Last week was the third time in my life I came unhinged.
One brutal summer day in 1988, I woke up to find that I could no longer believe in God. And I was terrified. All around me was a beautiful Tamil Brahmin family that considered the absence of sacred marks on the forehead an extreme form of atheism and often castigated the perpetrator. Which had never been me. For, I had been a faultless believer who left no real estate above the waist unadorned.
Perhaps I overdid it. The excess dose of Vitamin G began to show its side effects. I vomited at the mention of the Lord. I experienced mild to intense fever in the presence of believers. The profuseness of my sweat came to be directly proportional to my proximity to a divine image.
Yet I wasn’t worried about how my family would react to my new-found atheism. Truth be told, my parents shrugged it off.
My fear was about my identity. The loss of faith set me free from the shackles of commercialized religion but also robbed me of a sense of belonging. Suddenly, my loving family and my dearest friends were thrown across an impenetrable wall and I was lonely. I could not be in their place; neither could they be in mine.
Exactly 10 years later, also in the month of May, I lost my second identity. I had grown up to be a patriotic Indian. I believed it was the greatest country on Earth and could do no wrong. Above all, I believed my country held equality and dignity of the individual above everything.
Project Shakti, the explosive tests of five nuclear bombs, butchered that notion. I realized Hindutva had taken India to a point from which there was no turning back. I correctly figured that the tests were less about a geopolitical posturing vis-à-vis our neighbours, but more about giving India a militant Hindu identity. The message was clear: you must either be Hindu or militant to be part of the new India. Alternatively, you can choose to be a second-class citizen, provided you behave.
The India I knew and loved was dead. Despite warnings of overreaction, I abandoned my conventional patriotism. I haven’t got it back till this day.
On the lonely road that stretched beyond the loss of my two identities, I retained a third and final one: that of being a Tamil.
Of the world’s six classical languages – Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Old Chinese, Hebrew and Tamil – only my language is still spoken in its pristine form. There is no other language on this planet that can boast of a two-millennia-old literature and a modern Facebook-compliant vocabulary, both intelligible to a middle-school kid. Genetic research has shown that Tamil Nadu has been inhabited for 50,000 years and that the direct descendants of those early settlers are living amongst us today. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my identity.
Or is it? For long, I had wanted to know my deep ancestry. I wasn’t satisfied with the few thousand years that history and literature would let me trace back. Archaeology has failed to pry open the past beyond the Dawn of Civilization.
No, I wanted to know my family tree all the way back to 70,000 years ago, when less than 10,000 of the species homo sapiens lived on the planet, that too just in one continent, Africa. I wanted to trace the migratory route that my early family took from the Savannah all the way to the Chennai cul-de-sac where I played rubber-ball cricket. I wanted an unbroken chain of heredity from the First Man to me. A paleo-paternity certificate, if you will.
Not that I am a fan of racial purity. Race is a product of civilization and is less than 10,000 years old. It cannot even begin to capture the expanse of human experience from the Ice Age when man first contemplated moving out of Africa.
I just wanted to know my place in the global family. If I could compare where I am today with the journey my early family took to reach here, I might learn important lessons. It could be an exciting story. If nothing, I will at least get a subject to blog about on a rainy London Sunday.
So I went back to the same scientific research that showed African nomads settled in Tamil Nadu 50,000 years ago. I paid through my nose to become a part of the Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society.
Within two weeks, I received my DNA test kit. I was instructed to robustly swab the inside of my cheeks and send the pleasant sample back to them.
The tests were based on Y Chromosomes, that part of the DNA passed from father to son. X Chromosomes get sliced and rearranged once in several generations and can’t be trusted to provide lineage information. The Y Chromosome, on the other hand, remains intact as it passes through the male line.
Every once in a while, the Y Chromosome acquires a genetic spelling mistake, which too, is passed on intact from father to son. These markers serve as records of heredity. By studying the markers, scientists placed me in specific groups of nomadic tribes and a chain of these markers revealed the entire route of my family’s journey.
(Click here to know more about the test and how to participate. The Y-Chromosome test is open only for men, but women can test their mitochondrial DNA for matrilineal heredity.)
Last week, scientists posted the results of my DNA test online. I opened it with trepidation.
As I began to read the account of my early family’s journey over 50,000 years and as my genetic footprint opened up, I was stunned. Impossible, I thought. My family couldn’t have taken that journey and landed up where I grew up. It was too fallacious, even for a truth.
Yet it was, a tall tale that my Y-Chromosome was spinning, giving me relatives I hadn’t expected to have and robbing me of those I thought of as my people.
It was a miracle that my ancestors made it to India at all. The tests told me that my early family had consciously avoided coming to India for as long as 30,000 years. They rejected four opportunities to go and live in the lush subtropical biome of the Subcontinent, rather preferring to go to the lifeless steppes of Eurasia and to as far as Spain across the punishing Ice-Age terrain of Europe.
