Wednesday , 22 May 2019

A recipe of ancient ancestry


In his recent book titled Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From (2018), the author Tony Joseph likens the bulk of our ancient ancestry to a pizza base on which the toppings of the four or five major ancestries of Indians – Ancestral North Indian, Ancestral South Indian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman and a fifth yet unnamed – were laid. The most relevant question then is, what was the recipe of this primeval pizza base? Who were these people? From where did they come, and when? Or, were they a product of the autochthonous evolution in the Indian sub-continent? Today we explore the recipe of Tony Joseph’s ‘pizza base’.

Till now we have identified two communities that seem to underlie the ancestry of the people in peninsular India: the ved and the kur. The essential point is that we can discern two distinct communities making up the ‘pizza base’. As of now, we can discern the vestiges of these communities largely in the peninsular India, which we have roughly called the Deccan, we cannot rule out the possibility that at some point of time one of these communities, or both, together or sequentially, occupied the Indo-Gangetic plain as well. We are yet to know for certain the relationship between the two communities, their place on an ancient timeline, and whether the ved were displaced by the kur, or assimilated, or both; it could even be that the kur evolved out of the ved, with or without an infusion of an external genetic input.

We keep the tamil out of the ‘base’ because they constitute the topping that has been called the Ancestral South Indian. This may appear to be somewhat arbitrary, as the ved-kur-tamil could be a continuum; more so in the light of the arguments for an African-Tamil link [The Tamil-African Link, 06 Jan 19]. But, assuming such a continuum is inconsistent with the hypothesis of their Harappan connection, we keep this ingredient out of the ‘base’, till we can resolve this contradiction.

Tony Joseph presents an interesting timeline for what he calls the ‘early Indians’. According to him, during 63,000 BCE, anatomically modern humans (AMH, Homo sapiens) dispersing out of Africa (Eritrea and Djibouti), reached India via the Southern Route – via the Bab el Mandeb strait at the southern tip of the Red Sea. As they entered the western tip of the Indian peninsula, they were ‘faced with a robust population of archaic humans’. Archaic humans are Homo species prior to the AMH or Homo sapiens. These, according to Joseph, dominated the ‘central and southern India’, that is the peninsular India or the Deccan [Joseph, 2018: 52]. As we have seen before, this is exactly where we find the vestiges of the ved and kur communities.

According to Joseph, to avoid a confrontation with the archaic humans, the AMH migrants adopted a ‘flanking manoeuvre’: taking a sub-Himalayan route to the east, and a coastal route to the south. But by about 40,000 BCE the AMH succeeded in replacing the archaic humans in their homeland, the ‘central and southern India’. Could the origin of the ved and kur communities lie in this encounter? In a way, the two seem to constitute an early segment of the evolutionary continuum. It is well established now that Indians carry anywhere between two per cent to three per cent of archaic human genes in their DNA; the percentage varies from community to community, largely determined by its geographical location. It is also accepted now that an archaic human species other than Neanderthal or Denisovan, could have existed in Indian peninsula; if you remember, we had called it Homo attirampakkamensis [The African Connection, 13 Jan 19]. This hominin is predicted to have emerged from the African hominid stock over 300,000 years ago and inhabited South-East Asia and Australia around 60,000 years ago, before going extinct some 50,000 years ago [Mondal, 2016 : Genomic Analysis of Andamanese Provides Insights Into Ancient Human Migration Into Asia And Adaptation, in Nature Genetics, Vol 48; Basu, 2016 : Genomic Reconstruction Of The History Of Extant Populations Of India Reveals Five Distinct Ancestral Components And A Complex Structure, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1598]. Could the ved community be the early outcome of the infusion of the AMH genes into the archaic population, and the kur community the outcome of the infusion of the AMH genes into the ved population? One fact which seems to point to such a hypothesis is the relative geographical location of the ved and kur communities. While the kur are spread all over ‘central and southern India’, the ved are found predominantly in the southern part of this region (including Sri Lanka). Such a situation could result from two scenarios: the kur pushing out the ved to the extreme south – the displacement hypothesis; the kur infusing genes into the ved.

This is all a probabilistic game. One can never be certain of any one view; the odds in its favour can change over time, as new evidence surfaces; even at a given time, different experts may interpret the evidence differently to arrive at different conclusions. One major grey area is the interface between the anatomically modern humans and the archaic humans. One possibility is that the latter exterminated the former – that is, incoming species replaced the existing species; the other possibility is that they mated and that the ‘advantageous’ characteristics of the former dominated their progeny. What we accept as the most probable changes everything.