Bio-cultural Studies on Ancient Indian Human Populations

Human Skeletal Studies Changing Trends in Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives

Prof. S. R. Walimbe
Professor and Head (Retired), Department of Anthropology, University of Pune, Pune 411 007

Abstract: Human evolution, migration and variation are the prime research areas in palaeoanthropology. Human skeletal remains offer a fruitful subject of inquiry to this cause, by providing valuable information on age at death, sex of the deceased, cause of mortality, bone injuries and certain diseases present in the population. This helps draw demographic structure of the population, i.e. age and sex proportions, mortality rates, morbidity pattern, life expectancy, etc. The effect of climate, ecology and inherited gene complex on human physiology can also be inferred. Thus, unless the bodily structures and health of the members of a community are studied no social reconstruction is complete.

Studies on human remains so far carried out in India have underlined the research potentiality of this discipline. The Indian subcontinent provides an excellent array of human skeletal evidence belonging to a rich spectrum of cultural phases, including hunting-gathering Mesolithic, urbanized Harappan, early agro-pastoral Neolithic- Chalcolithic, and Iron-Age Megalithic builders. With modern physical anthropological methodologies it has been possible to discern and interpret the nature biological adaptations of these extinct populations to their life style.


Physical anthropology, in its early stages, was considered to be primarily a technique concerned with the study of humankind, its origin, evolution and place in the animal kingdom. During the search for our ancestors, many fossil remains were discovered which led to the development of various schools of thought, each advocating its own hypothesis as to who our direct ancestors were. Mere analytical descriptions, classifications and metric comparisons of the fossils were not enough, however, to understand the events and processes of human evolution. With the development of new investigative tools and techniques, during the last few decades, significant additions were made to the scientific knowledge, and, palaeoanthropology, the study of primate and human development, as an interdisciplinary science was born. Kennedy (2003a) defines palaeoanthropology as the scientific study of biological diversity and evolution of prehistoric human populations as reconstructed from the discovery and interpretation of fossil remains, archaeological evidence, and ancient ecological settings in different parts of the world.

Tracing cultural evolutionary trends of the human evolutionary history is beyond the scope of this article. The aim of this paper is to present brief review biological aspects of Indian palaeoanthropology, viz. the research undertaken on human skeletons of the Indian protohistoric phase, to understand the biological history of people in the context of changing environment and life style. More specifically, the paper is not aimed to summarize the studies but to review the research approaches adapted in these studies over the years. While doing so, it should be humbly stated that the author appreciates the contributions made in the past to the subject by eminent scholars and their organizations and by no means intends to criticize and disregard their integrity. Change and improvements in the methodology and consequently changes in research approach are inevitable. Developments in the subject are essentially based on the foundation laid by the previous workers. Views expressed in this article are to be taken in this spirit.

The Indian subcontinent provides an excellent array of human skeletal evidence belonging to various cultural phases, and representing a wide temporal span of the last 20,000 years. These populations include a rich spectrum of cultural adaptations, including hunting and gathering in the Mesolithic, urbanization in the Harappan, agro-pastoralism in the Neolithic- Chalcolithic, and Iron-Age economy in the Megalithic. However, not much of information is forthcoming on this source. Archaeological anthropology is perhaps the least attended discipline in the anthropology domain in India. Consequently research in palaeoanthropology was the realm of very few Universities and organizations. This article was originally prepared for the National Seminar held to discuss development of anthropology as a science in two distinct time frames, pre-Independent and post-Independent periods. So far as human skeletal studies are concerned major change in research strategies is seen after 1980; therefore, though the organizers of the Seminar intended to focus discussion on development in the two given time frames, for convenience, the author prefers to categorize the studies as those undertaken before 1980 and those after 1980.


Before discussing the research on human skeletal remains a brief mention on the hominid fossil hunt in India is necessary.

