The Pulse

Where Indians Come From, Part 2: Dravidians and Aryans

Who were the people who made up ancient India and where did they come from?

Akhilesh Pillalamarri
Where Indians Come From, Part 2: Dravidians and Aryans
Credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Wikimedia Commons

This is the second part of an ongoing series, which traces the origins of India’s people and civilization. The first part can be found here: Unraveled: Where Indians Come From, Part 1.

As discussed in the first part of this series, around 5,000 years ago (3,000 BCE), India was on the verge of a major demographic transition, as new groups migrated to the subcontinent and mixed with the original inhabitants. The original inhabitants of the subcontinent, its aborigines, labeled by geneticists as Ancient Ancestral South Indians (AASI), lived throughout the subcontinent, but were soon to be partially assimilated into two demographic waves of farmers from the east and west: a larger group of Middle Eastern farmers expanding from what is now the northwestern part of the subcontinent, and a smaller group of Southeast Asian farmers from the east, whose demographic impact was minor, but whose crop — rice — transformed life in South Asia, because rice can be thrive in India’s climate much better than wheat. Soon, the final major contributor to the subcontinent’s ancient culture and demography, the steppe peoples, would arrive.

The Indus Valley Civilization. Between 3,300 and 1,300 BCE, the urban, Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) thrived, mostly inhabited by communities of Iranian farmers somewhat mixed with aborigine Indians. Very little is known about its actual history, as its script has not yet been deciphered, and scholars are dependent on excavations and genetics in order to understand its nature. It was probably a collection of independent city-states and communities, speaking various languages of multiple origins, considering that the farmers who migrated there did so in several waves. Recent archaeology demonstrates the the IVC was spread out over a much larger area than previously imagined, perhaps because the best-preserved sites were initially found in the arid areas of Pakistan. Site have also been found in the Indian states of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, and the countries of Afghanistan and Oman. While in one sense, the IVC can be seen as a civilization with cities, art, and administration, in another sense, it was also part of an expanding wave of agriculture into the subcontinent, perhaps the most urbanized portion of it. This wave had previously been stalled for thousands of years in what is today’s Pakistan, presumably because the Middle Eastern crops of its farmers were not adapted to growth in the rest of the subcontinent. However, rural, agricultural settlements probably fanned out from the Indus Valley into the rest of the subcontinent in the third millennium BCE. Even when the urban IVC stage ended (previously thought to be a “collapse”), the rural material culture of the IVC persisted and continued to expand east and south throughout India. This may be explained by the adaptation of rice, the distribution of which is less dependent on large urban centers, and could favor ruralization.

Dravidians. While genetically, farmers from Iran contributed to most of the DNA of the northwestern subcontinent and the IVC, around 5,000 years ago, some farmer groups began to fan out, mix with the aborigine Indians in much of what is present day India, and establish agricultural communities throughout the subcontinent. This mixture, which is around 25 percent Iranian farmer and 75 percent aboriginal Indian, spread throughout the subcontinent by 4,000 years ago, and has been labeled by scientists as Ancestral South Indian (ASI), another misnomer since ASI populations were the base populations of most of the subcontinent prior to 2,000 BCE. Somewhere, in this process of admixture, and expanding wave of agriculture, new stone tools, social organization, and rituals, the Dravidian peoples and language family was born. Judging from the ancient Dravidian-sounding toponyms (place names) of Sindh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, it is quite likely the roots of this family lie in an eastward expansion along the coast of India into the peninsula and southern India; many of the millets and gourd-like crops cultivated by Dravidian peoples also indicate seaborne contact with tropical parts of the southern Middle East and eastern Africa, while rice was adopted from the east. There is no evidence that Dravidian languages were spoken in the Ganges Valley and Punjab, and the native speakers of these regions may have spoken something related to the language isolate of the Hunza Valley of northern Pakistan, Burushaski. Recent linguistic analysis has found that the Dravidian language family is approximately 4,500 years old (2,500 BCE), which coincides nicely with the South Indian Neolithic period, a period after 3,000 BCE when archaeologists have noted the expansion of cattle rearing, lentil farming, and hilltop villages radiating out from the Godavari River basin in Karnataka and Telangana. While some linguists claim that Dravidian is related to the ancient Elamite language of southwest Iran, which has no known relatives, the jury is still out.

