New research using ancient DNA is rewriting prehistory in India - and shows that its civilisation is the result of multiple ancient migrations, writes Tony Joseph.

Who are the Indians? And where did they come from? 

In the last few years, the debate over these questions has become more and more heated. 

Hindu right-wingers believe the source of Indian civilisation are people who called themselves Aryans - a nomadic tribe of horse-riding, cattle-rearing warriors and herders who composed Hinduism's oldest religious texts, the Vedas. 


Studies using ancient DNA have been rewriting prehistory all over the world in the last few years and in India, there has been one fascinating discovery after another. 

The most recent study on this subject, led by geneticist David Reich of Harvard University, was published in March 2018 and co-authored by 92 scholars from all over the world - many of them leading names in disciplines as diverse as genetics, history, archaeology and anthropology. 

Underneath its staid title - The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia - lay some volcanic arguments.


Dholavira in Gujarat state is one of the five largest Harappan sites
Dholavira in Gujarat state is one of the five largest Harappan sites © Getty Images

The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia

Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Nick J Patterson, Priya Moorjani, Iosif Lazaridis, Lipson Mark, Swapan Mallick, Nadin Rohland, Rebecca Bernardos, Alexander M Kim, Nathan Nakatsuka, Inigo Olalde, Alfredo Coppa, James Mallory, Vyacheslav Moiseyev, Janet Monge, Luca M Olivieri, Nicole Adamski, Nasreen Broomandkhoshbacht, Francesca Candilio, Olivia Cheronet, Brendan J Culleton, Matthew Ferry, Daniel Fernandes, Beatriz Gamarra, Daniel Gaudio, Mateja Hajdinjak, Eadaoin Harney, Thomas K Harper, Denise Keating, Ann-Marie Lawson, Megan Michel, Mario Novak, Jonas Oppenheimer, Niraj Rai, Kendra Sirak, Viviane Slon, Kristin Stewardson, Zhao Zhang, Gaziz Akhatov, Anatoly N Bagashev, Baurzhan Baitanayev, Gian Luca Bonora, Tatiana Chikisheva, Anatoly Derevianko, Enshin Dmitry, Katerina Douka, Nadezhda Dubova, Andrey Epimakhov, Suzanne Freilich, Dorian Fuller, Alexander Goryachev, Andrey Gromov, Bryan Hanks, Margaret Judd, Erlan Kazizov, Aleksander Khokhlov, Egor Kitov, Elena Kupriyanova, Pavel Kuznetsov, Donata Luiselli, Farhad Maksudov, Chris Meiklejohn, Deborah C Merrett, Roberto Micheli, Oleg Mochalov, Zahir Muhammed, Samridin Mustafakulov, Ayushi Nayak, Rykun M Petrovna, Davide Pettner, Richard Potts, Dmitry Razhev, Stefania Sarno, Kulyan Sikhymbaevae, Sergey M Slepchenko, Nadezhda Stepanova, Svetlana Svyatko, Sergey Vasilyev, Massimo Vidale, Dima Voyakin, Antonina Yermolayeva, Alisa Zubova, Vasant S Shinde, Carles Lalueza-Fox, Matthias Meyer, David Anthony, Nicole Boivin, Kumarasmy Thangaraj, Douglas Kennett, Michael Frachetti, Ron Pinhasi, David Reich


The genetic formation of Central and South Asian populations has been unclear because of an absence of ancient DNA. To address this gap, we generated genome-wide data from 362 ancient individuals, including the first from eastern Iran, Turan (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), Bronze Age Kazakhstan, and South Asia. Our data reveal a complex set of genetic sources that ultimately combined to form the ancestry of South Asians today. We document a southward spread of genetic ancestry from the Eurasian Steppe, correlating with the archaeologically known expansion of pastoralist sites from the Steppe to Turan in the Middle Bronze Age (2300-1500 BCE). These Steppe communities mixed genetically with peoples of the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) whom they encountered in Turan (primarily descendants of earlier agriculturalists of Iran), but there is no evidence that the main BMAC population contributed genetically to later South Asians. Instead, Steppe communities integrated farther south throughout the 2nd millennium BCE, and we show that they mixed with a more southern population that we document at multiple sites as outlier individuals exhibiting a distinctive mixture of ancestry related to Iranian agriculturalists and South Asian hunter-gathers. We call this group Indus Periphery because they were found at sites in cultural contact with the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) and along its northern fringe, and also because they were genetically similar to post-IVC groups in the Swat Valley of Pakistan. By co-analyzing ancient DNA and genomic data from diverse present-day South Asians, we show that Indus Periphery-related people are the single most important source of ancestry in South Asia — consistent with the idea that the Indus Periphery individuals are providing us with the first direct look at the ancestry of peoples of the IVC — and we develop a model for the formation of present-day South Asians in terms of the temporally and geographically proximate sources of Indus Periphery-related, Steppe, and local South Asian hunter-gatherer-related ancestry. Our results show how ancestry from the Steppe genetically linked Europe and South Asia in the Bronze Age, and identifies the populations that almost certainly were responsible for spreading Indo-European languages across much of Eurasia.