Since the early 19th century explorations were being carried out in the Siwalik region which resulted in the discovery of fossilized gnathic and dental remains of various species of Miocene pongids. Some of these fossil specimens were taken as representative of a hominid ancestor (Lewis 1937). The thesis gained further reputation through the investigations of E. L. Simons and D. R. Pilbeam (Simons and Pilbeam 1972). As such, there were debates about the possible place of origin of human race, 'cradle of man', and the focus was shifting from Africa to Asia, especially to India or Central Asia, after the discoveries of Homo erectus from Java and China.

Though several palaeoanthropologists and prehistorians across the country were trying their luck to hunt hominid ancestor in the continent, the most significant, systematic and prolonged efforts were of Punjab University, Chandigarh. S.R.K. Chopra's independent and collaborative team work with foreign scholars during '60s to '80s led to better understanding of the Siwalik scenario.

If the dates for chopper tools collected in the northwestern sector of Pakistan are correct, then the earliest settlement of the subcontinent by hominids took place as early as 2.2 million years ago (Dennell 1998). The fossil record of the evolution of Homo sapiens in the Indian subcontinent is rather scanty, however. The earliest fossil found, thought to be closer to the Homo line, is that of the genus Ramapithecus at Haritalyangar in the Siwaliks, and is dated to around 8 to 12 million years. This genus is primarily represented by well preserved dental remains as well as a few facial and post-cranial bones. On the basis of similarities in the dental apparatus Ramapithecus was put in the line leading to Homo family. One significant change in the interpretation of hominid origins and antiquity relates to the dethronement of Ramapithecus as the Siwalik Miocene ape formerly accorded the status of a protohominid. Discoveries of more complete fossils in the 1970s revealed the close phylogenetic affinities of Ramapithecus to a sivapithecine ape lineage that may have been the progenitor of the living species of Pongo, the Asian Great Ape, orangutan (Pilbeam 1997; Pilbeam et al. 1990,). This interpretation gained support from the evidence of molecular biology that African apes and humans separated from a common ancestor some 5 to 6 million years ago (Sarich and Cronin 1976) and not within the 17- to 9-million-year range that had been assumed by some earlier paleoanthropologists (Keith 1929).

Nevertheless the work in the Siwaliks is important to understand palaeo-ecological scenario that existed in the sub-continent in the pre-hominid era, and needs to be continued. The Siwalik region was however not the priority subject in the neighboring Universities for almost two decades. Therefore, it is admiring to note that scholars like Rajan Gaur and Vashisht of Punjab University are still taking interest in the region and training younger generation. Anthropological Survey of India is likely to take-up explorations in the Siwaliks. The efforts must be quick as some of the fossils bearing beds are getting demolished in the wake of development activity.

In 1987 molecular biologist, R. L. Cann, proposed origin of anatomically modern Homo sapiens (AMHS) from the hypothetical mother (population), "Mitochondrial Eve" (ME), that existed in Africa sometime around 180,000 to 200,000 years ago (Cann et al. 1987). According to this hypothesis, the descendants of ME evolved in Africa and later migrated to Asia and Europe, completely replacing the locally evolved hominid populations. Though most of the scholars agree, it may be noted that this "Out-of-Africa" model of human evolution does not go unchallenged (Tattersall 1997; Wolpoff 1999).

There are various theories of routes of AMHS to Asia and further east. Besides the conventional land route, coastal route has also been proposed (Lehr and Foley 1994). In either case geographical location of the Indian sub-continent is of crucial importance. The AMHS is presumed to have entered the sub-continent around 70,000 to 55,000 years before present (Petraglia and Allchin 2007).

