Friday, August 30, 2013

India's melting pot

Inamgaon is a small village located on the right bank of Ghod river, about 85 Km from the city of Pune, located in the central Deccan plateau of the Indian peninsula. There is an ancient archaeological site located here, at about three miles from the village. It is a very extensive site, consisting of five mounds forming a rough semicircle, spread over an area of 65 acres (500 X 500 m). Archaeologists from Deccan College at Pune have been carrying out extensive excavation work at this site for a span of 14 years(1968-82).

This site is unique and extremely important. This is perhaps the only known archaeological site, that shows proof of continuous habitation for a long and critical time from India's past that bridges the pre-historic and historic periods. Historians generally call that period from the past, which begins with times of Shakyamuni Siddhart Goutam Buddha (563 to 486 BCE) as historic period, because written records in some form or other are available from that event. The period prior to this, is generally known as pre-historic period.

 House with circular construction excavated at Dholavira in Kutch from a period around 1600 BCE

The excavation at Inamgaon has shown that this site was inhabited from 1600 BCE to 700 BCE forming a link between the times of extinction of Indus-Sarswati civilizations in North India and times of Goutam Buddha. It is also generally believed that around 1900 to 1600 BCE, Vedic culture evolved in India, slowly taking over from the Idol worshiping, Indus-Sarswati culture. Archaeologists divide the Inamgaon habitation in three separate cultural periods: Malwa Culture (1600-1400 BCE), Early Jorwe culture (1400-1000 BCE) and late Jorwe culture (1000-700 BCE).

 Malwa culture house at Inamgaon with circular construction and sunken floor

The earliest settlers at the site were the people of the Malwa culture, who are believed to have migrated here from Malwa, which is the region from north central India (Presently part of Madhya Pradesh state) . It is believed that as water sources of habitations in Indus-Sarswati civilizations to further northeast, became scarce, people started migrating to east and south and it is likely that people of Malwa culture had moved there originally from Indus-sarswati basins.

  Jorwe culture house at Inamgaon with rectangular circular construction and sunken floor

The next settlers at Inamgaon were the people, who probably came from the Pravara-Godavari valleys (Part of Deccan plateau only) sometime after the middle of the second millennium BCE. The excavations show that there appears to be an appreciable overlap between these two phases of occupation.

In most of the archaeological sites, cultural periods form vertical layers at a site and digging deeper and deeper would normally mean going back in time. Here at Inamgaon, excavations from different cultural periods were done at the same horizontal level with the artifacts and objects that are discovered in one trench, pointing out to one specific period and culture only.

Americans think of USA as a great melting pot, where people of different races and from different regions on earth, have got together and have evolved a new American culture and society. Did something similar happen in Inamgaon? Where people from a distinct northern culture, melted with people, who were already settled in the region or who had earlier come in from Malaysia and Andaman-Nicobar islands.

Historically speaking, the societies in India have been bound completely in a rigid caste system, that allows only endogamy or marrying within your own group or caste. What did then happen at Inamgaon? Was there a caste-based system in force or was it a melting pot of people migrating from north and people who had earlier reached there after possibly travelling from Malaysian peninsula or from Andaman-Nicobar islands?

The findings of a new research project appear to confirm now, the melting pot theory. This project was undertaken by a group of scientists, Priya Moorjani, Kumarasamy Thangaraj, Nick Patterson, Mark Lipson, Po-Ru Loh, Periyasamy Govindaraj, Bonnie Berger, David Reich and Lalji Singh, Scientists from Harvard Medical School and the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India. The report is titled as 'Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India' and has been published in the latest issue of 'American Journal of Human Genetics.' According to this report, genetic studies carried out under this project confirm:

Most Indian groups descend from a mixture of two genetically divergent populations: Ancestral North Indians (ANI) related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians, and Europeans; and Ancestral South Indians (ASI), not closely related to any groups outside the subcontinent.”

