Indian Ethnicity

Figure 1.--Indo-Aryans are India's primary ethnic group. This photograph of Gujarat children was taken in a village in Gujarat state. Gujarat is both the nane of an ethnic group and a state located in western India, the most northerly Indian Ocean coastal state and borders Pakistan. The Gujarati people is a group of Indo-Aryan ethnicity. Modern India's founding father, Mahatma Gandhi, was a member of this group.

India's ethniciuty is a tremnenbdously complex subject intertwined with linguistic and regional issues. The ethnicity of India is perhaps more complex than that of any other country. The size and large population of India is another factor. Thus the assessment of Indian ethnicity can not be compared to that of the natiin states with whivh most readers are familiar. One source suggests,"To gain even a superficial understanding of the relationships governing the huge number of ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups, the country should be visualized not as a nation-state but as the seat of a major world civilization on the scale of Europe." The first people to reach India was the initialmigration out of Africa which appear to have followed a coastal route as they spread east. Subsequent groups came from the Near East. Many different Indian principalities, kingdoms, and empires of varying importance rose and fell over time. The initial civilization was the Indus River people. Over time, many groups have migrated or invaded the Subcontinent. The barrier of the Himalayas have generally prevented the migration of Han Chinese. Invaders from central Asia and the Near East have entered India. The primary Indian ethnic group is categorized as Indo-Aryan (about 70 percent). The other major group is Dravidian (about 25 percent). The Mongoloid populaion is very small (about 3 percent). There is a regional divide of the two major groups. Peoplke in northern Indoia are primarily Aryans meaning Indo-Aryans. People in the south are primarily Dravids. This of course relects the fact that the Dravids were the original ethnic group dominating the Subcontinentwhich was invaded by Aryan peoples from the north. And this affected the caste system. The Aryans dominate tge upoper castes while Dravids the lower casdtes. Into this basic pattern are mixed in many smaller regionally based ethnic groups, including the Burmese, Kol, Bhil, Munda, Afghan, and many others. There are also various tribal groups of both external and domestic origins that have special status under current Indian law. Both ethnicity and linguistics support the Aryan-Daviduan Divide thesis. And this subsequently affected the caste system. The Aryans dominate the upper castes while Dravids the lower castes. As issues of race and ethnicity are often seen as offensive in the academic coimmunity. Many scholars reject this simplistic approach. Thry have aoint in gthat there was considerable mixing among the two ethnic groups. DNA evidence, does, however, support the idea that the Davidians were an early (but not the first group) dominating the Subcontinebnt and that they were displaced to the south by invading Aryan from the north.


There are records of Afghans in India daring back centuries, long before the British rrived in India. modern Afghnistan is located ar some distance from India, even northern India. The two countries are separated from each other by Pakistan and Kashmir. The history of India has been strngly influenced by triban people invading northeastern India from what is now Iran and and Afghanistan. Thus Afghans are part of the Induan ethnic mosaic. This was an issue as recently as the British Raj, captured by Rudyard Kipling in his classic novel, Kim. The association with Pakistan is especially strong , but there are still hundreds of communities in India which trace their origins to Afghan/Pashtun ancestors. There are Pashtuns in Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The North-Western Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) was incorporated into British Raj (late-19th century). Before the creation of modern Afghanistan, the term Afghan in India and Pakistan to mean Pashtun. Some ethnic Pashtuns have retained their traditional culture in India, but most have integrated into mainstream Indian culture. Thousands of Pashtuns as they were mostly Muslim migrated to Pakistan from India after partition (1947). Hindus and Sikh Pashtuns moved in the other direction. There has been a more recent influk of Pashtuns. The Taliban tht seized control of Afghanistan instituted represive neasures (1980s). They even required Hindus to wars identifying badges. As a result, Hindi and Sikh Pashtuns and even some Muslims fled. Although Pakistan borders on Afghanistan, the non-Muslem refugees mostly tried to reach India. Some 10,000 Phtin refugees are believed to be in India, motly arounf Delhi. ,


Modern humans, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa up to 200,000 years ago and reached the Near East around 125,000 years ago. The first modern humans (Homo sapiens) to have reached the Subcontinent during the Paleolithic era were apparently an Australoid group. The Australoid racial classification is a broad racial classification. The concept originated with a typological method of racial classification before the availability of modern DNA research which have generally confirmed the concept. Although there is still is some debate about this first group of modern humans. From the Near East the first wave of modern humans hugging the coast of Persia/Iran spread east generation after generation, eventually reaching the South Asian Subcontinent (50,000 years ago). At the time, sea level was much lower than tiday. Thus archaeological evidence of this migration has been destroyed or is underwater. The only evidence is DNA traces in modern populations. It is believed that the migrants followed the coast of the Subcontinent because of their food gathering culture and technology. One researcher writes concerning the DNA work,"Among the surprising new conclusions being drawn is that the first human beings to come into India, came not through the cold passes of the Himalayas, but along the warm, green coastline of the Indian ocean." [Madan] Groups eventually moved inland. Remnaent modern populations identified by DNA work have, however, been found in interior areas of southern India. Modern humans reached the Subcontunent before modern humans reached Europe. From South Asian they continued to spread east along the coast, eventually reaching Australia (40,000 years ago). [Bowler,et. al] This meant that for the first time humans reached territory never reached by the earlier migratioins H. erectus. This group seems to have followed a coastal route as they spread east. The low sea levels meant thast much of Maritime Southeast Asia was one land mass known Sunda,sometimes called the Lost Continent. This explains how the migrants without advance maritimne technology were able to reach Australia.