The discovery in 1982 of an important fossil in the Indian subcontinent is the skull of AMHS (archaic variety?) found at Hathnora on the river Narmada, 40 km northeast of Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh (Sonakia 1985a/b). This fossil was recovered from the Pleistocene alluvium in association with tools of the Acheulian tradition, stone artifacts like heavy handaxes, cleavers and scrapers, and with late middle Pleistocene faunal remains (Kennedy et al. 1991; Misra et al. 1990). This skull is represented by completely preserved right half of the skull cap with part of the left parietal attached. No facial bone has been recovered. The individual concerned appears to have been fairly old, robust with an erect posture and a fairly well-developed brain. The general robusticity, the thick and projecting supra-orbital torus and its occipital protuberance are akin to the classic Neanderthal group, while slight sagittal keeling, widely placed mastoids and its less cranial capacity (1200 cc) bring it closer to the Homo erectus of Java, China, Tanzania and Kenya. Nevertheless it is often taken to be much closer to Java man (Sonakia 1985a/b). There are others, however, who group it under 'Archaic Homo sapiens' on the basis of the cultural material found associated with it (Badam 1989; Badam et al. 1986). This hypothesis has been tested through comparisons with Homo erectus metric/morphological traits which showed that 43% of these traits are present in the Narmada specimen. Further re-investigations and comparisons of each morphological trait with those of Middle and Late Pleistocene fossils from Africa, Europe and Asia, prove that the Narmada specimen is Homo sapiens and not 'evolved' Homo erectus or 'archaic' Homo sapiens. Moreover, this terminology no longer holds any taxonomic significance in the newer trends witnessed in palaeoanthropology (Kennedy et al. 1991).

Besides the taxonomic identification, there are debates about the temporal association of the find. Available dates are based on geological deposits or associated cultural or faunal assemblage. It is very unfortunate that the fossil has not been dated even after 30 years after the discovery. There are issues related to the 'ownership' of the find, and consequently the subject will suffer if they are not resolved.

The discoveries of the right clavicle, partial left clavicle, and 9th left rib from the conglomerate bed at Hathnora (Sankhyan 1998, 2007), of an adult individual, are also noteworthy because of the robust features and short length. The short and stocky hominid represented by these post-cranial elements is reported to be different from African Homo erectus as well as from the Neanderthals and western 'archaic' Homo sapiens.

To make the story complete, mention must be made of the discovery of a 'suspected' fossilized human baby skull within ferricrete by P. Rajendran (2002, 2003, 2007). The discovery was made in 2001. However, even after 10 years, the 'fossilized skull' still remains embedded in ferricrete slab. As of today information on this outstanding find is available only in the form of X-ray, X-ray Computed Tomography (CT), and scanning 2D and 3D images. It is extremely important to have a group of anthropologists examine this find and comment on its authenticity and place in human evolutionary history.

The fossil gap between Ramapithecus and the Narmada specimens is much too wide to give a continuous picture of the stages in the evolution of Homo sapiens in India with respect to its position in the world-wide scheme of evolution. Nevertheless, the Narmada collection is of world wide interest and implications in understanding human origins. It is good to know that Anthropological Survey of India realizes the importance. As a policy matter AnSI thinks it imperative to have extensive and intensive systematic explorations and excavations of Central Narmada basin as of immediate concern. This is particularly very compelling in view of the inevitable submergence of the basin in the wake of Narmada Sagar Dam backwaters and monsoonal over flooding of Narmada River.

The paucity of lower and middle Pleistocene fossil hominids from South Asia has been attributed by Michael Petraglia to taphonomic processes in fluvial contexts, biasing the recovery of fauna >60 kg in weight. For this reason, more success in finding hominid fossils may come from much needed and intensive survey in low energy settings (e.g., travertines, paludal deposits) where small mammalian fauna may be identified (Petraglia 1998). As of now, as Kennedy (2003b) points out given the current lack of human palaeontological find in India, studies of hominids must come from archaeological research rather than anthropological.


While the fossil record to trace the evolutionary routes of Homo sapiens is scanty, as stated earlier, the Indian subcontinent provides an excellent spectrum of human skeletal evidence representing a span of the last 20,000 years.

Research on archaeological human skeletal remains was, however, negligible in India till the 1950s. The discoveries of human skeletons figured merely as appendices to the main reports of the sites excavated. Though more attention is being paid now to this evidence conditions are far from being satisfactory. Excavation reports for more than 300 sites record recovery of human burials (Walimbe and Tavares 2002). However, detailed anthropological reports are available only for about 40 skeletal series. Skeletons recovered from other sites still awaits careful anthropological attention or lost forever.

