Europeans and Indians – divided or united by DNA?

A new study from Kerala looks at the remarkable genetic similarity between a leading south Indian community and Europeans. The connection is a pointer to the complex genetic weave that has shaped each of us.

Among Britain’s colonial contributions in India, the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) ranks as the most enduring. While the idea has been discredited in serious academic circles, it continues to survive, like a persistent cold virus, in fringe academic circles. It also appeals – even if only as a Pavlovian reflex – to some Indians and Europeans for no fault of theirs other than decades of misinformed repetition.

AIT was created for one singular purpose – to facilitate the British conquest of India. If Indians were made to believe that they and the British belonged to the same ‘Aryan’ stock, then they would welcome the 'civilising' British instead of opposing them.

There was a secondary motive. When Britain’s contact with India grew, they were simply blown away by the country’s achievements in science, philosophy and spirituality among others. AIT enabled the colonisers to appropriate all this.

War as a crucible

In the 1700s when the British drew up their imperial strategy they faced few major battles in India; most encounters were barely skirmishes. This was also the period when India was recovering from the deleterious effects of over 600 years of Muslim rule. By the middle of this century the Hindu kingdoms had re-conquered vast swathes of the country from Muslim rule. The Mughal emperor became a vassal of the resurgent Maratha rulers of western India who liberated Punjab after more than 800 years of Muslim rule. The conquest of Afghanistan was next on the agenda of the Maratha chiefs.

However, the British ran a coach and four through those plans. In places such as Bengal that had not been liberated by the Marathas, the British won easily. One reason was Bengal’s effete Muslim rulers – demoralised by their emperor becoming a protectee of the Hindus – had no will to fight. Without a battle, the British had India’s richest state.

The 1800s, however, were a different ball game. The Hindu kingdoms, especially the Marathas, launched a counter offensive against the British. When the British lost seemingly decisive battles, they sued for peace only to use the interregnum to divide the Hindus. This culminated in the First War of Independence in 1857, during which the British managed to hold on to their possessions in India only by their fingernails.

The colonialists realised there was no way they could conquer such a massive country of warlike people without conquering their minds. First, the British sent in shiploads of fundamentalist and racist missionaries, who had been arguing for decades to be allowed to “save the heathen Hindus”. However, they could not make any headway as Indians stubbornly refused to be “saved”.

That is when the British commissioned an ambitious – and unscrupulous – German scholar to come up with the most outrageous lies about Hindu religion. Max Muller in fact exceeded their expectations – he developed AIT.

AIT and racism

Few realise how divisive and dangerous AIT is and how this idea played a catalytic role in the rise of racial exclusiveness among Europeans, especially the British and Germans. Until AIT arrived on the scene, nations did not look at themselves as belonging to one race or the other. Muller’s notion changed all that. Ultimately, Germany’s Adolf Hitler used it to advocate his concept of the supremacy of the ‘Aryan’ race and the inferiority of non-Aryans. Over 50 million people died in World War II and six million Jews were sent to the gas chambers – needless deaths that can be traced directly to Britain’s racial policies in India.

“We British European are Aryans, and far more pure and genuine Aryans than the Hindus, and no talk of the Hindus can alter our race, or make us any less or any different from what we are,” said A.C.L Carlleyle, a 19th century employee of the Archaeological Survey of India. “It is the Hindus who have altered and deteriorated, and not we. The Hindus have become the coffee dregs, while we have remained the cream of the Aryan race. The Hindus are like the monkey who pretend (sic) to treat some men with contempt because they had the bare white skins without any fur! The Hindus have become a sooty, dingy-coloured earthen pot, by rubbing against black aborigines rather too freely; and he consequently pretends to despise the white porcelain bowl.”

Clearly, the British were adamant about not moving the European homeland too far from their Biblical origins to India. “There were those among the British, in particular, whose colonial sensibilities made them reluctant to acknowledge any potential cultural indebtedness to the forefathers of the rickshaw pullers of Calcutta, and who preferred to hang on to the Biblical Adam far more than their European contemporaries,” says American Indologist, Edwin Bryant.

When Muller publicly announced that the British and the Indians came from the same stock and that the Scots were closer to Bengalis than they were to the Celts, it barely caused a ripple in Britain. By then the bitterness of the 1857 war had poisoned the minds of British scholars who could not even tolerate the newfound language relationship.

Rift in India

AIT has, of course, created a deep rift in Indian society – not only among scholars but also between people. When Indians kicked out the British in 1947, they unwisely retained the school curriculum of the colonialists.

Now the entire Aryan vs Dravidian idea revolves around skin colour. The people of northern India are light skinned and are in many instances white; they are supposedly the Aryans. On the other hand, the people of India below the Tropic of Cancer – or more specifically the south and east – have comparatively darker and sometimes black skin; they are presumably the Dravidians.