The primary Indian ethnic group is categorized as Indo-Aryan (about 70 percent). The pre-fix Indo is added because the Aryans were an believed to be a group of external origins that invaded India. There is a regional divide of the two major Indian ethnic groups. People in northern India are primarily Aryans meaning Indo-Aryans. People in the south are primarily Dravids. This relects the the prevailing theory that the Dravids were an earlier ethnic group dominating the Subcontinent before it was invaded by Aryan peoples from the north. The Aryans were believed to have been semi-nomadic hunter/hearder people living on the steppes of southern Russia and Central Asia. It should not be assumed that the Indo-Aryans because they suceeded in conquering or driving the Dravidians peoples south were culturally or technoilogically superior. Primitoive hearder hunters throughout history have commonly been more war like than agricultural people. Ethnically they were apparently relatively fair-skinned Caucasians speaking what is believed to be the parent language of the various Indo-European languages. The Indus Valley was one of the fiour great river valley civilizations. Some scholars believe that people of this civilization in northern India/Pakistan may well have Dravidian. The Aryan invasion of the Subcontinent occurred in northern India (about 2000-1500 BC). The Indo-Aryans are clssified as the ethno-linguistic descendents of the Indic branch of the Indo-Iranians. The earliest written records of Indo-Aryans are in the Rigveda and in references to Mitanni rulers. The Indo-Aryans of northern are commonly described as the bearers of the Vedic civilization and thus some times also called Vedic Aryans, the beginning step in the development of modern Hinduism. The term Aryan developed from the Sanskrit word 'Arya'. As there are few written records the Aryan-Davidian divide has been criticized by many modern scholars. Some suggest that Vedic culture was begun by the Dravidians of northern India and adopted by the invasing Aryans. The Indo-Aryans are believed to have established the powerful kindom of Mitanni before moving south into India. They are known to have e negoitiated a treaty with the Hitties (1380 BC), one of the great powers of the ancient world. The names of dueties, proper names, and terminology of Mitanni artifacts suggest that this was a state created by an Indo-Aryan elite which conquered Hurrian population during the Indo-Aryan expansion south.


The other major Indian ethnic group is Dravidian (about 25 percent). The Dravidian people, some scgolars prefers 'peoples') are a diverse groups of people who natively speak languages belonging to the Dravidian language family. Today they dominate southern India and tend to be darker skined than the Indo-Aryans from northern India. There is no definite information as to the ancient domain of the Dravidian ethnic groups and language. Other modern Dravidian peoples are found in central India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. They are belkieved to have like the Indo-Aryans emigrated into the Subcontinent although their origins are not well established. It is also not clear when this migration took place, although it clearly proceeded the Indo-Aryan invasions. The ethnicity of the Indus Valley people is unclear, although many believe that they were Dravidians. While issues of India ethnocity are highly controversial, one clear development is that there was over time a great deal of mixing between the Aryans and Draviduans. Thus many Dravidiuand speak the Indo-Aryan languages. Another complication is that while Dravidins tend to have dark skin, they do not commonly have other haracteristic African features (kinky hair, wide noses, anf large lips). This suggests not only mixing with the Indo-Aryans, but also central Asian origins. A recent DNA study comparing Indo-Aryans and Dravidians in 25 different Indian groups were analyzed. Thge researchers found strong evidence that modern Indians (both Indo-Aryan and Dravidian groups) are a hybrid population descending from two post-Neolithic, genetically divergent populations. They called them Ancestral North Indians (ANIs)' and Ancestral South Indians (ASIs). [Reich, Et. al.] The researchers concluded that the Andamanese Islanders are an ASI-related group before mixing with the ANI. [Note: We had thought that the Andamese who do have African features like the Australian aborignnes were a ethnic remant of the first migration out if Africa so this is a topic we are still looking into.] This helps to provide some chronological parameters. The peopling of the Islands thus must have occurred before the mixing of the ANI-ASI began, perhaps before the ANI group arrived in large numbers. The ANI-ASI mixing has not been precisely dated and of course was an extended process. Estimates range from 1,500 BC - 800 AD exist. This would include the chronologicalperiod in which the Indo-Aryan conquest of the Subcontinent occurred. The largest modern Dravidian groups are the Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas, and the Malayalis. There are also a number of small Dravidian groups, including the Tuluvas, Gonds and Brahui.