The reasons for overlooking human skeletal evidence are many. The general lack of awareness on the part of many excavators regarding the research potential of the data was, and continues to be, one of the major reasons for slow progress of the discipline in India. While the archaeological evidence of burial is always sought for, since physical anthropologists are very rarely involved in actual excavations, no adequate post-excavation care is rendered to the bones. In many cases fragmentary bones are often overlooked or not meticulously collected in the field. Many of the excavators never bother to have their collections studied by the experts. Research orientations in the subject of anthropology itself are also largely responsible for this unfortunate situation. The principal research focus and training facilities in physical anthropology remained primarily confined to analyses and comparisons of bodily features (like somatoscopy, somatometry, serology, dermatoglyphics, etc.) of present-day populations. Today attention is being shifted to growth and development, and in few places, where will and resources are available, to molecular genetics. As stated earlier, minimal attention is given to the archaeological aspects of anthropology. As of today no anthropology department in India offers adequate training in human skeletal biology, despite the fact that concerned topics are very much integral part of their colloquium. Lack of training facilities, lack of laboratory and library facilities, and, more importantly, lack of job opportunities in this branch probably resulted in restricting the discipline to just a few scholars, who find it impossible to examine the vast array of human skeletal data available in India.

While writing this article the author is obliged to mention two writings of his teacher, Kenneth Kennedy, "The uninvited skeleton at the archaeological table: The crisis of paleoanthropology in South Asia in the twenty-first century" written for Asian Perspectives (2003b). His elected lecture in the 2004 session of the Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies held at Lucknow is also an excellent narration of the developments in archaeological and anthropological research in South Asia over the past fifty years (2005). Though the views expressed in this article are solely authors', are largely influenced by the writings of Kennedy.

I. Research on human remains before 1960:

Enormous amount of biological and cultural variability is manifested in the prehistoric and living Indian populations. The 'People of India' project of the Anthropological Survey of India has identified as many as 4694 living communities in India (Singh 1998). Various attempts have been made since 1930 to describe and explain this diversity in terms of different morphological, genetic, cultural and linguistic characteristics. Some have claimed an indigenous origin while a few other scholars have attributed a considerable fraction of this variability to the large-scale immigrations into India in different time zones. Consequently during the preindependence era the contributions in the subject (and biological anthropology as a whole for that matter) revolved to seek the validity of several hypotheses that concerned 'ethnic' or 'racial' identity of the population under study. The primary issues were identifying autochthones of the region.

As Prof. Kennedy (2003) states colonial domination was not the only source of a preoccupation with racial typologies. The Census of India report of 1931 has been held responsible for establishing the model of how the native populations of British India should be classified (Guha 1935; Risley 1908). Just to mention, the majority of Indian biological anthropologists of the pre-Second World War period had received their advanced training in Germany. This could have influenced the taxonomic approach further.

Majority of the research in skeletal biology was aimed to map out population movements for tracing origin of cultural diversity and origin of caste structure (and therefore to racial paradigms) for decades. The Protohistoric phase is essentially characterized by many new inventions which ultimately led to new life style. While keeping the aim to trace the cultural continuity in the region chronologically the notion which influenced the anthropological thought was the idea of large scale and frequent migrations. A 'foreign' population was held responsible, or given credit, for any new trend or material artefact seen in the culture, rather than describing the variation as caused by local evolution. At times 'foreign invaders' were held responsible for extinction of a culture. And while doing so it was necessary to 'classify' the population 'racially'.

In archaeological context 'racial' similarities were used to emphasize cultural contact and differences for explaining changes in the material culture. The aim was to racially identify the manufacturers of Paleolithic and Mesolithic stone tools, the Bronze Age founders of the Indus civilization of the third millennium B.C., and the Iron Age megalith-builders. There are several examples for this approach (e.g. Sewell and Guha 1931; Guha and Basu 1938). This was the trend of the early 20th century when theories of invasion, migration and 'mixing of blood' were the answers to diversities or 'discrepancies' noted in the skeletal record. In other words, anthropological research was guided by archaeological needs and the anthropological evidence was used primarily to complement archaeological hypotheses of cultural migration or diffusion.

