I am late by several months in writing about Tony Joseph’s Early Indians, which debuted in December 2018. Seldom does a book of such national importance come out. The delay is at least in part deliberate and now is indeed the most opportune time to talk about it, on the eve of the Lok Sabha elections. In this context, Early Indians isn’t just a book as much as it is a call to all Indians to read, absorb, discuss, promote and propagate its contents in the coming days, before the final vote is cast on May 19.
I had known of Tony Joseph from some of his articles I had read over the years, and most memorably a series of articles in The Hindu that, among others, addressed matters such as the origins of the builders of the Harappan Civilisation and Aryan migration into India. After reading Early Indians, I googled for his background and was surprised to find that he was not a scientist or an academic but a lifelong journalist and newspaper editor. A vast majority of books that address subjects as tedious as population genetics, archaeology and linguistics are usually written by academics.
Shortly after, Joseph told me in a conversation that he has harboured a longstanding interest in this subject, that Early Indians is the result of years of researching, reading and discussing and interacting with top scientists in the field. This is evident in the quality and the clarity of his writing. Joseph acknowledges that the book presents scientific knowledge to date, and that with more discoveries, our understanding is likely to evolve further. However, the contents of this book have laid the foundation of Indian history – a foundation that is unlikely to change much in the years to come.
In fact, this book is unique in the context of Indian history because it adds essentially indisputable evidence from population genetics to already-available archaeological and linguistic proofs. And it all adds up. A lot of the population genetics evidence quoted in Early Indians is recent, from the past decade. At the end of the book, the reader can only walk away with a better understanding of our history. Each of its key conclusions squashes the ideology and beliefs of right-wing fundamentalists.
- Modern humans, who are 300,000 years old and started out in Africa, reached India about 65,000 years ago. The maternally derived mitochondrial DNA for a vast majority of the Indians of today – be it Brahmins or from any other castes or tribes – is similar. And it is quite distinct from that in the rest of the world. Thus, the maternally derived genetic basis of almost all Indians is not only similar but also unique.
- Our paternally derived Y chromosome is more varied in comparison and can be traced to migrants who arrived more recently – from regions as far ranging as European Steppe, the Zagros Mountains in Iran and areas east of India
- The Harappan civilisation predates the ‘Aryans’ who came from the European steppe. It developed locally but migrants from the Zagros mountains, who arrived thousands of years earlier, helped spread the agriculture that was a necessary precondition for it. The Harappan script has not been deciphered but its roots likely lie in the proto-Elamite language of Iran. The Harappan language was likely an early form of the Dravidian languages of today’s South India.
- Sanskrit has its roots in the Eurasian steppe and evolved in India after Indo-European language speakers, who called themselves ‘Aryans’, brought it here.
- Endogamy and the caste system didn’t start immediately after the pastoralist ‘Aryans’ came to India. In fact, mixing continued for hundred of years before it was shuttered about 2,000 to 2,500 years back, possibly as a result of political developments around that time.
Joseph deserves our gratitude for writing a masterpiece with such clarity and lucidity, despite numerous opportunities for confusion, and a flair that renders the stories of our roots exciting. Even if not for this, every Indian should read the book at least to learn how scientific evidence can be compelling. Passages from the book need to be incorporated into textbooks for young students.
Jay Desai is a neurologist.