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Book review: Early Indians

‘Early Indians’ by Tony Joseph has a simple claim: to bring us up to speed on what we know about prehistoric Indians. To do this, he uses a variety of sources to triangulate arguments and make a simple and robust claim: all Indians have a mixture of immigrant ancentries.

The book begins, as any work rooted in scientific concepts would, with definitions: what he means by ‘Indian’, what he means by ‘prehistory’, what kind of data he uses, where we find such data and whose work he derives from. This is where Joseph’s approach stands out from similar ones made by authors such as Romila Thapar – Joseph goes beyond simply using archaeological data; he uses draws from genetic data in the form of genomes and lineages, and insights from linguistics as well. By setting up these concepts nicely, he also ensures that the reader doesn’t need a dictionary or an encycopedia. Every new concept that is introduced is given sufficient attention before turning to how it’s useful and what information can be drawn from it. For example, consider this passage in the first chapter:

When geneticists talk about the first modern humans in India, they mean the first group of modern humans who have successfully left behind a lineage that is still around. But when archaeologists talk about the first modern humans in India, the are talking about the first group of modern humans who could have left behind archaeological evidence that can be examined today, irrespective of whether or not they have a surviving lineage.

This distinction is helpful for the reader to appreciate why multiple sources are necessary, and also buttresses Joseph’s claim that the various fields don’t have to disagree with each other’s findings. It just takes some contextualization for us to appreciate why they may be different.

The first real insight for me was the role of haplogroups (branches in the genetic tree) in decoding ancestry. All humans outside Africa carry lineages that follow from M, N or R haplogroups. While south Asia has all three of these, Europe only has N and R. What does this say? Quite simply, that the first groups of humans to leave Africa followed a route that brought them close to India, where they may have settled before moving to Central Asia, and then making the push towards Europe. But if they were moving across the Sinai and Levant, wouldn’t Europe be closer to them, and thus likely to be settled first? Well, it turns out that the first successful groups of early humans first moved into Asia via the Bab el Mandeb at the southern edge of the Red Sea, crossing over into Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Earlier expeditions through the Levant and Judaea were unsuccessful (likely because of the presence of Neanderthals), and the Red Sea route was very much a viable route in the interglacial period.

This means that very early in our species’ history, South Asia was home to a great majority of humanity – a poignant reflection of today’s reality, where the Indian subcontinent alone accounts for over a fifth of the world’s population. So, in a way, the story of Indians is the story of our species, whether some of us like that idea or not.

The second chapter goes into some detail about the pre-Harappan farming communities in the Indian subcontinent. The site he chooses to focus on is Mehrgarh in Pakistan, a spectacular example of Neolithic civilization in the subcontinent.

The fast-eroding ruins at Mehrgarh, Pakistan

In 7000 BC, the Mehrgarh people, called ‘First Indians’ by Joseph, had masonry, brick houses, more or less rectilinear walls, fireplaces, red paints and even early domesticated versions of barley, cattle and goat. The most amazing of these remains are the “grave goods”, or things people were buried with. We see shells, necklaces, headbands and semiprecious stones, moved around through trade networks that reached as far as the Makran coast. There’s even cotton you guys! And they had dentistry.

This leaves an obvious question: what happened to them? Turns out, they moved all over India. The current genetic makeup of Indians is a mix of two distinct lineages: Ancestral South Indians (ASI) who derive from the First Indians at Mehrgarh and Iranian agriculturalists, and Ancestral North Indians (ANI) who are a mix of First Indians, Iranian agriculturalists and Steppe pastoralists. In other words, north and south Indians really are different people.

The third chapter deals with that jewel in Ancient India’s crown: the Harappan Civilization. One of the oldest and most sophisticated civilizations of its time, the Harappan civilization rivalled Uruk as the preeminent civilization of its time, stretching over an area of a million square kilometers – modern India is an entity covering three thousad square kilometers. The people traded with Mesopotamia, lived fairly peaceful lives and had a real appreciation for art and crafts, despite not having spectacular temples or ziggurats. They also spoke proto-Dravidian, the forebear of modern-day Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. By using linguistics, genetics and archaeology, Joseph shows the unvarnished truth: the mature Harappan Civilization had few rivals in its time, and once it fell, the subcontinent would take close to a millennium to reach that level of advancement again.