Let us examine the general scenario then prevalent in the subject. Palaeoanthropologists were studying the fossil record with a view to ascertaining and establishing human antiquity and tracing the evolutionary progress from the time we first diverged from the apes, our close relatives. Among the anthropologists, dealing with skeletal and living human groups, questions were raised about the genetic components in influencing the diversities existing among our species, Homo sapiens. This led to a whole generation of publications on comparative studies among extinct and extant humans. The traditional physical anthropologists studied extant human groups and attempted to classify them on the basis of their phenotypic features like skin colour, hair colour, hair texture and various other bodily characteristics. Those working on skeletal populations tried to classify their study sample on the basis of phenotypic variations, i.e. physical characterizations like face or head shape, e.g. whether they were dolichocephalic (long headed) or brachycephalic (broad headed). Unfortunately, the comparative studies which dealt with living populations gave rise to a host of racial ideas, particularly employed during World War II. The usage of the term 'race' for social or economic discrimination aroused anti-Semitic feelings, most notably during the War. To discourage this sort of thinking and put an end to comparative studies being used for such ends, in 1951 the UNESCO re-evaluated the concept of race on scientific footings (UNESCO 1952) and stated that the present human population belongs to one species, Homo sapiens, despite the differences that are viewed macroscopically. However, though the UNESCO made serious efforts to suppress the concept of 'racism' (i.e. establishing superiority of one race over the other), identification of "racial element" continued to be the focus of attention in anthropological research for at least three decades thereafter.

Nevertheless several important archaeological collections were put to anthropological scrutiny in the pre-1980 period. Anthropological Survey of India and Pune based Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute were two prime centres to undertake these studies. Important skeletal series studied include: Langhnaj, Lekhakia ki Pahari, Burzahom, Chandoli, Nagarjuna-konda, Nevasa, Piklihal, T. Narasipur, Tekkalakota, Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Nal, Rupar, Adittanallur, Maski, Nagarjunakonda, and Yelleswaram. Important scholars to contribute to the subject include Ayer A.A., Basu A., Basu P.C., Chatterjee B.K., Dutta P.C., Guha B.S., Gupta P., Kennedy, K.A.R., Kumar G.D., Malhotra K.C., Pal A., Rao V.V., Sarkar S.S., Sewell R.B.S, Sharma A.K., to name a few.

No assessment of anthropological approach and findings in pre-1980 era would be complete without the discussion on the myth of the 'Aryan invasion'. The issue is not only a subject of academic interest; rather it conditions the perception of our historical evolution. Consequently, the validity or invalidity of this theory has an obvious and strong bearing on the contemporary Indian political and social landscape. The issue has been dealt later in the light of the recent knowledge in the subject.

II. Research on human remains after 1980

Following the end of the Second World War western anthropologists gradually started questioning the traditional concepts of racial typology. The skeletal variations were gradually regarded as the net result of a highly complex process of genetic and non-genetic factors. This conceptual change necessitated re-evaluation of the skeletal data and the earlier hypotheses needed to be reframed. These fresh studies led to a better understanding of the ability of the humans to adapt to new environments by adopting appropriate cultural strategies and responding biologically within the plausible phenotypic range, as determined by genotype.

