April 13, 2018

R1ans still at large (or, the story of India)

Ten ago, in the pre-ancient DNA "Dark Ages" a big debate raged on about the origin of R1a  men in India. The stage had been set even earlier, by the pioneering Eurasian heartland paper which was the first (to my memory) to link M17 with steppe migrations and Indo-Iranians. Yet, there was pushback as the distribution of M17 was better described, and people started using Y-STRs to try to date and place phylogeographically its migrations.

The two poles of the debate were the "Out-of-India", which relied primarily on Y-STR based time estimates that seemed very old (even Paleolithic, if one used the wrong mutation rate) in India, and the "Into-India" which thought that the R1a distribution pointed to its being brought into India by the Indo-Aryans in the conventional ~3,500BC time frame of the "Aryan Invasion Theory" (AIT).

AIT has been much maligned because it has been received as a Western colonialist imposition on Indian history: a way to claim that Indian civilization was not native but European in origin. Europeans were certainly guilty of misusing AIT: for British colonials it represented a precedent for their colonization of India; for German National Socialists it was evidence for the greatness of the Aryan race and its past expansions eastward. It also played into internal Indian politics, espoused by some as a means of furthering their superiority as either descendants of "Aryan conquerors" or as oppressed victims of the same.

Of course, a misuse of a theory does not mean it is wrong, and if a new preprint based on ancient and modern DNA is correct, it means that AIT was basically correct: Indo-Aryans did come to India in the Late Bronze Age, via the steppe, and ultimately from central Europe.

The opposing Out-of-India theory is all but dead, although failed theories often have a long half-life, especially if they are espoused for psycho-political reasons. I would argue that Out-of-India was dead for thousands of years before it was conceived, since even in Homer's time it was known that "India" was not "one thing" but was peopled by Indians in the north and "Eastern Ethiopians" in the south (which differed from their western "actual" Ethiopians of Africa by their possession of straight rather than curly hair). These were the "Ancestral North Indians" and "Ancestral South Indians" that modern science has revealed. Out-of-India is little more than a nationalistic myth functioning as an antidote to this basic dichotomy, a way to imbue India's diverse citizens with a myth of common origins.

Yet, proponents of AIT (who have a non-trivial overlap with R1an enthusiasts) are also scratching their heads because of the 27 ancient South Asian males from South Asia studied in the preprint there is exactly one R1a, who also happened to live after the time of the Buddha and not during the Bronze Age.

Both OIT enthusiasts (who expected copious and abundant R1a in India and its environs since the Paleolithic) and AIT/R1an enthusiasts (who expected to see it come in c. 3,500BC) are bound to be disappointed.

Perhaps the R1a Indo-Aryans did come to South Asia in a conventional AIT time frame and they haven't been sampled. Or, maybe they were, indeed, there, but were not R1ans. Or, maybe both sides missed the bigger story which is that the Indo-Aryans (so closely associated with India today) were simply not there as early as people have thought. 

bioRxiv: doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/292581

The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia

Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Nick J Patterson et al.

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.


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