Friday, August 10, 2007

Early Man in India

Did Early Man Originate in India

Times of India May 30 2007. When I read the title I had a sinking feeling that this was one of the articles which pushed the "India is the origin of everything" agenda. And I was right:

"It may provide new clues to the history of mankind. A recent discovery by a city scientist working for the Anthropological Survey of India (ANSI) has strengthened the theory that the early man could have originated in India. It also hints at the possibility that central India might have been the hotbed of human evolution."

Apart from the use of quaint language "hotbed of human evolution" a term more appropriate in a sentence like " 36 Chowrangee Lane was the hotbed of Marxist revolutionary thinking", the article amazes with its mix of brazen theorizing and leaps of faith. The ANSI found a human femur (thigh bone) in Madhya Pradesh. It may or may not be about 50,000 years old. It may or may not be that of Homo erectus. But without confirmation of the age or taxonomic status of the fossil, the survey scientist Dr. Gangopadhyay announced that this will cause a radical change in our theories of where modern "man" presumably Homo Sapiens evolved. According to him this fossil along with a genetic signature common to peoples of the Indian subcontinent called M haplogroup is strong evidence that Homo sapiens originated in India and not Africa. [A genetic haplogroup is a small section of the genome with a unique set of genetic variations which is inherited as a unit. One such set of genetic variations termed M is commonly found in Indians and has been established not using fossils but by analyzing modern populations of humans (Homo sapiens) from different continents. Populations in different continents are characterized by other unique haplogroups].

How has Dr.Gangopadhyay come to this conclusion? I can only guess that his thinking is along the lines; since homo erectus is considered to be the ancestral species to homo sapiens and since the fossil shows the (possible) existence of erectus in India and since the M haplogroup is quite old (around 50 -80 thousand years), homo sapiens evolved from the homo erectus populations in India and then migrated elsewhere. A little history first. All scientists, even patriotic Indians readily accept that Homo erectus an earlier hominid species originated in Africa and migrated to Europe, Middle East, South and south east Asia more than 1 million years ago. Stone tools as old as 1.2 million years ago imply the presence of erectus in India, in the Narmada basin. Dr.Gangopadhyay is saying that this erectus population in India evolved into modern humans. A rival and mainstream theory is that erectus populations in Africa evolved into modern humans.

The problem here is the nature of the data. The fossil record of erectus in India is sparse, only one confirmed specimen from the Narmada basin. The tool record however does indicate the presence of Homo erectus as early as about 1.2 million years ago. ,That along with the genetic profiles of modern Indians, only inform us of the presence of the two species in a particular location, but not whether one species evolved in to the other. But data informing us of where modern humans originated does exist. A comparison of mitochondrial DNA from populations all over the world has revealed that African populations are genetically the most variable and that this genetic variability decreases in populations further away from Africa. This strongly implies that modern humans originated in Africa and were resident there for a long enough time to evolve substantial genetic variability. They then migrated out of Africa in small groups. Current fossil and genetic evidence suggests around 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. In these small migrating populations genetic variability can be reduced when versions of genes are lost due to random genetic drift. The Indian continent was a recipient of one of the earliest such migrations. The M haplogroup then evolved over a period of time in the populations of the Indian subcontinent. More sophisticated genetic analysis has recently shown that there may have been later smaller migrations of Homo sapiens from Asia to Africa but that doesn't mean humans originated in India. This genetic data is complimented by a study of variability of skull shapes. The pattern of variability mirrors the genetic data, i.e. more variability of skull shape in Africa and then diminishing variability away from Africa. There are other pieces of evidence in support of the African origin of humans. The earliest fossils (about 150,000 years old) of anatomically modern humans are found in Africa. Then there is the earliest evidence of ornamentation, small shells crafted into beads (80,000 years old) implying modern human behaviour. The totality of evidence support an African origin.

This article encapsulates the sorry state Indian science finds itself in. There is the media. Clueless about the science, not bothering to ask critical questions and too lazy to be doing any background research. And then the spectacle of a senior scientist shooting his mouth off with no regard to the reliability of the evidence in hand. "This is indeed an important discovery for the organisation and the research would be taken up further," mentioned the deputy director of ANSI, Nagpur, Dr M B Sharma. The latest incarnation of "India is the fountainhead" of every possible human achievement, in this case genesis itself.


  1. While I would no longer conclude based on this article that Humans originated in India, I do have some reservations on the Out of Africa theory. For one Africa until recently (300 years ago) was left almost intact to nature and therefore there is a greater chance of finding fossils.

    India on the other hand has seen civilizations rise and fall, has been densely populated and its history goes down countless layers of soil due to numerous generations of agriculture and civilization. Linguistically no language shows a closer link to the Proto-Indo European language as Sanskrit. While I do have my misgivings on the origin of Humanity in India I do believe that Afghanistan might have been one such candidate location.

  2. There's a smallish book worth reading called "The Journey of Man", by Spencer Wells". He talks all about the haplogroups and all the migrations that they indicate. Our origins seem almost certainly African. One factor that may make finding fossil and artifact evidence for early man in India is the rise in sea levels over the last 100000 years. Some areas of India are 100s of kilometers smaller than earlier times. There is lots of evidence that early migrations followed the sea shores all the way to Australia and much physical evidence may be underwater.

  3. BTW, ASI is generally regarded as Archaeological Survey of India and ANSI is Anthrapological Survey of India.

  4. thanks Bernard for pointing that out.. have fixed it