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The Indo-Europeans. In the Eurasian steppe, the Indo-Europeans, an ancient people, who proved to have an enormous impact on world history and whose descendent languages are highly successful, arose. There is overwhelming genetic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence that the source population of the Indo-Europeans were “ancient agro-pastoralists (herders)” originating from the western Eurasian steppe in modern Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Work by the geneticist David Reich indicates that the Indo-European population was formed from a mixture of ancient European hunter-gatherers, ancient Siberians, and farmers from northwestern Iran. Hindu nationalists have claimed that Indo-Europeans, often conflated with the Aryans, who were just one of many Indo-European groups, originated in India, or at least northwestern India (Punjab). However, archaeological discoveries from the Yamnaya culture of the steppe, as well as the nature of common-words shared between Indo-European languages all indicate a colder, more temperate origin for the family (for example, Vedic Sanskrit is not rich in tropical terminology). Indo-European sites were characterized by their use of the wheel and horses, which was probably the innovation that allowed their rapid spread after 3,000 BCE. Indo-Europeans spreading west into Europe displaced much of the original European population, at that time descended from the first waves of Middle Eastern farmers, who themselves had displaced the previous hunter-gatherers. As Reich points out in his book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, rapid population movements and changes, and not just cultural diffusion, were rather common in ancient history.

IE languages 2000 BC

Aryans. One group of these pastoral Indo-Europeans migrated to what is today’s Central Asian steppe (most modern Central Asians are not fully descended from these ancient peoples, because Turkic and Mongolian tribes replaced them in the Middle Ages). Archaeologists refer to these people as the Andronovo culture, better known to linguists as the Indo-Iranians. Most Indo-Iranian groups referred to themselves as some variant of the term arya, meaning noble; this is the etymology of both the modern country of Iran, and the Aryans of India.

The Iranian branch of these people eventually settled in Iran and Afghanistan, and assimilated linguistically the original Iranian farmers of these regions (it should be noted that the term Iranian can be used to refer to two sets of originally different ancient peoples, one farmers from western Iran, and one herders from the steppe). Another branch of the Indo-Iranians, the Aryans, spread south before the Iranians and migrated both to ancient Syria and Iraq, where they became the ruling class of the Mittani polity. Another group of Aryans spread southeast through the Hindu Kush range of Afghanistan into South Asia; these are the Indo-Aryans most prominently known in history. It is quite possible that originally, the Aryans and Iranians were just two related tribal configurations that went their own ways. The Indo-Aryans are believed to be responsible for many aspects of what became Indian civilization, including the Vedic religion (an ancestor of modern Hinduism), the Indo-Aryan languages (Sanskrit and its modern descendents like Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Nepali, Marathi, and Bengali), horses, and the idea of a four-fold division of society (varna) that is an aspect of modern caste.

The Aryan Migration Controversy. Since much of later Indian civilization has been organized by the framework provided by the Aryans, whose prestige culture became gradually dominant through a process of subcontinental Aryanization and Sanskritization, their origins and the nature of their arrival in South Asia are the subject of much investigation and controversy. While Hindu nationalists claim that the Aryans are indigenous to India, even many archaeologists discount anything like an Aryan migration into India, instead suggesting diffusion. Some of this was because the material culture of India during this period did not indicate an invasion or population change (Indus Valley-type tools and pottery are found throughout this period). However, there was also a strong 20th century scholarly pushback against the 19th century view of European colonialist scholarship that held that Indian civilization was founded by “European,” and “white” Aryan invaders (although in reality, the Indo-Europeans were a steppe people who migrated to both Europe and India, and as such have little to do with Germanic fantasies). The truth, however, is more complex, and it seems that aspects of both the 19th and 20th century views are correct. While the female-line (mtDNA) and archaeological record vindicate the 20th century view, linguistic, literary, the male-line (Y-chromosome) evidence align more with 19th century perspective: many Aryans did enter India. There is absolutely no evidence in favor of an out-migration of Aryans from India.