The problem, however, is that there are millions of dark people in the north and there are similar multitudes of light skinned or white skinned Indians in Dravidian areas. In fact, green and brown eyed people are not uncommon in southern India. Bear in mind that despite 190 years of British rule, the Europeans could not make a splash in India’s gene pool.

Unlikely cousins: Ezhava and Jat Sikh

The basis of AIT has been tested by several genetic diversity studies. DNA samples taken from thousands of Indians have been compared with population groups from other parts of the world, particularly Europe and Central Asia.

The latest one is from Kerala, which is my home state on India’s south-western coast. According to the study, two entirely different castes – Ezhava, also known as Thiyya in northern Kerala, and Jat Sikh of Punjab – show remarkable genetic similarity.

In fact, Ezhavas showed more genotypic resemblance to the Jat Sikh population of Punjab, Turks and Germans than to East Asians, says the study by the Department of Biotechnology & Biochemical Engineering at the Sree Budha College of Engineering in Pattoor, Kerala. It was conducted by department head Dr Seema Nair, Aswathy Geetha and Chippy Jagannath under the aegis of Dr K. Sasikumar, the chairman of the institute. It has also been published in the Croatian Medical Journal.

Before we jump into the study, here’s a little note about genetics. For various reasons, DNA material undergoes slight alterations or mutations in the course of time. The mutations then become characteristic of the line of descendants. These mutations, or genetic markers, are organised into categories called haplotypes. Basically, your haplotype is your genetic fingerprint.

The Sree Budha study examined DNA from the Y chromosome, which is also known as the male chromosome because it is found only in males. More specifically, it examined Y Short Tandem Repeat (Y STR) DNA present in the Y chromosome. As these DNA sequences are passed from father to son, it is also useful in forensics and paternity testing.

The Ezhava population was compared with other Indian populations and with selected world populations in order to investigate the pattern of paternal contributions. Nair’s team examined 104 haplotypes among the Ezhavas. Ten were found identical to the Jat Sikhs, which is the highest number among Indian populations, and four to the Turkish population, which is the highest among European populations.

“The comparison suggests a genetic link between the populations,” says Nair. Ezhavas, she argues, are genetically more similar to Europeans (60 percent) than to East Asians (40 percent).

My interaction with Nair, who comes across as witty and erudite, was primarily fuelled by my search for my own roots. I belong to the same Ezhava community, which is at the centre of this research.

The Ezhavas have an intriguing history. The most persistent belief is that they are the original people of Kerala – the soldiers of the Villavar (archer) community which founded the Chera kingdom. It is a measure of their martial traditions that among the Ezhavas are the Chekavar – the only kamikaze group of fighters known in Indian history.

What is intriguing about the study is that the Ezhavas, a Dravidian group, are now being described as closer to Jat Sikhs, Europeans and Central Asians.

In terms of physical appearance, the Ezhavas are brown Caucasians. However, typical of many Indian communities, there are plenty of very dark and very fair people among them.

On the other hand, the Jat Sikhs who live 3000 km up north are a lot fairer. Plus, Jat Sikh surnames such Mann, Bader, Brar, Dhillon and Virk have an uncanny Germanic resonance.

Indeed, it is worth mentioning the during the early part of the 20th century Sikh immigrants to the US convinced the Immigration & Naturalization Service to grant them white status. Those days only white Europeans were allowed to enter the United States as immigrants. However, later the INS wised up to the fact that the Sikhs “weren’t that white” and again categorised them as Asian.

So there you have it. One group of Indians, the Ezhavas, and another group, the Jat Sikhs. The only thing they have in common is a martial tradition. And yet you have this study asserting that the two communities – that have never mixed and live thousands of miles away – are closer genetically than to communities that live close by.

Background to the Kerala study

So what was the reason for the study? “Though such studies have been conducted in many populations in India as well as abroad, the genetic profile of the Kerala population based on Y STR has not been documented so far,” says Nair. “Also the origin of Kerala's non-tribal population has been a matter of contention for centuries. While some claim that Negritos were the first inhabitants, some historians suggest a Dravidian origin for all people of Kerala. Others say the Dravidians originated from the Mediterranean and so on.”

When I argued that Indians overall are genetically similar, Nair was vehement they are not. “If you look at the historical or genotypic data, Indian communities are highly diverse and of varied origin,” she says.

So the conclusion is? “Ezhavas have European paternal lineage, which is not surprising considering that Aryanisation has led to genetic mixing between Aryans and Indian populations in the north as well as the south,” says Nair. “Through Y STR we cannot determine whether Ezhavas originated from European populations or Europeans originated from Kerala/Indian populations. Historical data suggest gene flow from Europe to India not vice versa.”

Aryanisation. Clearly, Nair and I are on opposite sides of this fault line.

