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Summary of Linguistic, Racial, and Demographic History of India and South Asia: Indo-Aryan Migration, Establishment of Vedic Culture

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The genetic and linguistic history of South Asia (here referred to in shorthand as India) is complicated and often controversial. The number of misconceptions is enormous but one in particular stands out and must be addressed before the start of this summary. It is the controversy over the “Aryan Invasion Theory,” which holds that the classical civilization of India was established by Aryans who invaded from the northwest. It needs to be made clear that linguistic change does not mean invasion or population changes. After all, there was no major population change, genetically speaking, at this time. Another method of identifying whether major population change has occurred or not is provided by archaeology. Archaeology divides regions into archaeological cultures wherein regions have similar pottery, tools, and the like. Earlier and late cultures have tools that seem to have developed from each other. A major change in artifacts in a short period of time is generally thought to signify a population change in the region. In the case of India, the archaeological cultures before and after the spread of Vedic culture (1700-1200 BC) are similar and do not seem to imply a major invasion. There does not seem to be a major invasion, and even a migration must have been fairly small. The most distinctive trace of a migration- and there must have been at least some influence from outside of India to explain Sanskrit- is the language itself, a language which does not have original terms for South Asian fauna and flora such as elephant (the word is etymologically related to the Sanskrit word for hand, given the resemblance of a trunk to a hand).


The map above shows the spread of pottery cultures in India. Cemetery H seems to have given rise to Copper Hoard and then Painted Grey Ware as this culture slowly spread; there is no difference between these cultures and the pottery from before. The Swat culture seems to represent an initial small settlement of Aryans who then materially assimilated into the Cemetery H culture while imparting their language on the non-Aryan people of that culture. Why and how this happened is a mystery but it is fairly well known that the Aryans were an elite in this culture who believed that their language was sacred. The origins of what is today called the caste system can be found here, but that is beyond the scope of the topic I wish to discuss right now.

The history of early South Asia must reconcile two facts that seem contradictory: 1) The genetic differences between North and South Indians are minor. They are both related and mixed with each other, and for all practical purposes are one race, distinct from all other races. There has not been any significant outside genetic output to Indian genes for over 20,000 years. 2) On the other hand, most Indians speak languages that seem to originate from outside of South Asia. It is abundantly clear, on the basis of linguistic terminology that the Indo-Aryan languages of north India derived from Sanskrit entered India from outside. But it is also likely that Dravidian languages, which dominate South India are not native to India either. The native languages of India seem to have largely vanished except for a couple of isolates. Indians in general are more closely related to people in the Middle East than other regions and this is obvious on the basis of looking at the physical features of Indians alone.  Genetic information confirms this.


The native population of India can still be seen in the “Adivasis” or tribal people of India, many of which have features that classify them as Australoids. Australoids were among the first people to migrate out of Africa and remain scattered throughout South and Southeast Asia; however the main population of Australoids are the Australian Aborigines. It is likely that by 20,000 years ago, this ancient Caucasian population was the majority population in India with some admixture. Because there was a shift in race, and not just in language, this phenomenon was demic diffusion. This is a demographic term referring to a migratory model, developed by Cavalli-Sforza, that consists of population diffusion into and across an area previously uninhabited by that group, possibly, but not necessarily, displacing, replacing, or intermixing with a pre-existing population. However, since then, there seems to have been no major population replacement in India, with new groups being assimilated into the larger Indian population. 

What seems to have occurred around 1700 BC is a small migration of Indo-Iranian peoples from Afghanistan into South Asia who became the Indo-Aryans while the Indo-Iranians who remained outside of India became the Iranians. There may be a small genetic trace of this migration in the Indian genome. However, the language shift that occurred- people began switching to speaking some form of Sanskrit or related language- is entirely due to elite dominance. This is an interesting phenomenon, in which the language of the elite minority is adopted by the majority. For example, modern Indians are aware of the growing use of English among many circles in India. The use of English has endured because of its use among the elite and the desire of the non-elite to emulate the elite. Thus a language spreads without major population shifts. There need not be a major conquest or migration. Another case where a language spreads without significant genetic or population change is when African-Americans speak English as their native language instead of an African language. I will now summarize what seems to have happened.


This map is a good summary of Indo-European movements in Eurasia.