Mongoloid is the standard term for mostly Asian (East Asia, Southeast Asia, North Asia) populations. They are also shared with Native Americans. The phenotypic traits are epicanthic eye fold and shovel-shaped incisor teeth. The word is formed by the base word 'Mongol' and the suffix 'oid' used with some other racial terms meaning 'resembling'. The Asian Sub-continent and the Near-East/Middle East are the two Asdian areas where Mongoloid peoples do not predominate. This is because the original humans that migrated out of Africa into the Near East and Asia did not have the Mongoloid characteristcs whichwere developed by the people who migrated east. The populations that migrated south into the Sub-continent (Dravids and Aryans) did not have these destinguishing characteristics. Many modern scholars do not like to use racial terms like Mongoloid, but the basic pattern described here has been confirmed by modern DNA studies. China is located very near India. One might have thought that there woukld have been substantialpopulation exchnges. The Mongoloid population in India is very limiited, substatially less than 5 percent of the total populaton. And the Indian population in China is virtually non-existent. The reason is obvious. The towering Himilayas have served as a barrier to the migration between East Asia and South Asia. There are, howver, some Mongoloid peoples in India. The Mongols (Muguls) who invaded India (16th century) also invaded from the east. They did not have a major impact ethnically. While they conquered large areas, their numbers were small compated to the vast Indian population. And the Muguls in any case while nomimally Mongol drew much of their support from Turkic and Persian people who did not have the pronounced Mongolid features. Most of the Mongoloid people are of Tibetian (in the north) and Burmese (in the east) origins. Notice that the Mongoloid features of these people are generally not as pronounced as the Han Chinese. Anthropologists also describe Tibeto-Burman language families


Into the basic Aryan/Dravidian ethnic pattern are mixed in many smaller regionally based ethnic groups, including the Burmese, Kol, Bhil, Munda, Afghan, and many others. Most of these people are part of the Austro-Asiatic language families. They are clustered in the northeast. The Andamanese (Sentinel, Onge, Jarawa, Great Andamanese) live on some of the Andaman Islands and speak a language isolate. The Nihali of central India also speak a language isolate.

Tribal Groups

India has hundreds of tribal groups that have special status under current Indian law. Counting them is in itself difficult as many tribalk groupos have related sub0groups. Nearly 70 million Indians belong to tribal groups. They vary considerably in size. Some have millions of members while others just a few thousand. Their life styles are extremely varied. As is their ethnicity, commonly varying from the dominant Indo-Aryans. Some authiors report genetic afinities between tribal groups and lower caste groups in Indian society. The tribal groups in modern India are under constant pressure from wider Indian society. Tribal groups exist throughout India. Most are found in geographically isolated ares such as desert, hill, and forest regions or on islands. These were for the most part areas of low agricultural productivity that more technologically advances Indians were not particularly inteested in settling. In the case of islnds, they were difficult to reach. There are, however, far fewer isolated areas of India than was once the case. Railroads and hiughways now crisscross the country. Thus virtually all of the tribes have considerable contact with wider Indian society with all of the allures of modern life. Many of the tribes are making a transition away from hunting and gathering. Here India's expanding population has encroached on traditional hunting grounds and wildlife populations. And sedentary agriculture is more prodyctive. . Because few tribal people have gone to school or progressded very far in school, there emplyment opportunities are limited. This means that fir the most part they are limited to low-status jobs as unskilled laborers. Their traditional religious commonly of ancient originds are decaying and they are gradually adopting some of the beliefs and practices of of India's main stream religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. Many of the tribal grouos are not well kniwn and hve not been well studied. Some of the best known groups are the Santal of Orissa, Bihar, and West Bengal. The tribe includes over 4 million members.

Other Protected Groups

There are some non-tropal peoples that are also protected groups in India. This inclues groupos such as the Indian Gypsies, the Banjara and the Domba.

Political Correctness

If one dies an internet searchof Indian ethnicity, one get a numner of sites with politically correct lectures about how unimportant race and ethnicity and a repeated insistence that there is no such thing as race. Now it may well be true that race does bot exist biolgically, but the simple fact is thst race does exist in people's mind. And this is not just a Western matter. In fact the obsession with race and ethnicityhas declined in the West where it is still pronounced in many other countries and India is one of them. Indian personal want ads and now internet postings make it very clear tht matters sych as race, ehbicity, and caste continue to be very important matters to msnybif not most Indians. And in India it is tied in with other matters such as caste and religion. And these issues have played a very important role in Indian history as well as sociallife. And despite prolonged preaching by Ghandi, the revered founder of modern India, and Induian Government programs, this has continued to be the case today. We see statements on the internet saying,"We are allIndianhs"over and over gain. Would that it was so. The simplr fact is tht these issues of race and ethnicity a well as caste continue to be important in India.


Bowler,James M., Harvey Johnston, Jon M. Olley, John R. Prescott, Richard G. Roberts, Wilfred Shawcross, and Nigel A. Spooner," New ages for human occupation and climatic change at Lake Mungo, Australia," Nature Vol. 421 (February 20, 2003), pp.837-40.

Madan, Amman. "DNA-based evidence for early migration into India," Srote Vigyan & Technology Features (September 5, 2005).

Reich, David, Kumarasamy Thangaraj, Nick Patterson, Alkes L. Price, and Lalji Singh."Reconstructing Indian population history". Nature 461, 7263 (2009): pp. 48994.


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