Who were the earliest humans in India and what did they look like?

The starting point.
The starting point.
Image: REUTERS/Reinhard Krause
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If you want to get as close as possible to the lives of the first modern humans in India, one of the best places to go to is Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh’s Raisen district, about 45km from the state capital, Bhopal.

It is an enchanting place spread over seven hills and full of naturally occurring rock shelters that are perhaps more imposing and majestic than most man-made residences of the 21st century. There are perennial springs, creeks, and streams filled with fish; plenty of fruits, tubers, and roots; deer, boar, and hare; and, of course, as many quartzite rocks as you need to make all the tools you want. Moreover, the elevation of the hills makes it possible for the residents to keep track of who is approaching them: food or predator, nilgai or leopard!

In the world of early humans, this must have been the equivalent of a much sought-after luxury resort. Ever since it was first occupied some 100,000 years ago, it has never lain vacant for too long, and it is easy to imagine there having been a long waiting list to get in. A place so well liked that millennia after millennia, one or the other Homo species, including our own ancestors, the Homo sapiens, lived and hunted and painted and partied there.

Do we know exactly when the first modern humans set foot in Bhimbetka or, for that matter, in India? The answer to that is a bit complex. First, we need to define what we mean when we say “first modern humans in India.” The technical meaning of the phrase would be any individual belonging to the Homo sapiens species who set foot in India first. However, when we say “first modern humans in India” we also often mean to say the earliest direct ancestors of people living in India today. It is important to know that there is a difference between the two.

If you ask Indian archaeologists when the first modern humans arrived in India, at least some of them are likely to put a date that is perhaps as early as 120,000 years ago. But if you ask a population geneticist…the answer is likely to be around 65,000 years or so ago.

This seemingly irreconcilable difference between the two sciences is not necessarily contradictory. When geneticists talk about the first modern humans in India, they mean the first group of modern humans who have successfully left behind a lineage that is still around. But when archaeologists talk about the first modern humans in India, they are talking about the first group of modern humans who could have left behind archaeological evidence that can be examined today, irrespective of whether or not they have a surviving lineage.

Why do geneticists say that all modern humans outside of Africa come from a single group that migrated out of that continent, and why do they put the time of the exodus to 70,000 years ago or later? The reason is straightforward. When you look at the mtDNA of people outside of Africa all around the world, you will find they all descend from a single haplogroup with deep lineage in Africa, namely, L3. Think about what this means: that all people outside of Africa are descended from a single African woman who originated the L3 mtDNA haplogroup! Africa has about 15 other, much older, lineages with names such as L0, L1, L1a, and L1c, but none of them were part of the group that went on to populate the rest of the world.

An equally important question, which has implications for the way modern humans settled in different parts of the subcontinent, is this: when they walked into India, did they run smack into archaic members of the Homo species already settled here? Without a doubt, yes.

This does not mean we have lots of fossil evidence to prove the existence of archaic or extinct members of the Homo species in the subcontinent when the modern humans arrived; we have almost none. What we do have, instead, are lots and lots of stone tools belonging to different styles and ages—from the Lower Palaeolithic to the Middle Palaeolithic and Microlithic—making it clear that India was by no means an inviting, empty land when our ancestors arrived.

This leads us to the next questions: where are their descendants today? How many are there, and where can we find them? If you want to find their closest direct descendants living today, who haven’t mixed with other populations all that much, you need to go to the Little Andaman Island and look up the Onge.

There are only about a hundred of them left now, down from about 670 in 1900. Their maternal haplogroup is M and paternal haplogroup is D. They made it to the news in 2011 when a new baby was born, taking the strength of the tribe to 101.

But really, if you want to see the lineage of the First Indians, you probably only need to look into the mirror or look around in your office or home. Unlike many other regions—such as Europe, Australia or the Americas—which have seen the lineage of their original inhabitants dwindle to very low levels, the genetic lineage of the First Indians forms the foundation, the bedrock, of the Indian population today.

So here is a question: if you were to identify a single person who embodies us Indians the best, who do you think it should be? Ideally, it should be a tribal woman because she is most likely to be carrying the deepest-rooted and widest-spread mtDNA lineage in India today, M2. In a genetic sense, she would represent all of our history… She shares the most with the largest number of Indians, no matter where in the social ladder they stand, what language they speak, and which region they inhabit because we are all migrants…She was here from the beginning…most likely also at Mohenjo-daro as the “dancing girl” about 4,500 years ago, during the period that most shaped us as we are today.

Excerpted with the permission of Juggernaut Books from Early Indians by Tony Joseph. We welcome your comments at