The Desire to Mislead

What media reporting on ancient DNA results says about our times

Vasant Shinde and Niraj Rai, two Indian researchers who were part of an international team that authored long-awaited papers based on the science of ancient DNA, held a press conference on 6 September in Delhi. rv moorthy / the hindu
30 September, 2019

Two long-awaited papers based on the science of ancient DNA, published in the journals Cell and Science, have confirmed and expanded on what has been reported in the recent past about human settlement in South Asia. Unfortunately, their reception has proved that, while they reveal much about our past, what is more worrying is what they reveal about our present.

The study in Cell is based on the DNA from a single sample, a female, from a 4,500-year-old burial site in the Harappan city of Rakhigarhi. A summary of the results highlighted in the paper states three key findings: the individual was from a population that is the largest source of ancestry for South Asians; Iranian-related ancestry in South Asia split from the Iranian-plateau lineages more than twelve thousand years ago; and the first farmers of the Fertile Crescent—a region that was the cradle of the Egyptian, Phoenician, Assyrian and Mesopotamian civilisations—contributed little to no ancestry to later South Asians.

These results, thus, not only suggest that the greater part of most South Asians’ genome is derived from the Harappan people, but also indicate that farming may well have an independent origin in the region—and was certainly not brought here by migrants from the Fertile Crescent, though the possibility of dissemination of knowledge remains open.

This should have been good news for most people, including those from the Sangh Parivar, who want to look for indigenous sources for our origins and our culture. But one point emphasised in the title of the paper, “An Ancient Harappan Genome Lacks Ancestry from Steppe Pastoralists or Iranian Farmers,” has caused them great concern.

Most South Asians carry some ancestry derived from steppe pastoralists, ranging from less than ten percent to a little over twenty percent, which is entirely absent in the Harappan genome. This suggests that the steppe pastoralists migrated to the subcontinent in substantial numbers after the decline of the Harappan civilisation. Moreover, both papers clearly spell out the likelihood that the steppe pastoralists were the carrier of the Indo-European languages—including early Sanskrit—to the subcontinent. This also suggests what is already rather clear from other sources of historical studies : the early Vedic corpus is not Harappan.

Given that the scale of the migration was large, and that the steppe component of the Indian genome is higher among Brahmins and other “twice-born” castes, the possibility of an invasion cannot be ruled out.

This, though, is not the past the Sangh wants. While early proponents of Hindutva, such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak and VD Savarkar, were happy to claim affinity with a delusional idea of the Aryans as a Nordic people from outside—hoping, perhaps, to be whiter than the British—this desire came to an abrupt end with MS Golwalkar, the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Golwalkar’s antipathy towards Muslims and Christians was grounded on the claim that Hindu civilisation is “‘anadi,’ without a beginning,” since the “origin of our people, the date from which we have been living here as a civilised entity, is unknown to the scholars of history.”

There have been many recent claims that the Sangh has re-evaluated its view of Golwalkar, but those who make such claims know nothing about the RSS. His views remain the bedrock of RSS ideology, which is why, even before the recent papers were out, there was an attempt to interpret and spin them in ways that contradict their basic findings.

The results of the papers had been flagged over a year ago, and the spin began at about the same time. In an article published in the Economic Times shortly after, Vasant Shinde—the former vice-chancellor of Deccan College in Pune, who is also the archaeologist leading the excavations at Rakhigarhi—was quoted as saying, “The Rakhigarhi human DNA clearly shows a predominant local element—the mitochondrial DNA is very strong in it. There is some minor foreign element which shows some mixing up with a foreign population, but the DNA is clearly local. This indicates quite clearly, through archeological data, that the Vedic era that followed was a fully indigenous period with some external contact.”

It is not clear what Shinde meant by local, given that every human anywhere in the world outside Africa has migrated to that region within the last sixty thousand years. But the point he was trying to make is what gives the game away: the Vedic era that followed was a fully indigenous period.

The trouble with such phrasing is that it begs the question of what the term “Vedic” means. In terms of material culture, Vagheesh M Narasimhan, the lead author of the Science paper, told The Caravan that there is a continuity with the Harappan era, but if the Vedas are the marker of Vedic culture then it is clear that the language of the Vedas came to India with the steppe pastoralists. This claim has been made in no uncertain terms by both papers, and both papers list Shinde as a co-author.

The two papers also discuss the linguistic implications of the research in detail. The summary published along with the Science article, titled “The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia,” states, “Earlier work recorded massive population movement from the Eurasian Steppe into Europe early in the third millennium BCE, likely spreading Indo-European languages. We reveal a parallel series of events leading to the spread of Steppe ancestry to South Asia, thereby documenting movements of people that were likely conduits for the spread of Indo-European languages.”

