Missing Links

New DNA evidence is making the story of India’s past clearer than ever

01 August 2017
Scientists expect DNA tests on skeletons found at Rakhigarhi, Haryana, to yield information that will prove vital to our understanding of the Harappan people. This, in turn, will help scholars fill in key gaps in ancient Indian history
HT PHOTO
Scientists expect DNA tests on skeletons found at Rakhigarhi, Haryana, to yield information that will prove vital to our understanding of the Harappan people. This, in turn, will help scholars fill in key gaps in ancient Indian history
HT PHOTO

At a seminar in Delhi in the first week of July, Vasant Shinde, an archaeologist and the vice chancellor of Pune’s Deccan College, said that in late September or early October, we should expect a paper that will significantly contribute to our understanding of ancient India. The paper will reveal the results of DNA tests on human skeletons uncovered at Rakhigarhi, Haryana, the most extensive of all Harappan civilisation sites, where excavations supervised by Shinde are still underway.

The DNA results should go some way towards settling the question of the genetic relationship between the people of the Harappan civilisation and the current population of the subcontinent. What the DNA tests reveal—say, if they show that the Harappans had a close genetic affinity to the Indo-European language speakers who composed the Vedas, or to the Dravidian language speakers of the south—will not only shed light on the Harappans. It will also affect almost every question regarding the evolution of Indian civilisation after the decline of the Harappans—including the question of the possible migration of Indo-European speakers from outside the subcontinent into north-west India: the famous Aryan migration or invasion theory.

Some background is needed to understand the current status of the problem. We know that by 3,500 years ago, the main sites of the Harappan civilisation (whose script is still undeciphered and whose spoken language remains a mystery) were more or less abandoned, while numerous smaller settlements in the upper reaches of the drying course of the Ghaggar-Hakra river (which, depending on preconceptions, may or may not be the Saraswati of the Vedas) were coming up. We also know that 2,600 years ago, the Indo-Gangetic region of north India was divided into 16 republics populated by Indo-European language speakers. But there is little clarity on what transpired during the 1,000 years between the decline of the Harappans and the rise of urban life in the Indo-Gangetic region. We call it the Vedic Age, but that only suggests that the Vedas were composed sometime during this long period, and became the most important part of an oral tradition. Archaeological remains, such as pottery, at the upper reaches of the Ghaggar-Hakra and the Indo-Gangetic plain indicate settlements that in their geographical spread and antiquity lead up to the republics. But we have no clear knowledge of the evolution of culture and institutions from the end of the Harappans to the beginning of the republics.

Hartosh Singh Bal  is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.

Keywords: Archaeological Survey of India DNA Dravidian ancient india Harappan civilisation archaeology Indo-European
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