The earlier approach, which was descriptive and limited to racial classification, was inadequate to deal with the questions related to human adaptation. The techniques employed for racial categorization continued, with better standardization, but these no longer constituted a mere appendix to the archaeological reports. As Kennedy (2003) points out the earlier approach is retained only for the sake of convenience in identification of specific populations, but their geographical localities and ecological settings gained importance in understanding the diversity as adaptive mechanisms in space and time. Skeletal remains were looked not as isolated pieces of evidence, but by placing the skeletal material into an assigned cultural context, anthropologists could trace the evolutionary routes of the human form in time and also establish the movement of populations from different areas with improvements in technology. The 'bio-cultural perspective' in the analyses of skeletal populations enabled the researchers to evaluate populations within their environmental settings and the effects of human activities on the environment. Processes in biology like adaptation, growth, nutrition and their effects on dry bones were utilized to solve and explain the cultural changes that past populations underwent. The integration of anthropological and archaeological data led to the development of the subdiscipline of palaeodemography and its further specialized branch called palaeopathology.

Skeletal biology has thus come a long way from the mere descriptive and classificatory analysis of dry bones to a stage where the dead can speak volumes. Today, anthropologists involved in the study of archaeological populations are referred to as not just 'physical anthropologists' but as 'skeletal biologists'. The recent literature refers to this science as "osteobiography" (derived from the Greek osteon = bone, Greek bios = life, mode of life, Greek graphia from graphein = to write), meaning a study of skeletons to extract information on the life histories of their occupants. In osteobiographic analysis an attempt is made to answer five basic questions: "who was there?", "how did they look like?" "where did they come from?" (originally and over time), "what happened to them?", and "what can be said about their way of life?". Skeletal evidence using such processual approach could be used effectively in archaeology to understand why, where, when and how of changes in ancient lifeways.

The story of biological evolution of man in the Indian sub-continent and its relevance to the understanding of the cultural evolutionary process, as seen in post 1980 research, must be evaluated in this perspective.

Previously, palaeoanthropological research was focused only on complete adult crania, the primary objective of such studies being only to draw conclusions regarding the possible 'ethnic' identity of the population. Infant and sub-adult bones were usually discarded, so also were the post-cranial bones, as these elements do not possess racially diagnostic features. The immediate impact of the changed research perspective is the inclusion of immature and fragmentary bones in the anthropological scrutiny, which dramatically increased the sample size. A significant component of the archaeological human skeletal series in the Indian subcontinent constitutes sub-adult segment, a condition not very common in the other parts of the world. The presence of sub-adults in large numbers to some extent may be attributed to the differential preservation in burial urns which provided a protective cover to delicate bones against the pressure of surrounding soil sediments. The finding of sub-adults, belonging to a well-knit temporal, cultural and regional zone, is a definite advantage to biocultural studies in India. Children in the growing age group are more sensitive to any adverse genetic, nutritional, epidemiological, environmental factors and metabolic upsets, in general. Researchers have now realized the potential of sub-adult skeletons, since an individual's history of illness in the delicate period can be read more easily in sub-adults than in mature adult bones and can be taken as a sensitive indicator to record the effects of subsistence change. Moreover, the rural base of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures without much of trade activity (and not much of external biocultural influence) provides a sort of 'controlled' laboratory situation for undertaking a demographic and pathological analysis, which incidentally provides valuable insights into the biological adaptive strategies of the ancient pastoral groups in response to the changing ecosystems.

In post-1980 phase Anthropological Survey of India become inactive in skeletal research, though some of the publications (e.g. Rupar skeletal report) were ready in late '80s. After the retirement of scholars like Dutta P.C., Sarkar S.S., Pal A., etc. the skeletal repository was managed by care-takers, having interest in other areas of research. The largest skeletal repository in the country remained neglected partially because of the 'People of India' project, which kept most of the technical man-power of the AnSI over-occupied. Coincidentally in 1980 the first faculty position of anthropologist solely meant for analysis of archaeological human skeletal remains (and only one in the country till this date) was created in Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune (the author was privileged to have this position). Position in the University set-up helped not only establish a well equipped laboratory but nurture young scholars to work on problem related to skeletal studies for their master's or doctoral research. Needless to say, most of the activities of in the subject in the post-1980 phase remained confined to this Institute. At the same time mention must be made of Allahabad archaeologists who realized research potential of skeletal evidence and collaborated with foreign scholars for the cause.

