The Collision that Formed India

What genetics reveals about Indian origins

01 October 2018


In the oldest text of Hinduism, the Rig Veda, the warrior god Indra rides against his “impure enemies,” or dasa, in a horse-drawn chariot, destroys their fortresses, or pur, and secures land and water for his people, the arya, or AryaComposed between 4,000 and 3,000 years ago in Old Sanskrit, the Rig Veda was passed down orally for some two thousand years before being written down, much like the Iliad and Odyssey in Greece, which were composed several hundred years later in another early Indo-European language. The Rig Veda is an extraordinary window into the past, as it provides a glimpse of what Indo-European culture might have been like in a period far closer in time to when these languages radiated from a common source. But what did the stories of the Rig Veda have to do with real events? Who were the dasa, who were the arya, and where were the fortresses located? Did anything like this really happen? There was tremendous excitement about the possibility of using archaeology to gain insight into these questions in the 1920s and 1930s. In those years, excavations uncovered the remains of an ancient civilisation, walled cities at Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, and elsewhere in the Punjab and Sind that dated from 4,500 to 3,800 years ago. These cities and smaller towns and villages dotted the valley of the river Indus in present-day Pakistan and parts of India, and some of them sheltered tens of thousands of people. Were they perhaps the fortresses, or pur, of the Rig Veda?

Indus Valley Civilisation cities were surrounded by perimeter walls and laid out on grids. They had ample storage for grain supplied by farming of land in the surrounding river plains. The cities sheltered craftspeople skilled in working clay, gold, copper, shell and wood. The people of the Indus Valley Civilization engaged in prolific trade and commerce, as reflected in the stone weights and measures they left behind, and their trading partners, who lived as far away as Afghanistan, Arabia, Mesopotamia and even Africa. They made decorative seals with images of humans or animals. There were often signs or symbols on the seals whose meaning remains largely undeciphered.