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The bone hunters

By Irfan Husain

SANSKRIT has always intrigued me, partly because it shares so much grammar and vocabulary with a number of European and South Asian languages.
But for me, it’s more personal: my father did his doctorate in Sanskrit at Sorbonne University in Paris, probably the first Muslim to do so in pre-Partition India. The subject of his thesis was Society in Sanskrit Drama.
With these qualifications, he was the logical choice to set and mark the Sanskrit paper in the civil service exam that was offered as an optional subject in the early years of Pakistan. My mother finally confessed a few years after my father left us that she had manipulated some of the results.
Mass movements changed the face of the world.
Giggling, she recounted how, when her husband had gone to sleep after marking the answers, she would look for candidates who were failing by a few marks. And if any were short by one or two, she would add them to the total, without my father being any the wiser. She lived with her secret for many years, knowing how furious her husband — a stickler for the rules — would have been had he found out.
But what has renewed my interest in Sanskrit in the last few days is a book I was given a couple of months ago, and was sitting patiently in a stack I have to get around to. While the title was intriguing (Who We Are and How We Got Here), the subtitle (Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past) slightly put me off with its faint threat of heavy scientific jargon.
How wrong I was. The author, David Reich, is blessed with a fluent style that makes it a joy to follow his global and historical exploration of the mass movement of people over tens of thousands of years. Genomics, or the study of human genes, was until recently a niche science, but with advances made in the extraction of DNA from ancient bones, it has become a key tool in studying how migrations and conquests have shaped today’s demographics. It also tells us something about the inequalities and social structures that existed in pre-history.
My father writes in his memoir Gard-i-Rah (‘Dust of the Road’) about being taken to a gypsy camp by his Spanish hosts, and being surprised by the number of Sanskrit/Hindi words he recognised. Since then, of course, research has confirmed that this community made its way to Europe from north India around the 16th century.
But far more established European languages like Latin and its derivatives such as French, Spanish and a clutch of others share much with Sanskrit. According to Reich and his team’s research, there were two major waves of migrations of farmers and pastoralists who travelled from the Anatolian plateau and Iran.
The first occurred around 9,000 years ago when Iranian farmers headed into India, and set up home at Mehrgarh in Balochistan where they introduced new farming techniques. Others went north and south, spreading their Central Asian culture and language. The same period saw a wave of Anatolian farmers spread westward into much of west Europe.
In the second wave, around 5,000 years ago, Yamnaya pastoralists spread west into Central Europe, while another group are believed to have entered north India, forming the Indus Valley civilisation. All these groups shared certain linguistic characteristics that formed the basis of the mother Indo-European language. Exactly why these mass movements happened is still a mystery, but they changed the face of the world.
Reich and his colleagues ran into a potential minefield in discussions with their Indian counterparts when they brought up the subject of two invasions, one from the west, and the other from the north. Thus, South Asia has seen at least five different waves of pale-skinned conquerors (Iranian, Yamnaya, Afghan, Mughal and the British). Diplomati­cally, Reich managed to finesse this difficulty and proceeded with his groundbreaking research.
One of Reich’s findings was the presence of large numbers of what he terms ‘population bottlenecks’. These occur when groups do not marry outside their communities for long periods, and relatively small numbers breed many children. Mutations in the DNA are thus carried forward, bearing telltale signs. While these have been spotted in other regions as well, they are specially marked in India.
Reich urges us not to think of India as a country with a huge population, but as being composed of large number of small populations. Clearly, the caste system has much to do with this biological oddity. With its four main castes and thousands of sub-castes, Hinduism has a rigid hierarchy that persists to this day.
The ongoing worldwide concerns and political turmoil over migration overlooks the fact that almost all population groups were formed over the millennia by the movement of people. Of course, there were no borders or passports in those days, but that early commingling of languages, ideas and technology has shaped our world as we know it.