Over the pre-Civilization period, four distinct waves of migration filled India to the brim with humanity. Inventive tribes thrived all over. But my family was not part of it. We were busy fighting the Neanderthal Man for survival somewhere in Europe.
My third identity had been blown to smithereens.
* * *
During the Ice Age, the polar caps sucked out a lot of moisture from the rest of the world. So, while the highlands in the extreme north and south were covered in ice, the tropics dried out. Desert spread through Sahara, pushing animal and man to the edge of existence. Sea levels decreased and water retreated 40 kilometres, cutting off fishing. Large hordes of animals died out. For a while, it looked as though species homo sapiens would vanish too.
And then a window of opportunity opened. The Ice Age temporarily retreated about 50,000 years ago. The Sahara became warmer and moister. As animals began to colonize new grazing and hunting ground, human beings inevitably followed. There was plenty to eat and the threat of extinction became a fading memory. The human race spread throughout Africa.
The common ancestor of every non-African man was born somewhere near Kenya or Ethiopia during this time. He had a genetic marker, a spelling mistake in the Y Chromosome, now labelled M168. As population increased, the search for new pastures intensified. It was then that some of his descendants dared to think the unthinkable. They decided to leave Africa once for all and see where they end up.
The first people to leave Africa took the coastal route towards the east. Their route took them to the south of India, where some settled, and to the rain forests of South East Asia where some others chose to stay back. The remaining group went all the way to Australia, making a short crossover across the sea, and became the aborigines.
Modern Tamils are directly linked by DNA to those earliest settlers in South India. Genegraphic’s Y Chromosome tests have found the missing link between the M168 man and Australian aborigines in Tamil Nadu’s Usilampatti village, serving as proof of that first journey. That also makes Tamils one of the world’s ancient peoples.
My family was not part of it. My ancestors stayed back in Africa for some time before crossing the Red Sea and moving inland into the Middle East. They probably liked red meat more than seafood. So, they chose a land route into the global wilderness and not the safe coastal route the early migrants had chosen. This also meant that the “very” elders in my family were moving away from India as early as 45,000 years ago.
The second noteworthy man in my lineage had the marker M89. He may have been born in North Africa or the Middle East. His descendants colonized the Arabian Peninsula and were hunting away to glory and making nightly love to their wives as if they were picnicking in the Garden of Eden. Until the scary turn of events.
The Ice Age returned. The expanding ice-scape around the poles led to severe drought in the middle world. Hunting game became rare and for once, my family thought of returning to Africa. But that door had been closed. The Sahara had been rendered a desert once more and was impassable. My ancestors had only two options. Stay in the semi-arid Middle East and slum it out, or migrate again in search of greener pastures.
One group booked its tickets to India almost at once. That land mass was untouched by the Ice Age and there was evidence of an earlier migration. So, a part of the M89 clan left Middle East and crossed the Persian Gulf towards the land of opportunity.
Again, my family didn’t join the caravan. They had other ideas. While a large section of the M89 tribe stayed back in the Middle East, my ancestors followed the great herds of buffalo, antelope and woolly mammoth into modern day Iran. They didn’t know at that time, but a round trip lasting as long as 25,000 years would bring my family back to Iran.
Their relentless lovemaking eventually led to another genetic spelling mistake, leading to the M9 Eurasian clan. My family was part of this new group. Being expert hunters with much improved tools, my ancestors followed the great herds eastward, across the super highway of the Steppes. Sure, it wasn’t as forested as the Subcontinent was but the game was irresistible.
They went on, until the confluence of three giant mountain ranges – the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Tian Shan, blocked their way. At the Pamir Knot, the M9 clan split into three groups and continued their migration in different direction.
One group went to India. And as anyone watching my family over the previous 10,000 years would have guessed, we decided to go in the opposite direction, towards the north and beyond Hindu Kush. We rejected the idea of India for a third time.
More lovemaking. More spelling mistakes. About 35,000 years ago, a man was born in my family somewhere in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Southern Siberia with a marker called M45. He, too, was a lover of red meat and made sure his descendants perfected the art of hunting and filled their bellies regularly. The clan was forced to keep moving north as the expanding Ice Age led to reduced rainfall and drought-like conditions in the southern reaches.
To survive in these unforgiving parts, my family had to improvise. This is where they widened the scope of their creativity beyond family-making. They built shelters from animal hide and built larger weapons to hunt down the giant animals they encountered there. They began to use bones and wood to make weapon handles.
The new marker in my lineage at this point was M207. These guys had had enough of Central Asia. After all, they had developed sophisticated weapons and techniques to survive the harshest of climates. As the glaciers expanded, this clan moved westward making for Europe.
There was considerable debate within the group about the destination. One group wanted to go toward India and the other preferred Europe. It was not unlike the family discussions while planning modern-day vacations, but the stake was much higher. A wrong decision could wipe out the clan. After much debate and gnashing of teeth, the group split into two. One set of people took the road to India. Again, my family stayed with the dissenters and travelled to Europe.
