We Indians Are From… ?
By Maxwell Pereira
maxpk@vsnl.com

After reading about the National Geographic Society’s $40 million genographic project to map the origins of humanity, I couldn’t resist access their website at www3.nationalgeographic.com/genographic – to learn what it is about. It puports to be a global effort to collect DNA samples from thousands of people across the world – to trace the big migrations over the past 100,000 years as our ancestors moved out of Africa to populate the world.

A participation kit is being offered through this website for $99.95 to allow anyone across the world to take a swab of saliva and send it to one of the ten identified research centre laboratories around the globe for DNA analysis – at the end of which participants can get their genetic profile, with a peek into their deep ancestral history, under total secrecy.

The rationale for this, is that each individual is the result of a unique combination of their parents’ genetic code, and hence identified by the same ‘marker’ that would appear through mutation essentially unchanged in a lineage. Information on a large set of such markers projected back in time using computer algorithms could track the trail of mutations in a single Y-chromosome whose owner lived 40,000 to 140,000 years ago in Africa.

We know that most fossil evidence so far has suggested that modern humans evolved in Africa between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago and began migrating to other continents just about 60,000 years ago. Asia, Europe and Australia were the next to be populated, and Americas the last.

Against this background and the new development, where do we stand? What do we know about the origin of us Indians!

In this context, I believe three research papers of recent yers, are relevant: (i) Human Evolution: The Southern Route to Asia, Current Biology 1999 Dispatch R295; (ii) Deep Common Ancestry of Indian and Western European Mitochondrial Lineages, Current Biology, 1999; and (iii) Fundamental Genomic Unity of Ethnic India is Revealed by Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA, Current Science, 2000, 79.

These papers spell out both, the genetic breakup of modern Indian populations, as well as the likely conclusions regarding the time, magnitude and type of their original migrations into the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

In a nutshell, the findings draw upon certain facts relating to mtDNA data breakups within and outside the Indian populations – (i) that East Africans, most Europeans and most Indians in general possess haplogroup-U (considered a prime West European marker); (ii) that some East Africans from Ethiopia, some coastal Arabians, most East Asian populations and almost all Indians have haplogroup-M (considered a basic East Asian marker, which is conspicuously absent in Europeans); (iii) that the coalescence age of haplogroup M is considered about 60,000 YBP and that of haplogroup-U around 55,000 YBP; and (iv) that among Indian populations within each gene pool, tribal populations have greater haplogroup-M than any other, North Indians have more haplogroup-U than haplogroup-M, South Indians have more haplogroup-M than haplogroup-U, and as one moves up the caste ladder – whether in North Indians or South Indians – more haplogroup-U than M is present.

From these, researchers have broadly come to a consensus about there being most likely two migrations into India. Each probably a small group of females (or more females than males). One carrying haplogroup-M around 60,000 YBP starting from Ethiopia, rounding the Arabian coast, landing into the Indian subcontinent, some of whom must have proceeded eastwards to populate SE Asia, Australia and beyond.

Then around 55,000 YBP, a second group of females carrying the haplogroup-U marker got out of Africa, and on reaching the Middle East – split into two groups, one heading west to Europe and the other east towards India, merging with the forerunners, the haplogroup-M. The researchers point out against any major splash in our gene pool occurring in the recent past, though there is some data to indicate smaller admixtures around 32,000 YBP and a much smaller one centering over a time period ~ 9000 YBP.

Most of us Indians grew up learning about “the Aryans who overran Harappa around 1500 BC” and so on regarding the origin of Indians. So what happens to that in the face of these research findings? Most would find it surprising that this “Aryan invasion” theory still persists – not only among seasoned researchers within the ASI, ICHR and other historical organizations entrusted with documenting our history, but from time to time also in respected mainstream magazines.

Many feel, the reasons why such notions persist in spite of seemingly water-tight facts being now available – are for one, because the information is simply not widely known. For another, it is still complex enough not to be easily susceptible to sensationalism in the media and the popular press. Perhps it is easier to misinterpret some other data and breathtakingly declare ‘European gene found in upper caste Indians’.

Traditional beliefs die hard. When non-mainstream historians pointing to the new facts draw ‘non-traditional’ conclusions, they are likely to be pared to size with cries accusing them of being revisionist-history-fanatics or some other bogey of that sort. Same goes for mainstream academics too, who are wary and unwilling to rock the boat and say anything seemingly radical, if at all.

While there could be efforts at belittling all these new-fangled interpretations, it would be interesting to know how many Indians would volunteer to participate in the latest genographic study of National Geographic. It is also interesting to learn that heading the collaborating IBM’s Computational Biology Centre is an ethnic Indian.

900 words: 24 .04.2005: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sec-23, Gurgaon-122002. You can interact with the author at http:// www.maxwellperira.com and maxpk@vsnl.com

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