Researchers working on this project found that bloodlines of each and every person, whose blood was examined, could be traced back to two original ancestral groups, one hailing from Africa and the other from Eurasia. These two groups mingled, married and swapped genes. But at some mysterious point in history, compared to other people from Europe and Asia, which look positively homogeneous, the Indian population divided along linguistic, religious and tribal lines, to the point where it separated into 4,635 distinct genetic groups.

Would this mean that a melting pot like a possible one at Inamgaon, stopped melting suddenly and froze? But when did it happen? Was it before Inamgaon settlement or sometime after that? The researchers have been able to find clear and unambiguous answers for this question. They say that the genetic mixture between Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI), started happening around 4200 years ago ( around 2200 CBE) or during mature Harappa period. From this time till about first century CE or 1900 years ago, ANI-ASI mixtures occurred continuously for next 2100 years. The report says:

"It was a time of profound change, characterised by the de-urbanisation of the Indus civilisation, increasing population density in the Gangetic system, and the likely appearance of Indo-European languages and Vedic religion."

But then something strange happened, and this genetic mixing of ANI and ASI stopped suddenly and completely and the melting pot froze. The report says that this point of time (First century CE) is surprisingly, few centuries later than the believed time, when caste system was codified in religious texts. Megasthenes in his Indica circa 300 BCE, and the contemporaneous Arthashastra both mention about caste system so also other epics like Mahabharata. This really means that endogamy was not commonly prevalent, for centuries even after the system was codified by religious texts. (However, The Manusmriti, which forbade intermarriage between castes, is however believed to have been written later, around 1st century CE.)

Genetically speaking, freezing the melting pot, can not be considered as a beneficiary event for a society. This report correctly points out this aspect:

An important consequence of these results is that the high incidence of genetic and population-specific diseases that is characteristic of present-day India is likely to have increased only in the last few thousand years when groups in India started following strict endogamous marriage.”

Coming back to Inamgaon, we can conclude that it was a true melting pot and hundreds of places like Inamgaon must have helped in evolving the modern Indian people and culture. Let us now see whether we can co-relate the facts mentioned in this report with historically known facts.

Ever since 10000 BCE there has been a steady migration to Indian peninsula from northwest. The migrated people established themselves into Indus-Sarswati basins. This civilization continued almost up to 2000 BCE. These people perhaps never came into contact or got mixed up with other people staying in south and who possibly could have originated from Malaysian peninsula as well as Andaman-Nicobar islands. It is no wonder that this report supports this by saying that there was no genetic mixing in this period between ANI and ASI.

As water sources dried up in Indus-Sarswati basin, there were migrations to south and east. This is where places like Inamgaon come in. As archaeologists have found out, there was an appreciable overlap between these two phases of occupation by ANI and ASI populations. This must have resulted in intermixing of bloodlines right up to period of Goutam Buddha.

What is surprising is the fact, highlighted by this report, that rigid caste divisions in the society and tradition of endogamy came in practice, from 1st century CE. This is so, because firstly, even though Vedic culture bloomed in India immediately after disappearance of Indus-Sarswati cities, yet for next 2000 years it appears from the report that no caste system was followed by the majority of people. Secondly, Buddhist culture, which advocates equality of mankind, was supreme and popular, when this practice of endogamy was strictly enforced in 1st century CE. This is very interesting, as many people believe, that the Indian caste system has been in existence ever since Vedic culture bloomed in to India about 4000 years ago. Yet there was no caste system prevalent earlier and it came into being only when Buddhist culture, that teaches equality, was supreme. In short, this means that the present-day structure of the caste system, has come into being, only relatively recently in Indian history.

The human habitat at Inamgaon and similar places therefore assume great relevance from point of genetic history of Indian people. It was here that the true Indian genetic pool was created for the first time and genetic mixing continued for next 2000 years, when suddenly a great freeze in form of the caste system came into force and froze everything.

30 August 2013

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