A man born in this lineage some 30,000 years ago gave rise to the clan identified by the marker M173. They were the early Europeans. My family made rapid progress in its western journey. They encountered the Neanderthal Man who had lived in isolation for hundreds of thousands of years and quickly moved to decimate him.
My ancestors gave rise to what archaeologists identify as the Aurignacian culture. This era was distinguished by a great leap in technology. My clan’s tool kit expanded to include many more materials. New manufacturing techniques, standardisation of tools and woodworking were pursued.
About 20,000 years ago, climate intervened again. Massive sheets of ice closed the door behind my clan. They were forced to move south, towards Italy, Spain the Balkans.
It was not until 8,000 years later that the ice melted. But as soon as the terrain opened, my ancestors moved north again and recolonized the terrain they had left behind.
By this time, the human population had ballooned to a few million. My ancestors looked nothing like the medium brown-skinned Africans who left the Cradle of Humanity 30,000 years earlier. They had lost the skin pigment melanin and become paler. In the colder climes of Europe, they needed the white skin to synthesize Vitamin D. Yes, my ancestors were Caucasian.
About 10,000 years ago, a man of European origin (and not of the contemporary Central Asian stock) was born in the steppes of the Ukraine or Southern Russia. He carried the last spelling mistake in my lineage, the DNA marker M17.
His descendants made two great contributions to the world civilization. They were the fathers of the Indo-European family of languages, the single largest linguistic group in the world today. English and Sanskrit are among the languages that belong to this group, but not my mother tongue Tamil.
The gentlemen of the M17 brigade also domesticated the horse. With this, they could migrate to wherever they wanted at the speed of wind.
And where did they choose to go? Iran. It was an amazing turn of events. After staying away from four waves migration towards the Subcontinent, travelling across three continents and learning to survive at below-freezing temperatures, my family made a choice to return to the land they left behind 750 generations earlier.
There is plenty of evidence for their short hop from Iran to India, but we don’t know exactly when they made their entry. The stamp of their dominance and the reshaping of Indian culture their arrival entailed is there for all of us to see. From language to religion to our royal heritage, we owe much to the M17 clan.
* * *
And there ends my genetic odyssey, a singular concourse of fortuitous events with an unpredictable end.
Now the only task that remains is to make sense of my identity. Who am I?
I am not an original Tamil. That honour goes to the first wave of migrants who separated from the earliest clan, whom we know as M168, and carry the M130 marker like that guy in Usilampatti. Very few Dravidian people, even fewer Tamils, share my M17 marker.
I am not an original Indian. That honour goes to the M130 clan as well as the three other migrant groups that colonized the Subcontinent before the Dawn of Civilization. My family missed that bus.
Going purely by DNA evidence, 35 percent of Hindi-speaking men are my closest relatives. They are nearer to me in the genetic tree than 90 percent of Tamils. These North Indians have the same genetic history as me, but my family parted with them linguistically at some point. Tamil is my family’s adopted language.
Iranians are family too, but not all of them. Those Eastern Iranians with a distinct European lineage are my relatives, separated by fewer than 300 generations.
The Ukrainians and Southern Russians follow closely.
I should not forget to mention my extended family in the Czech Republic. About 40 percent of men there carry M17. This marker thrives in Spain, Italy and the Balkans too, making me a Mediterranean lounger that never was.
And then the big question: who are the people I am least related to?
Ah, the tyranny of the DNA. It turns out that I am the most distant from the M130 marker, which describes the earliest settlers in Tamil Nadu and the Australian aborigines. They were the ones that separated from my ancient family the earliest, about 45,000 years ago. The Usilampatti man, my fellow Tamil, is separated from me by 1,350 generations.
Does that make me sad? Hardly. I would have been saddened if the modern science of genetics were to reinforce age-old notions of racial purity and cultural isolationism. Instead, my test has added to increasing evidence that every man — and that means every woman too — is a mixture of multiple races and ethnicities.
In fact, the most successful humans are not the genetically isolated clans but those that briskly walked across continents, embraced new ways of life, adapted to various climates and mingled freely with new tribes.
Vile movements like Hindutva have contaminated history and archaeology to further their narrow views of the world, blurring the line between race and religion and using that confusing mass to affirm the superiority of one group over another. Genetics is our only hope to escape from their grasp.
DNA has proven that “Aryan” and “Dravidian” and many such labels are just that – labels. It is possible for one person to be many of them. We are not like leaves that grow on only one branch of a tree; we are like a bird’s nest that straddles on many. No one branch can support the nest alone; it is the balance between multiple branches that keeps the nest from falling.
I haven’t lost my third identity. I have only learnt that I am much more that just a Tamil.
I have gained a new super identity.
At the end of the day, as at its beginning, we are all Africans.