The Aryan Migration. As DNA studies suggests, the original neolithic Iranian farmer ancestry of the people of the Indus Valley remained the primary genetic component of people from this region, but there is a significant steppe component layered onto it. This combined population has been labeled by geneticists Ancestral North Indian (ANI), a deliberate, politically-correct misnomer that obscures the non-Indic origins of these people. ANI represents an Aryan wave overtaking and assimilating a farmer wave, creating a combined migration wave that spread into the Ganges Valley. The evidence backs this up: in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan, samples of DNA from modern people, and remains dating from 1,200 BCE have steppe ancestry, while previous ones do not, indicating that the Aryans had arrived by then and mixed with the farmers. Meanwhile, farther east, DNA from Rakhigarhi in Haryana from around the same time does not display the Y-chromosome haplogroup R1a, now common in northern India, and thought to have originated from the European steppe, indicating that the Aryan expansion had not yet arrived there. Yet, further east, by 900 BCE, the Kuru kingdom, which inspired the Hindu epic the Mahabharata and where the Aryan hymns were codified as the Vedas and aspects of Hindu orthodoxy were established, existed in northern Uttar Pradesh, indicating that the Aryans were expanding rapidly to the east. In fact, it was probably the cultural synthesis that developed in the Kuru kingdom, which also incorporated non-Aryan tribes and rituals, that laid the basis for what is now considered the Vedic, Aryan civilization of early India; it was also around this time that Sanskrit began to develop into simplified, descendent languages in a process of second-language acquisition by new speakers.

It is likely is that as the urbanization devolved toward a rural lifestyle, many of farming communities of the Punjab invited nearby Indo-Aryan groups as protectors or these groups migrated on their own volition in order to seek alternative pastures. And there is no reason to rule out military dominance, especially as the dominant Hindu castes, even today, have the most steppe admixture relative to other castes, and it is likely that some of these early Aryan priests and warriors (kshatriyas) set themselves up as rulers upon their arrival in India. Razib Khan notes: “Historically the boundary between pastoralists and peasants could be fluid, but when political resistance collapses pastoralists have been able to use their military prowess to swarm across the lands of agriculturalists.” The population of the Punjab was gradually assimilated into the Aryan language and culture, and its elites co-opted, while maintaining its pre-existing material and agricultural traditions. In a process known as elite dominance, it is not uncommon for smaller groups of warriors and rulers to spread their culture and language to larger settled groups, especially those bereft of leadership. The expansion of the Arabs, Turks, and Slavs all proceeded in this manner, as often more “primitive” groups offer more organizational flexibility to rural communities.

Going Native. It should be noted that while the Aryans may have originated from outside of India (as did many other groups, including possibly the Dravidians), they became rapidly indigenized, so it ought not to matter if they did come from Central Asia. Generally, such processes do not take very long. Take for example Babur, the Turko-Mongol founder of the Mughal Empire in India, who was clearly uncomfortable with its climate and customs; his grandson Akbar was thoroughly Indianized. The iconography and rituals of Hinduism incorporate indigenous influence, spirituality, and gods, and signs of belonging to a tropical climate (like offering coconuts and bananas to deities); many common Hindu and Buddhist ideas such as reincarnation and karma are are underdeveloped or nonexistent in the early Vedic religion. Sanskrit over time begins to demonstrate more Dravidian stylistic and literary influence, uses retroflex consonants (a type of consonant used extensively in India), and often acts like a left-branching language, with the subject of a sentence coming last. Regardless of their origins, the Dravidians and Aryans made India their home, and established their civilization there.

