I am a traveler. I have had the privilege to travel within India and also many other parts of the world. Traveling is very important to us human beings. We inhabit this beautiful planet called Earth that is traveling on its orbit around the Sun at the rate of 108,000 Kilometers/Hour!! Irrespective of whether we like traveling or not we travel millions of kilometers every day of the year.
There is another human journey whose itinerary and scale is becoming clearer day by day. The sequencing of the entire human genome in the late nineties and DNA testing of people from every nook and corner of the world (including India) is revealing a complex journey undertaken by our ancestors that has largely remained a mystery to most of us until now.
Analyzing DNA and comparing DNA is something that has been within the scientific realm for over 50 years. Comparing the data manually is a slow and complicated process. But the growth in computing power in the past few decades has changed all that. Today DNA from a crime scene can be processed and compared to DNA samples available in the database within a few hours.
In 2003 I participated in the “Genographic Project” conducted by National Geographic. The goal of this project is to study human migration and population genetics using our DNA. For a fee the Genographic Project will send you a kit which you can use to send your DNA back to them for analysis (the DNA sample that I submitted was a tiny saliva sample). The results of my test completely took me by surprise.
I am from Kerala and my family can trace back its history in Kerala to at least 125 years ago. But what the DNA results were telling me was that my ancestors most likely migrated to India from modern day Ukraine or Southern Russia within the past 5000 years. I share the same DNA markers with most modern day Europeans (and therefore North Americans). Genetically I have more in common with an European than I have with my fellow South Indians (over 99% of all human DNA is identical. The minor differences between us is what scientists are beginning to understand better).
Sequencing human genome and projects like the Genographic Project have ended once and for all the question of the origins of modern human. Modern humans originated in Africa. They lived in Africa for over 200,000 years before they slowly but steadily started migrating out of Africa. They walked along the coasts of Middle East and India and within a matter of 5000 years (of leaving Africa) they reached areas as far as Australia.
The DNA of every single human being on earth can be traced back to DNA of certain human beings living in Africa today (it is also important to note that the genetic diversity between two people in Africa is greater than the diversity between a person in Africa and anywhere else in the world. This is one of the proofs for the fact that human beings lived for a very long period in Africa than outside the continent).
We should understand some basic concepts that are involved in this study. 1) Genetic Markers: Genetic markers are sequences of DNA that is traced to specific locations on the chromosomes and associated with specific traits. 2) Mutations: Mutations are changes in DNA sequence and can be caused by errors that happen during DNA replication, environmental conditions or diseases. 3) Mutation Rate: Scientists know the rate at which mutations take place in a normal human being. So by analyzing the DNA of a person scientists can predict very accurately the sex of the person, the racial make up of the person, whether two people are related and most importantly for the purpose of this study the age of these markers (by using mutation rate).
For the purpose of this article I will only focus on the important genetic markers that are relevant to India.
Genetic Marker M168: This marker first appeared approximately 79,000 years ago and is found in every human being living outside of Africa including India. The M168 marker mostly likely occurred in modern day Ethiopia or Sudan.
Genetic Marker M130 (M168-M130): Human beings carrying the M130 genetic marker are the first inhabitants of India. They walked along the coast of Africa and on to India, Malaysia and Indonesia and finally ended up in Australia almost 60,000 years ago. Less than 5% of Indian men have this marker (most of them in places like Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). In contrast about 60% of Australian Aborigine men have this genetic marker.
Genetic Marker M20 (M168-M9-M20): The M20 genetic marker is part of the M9 lineage. The M20 was very likely a Middle Eastern marker. The group that carries this marker migrated into India in large numbers (the haplogroup L that has this marker is known as the Indian clan). This migration into India happened approximately 30,000 years ago. This marker is found in large numbers among South Indians who speak the Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada). In some South Indian populations the frequency of this marker is as high as 50%.
Genetic Marker M17 (M168-M9-M173-M17): The M17 is one of the most controversial markers as far as India is concerned. We have long known through oral traditions and literature that people from Eastern Europe/Central Asia migrated to India in our not so recent past (the Aryan invasion theory). The M17 marker found among certain Indians (including me) proves once and for all that Europeans did migrate to India. But DNA cannot prove whether these Europeans are indeed the Aryans that we talk about or whether or not these European migrants were the cause of the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization.
As some members of the M9 clan where migrating towards India other members of the group headed north towards Central Asia and Europe. From this group came the M173 marker which is the first large wave of human migration to Europe. Most Europeans (and North Americans) today can trace their DNA back to the M173 marker. For some strange reason some members of the M173 group turned and headed back towards South Asia (may be due to climatic conditions). From this returning group comes the M17 Indo-European marker.
The M17 marker first appears about 15,000 years ago in Southern Russia/Ukraine. The Indo-European languages including Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and now English are closely linked to this group. It is highly likely that the members of this group are the initial Indo-European language speakers. It is estimated that over 35% of Hindi speaking males in India carry this marker (compared to less than 10% among Dravidian language speakers).
The descendants of the first Indians still live in the Andaman islands and places like Tamil Nadu. People with the M20 marker and the Dravidian languages are also still here (they arrived about 30,000 years ago) and finally the Indo-European speakers (started with Sanskrit a language that has origins in places like Ukraine) and their M17 markers are also present (they arrived less than 5000 years ago).
There are many more markers present in India that shows migration into India and out of India. The study of human migration and population genetics is a fascinating subject. But this is just the beginning. But at least we now know who we “Indians” really are.
“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is” – Albert Camus
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Category: Culture & Religion