The Aryan Race: Time to Forget About It?

A new scientific study raises more questions over the existence of the Aryan race —a tribe of all-conquering Central Asian chariot-riders and horse lords that supposedly swept through India and Iran (“land of the Aryans”) a bit less than 4000 years ago before depositing their linguistic legacy in what’s now Europe.

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The idea of the Aryan race has seemed historical fact ever since the Nazis embraced its myth. Seeking a racial foil to those dubious Semites, they arrived upon the Aryans — a tribe of all-conquering Central Asian chariot-riders and horse lords who supposedly swept through India and Iran (“land of the Aryans”) a bit less than 4,000 years ago before depositing their linguistic legacy in what’s now Europe. The Nazis appropriated the swastika, an ancient sign of Vedic Hinduism — itself supposedly a legacy of the Aryans — as their totem. Heinrich Himmler, who grew obsessed with locating his volk‘s ancestral patrimony, thought of his SS as another form of the Hindu Kshatriya, or warrior, caste and reputedly walked around with a scroll copy of the Bhagavad Gita, that famous passage from the epic Mahabharata that counsels man on ethical action.

That the Nazis were able to make such connections between their hateful, white supremacist ideology and ancient India is undoubtedly perverse. But the idea of a distinct “Aryan” identity — and the Aryans’ arrival some 3,500 years ago in the Indian subcontinent — is a very real narrative in contemporary historiography. The racial stock of much of South Asia has tended to be classified “Aryo-Dravidian,” the combination of Aryan settlers and the subcontinent’s earlier indigenous inhabitants. Aryan lore supposedly underlays the early legends of Hinduism; the archaic Hindu caste system is seen by some as the political legacy of an Aryan conquest of India.

But a new study adds to mounting genetic evidence that no such clear distinction ever existed and that the Aryans of Nazi repute — whose identity has also been embraced over the years by some in the Hindu far-right — weren’t as pure (or real) as arch-racialists would hope. Published in the American Journal of Human Genetics by a team spearheaded by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, the article argues the roots of South Asia’s genetic diversity are far older and more complex than the myth of Aryan invasion would suggest. India Today quotes a few of the study’s triumphant authors:

“Our study clearly shows that there was no genetic influx 3,500 years ago,” said Dr Kumarasamy Thangaraj of CCMB, who led the research team, which included scientists from the University of Tartu, Estonia, Chettinad Academy of Research and Education, Chennai and Banaras Hindu University.

“It is high time we re-write India’s prehistory based on scientific evidence,” said Dr Lalji Singh, former director of CCMB. “There is no genetic evidence that Indo-Aryans invaded or migrated to India or even something such as Aryans existed.”

Admittedly, Global Spin is no place to trudge through the weeds of human genetics (and I’m no authority to guide you along); the full report is here and a cautious criticism of it here. As I’ve written before, though, research into South Asia’s deep past is still a matter riven by contemporary political, regional and religious agendas. Scientists and archaeologists from India’s south sometimes are at odds with counterparts in the north over the origins of Indian civilization and languages; secularists and Hindu nationalists have warred for decades over what goes into school textbooks and how it gets framed.

What’s always encouraging is the study’s general pointing toward the obscurity and murky complexity of racial origins. Figures like the Nazi Himmler — and the earlier generations of Western philologists, anthropologists and ethnographers that accompanied the 19th century advance of European empire — often sought in their study of foreign (and often subject) peoples a clear affirmation of the political realities of the moment, and attempted to cement distinct ideas of civilizations and cultures. Decades of scholarship in cultural studies have done much to explode such fictions of identity; it’s good that hard science follows suit.