Through Khyber into India

The Himalayan Range is not totally impenetrable. Among other gaps, the foothills of the Hindukush Range of the Himalayas had the Khyber and Bolan passes which could be used to cross over from the main northern highway in the west into the plains of Punjab to the east of these two passes. Such crossings were always possible in the appropriate season when the snow cover was at its lowest. In fact, from the evidences available, these passes have been used since times immemorial not only by migrating populations coming into the Indian subcontinent but also by the traders and missionaries going out from India. It may be again be emphasized that there was a two-way usage of this pathway and not just a continuous stream of incoming populations. This tiny little branch of the age-old highway of human migration is of great significance for our understanding of pre-Harappan, as also, subsequent cultures, and the people of the Indian sub continent.

The Dravidians

The African like features of the populations involved in the early incursions into the Indian subcontinent through the north western mountain passes, and also, their similarity to the Semitic area populations, that is, the people from the fertile flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers south east of the Mediterranean has been noted. However, such physical affinity is there only because both these populations were recently out of Africa. To expand on this idea, we can refer to yet another incidence of geography preceding history.

Dark and Fair Complexion

Vitamin D is essential for the human body but cannot be extracted or synthesised from food. The human body can produce it only if it is exposed to sunlight. Close to the tropics, where the humans evolved, the sunny days were frequent and the sunlight bright. To protect their exposed skin surface from the potentially dangerous ultra violet rays of the sun, dark melanin covered the surface of the skin of early humans. However, as these humans migrated northwards they encountered temperate climate where the sun was visible less often. The melanin developed in the tropics to cut out the harmful sunlight, began to reduce the capacity of the body to produce vitamin D. This led to a gradual reduction in the melanin based protective cover and the end result was a paler complexion or a ‘white’ skin.

To come back to the theme of a two-way movement on the northern highway of human migration, some segments of the northern populations, who had reached and had been living for a substantial period of time in the Central Asian region, migrated on the northern highway in the reverse direction. Only now, they, having lived in colder climates, were fair complexioned. Some of them, again, in the course of their reverse migration, took the detour into the Indian sub-continent through the northwestern passes. Depending on the era of these fresh arrivals, we have given them names such as Aryans, Huns, Sakas, Scythians, Mughals, etc.

Summing Up

Thus, to sum up, the earliest incursions into the Indian sub continent were the coastal highway people who, other than Andaman islanders, have more or less disappeared or have been absorbed into the subsequent populations. Thereafter, all major incursions were in through the northwestern passes, into the Punjab plains and then eastward as also southwards. The earliest populations arriving from the northwest into the Indian sub continent had African like features, because they had recently left Africa and, had not yet been exposed to drastically different climatic conditions. Also, not enough time had elapsed for physical adaptations to be a part of their genetic make-up. We generally refer to them as ‘Dravidians’. Thereafter, the bulk of the incursions were from ‘fair skin’ populations who took a detour into the Indian sub-continent while on the reverse migration from Central Asia to the Middle East.

Coming back to the movement of people, the ‘coastal highway’ people who arrived in the Indian sub-continent around 50,000 years ago were small groups that have today, largely disappeared. Substantial evidence of hunter-gatherers in the form of Stone Age tools and artefacts has been found all over the northwest Punjab and adjoining areas. Given the small numbers and the primitive technology of the ‘coastal highway’ people it is improbable that they found their way across the heavily forested hinterland to reach the Indus valley region. On the other hand, the northwestern passes could always be crossed and the evidence would suggest that primitive populations, at least as far back as 30,000 years, were using that pathway to enter into and to colonise the Indus valley area. That was a relatively dry area with thin vegetation cover and, even with primitive technology, that area could be accessed as against the thickly forested Gangetic belt, colonisation of which had to await the subsequent common use of iron implements.

Mastery of Agriculture

Populations have ever since been moving to and fro across the pathway between the Middle East and the Indus valley region. The fertile river valleys of the Middle East have traditionally been considered the area where both, domestication of plants and of animals, initially took place and that such technology, from there, was somehow diffused to all other areas.

Whether the commonly practised art of ‘domestication’ in the Indus valley region was a local phenomenon or acquired from another far off land can perhaps be decided with reference to the area of existence of the wild species from which the domesticated specimens were derived. The sheep, goats and cattle that were found in a domesticated state in the Indus valley region, all have their wild counter parts available in that region itself. Furthermore, the process of domestication causes a gradual reduction in size of the domesticated strains as compared to their wild populations. Analysis of the domesticated animal bones from the Indus valley region show a progressive reduction in size of these animals which cannot be explained by the view that domestication happened elsewhere and that the knowledge of domestication was imported to this region.

Similarly, wild specimens of barley, from which the domesticated versions were cultivated in this area, are still available. It is true that no evidence of wild specimens of wheat is locally available today though it was cultivated in this area in antiquity. However, evidence gathering is not exhaustive and we may still find evidences of wild growing wheat in the area, in future. Even otherwise, as modern day wildlife conservationists are well aware, local extinctions of individual species do happen, and that too, at a rather alarming rate. The fact that today there is no wild wheat in that area cannot conclusively lead to the assertion that 10,000 years back also, there was no wild wheat in that region and therefore, the skill of farming wheat was not of local origin.

Available evidence would suggest that local domestication of locally available wild specimens happened in the Indus valley region, more or less contemporaneous with the Middle East. It is not as implausible as conventional wisdom would lead us to believe. As mentioned earlier, geographically, the Indus valley region was not too far removed from the Middle East and a regular pathway, or channels of communication, between the two areas always existed. The appropriate perspective may be to consider the Indus region as the western extremity of the Middle East. Knowledge and experience of one segment of that larger population was quickly dispersed and shared and also adapted to the local conditions by the entire area. In that context, any attempt to pin point one specific area as the origin of a particular trait, may be a futile exercise, in service of breast-beating jingoism rather than a scientific analysis of the available facts.