Credit goes to Prof. Kenneth Kennedy and his student J.R. Lukacs for setting a new palaeodemographic trend in skeletal and dental research. These collaborations eventually inspired Indian archaeological community not to take skeletons casually in the field and encouraged at least a few Indian researchers to employ skeletal/dental parameters in bio-cultural interpretations. Several Indian students went to US for further training/studies in the subject. It is good to know that students of Kennedy and Lukacs (Brian Hemphill, Diane Hawkey, Gwendolyn Robbins) are taking interest in the Indian material.

Several skeletal series were brought under anthropological scrutiny during the post-1980 era. Important sites studied include: Mesolithic: Batadomba Lena and Beli Lena Caves (Sri Lanka); Bagor, Kanavaypatti, Deulga Rock Shelters, Kalpi, Sarai Nahar Rai, Mahadaha, Bhimbetka, Lekhahia, Damdama; Harappan: Rakhigarhi, Senouli, Farmana, Harappa and Mohenjo Daro (Pakistan), Neolithic-Chalcolithic: Ieej, Balijapalli, Banahalli, Budhihal, Tekkalakota (restudy), Inamgaon, Daimabad, Tuljapur Garhi, Hullikallu, Agripalli, Chinnamarur, Peddamarur, Tharsa, Kaothe, Walki, Ramapuram, Nevasa, Chandoli (restudy), Apegaon, Merhgarh; Megalithic: Khairawada, Borgaon, Erladinne, Raipur, Kanyathirthum, Kodumanal, Naikund, S. Pappinayakkan Patti, Anaikkaraipatti, Kodanginayakkanpatti, M. Kallupatti, Mahurjhari; Historic-Medieval: Kumar Tekri, Padri, Jotsoma, Roopkund, Chaul, Sanjan, Kuntasi, Bolupur. All these studies (except the Gangetic Mesolithic skeletal studies) were done by the Indian team, under the supervision of the present author, with Veena Mushrif- Tripathy as prime aide.

The impact of change in research strategies after the '80s can be seen in two major aspects, a. the interpretations about biological affinities using 'continuous' metric and 'discrete' non-metric (morphological) traits, its relevance in understanding population movements, and assessment of micro-evolutionary changes seen in agricultural transition, and b. identification of pathological lesions and anomalies, and its cultural implications.

a. Morphometry and population movements:

Let us examine merits and weaknesses of 'continuous' metric and 'discrete' non-metric (morphological) traits.

i. 'Continuous' metric data:

Before 1980 most researchers involved in skeletal analyses traditionally relied on cranial dimensions for inferring on population distances. The dimensions/indices most commonly used include cranial index, facial index, nasal index and facial-nasal perspective in profile. It must be mentioned that total number of adult skulls with all facial architecture in situ will not be more than 50 to 80. Moreover, the samples include widely separated geographical, chronological and cultural periods, levels, and include various age-sex groups, obviously diminishing its value for taxonomic inferences. On the other hand, 'continuous' craniometric data, representing the broad temporal span and well supported by archaeological evidence, is more important for understanding human bio-cultural evolutionary history. This is especially so for the recent past as it is a period of major cultural innovations, the most important of which is the domestication of plants and animals, enabling changes in settlement patterns and technological innovations.

For evaluating the utility of morphometric comparisons in an evolutionary perspective, human skeletal populations can be broadly divided into 'pre-agricultural' and 'agricultural' populations.

With respect to the cranial architecture, the 'pre-agricultural' Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, in general, exhibit a robust skull. The walls of cranial vault are usually thick and heavy. Skull shape varies in the range of 'medium' to 'very long' category (low mesocrany to hyperdolichocrany), with a spheroid or rambdoid vault. The forehead is usually exceedingly low with the frontal bone inclining gradually from glabella to bregma. The glabellary region is prominent with a heavy and divided frontal torus. The mastoid processes are moderately large to very large with prominent supramastoid crests. Sharp temporal lines are evident. Parietal bosses are pronounced, so also the occipital curvature. The occipital torus is usually remarkable for its large size and robusticity. Development of nuchal lines ranges from slight to pronounced.

