians and peoples of the Pontic steppe, who flourished ~5 to ~10,000 years ago. To some extent the latter population is a daughter population of the former…which makes things complicated. Conversely, no West Eurasian population seems to harbor ancient signals of ASI ancestry.

One scientist who holds to the position that most South Asian ancestry dates to the Pleistocene argued to me that we don’t know if ancient Indian samples from the northwest won’t share even more ancestry than the Iranian Neolithic and Pontic steppe samples. In other words, ANI was part of some genetic continuum that extended to the west and north. This is possible, but I do not find it plausible.

The reasons are threefold. First, it doesn’t seem that continuous isolation-by-distance works across huge and rugged regions of Central Eurasia. Rather, there are demographic revolutions, and then relative stasis as the new social-cultural environment crystallizes. This inference I’m making from ancient DNA and extrapolating. This may be wrong, but I would bet I’m not off base here.

Second, it strikes me as implausible that there was literally apartheid between ASI and ANI populations for the whole Holocene right up until ~4,000 years before the present. That is, if Northwest India was involved in reciprocal gene flow with the rest of Eurasia over thousands of years I expect there should have been some distinctive South Asian ASI-like ancestry in the ancient DNA we have. We do not see it.

Third, one of the populations with strong affinities to some Indian populations are those of the Pontic steppe. But we know that this group itself is a compound of admixture that arose 5,000-6,000 years ago. Because of the complexity of the likely population model of ANI this is not definitive, but it seems strange to imagine that ANI could have predated one of the populations with which it was in genetic continuum as part of a quasi-panmictic deme.

Finally, many of the critiques involve evaluation of the scientific literature in this field. Unfortunately this is hard to do from the outside. Citing papers from the aughts, for example, is not wrong, but evolutionary human population genomics is such a fast moving field that even papers published a few years ago are often out of date.

Many are citing a 2012 paper by a respected group which argues for the dominant model of the aughts (marginal population movement into South Asia). One of their arguments, that Central Asian migrant should have East Asian ancestry, is a red herring since it is well known that this dates to the last ~2,000 years or so (we know more now with ancient DNA). But the second point that is more persuasive in the paper is that when they look at local ancestry of ANI vs. ASI in modern Indians, the ANI haplotypes are more diverse than West Eurasians, indicating that they are  not descendants but rather antecedents (usually the direction of ancestry is from more diverse to less due to subsampling).

There are two points that I have make here. First, local ancestry analysis is difficult, so I would not be surprised if they integrated ASI regions into ANI and so elevated the diversity in that way (though they think they’ve taken care of it in the paper). Second, if the ANI are a compound of several West Eurasian groups then we expect them to be more diverse than their parents. In other words, the paper is refuting a model which is almost certainly incorrect, but the alternative hypothesis is not necessarily the true hypothesis (which is a more complex demographic model than many were testing in 2012).

But there are many things we do not know still. Many free variables which we haven’t nailed down. Here are some major points:

  • Y chromosomal lineages have a correlation with ethno-linguistic groups, but the correlation is imperfect. R1b and R1a seems correlated with Indo-European groups, but both these are found in high proportions in groups which are putatively mostly “pre-Indo-European” in origin (e.g., Basques, Sardinians, and South Indian tribals and non-Brahmin Dravidian speaking groups). Also, haplogroups like I1 in Europe expand with Indo-Europeans locally, suggesting there was lots of heterogeneity in Indo-Europeans as they expanded. In other words, Indo-European expansion in relation to powerful paternal lineages did not always correlate with ethno-linguistic change.
  • There are probably at minimum two Holocene intrusions from the northwest into South Asia, but this is a floor. The models that are constructed always lack power to detect more complexity. E.g., it is not impossible that there were several migrations of Indo-Europeans into South Asia which we can not distinguish genetically over a period of a few thousand years.
  • If one looks over all of South Asia it may be that ASI ancestry in totality is >50% of the total genome ancestry. I don’t have a good guess of the numbers. If this is correct, perhaps most South Asian ancestors 10,000 years ago were living in South Asia (though the fertility rate are such in Pakistan that ANI ancestry is increasing right now in relative rates).
  • But, this presupposes that ASI were present in South Asia in totality 10,000 years ago, rather than being migrants themselves. If ancient DNA confirms that ANI were long present in Northwest India, I hold then it is entirely likely that ASI was intrusive to South Asia! The BMC Evolutionary Biology Paper does a lot of interpretation of deep structure in haplogroup M in South Asia. I’m moderately skeptical of this. Europe may not be a good model for South Asia, but there we see lots of Pleistocene turnover.

So where does this leave us? Ancient DNA will answer a lot of questions. Pretty much all scientists I’ve talked to agree on this. My predictions, some of which I’ve made before:

  1. The first period of admixture is old, and dates to the founding of Mehrgarh as an agricultural settlement. The dominant ANI component dates to this period and mixture event, all across South Asia. The presence in South India is due to expansion of these farming populations.
  2. A second admixture event occurred with the arrival of steppe people. Those who argue for the Aryan invasion model posit 1500 BCE as the date. But these people probably were expanding in some form before this date.
  3. We still don’t know who the antecedents for the Indo-Aryans were. Probably they were a compound of different steppe groups, and also other populations which were mixed in (by analogy, in Europe it is obvious now that there was some mixture with the local European farmers and hunter-gatherers as Europeans expanded their frontier westward; the same probably applies for Indo-Aryans are the BMAC).