In the short history of humans, each of our tribe, clans, kingdoms, empires and nations have considered themselves to be superior over the other. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was conceived by the people that the newly created nations they belonged to were superior to all other nations, and that they had existed from times immemorial. None of these beliefs are true and no human community is of any exceptional status.
Nations of today are no older than a few centuries and are all interconnected, genetically, culturally and historically. History begins when writing begins, and places and individuals come alive before us, with their names and recognisable stories.
In prehistory, there are no written records and hence we cannot know the names of people, places, etc, but to some extent, we can work out about their life using other kinds of evidence like fossils, archaeological excavations of ancient human settlements, objects made by them such as tools and most importantly, the DNA of both ancient and present day individuals.
Scientists have concluded that the evolution of humans took place in Africa. In recent years, Eleanor Scerri of the University of Oxford, with a group of 23 scientists, said there is evidence from across the continent, which supports that modern humans evolved all over Africa (not in one part East or South), in the Middle Stone Age. They prepared different tools, which suggest that human populations were isolated from each other for a long time due to geographic features such as deserts and rivers.
In a study published in ‘Nature’, researchers reported that dramatic climatic fluctuations had triggered periodic waves of human migration out of Africa about 1,00,000 years ago. This migration happened every 20,000 years or so and the single-most prominent migration was 70,000 years ago, wherein our ancestors travelled out of Africa to nearby continents.
As per Indian archaeologists, the first modern humans arrived in India as early as 1,20,000 years ago but as per Population Geneticists — study of genetic variation within and between population groups, it is about 65,000 years ago. As per genetics, the first modern human in India means the first group of modern humans whose left behind lineage, is still around. As per archaeologists, the first group of modern humans means those who left behind archaeological evidence, irrespective of whether they have any surviving lineage or not.
The study of population genetics through DNA evidence shows that modern humans outside Africa are all descendants of a single population of ‘Out of Africa’ migrants, who moved into Asia around 70,000 years ago, and then spread all over the world.
In genetics, we can track record of mutations reflected in mtDNA and Y chromosome and create a genetic family tree, ie, haplogroup –single group. In simple terms, if two people belong to the same mtDNA haplogroup, it means they have a common female ancestor dating the time the haplogroup originated. If two men belong to the same Y chromosome haplogroup, it means they have a common male ancestor dating the time that haplogroup originated.
Indians can trace their ancestry back to around 65,000 years ago, when a band of modern humans, Homosapiens, first made their way from Africa to the subcontinent. They reached Asia from Africa walking along the coast of Southern Asia and then went all the way to Australia. Another group went towards Central Asia and Europe. The genetic ancestry of these original Indians constitutes 50-60% of our DNA today, irrespective of their caste, language, religion or region.
The second major migration occurred around 12,000 years ago when the population related to farmers of Iran, who were in the North-western region, mixed with the first migrants, creating an agricultural revolution that resulted in the Harappan/Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC).
The third farming-related migration from East Asia occurred around 2000 BCE ago that brought Austro-Asiatic languages such as Khasi and Mandari to India. The fourth migration took place between 2000 and 1500 BCE soon after the collapse of the Harappan civilisation. It brought central Asian pastoralists from Kazakh Steppe (grassland plains without trees), who spoke Indo-European languages and called themselves Aryans. During this period, there was a great mixing among the groups with different migration histories that left no Indian population group untouched.
In 2019, a paper titled ‘The Formation of Human Populations in South and Central Asia’ was published in the journal ‘Science’, with 117 scientists as co-authors. The lead author was Vagheesh M Narasimhan of Harvard University Medical School. Kumaraswamy Thangaraj of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, was co-director along with David Reich of Harvard Medical School. The paper highlights that, “by sequencing 523 ancient humans, we found that the primary source of ancestry in modern South Asians is a prehistoric genetic gradient between people related to early hunter-gathers of Iran and Southeast Asia.
After the Indus Valley Civilisation’s decline, its people mixed with individuals in Southeast (ie, southeast of north-western India where IVC flourished) to form one of the two main ancestral population of South Asia, called Ancestral South Indian/ASI), whose direct descendants live in southern India. Simultaneously, they mixed with descendants of Steppe (characterised by grassland plains without trees in south-eastern Europe) pastoralists who, starting around 4000 years ago, spread via Central Asia to form the other main ancestral population (or Ancestral North Indians). The Steppe ancestry in South Asia has the same profile as that of Bronze Age Eastern Europe, tracking a movement of people.”
Therefore, through waves of migration and mingling in prehistory, it is splendid how population genetics has confirmed the statement of the Maha Upanishad: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, ‘The whole world is a family.’
(The author is a retired IFS officer)
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