Harappan architecture - Wikipedia
Harappan architecture

Harappan remains are now scattered all over India and Pakistan, where they’ve just turned into sad mounds of dust and pieces of inconvenient history. In Pakistan because pre-Islamic history has become taboo for some reason, and in India because the Harappans predate the ‘Aryans’, who are said to be the people who brought proto-Hinduism, Sanskrit and everything else that a proud Hindu values. In the fourth chapter on Aryans, the author’s powerful argumentation steps in to defend scientists from religious and political zealots. He picks apart Harappan culture to show that it contained many elements of what we consider to be Indian culture, and the Aryans really only brought Sanskrit, horses and an undue emphasis on violence, a warrior culture, ritual sacrifices and supreme mastery of metallurgy.

There is substantial evidence that the Indus civilization was pre-Aryan.

The Indus civilization was mainly urban, while the early Vedic society was rural and pastoral. There were no cities in the Vedic period. The Indus seals depict many animals but not the horse. The horse and the chariot with spoke wheels were the defining features of the Aryan-speaking societies. The chariot found at Daimabad in the Deccan, the southernmost Indus settlement, has solid wheels and is drawn by a pair of humped bulls, not oxen. The tiger is often featured on Indus seals and sealings, but the animal is not mentioned in the Rigveda.

All of these go to show that the Aryans were alien to these lands, and could only have been an immigrant (or invading) population. Evidence presented by Joseph shows that the Harappans worshipped or revered some sort of a phallic symbol, which we now know as the ubiquitous Shivalingam. But the funny thing is, the Rigveda actually denounces ‘shishnadeva‘, translated to ‘the phallus god’ or ‘phallus worshippers’, a clear allusion to the Harappan culture. Archaelogical evidence also shows evidence of deliberate destruction of phallic symbols and idols in every Harappan settlement we have.

However, Joseph shows that this disdain for Harappan culture doesn’t last forever. By the time of the Upanishads (500-100 BC), the ‘shishnadeva’ has been coopted into a religion loosely resembling the Hinduism we know today. In other ways too, the two cultures merge into one: Dravidian words are taken into Sanskrit, retroflex consonants (consonants that need you to curl your tongue, the very thing that distinguishes Indian accents) become common. Houses are built around courtyards, bullock carts are still in use across the country, bangles are important to this day, trees continue to be worshipped – the peepal tree in particular, the significance of water buffalo in some cultures, dice games, chess and even the practice of applying sindoor are ways we carry on in the traditions of the Harappans.


Tony Joseph’s book is a great example of the kind of confident works Indian authors are starting to produce. There’s a resurgent self-assurance in Indian writing, lacking the mass-market appeal of recent years. Gone are the days when the Indian writer was tremulously searching for validation from Western audiences. Joseph writes his book for one audience alone: the curious, anglophile Indian. He wants you to be informed, to be proud and to also be able to stand up and take control of the cultural narrative. The epilogue is a perfect exemplification of this: he makes a compelling argument for how and when the caste system came to be solidified in Indian culture. Joseph argues that the caste system in India did not arrive with the ‘Aryans’. Instead, it fell into place much, much later – about two millennia later.

In bringing history, science and culture together, Tony Joseph is able to convince the educated, cosmopolitan Indian to give up the self-flagellating fatalism we sometimes slip into. He brings history to contemporary India and argues for the value of studying our past in order to rectify its mistakes. He closes the book perfectly with a meditation on caste, endogamy and the role of migrants like the Sakas, Mughals and Parsis in deciding the cultural makeup of modern India.

‘Early Indians’ is more than just a simple narration of historical events, and it’s definitely not an academic piece of writing. It’s the perfect example of what authors are capable of producing when they build neat, rigorous arguments that contextualise history.

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