India: Politics and Genomics


David Reich:
The tensest twenty-four hours of my scientific career came in October 2008, when my collaborator Nick Patterson and I traveled to Hyderabad to discuss these initial results with Singh and Thangaraj. Our meeting on October 28 was challenging.  
Singh and Thangaraj seemed to be threatening to nix the whole project. Prior to the meeting, we had shown them a summary of our findings, which were that Indians today descend from a mixture of two highly divergent ancestral populations, one being “West Eurasians.” Singh and Thangaraj objected to this formulation because, they argued, it implied that West Eurasian people migrated en masse into India. They correctly pointed out that our data provided no direct evidence for this conclusion. They even reasoned that there could have been a migration in the other direction, of Indians to the Near East and Europe. Based on their own mitochondrial DNA studies, it was clear to them that the great majority of mitochondrial DNA lineages present in India today had resided in the subcontinent for many tens of thousands of years.21 They did not want to be part of a study that suggested a major West Eurasian incursion into India without being absolutely certain as to how the whole-genome data could be reconciled with their mitochondrial DNA findings. 
Reich, David. Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (Kindle Locations 2514-2524). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 
The genomics of ancient India is controversial for reasons of both history and contemporary politics.  The historical reason has to due with uses the Nazis and earlier European racists made of the fact that many Indian languages, including the ancient sacred language of Hindu religion/culture, Sanskrit, are related to the languages of Europe (and other places).  The oldest Sanskrit epic, the Rig Veda, tells the tale of Aryan chariot riders conquering the fortresses of their impure Dasa enemies.

The Nazis appropriated the role of the conquerors, the ancient Hindu symbol the Swastika, and claimed to be the original "Aryans," who brought civilization and the Indo-European languages to India.  India today is controlled by a Hindu nationalist party, which endorses the mythological million year history told in the great Hindu epics, bans books that challenge the party line, and has responded very weakly to outrages against religious minorities, including this disgraceful incident in which an eight year-old Muslim girl was raped, tortured, and murdered in a Hindu temple, and the accused rapists protected by Hindu activists.

Anyway, the Hindu nationalists really don't care for the picture that ancient DNA has revealed: that India, like Europe, is a mixture of indigenous HGs, farmer immigrants (in India's case from Iran rather than Anatolia), and pastoral peoples from Central Asia who very likely brought the Indo-European language and many elements of the ancient Hindu culture.

One crucial element of the story is still missing: the genomics of the members of the pre-steppe invader Indus Valley Civilization.  Attempts to decode some of the DNA are underway, and Reich reports three theories were bet on in his lab: Ancestral North Indians (ANI, indigenous HG plus Iranian farmers plus steppe pastoralists, Iranian farmers only, and Ancestral South Indians (ASI, indigenous HG plus Iranian farmers.

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