Early Indians: Deconstructing DNA

My closest cousin was identified as a Fernandes, many 4th cousins were identified as Costa, Figueiredo, Barreto, Marquis, etc, but this is where it gets interesting: among my 6th and 8th cousins were a Shenvi and Pai

By Selma Carvalho

What is it about us human beings that we want to leave traces of ourselves behind? Whether it is emperors building cities or the faithful chronicler writing history. As it turns out, the most reliable trace, human beings have left behind is in their DNA.

I have always been curious about my paternal family. They are tall and fair, with green eyes. Both my parents being from Nuvem, I can make some observations. On my mother’s side, several houses within a 50-mile radius are closely or distantly related; they are bound to the land. On my father’s side, this familial knit of connections is missing; they are migratory. The food habits in the two households tell distant stories. As a child, in my mother’s house, I find stuffed pastries and fruit cakes. In my father’s house there are mushroom curries, chicken xacutis, turtle meat, wild boar and rabbit. The men like to hunt, their bodies strong. They like food from the wild (raana) and running rivers; it is thickly spiced. Their cuisine is not that far removed from something more ancient, not yet erased from memory by a European culture.

Some obscure family history tells me, my paternal great-grandmother, the widowed Catarina arrived in Nuvem, in the early 1900s. She was fleeing the plague in Shiroda. What we know of migration today, is that for centuries, humans have fled from plagues, climate changes and droughts, extending settlements by following coastal routes. This is obvious in Goa too, as coastal towns are far more populous and developed than the hinterland.

But where did my father’s family really originate from? Why did they have a marker for Caucasian genes – the green eyes – most prevalent in north, west and central Europe? What rivers and ridges did my ancient ancestors cross to arrive in Goa? Encouraged by a discount offered by Ancestry.com to have my DNA tested, I sent off my saliva sample. The results when they came were a disappointment. They comprised of two sentences: 50% Southern Asia and 50% Western & Central India. I knew very well, that my DNA would indicate I am from India, so what was the point of the testing?

DNA analysis is a complex science and should always be investigated alongside other disciplines of archaeology, linguistics and genealogy. The sampling of Goan DNA collected worldwide is too small to break down into minor strands of Goan origins.

But did my results have any greater significance other than the obvious? For this, I turned to a recently released book, Early Indians by Tony Joseph, a journalist well acquainted with India’s prehistory. Joseph’s work is a thorough investigation into Indian DNA analysis, and he summaries the genetic and archaeological evidence as, ‘around 65,000 years ago, modern humans arrive in India,’ a steady migration out of Africa, which begins to filter down into the peninsular from the mouth of the Himalayas and coastal routes. These became known as the ‘First Indians.’ But if only history was so simple.

Tribal communities such as the Onge of the Andaman Islands have perhaps the purist form of ‘First Indians’ DNA. For the rest of us, we’ve been infiltrated by various other migrations. Archaeological, linguistic and DNA analysis have now coalesced perfectly to buttress the hypothesis that starting from 9000 years ago, a migration from Zagros (roughly modern Iran) moved to the periphery of the Indian peninsular. Here, they mixed with the ‘First Indians’ to form the Harappan civilisation. Given the many common root words between the language of the Zagros (the archaic language Elamite) and the Dravidian language, this population possibly spread deep into India, after the decline of the Harappan civilisation.

The next most significant migration into India took place about 4000 years ago, from the Eurasian Steppe region (roughly modern central Asia and eastern Europe). This migration is responsible for the clutch of Indo-European languages (Hindi, Punjabi, Bangla, Marathi, Konkani, etc) spoken in India today, and its Vedic culture. At the risk of complicating this issue, I must state here, that all humankind has its origins in that first migration out of Africa, but because of its wide dispersal, settlements grew in isolation and developed different cultures. These isolated settlements began migrating once again as climate and technological advances (the wheel, the horse and the chariot) made movement possible. The world has been separating and then re-discovering each other from time immemorial.

What does all this mean for me personally? We know that Goa is part of a migration that began in the north of India because Konkani is an Indo-European language, and my own DNA is a mix of central, western and southern India. So, anyone from Iran to the European Steppes could have been my pre-historic ancestor bearing a gene for green eyes.

There was one other thing, my DNA results told me. They provided me with a long list of people, I may be related to. My closest cousin was identified as a Fernandes, many 4th cousins were identified as Costa, Figueiredo, Barreto, Marquis, etc, but this is where it gets interesting: among my 6th and 8th cousins were a Shenvi and Pai. To put this in perspective, on average a person has 174,000, 6th cousins. Not too far in the distant past, my family had split from its Hindu ancestors.

If I access generations of birth records and draw a family tree, somewhere in the many branches of that tree, my ancestors might likely overlap with that of Shenvi and Pai. None of us are ever too far from our past. All the superficial differences, we create through history, religion, culture and economics, cannot ever erase our shared DNA, and the fundamental truth that we are, eventually, all related.

For the sake of brevity, I have summarised and perhaps oversimplified Joseph’s book. But the books offers a comprehensive — and more importantly accessible — overview of a complex subject, which is still in its infancy. Doubtless advances in our understanding of genetics will change or buttress these findings, but for now Joseph gives us the best explanation of who we are and how we got here.


Selma Carvalho is our founding-editor. Her profile can be viewed here.

Early Indians (Juggernaut, 2018) can be purchased here.

Images have been sourced from wikipedia and the internet under the fair use principle.