Migration and Mixing. The mixture between a smaller, dominant steppe population, and a larger farmer population created the ANI genetic population that became dominant in northwest India after 1,500 BCE. Meanwhile, the ASI genetic population, a mixture of farmers and aborigines, was prevalent throughout most of the rest of India.

That there were two very distinct populations in ancient India is backed up by some some circumstantial evidence in the Vedas, the Mahabharata, as well as in the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, who notes that some Indians have “the same tint of skin, which approaches that of the Ethiopians. Their country is a long way from Persia towards the south, nor had king Darius ever any authority over them.” This is presumably an ASI population. Of an ANI population, he says: “Besides these, there are Indians of another tribe, who border on the city of Caspatyrus, and the country of Pactyica; these people dwell northward of all the rest of the Indians, and follow nearly the same mode of life as the Bactrians [in Afghanistan]. They are more warlike than any of the other tribes.”

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The Iranian farmer component was a vital part of both groups, as a 2018 study by Vagheesh M. Narasimhan and others demonstrates. As there was some aboriginal admixture with the original Iranian farmers in the Indus Valley, every group in India also has some admixture from the original Indians. Older models posit an indigenous Dravidian population being overtaken by foreign Aryans, but in actuality, both groups seem to have entered India within a few hundred years of each other, and expanded in almost parallel waves. The Dravidians may seem more indigenous only because the surviving Dravidian peoples are concentrated in southern India, where they assimilated larger aboriginal populations; the large genetic imprint of Iranian-farmer DNA among elite groups in Dravidian cultures, such as the Kannadigas, Telugus, and Tamils, testifies to a Dravidian migration into South India.

The period after 2,000 BCE seems to have been a time of great change and mixing in India, as Aryans and Dravidians expanded, agriculture spread, and rice was introduced. By the time of the establishment of states along the Ganges more than a thousand years later, Dravidian and Aryan groups were mixing and influencing each other, though it probably took a long time, possibly up to just a thousand years ago, for Dravidian and Aryan cultures to spread throughout the entire subcontinent, and seep from the elite level to the masses (generally hierarchically lower groups in India seek to raise their status by adopting norms associated with the higher castes). During this process, the ANI and ASI genetic populations also mixed, inevitably, as farmers from the Indus Valley region migrated into the Ganges Valley, and then south; in some places like Bengal, the ANI mixed not only with ASI, but with Southeast Asian genetic components.

Gradually the ANI to ASI ratio in the Indian gene pool has shifted in favor of ANI because ANI has continuously been renewed by new arrivals from outside of India, according to research by the geneticist David Reich. These include groups like the Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Scythians, Hephthalites, and Tajiks, and Pathans, whereas the ASI component is limited to a population in India with no relatives elsewhere, and will inevitably be diluted by continuous admixture.

Today, everyone in India is a mixture, in some proportion, of these two groups, regardless of the language they speak, or the region they live in. (According to a DNA test I took, I have both a male ancestor from the steppe, and a female ancestor descended from the first Indians.)

Interestingly, admixture in India stopped around 1,500 years ago, during the Gupta Period, when a particularly strict understanding of hereditary caste boundaries was developed and endogamy — no marriage between the thousands of jati caste groups — became the social norm. By this time, though, every group in the subcontinent had intermixed to some extent, so that there is some aboriginal DNA among Afghans and some steppe DNA in populations from Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India. The social, regional, and cultural implications of India’s genetics, as well as its relation to caste, will be the focus of the next part of this series.

Note: I have endeavored to faithfully distill academic literature without modifying academic terminology too much; nonetheless, I have simplified and edited some ideas for clarity. My primary sources are the geneticists David Reich, Razib Khan, and Vagheesh M. Narasimhan et. al., as well as recent genetic evidence from ancient skeletons at Rakhigarhi, Haryana.