Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Beginnings of India

Last week I caught a Discovery Channel special on India called The Story Of India. The first episode was The Beginnings. It was presented by the British historian Michael Wood who has also written a book about this topic. I settled down to watch expecting the story of India to begin with agricultural societies represented by the Indus valley civilization.

To my pleasant surprise Michael Wood took the story way back to Africa and the late- Pleistocene migration of Homo sapiens from Africa around 80,000 years ago. These humans migrated into India soon thereafter taking most likely the coastal route from Arabia into India. There are still relict populations in India which have believed to be descendants of these early settlers. I wrote a post about this some time back. These include the mainland tribals like the Korku and the Kuruba and those in the Andaman chain of islands like the Sentinelese. Mitochondrial genetic analysis supports this contention as the Korku and the Kuruba have one of the oldest mitochondrial genetic markers outside of Africa. The figure below shows migration routes of Homo sapiens reconstructed from genetic analysis.

Source: Univ. of Texas

Wood meet some of these tribal communities and discussed rituals that may be holdovers from very early times. There were some silly moments like when he asked one of the tribals "how does it feel to be the first human in India", but he did highlight the genetic work that is being done to unravel the history of early human presence.

From early Pleistocene settlers the show moved on to the Holocene and the enigmatic Indus valley civilization which lasted from around 3500 B.C to 1800 B.C. Wood talked a lot of town planning and trade between the Indus valley people and centers of civilization in what is now Iran and parts of the Middle East and then talked a little about the demise of this civilization caused most likely due to an increased aridification of the western Indian continent beginning around 2500 B.C. The show then moved on to the arrival of people starting 1500 B.C., speaking an Indo-European language, proto-Sanskrit. The locus of Indian civilization migrated eastward to the Gangetic plain but Wood emphasizes that there is a continuity in the cultural transition from the Indus valley to the Gangetic plains. The focus was on how these Sanskrit speaking people developed the Vedic culture and complex societies around the Gangetic plain. Using linguistic and archaeological evidence he traced the origin of these Sanskrit speaking people to central Asia.

What was left out from this rather predictable but decently presented sequence was any mention of where and when did Dravidian speaking people originate. This is the other big language family in India today, spoken mainly in the south of the country. Dravidian is considered by many linguists as part of the Dravidian-Elamite family of languages that once were spoken all over the northwestern part of Indian subcontinent extending into Iran. Exactly where the center of origin of this language family was is still uncertain but geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforva suggests that it could have been the northwestern part of India or it could be farther west towards Iran and the Caspian region.

What is clear is that Dravidian or proto-Dravidian speakers were in India before the arrival of proto-Sanskrit speakers. Linguists like Colin Renfrew suggest that it is likely that the entry and spread of Dravidian languages in India coincided with the farming dispersal and agricultural expansion that began in the Middle East and which expanded into north western parts of the Indian subcontinent around 8,000 years ago. Dravidian languages entered India through demic diffusion of agriculturists and Dravidian speaking people were the first Neolithic farmers of India. This extended history of Dravidian language origin and dispersal was given no attention in the show. These people are the likely candidates who built the Indus valley civilization and Wood missed out on exploring this thesis further. I've noticed this in many documentaries about India. The attention is always on the arrival of the "Aryans" a term used to describe people speaking Indo-European languages. They in fact arrived much later than Dravidian speakers. Today Dravidian is spoken mostly in the south, an example of language displacement by latter arrivals. There is however a northern enclave in Pakistan where Brahui, a Dravidian language is still spoken.

This is not really a rant on Dravidian vs Indo-European languages. I mentioned that Indo-European speaking people displaced Dravidian languages to the south, but Dravidian speaking farmers too must have displaced or made extinct Austro-Asiatic languages or other unclassified languages spoken by the earlier hunter-gatherer settlers of the continent. The history of India is one of immigration and emigration and superimposition of layer upon layer of language, culture and ethnicity.

I particularly liked one sentence Michael Wood said about India:

India is a country where all the pasts of the human species are still living.

That is a very evocative description of the country and its people. It makes you imagine the great antiquity of human habitation in this part of the world.


  1. Hi. Found your blog through a friend who'd shared this article on Google Reader. I've watched the Michael Wood series myself, something which was both entertaining and informative.

    Regarding Dravidian speaking peoples and their origins, I wanted to say that there is a difference between the origin of the Dravidian language, and the origin of the people who spoke it. Languages have myriad ways of being passed on: take English in present-day India, for example. British blood in the Indian gene pool is less than insignificant, and it is not inconceivable to imagine that a few generations from now you might have at least a part of the population speaking only English.

    The problem with research into the origin of languages and their native speakers, so far as I can tell, is that spoken language is said to have evolved around 14000 years ago, and written language as recent as 5000 years ago. So you have 9000 years of time available for cultural intermingling, migrations, colonization, and a host of other processes to have taken place.

    And finally, I just wanted to mention that there are a lot of languages called 'language isolates', like the Basque language, Etruscan and Elamite which haven't been successfully linked to any other languages. It isn't a stretch to view the Dravidian language family as a language family isolate.

  2. ps

    I wanted to say that there is a difference between the origin of the Dravidian language, and the origin of the people who spoke it.

    i agree. for example a lot of tribal communities have adopted Dravidian as their language but their ancestors (tribal ancestors) probably spoke an earlier language that was replaced as Dravidian speaking farmers became more numerous. so I am not suggesting that the population got replaced when Dravidian speakers migrated just that the language got adopted.

    spoken language is said to have evolved around 14000 years ago,

    much much before that. the earliest Africans who migrated out of Africa 80,000 years ago certainly had complex language. there is a case to be made for langauge being present in Homo even earlier.

    It isn't a stretch to view the Dravidian language family as a language family isolate.

    Dravidian languages have been displaced to the south by Indo-European languages. as i mentioned Brahui is a Dravidian isolate in the north.