The mitochondrial evidence

So is there a way out of this bind, I asked the scientist. “Studying maternal mitochondrial DNA may give a clear picture as far as I understand,” she answered.


Mitochondrial DNA is like those cool ultraviolet torches they use in CSI Miami to see otherwise invisible evidence. If the mitochondrial DNA of two humans, however distant geographically, exhibit the same mutation, they necessarily share a common ancestor in the maternal line. More than any literary, linguistic or archaeological evidence, it is this clue – locked away in the recesses of our cells and obviously tamperproof – that has sent the AIT purveyors looking for alternative careers.

In an article in Archaeology Online titled Genetics and the Aryan Debate, author Michel Danino says as many nine such studies have been conducted on Indian populations.

The first such study dates back to 1999 and was conducted by the Estonian biologist Toomas Kivisild with 14 co-authors from various nationalities. It relied on 550 samples of mitochondrial DNA and revealed there was no recent population movement towards India; rather the subcontinent served as a pathway for eastward migration of modern humans from Africa, some 40,000 years ago.

Danino continues that a year later, 13 Indian scientists led by Susanta Roychoudhury studied 644 samples of mitochondrial DNA from some 10 Indian ethnic groups, especially from the east and south. They found a “fundamental genomic unity of ethnic India”.

Basically, Indians, whether white or black, have similar DNA.

M17 – white gene or brown?

If haplotypes are categories of genetic markers, then sequences of haplotypes are called haplogroups. Haplogroup M17 is regarded as the Aryan stamp on Indian populations. An extensive 2003 study conducted on 1000 Indians stressed that M17, which is found frequently in Central Asia, is present in two Indian aboriginal tribes.

The study also found that Bengalis (generally dark) and Gujaratis (mostly brown) are closer to Central Asians than Punjabis (fair to white). Also, the Lambadi tribe of Rajasthan is closest among Indians to Western Europeans while Konkani Brahmins and Punjabis are the furthest.

Another study in 2006 headed by Indian biologist Sanghamitra Sengupta concluded there is no evidence whatsoever to conclude that Central Asia is the donor rather than the receptor of M17.

Out of the India theory

First, separate groups of scientists demolished the racial basis of defining Indian DNA. Then Sengupta’s study said Caucasian DNA may have moved out of India or into India.

Finally, a study headed by biologist Sanghamitra Sahoo concludes: “The sharing of some Y-chromosomal haplogroups between Indian and Central Asian populations is most parsimoniously explained by a deep, common ancestry between the two regions, with diffusion of some Indian- specific lineages northward.”

Yes, Indian DNA is now moving north.

Oppenheimer goes “Out of India”

In his book The Real Eve, archaeologist Stephen Oppenheimer, says, “South Asia is logically the ultimate origin of M17 and his ancestors; and sure enough we find the highest rates and greatest diversity of the M17 line in Pakistan, India, and eastern Iran, and low rates in the Caucasus. M17 is not only more diverse in South Asia than in Central Asia, but diversity characterises its presence in isolated tribal groups in the south, thus undermining any theory of M17 as a marker of a ‘male Aryan invasion’ of India. One average estimate for the origin of this line in India is as much as 51,000 years. All this suggests M17 could have found his way initially from India or Pakistan, through Kashmir, then via Central Asia and Russia, before finally coming into Europe.”

Kivisild and his team agree with that argument in the American Journal of Human Genetics and the Aryan Debate. India acted “as an incubator of early genetic differentiation of modern humans moving out of Africa”, they conclude.

What do these studies suggest?

There is fundamental unity among humans. Africans, Indians and Europeans are the same people who developed different skin colours because of climate and environment. Indeed, blinded by the race wars, the pro-Aryans will not admit that warm blooded animals undergo de-pigmentation in the absence of light and warmth.

As American economist and anthropologist William Z. Ripley wrote in 1899 in the influential book Races of Europe, “There can be little doubt that the primitive type of European was brunette, probably with black eyes and hair and a swarthy skin. Teutonic blondness is certainly an acquired trait, not very recent, to be sure, judged by historic standards, but as certainly not old, measured by evolutionary time.”

And finally, let’s hear what Muller himself said as he neared death and sought redemption: “There is no Aryan race in blood. An ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is a great sinner. It is worse than a Babylonian confusion of tongues— it is downright theft.”

Like Muller, several pro-Aryan academics have jumped off the AIT bandwagon; but others hang on hoping for some miracle that will revive their fortunes. But genetics is ensuring their early retirement.

Danino says genetics is joining other disciplines in helping to clean the cobwebs of colonial historiography. “If some have a vested interest in patching together the said cobwebs so they may keep cluttering our history textbooks, they are only delaying the inevitable,” he says.

Meanwhile, down south Nair and Sasikumar say the first report on the Y-STR profile in Kerala population is just the beginning. Expect the unexpected.

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