A lucid synthesis of genomics, linguistics, and prehistory: Tony Joseph’s Early Indians

By | March 11, 2022

Tony Joseph blends research strands from disciplines such as linguistics, genomics, archeology, archeobotany, paleogeography, and the luminescence of grains of sand of ancient river beds in a lucid synthesis that narrates the story of First Indians, the Harappan Civilization (known previously as the Indus Valley Civilization), its continuing legacy in everyday Indian culture and life, and the arrival of the Aryas from the Steppes of Eurasia that comprise the heritage of the Indian population today. Given the book’s heavy emphasis on the science of genomics and DNA based tracing of ancient population migration patterns, one would not expect this book to be as gripping a read that it is. I found it hard to put the book down.

“The civilisation’s cities were noted for their urban planning, baked brick houses, elaborate drainage systems, water supply systems, clusters of large non-residential buildings, and new techniques in handicraft (carnelian products, seal carving) and metallurgy (copper, bronze, lead, and tin).[5] The large cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa very likely grew to contain between 30,000 and 60,000 individuals,[6] and the civilisation itself during its florescence may have contained between one and five million individuals.[7]”

It made me feel proud to be a genetic descendant of the Harappans, still wearing bangles and using a toilet inside the house after more than 4000 years, and to know that it was highly likely almost 50% of my DNA could be inherited from the First Indians who arrived on the subcontinent ‘Out of Africa’ 65,000 years ago. Joseph shows how Harappan civilization – as old as and larger than Mesopotamia and Egypt – still influences India, and lucidly explains that the Aryans who swept down from the Steppes arrived much later, during its decline. They were herders and pastoralists, rather than urban planners who built cities with drainage and inside toilets. I had never really known much beyond the early introduction to what used to be called the Indus Valley civilization in school, and Joseph’s book based on recent advances in DNA studies is perhaps the first sense I have grasped of my origins and genetic inheritance.

The reviewer at the Asian Review of Books points out that Joseph’s use of the first person to talk about “our ancestors” can be jarring to non-Western audiences, but when you read the book you recognize that he is indeed talking about “our ancestors” and that we are all descended from Mitochondrial Eve who must have lived in Kenya many hundreds of millenia ago. Joseph traces the flows of migration “Out of Africa” and explains how peoples went back and forth across the Eurasian landmass, so much so that the DNA of the Roma population contains a significant percentage of “First Indian” ancestry, a unique genomic marker for the population from the subcontinent. This also explains commonalities of Eurasian Steppe heritage in Northern Indian populations such my origins and various populations in Europe, although there is still a significant mix of both Harappans (themselves a mix of First Indian and proto-Iranians) and First Indian genetic legacy in all Indians. Of note is that we, all of us outside Africa, carry 2% Neanderthal genes.

The book not only made me want to know more about the Harappans, but leads me to agree with the reviewers that Harappan Civilization definitely deserves greater visibility on the world stage than it has ever gotten. A must read book if you have even an iota of curiosity about who we, as modern human beings are, and where we came from. One cannot help but reflect that this ancient civilization is said to have declined as a result of changes to climatic conditions.

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