The first Indo-Aryans to entire South Asia must have been very similar to the Iranian people in Afghanistan and Bactria. The ancient Avestan language of the Iranians is so close to Vedic Sanskrit that they are often thought to be dialects of each other. The Indus Valley Civilization seems to have collapsed in the Punjab region due to overpopulation and environmental factors by 1700 BC. The Punjab region was in a state of some political and economic chaos. Around this time, some Aryan tribes probably crossed into parts of this area, such as the Swat Valley. Some of them may have just arrived in Afghanistan around this time.  They may have seen an opportunity to expand their grazing lands (they were pastoral nomads) in an area without central authority. Being a somewhat warlike people, they may have raided or may have been invited by villages in the Punjab to protect them against enemies. In any case, an Aryan elite soon became the dominant group of the farmer population in the Punjab region. This agricultural culture was expanding, both through migration and cultural diffusion into the Gangetic river valley eastwards. By this time, this culture can be called the Vedic culture. People in the Gangetic region adopted the iron tools of the Vedic culture to chop down forests and join in this culture, which meant adopting the pottery and tools of a people who themselves had adopted the language and some religious rituals of a small group among them. Thus the Aryan culture and Sanskrit language was adopted by an agricultural culture that had weak political organization but was still in the process of colonizing new territory.  This is the summary and result of the research I have done on this topic and seems to be the best explanation for India’s linguistic and genetic situation. In addition to the physical evidence, a lot of what happened can be constructed from early Indo-Aryan sources such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Mahabharata, the greatest epic of all time. This textual analysis is pretty interesting in and off itself.

Moving on from the Aryans, another mystery has sought my attention lately. What language did the Indus Valley people speak? At first, it seemed to be obviously Dravidian. But Dravidian people were farmers whose language might distantly resemble an ancient Near Eastern language called Elamite. So the Dravidians themselves might not be native to India. The existence of numerous non-Dravidian groups scattered throughout north and northwest India seem to indicate that the Indus Valley people may have only been partly Dravidian and that Dravidians themselves began migrating from the Iranian Plateau to India around 4000 BC, as farmers seeking new lands. Ultimately, all people have to come from somewhere since nobody spontaneously sprung up in any region so everyone must have an origin somewhere. Since Dravidians are a very dark Caucasian and not Adivisai tribal peoples,  they too might have had a Middle Eastern origin. Dravidian may have spread to India through agricultural/population diffusion similar to the way Sanskrit did, though it spread along a more southerly route- along the coast of Iran, then Sindh (in Pakistan), into Gujarat and peninsular India- explaining why the Punjab and Ganges valley were not yet Dravidian when the Indo-Aryans themselves arrived. The earliest foreign words in Sanskrit are not from a Dravidian source and seem to be from an unknown third source, probably reflecting the original language of the Punjab farmers.

I advocate the theory then that both the Dravidians and Aryans arrived not too long from each other in India and spread their languages through the same processes of elite dominance, once in the South and one in the North, though the Dravidian influence on Indo-Aryan languages gradually becomes more and more obvious as Indian languages evolved.  Having done a lot of research on this topic, I’ve found a lot of scholarly literature on the Aryan migration issues but not much on Dravidian issues. I would welcome more information and resources on Dravidian origins.

As to who the Indus people were originally, they must have been the earliest settlers from the Middle East, around 20,000 years ago before they were linguistically changed by the new arrivals. A language isolate called Burushaski survives in the Hunza valley of Kashmir and may be related to the original language of these people. As Indus writing has not yet been deciphered, it is unknown if this is true or not.  Deciphering this script would be one of the most momentous and important discoveries made in linguistics. The southern Indus cities may have already become Dravidian by the time the were built but the northern ones, probably not. Sanskrit only acquired Dravidian language features after it moved a bit sound around 1400 BC. The earliest foreign words in Sanskrit seem to be derived from a language that can be partially reconstructed from this information and is sometimes derived Para-Munda because it might be very distantly related to the Munda languages of eastern India. Munda languages themselves are related to Khmer and Vietnamese and it might be possible that this Austroasiatic language family is the original family of South and Southeast Asia, later replaced by Burmese and Thai in Southeast Asia and Sanskrit in India. Para-Munda can also just be another language isolate. This mystery requires further evidence to be solved, though the theories I summarized above about the spread of Aryan and Vedic culture across India seems to be fairly widely accepted now by scholars. Some nationalists in India find it problematic that the Aryans and Sanskrit language were not originally from India but they ought to be comforted to know that the ensuring culture was a fusion and probably not the result of violent conquest. Nor were these Aryans the “white, blond-haired, blue-eyed” Aryans of myth. They probably looked very similar to people in Afghanistan and Pakistan today. The term Arya itself is derived from a term meaning noble and has no racial connotation in Sanskrit. Anyone who joined the Aryan culture became noble. Later on, by the time of the Buddha, the word lost even that cultural connotation and simply meant noble, and could be applied to various warriors, sages, or individuals who did good deeds.


Map of the possible linguistic situation in early Vedic India.


Written by Akhipill

December 18, 2012 at 11:23 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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One Response

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  1. I used to be suggested this blog via my cousin. I’m no longer certain whether this submit is written by him as nobody else recognize such precise about my trouble. You’re amazing!
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    July 1, 2013 at 7:20 AM

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