The article in Cell spells this out in detail:

One theory for the origins of the now-widespread Indo-European languages in South Asia is the ‘‘Anatolian hypothesis,’’ which posits that the spread of these languages was propelled by movements of people from Anatolia across the Iranian plateau and into South Asia associated with the spread of farming. However, we have shown that the ancient South Asian farmers … had negligible ancestry related to ancient Anatolian farmers as well as an Iranian-related ancestry component distinct from sampled ancient farmers and herders in Iran. Since language proxy spreads in pre-state societies are often accompanied by large-scale movements of people, these results argue against the model of a trans-Iranian plateau route for Indo-European language spread into South Asia. However, a natural route for Indo-European languages to have spread into South Asia is from Eastern Europe via Central Asia in the first half of the 2nd millennium BCE, a chain of transmission that did occur as has been documented in detail with ancient DNA. The fact that the Steppe pastoralist ancestry in South Asia matches that in Bronze Age Eastern Europe (but not Western Europe) provides additional evidence for this theory, as it elegantly explains the shared distinctive features of Balto-Slavic and Indo-Iranian languages.

The implications could not be clearer: the Vedas were composed in a language that came to the subcontinent after the decline of the Harappan civilisation. Hence, Harappan culture cannot be the culture identified with the Vedas, unless Shinde can claim that the Vedas were not originally composed in Sanskrit, a language termed sacred for that very reason.

The two papers became available online on the night of 5 September, and their leading Indian researchers, Shinde and Niraj Rai—who is the head of India’s only ancient-DNA laboratory, in Lucknow—held a press conference the next morning in Delhi. By the time they did so, India’s leading newspapers had already served out what they would say. It was almost as if the newspaper articles were written based on a press conference that had not happened, but without betraying any knowledge of the papers that had already been published.

The Economic Times, keeping up its misleading reporting on the issue, announced, “Rakhigarhi DNA study questions Aryan invasion theory, claims author.” The Hindustan Times report claimed, “A study of DNA samples of skeletal remains excavated from Rakhigarhi, an Indus Valley Civilisation site in Haryana, did not find enough proof of Aryan invasion and asserts that the Harappan people are the same as those of the Vedic times, according to the people who conducted the research.” It went on to say that there was “no evidence to suggest large-scale migration to corroborate the Aryan invasion.” The story in the Times of India said that the study suggested “no noticeable migration of people and claims to have dismantled the Aryan theory.”

The press note issued at the press conference suggested the origins of these media claims. “The ancient DNA results completely reject the theory of Steppe pastoral or ancient Iranian farmers as source of ancestry to the Harappan population,” it said. “This research also demolishes the hypothesis about mass human migration during Harappan time from outside the South Asia or even before.” It further argued that this “important breakthrough research completely sets aside the Aryan Migration/Invasion Theory. The skeletal remains found in the upper part of the Citadel area of Mohenjodaro belonged to those who died due to floods and not massacred by the Aryans as hypothesized by Sir Mortimer Wheeler.” Finally, it claimed that the research “also establishes the fact that the Vedic culture was developed by the indigenous people of South Asia. Our premise that the Harappans were the Vedic people thus has received strong corroborative scientific evidence based on ancient DNA studies.”

These make for interesting reading. The newspapers were misleading because Shinde has been misleading in his claims. The “Aryan Migration/Invasion Theory” as set up here is a strawman. The claim that the Aryans were the people who destroyed the Harappan civilisation has long been set aside, but that only makes the claim for a large and subsequent steppe-pastoral migration—which could well have been an invasion—much stronger. If the genetic component from the steppes is missing in the Harappan-related samples but is present in many modern Indians, then clearly this genetic contribution was brought into South Asia after the Harappans.

Note the language of the press note: “This research also demolishes the hypothesis about mass human migration during Harappan time from outside the South Asia or even before.” But it says nothing about what happened after, which is the whole point of the paper in Science. The third point in the press note, which claims the Harappans were the Vedic people, is not just misleading, it betrays the very research that underlies the two papers. To believe this, the authors would have to discredit their own papers and claim that not only did the Vedic people not speak Sanskrit at first, but that they composed the Vedas in some other non-Indo-European language and then translated the corpus into Sanskrit. The Hindutva Right would, in reality, be even more horrified at this outlandish possibility than by anything the current papers suggest.

As the press conference got underway, the RSS ideologue Tarun Vijay tweeted:

In a brilliant move top archeologists #VasantShinde #NeerajRai Presented #Rakhigarhi DNA sample findings at @INTACHIndia demolishing strongly #AryanInvasionTheory. All #Indians belong to #India, #HarappanCivilisation. Time to include facts in history books

This was the cue for many in the right wing, and others who are more interested in the prevailing winds rather than the facts that had been thrown up.

Shekhar Gupta, the founder and editor of The Print, tweeted a story on the issue:

Aryan invasion theory gets a setback from DNA study of 2500 BC Rakhigarhi skeletons ThePrint’s Fatima Khan @khanthefatima reports

The headline of the story was quickly amended to stay with the facts, but Gupta’s tweet still stands, as does the impression that the new research conclusively rules out the case for any large scale migration/invasion of “Aryans” into India. The facts are otherwise.

The journalists who reported many of these stories cannot take the plea that this is what the researchers said. What they said had to be weighed against what they had published in some of the most prestigious peer-reviewed science journals in the world. It is the equivalent of ignoring or misreporting facts on the ground because a government handout claims otherwise.

If mass media can be so easily manipulated and spun to counter facts published in scientific journals just to suit the ruling ideology, then how much more effective are such means in distorting reality when the conclusions are not so cut and dry?