The skeletal series representing the early agro-pastoral Neolithic-Chalcolithic populations is one of the largest human skeletal series in the Indian sub-continent which includes more than 500 individuals available for study. The adult segment of this collection is small, however. Significant differences in cranial morphology become evident when the adult specimens from the 'pre-agricultural' groups are compared with the 'agricultural' populations. The adult specimens in the later populations are characterized by 'slightly long' to 'medium' cranium (mesocrany) with a tendency towards brachycrany. Body musculature is weak resulting in a gracile appearance. In general, early agricultural populations are characterized by a receding to vertical forehead with a faintly developed glabello-superciliary region, square to horizontal orbits, a broad nose with a depressed root, medium to low upper facial height, moderate sized cheekbones, and slight alveolar prognathism.

As seen in a few other incipient agricultural populations (Larson, 1984), the crosscultural comparisons in the Indian context show differences in the cranial features of the preagricultural and early agro-pastoral populations, revealed by two significant changes in cranial morphometry. There is a gradual reduction in robusticity, and there are signficant changes in skull shape. The mean cranial index of the hunting-gathering Mesolithic populations is dolichocranial, 70.0 (long-headed). The pooled values for Harappan and Neo-Chalcolithic specimens indicate a cranial index that falls in the long- or medium-headed category (73.93, dolichocrany or mesocrany), with a tendency towards broad-head category (brachycrany) in the later levels. Other noticeable changes are a rotation of the facial region to a position more inferior to the cranium and a decrease in cranial length (Figure 1).

The question that needs to be addressed is whether the metric differences in two groups reflect new or modified genetic composition, or reflect the trends of micro-evolutionary processes operative during the agricultural transition. This exercise is necessary to evaluate the theories of population identity and movements during the protohistoric period.

In Indian bio-anthropological literature skull shape has often been used to establish population identity. For example, the appearance of brachycrany (broad head) had often been interpreted as evidence for an intruder population, replacing earlier dolichocranial (long headed) inhabitants. This evidence was also used to establish biological contacts of the broad-headed group with the indigenous long-headed group. The abrupt decline of the civilizations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro was attributed to a 'foreign racial element' (Sewell and Guha 1931; Gupta et al. 1962). However, the brachycranial element was observed in different cultures and such a treatment is recognizable from widely separated geographical regions in India. While genetic makeup has a role in determining the phenotype of the population, alternative non-genetic explanations can be offered for the population differences as due to mechanisms of adaptation, primarily due to subsistence changes. The differential functional demands on the body with early farming societies (inclusive of more sophisticated food preparation techniques) could be the main factors influencing changes in cranio-facial morphology.

Robust body size and larger dentition in individuals are interpreted as successful biological adaptations in Mesolithic populations, essential for the exploitation of new ecological settings and a hunting-gathering way of life associated with the consumption of coarse-fibre food (Kennedy 1986b, 1992). The overall gracile appearance of the later population, in comparison with their hunting-gathering predecessors, can mainly be attributed to two factors: decreased mechanical stress, and increased nutritional stress (Walimbe and Tavares 1996, 2002; Walimbe 1998). In addition, higher morbidity in the settled early farming communities might also have contributed for the comparatively delicate built.

Decreased mechanical stress:

It has been postulated that, in comparison with the hunting-gathering groups, agriculturally settled populations experienced reduction in the functional demand placed on the skeleton (Cohen and Armelagos 1984). The advent of agriculture brought a major change in the food economy. Hunter-gatherers were required to be in search of food, to exerting themselves physically for long periods of time and in regular succession. On the contrary, the agricultural economy introduced the concept of food storage, with agricultural fields adjacent to their settlements. Assurance of food supplies, with relatively less labor input, signifies a decrease in mechanical stress during the farming phase.

The argument gains support if the progress of dental crown reduction is traced from preagricultural to agricultural (and further to the recent) periods. The progress of dental reduction over time has been closely linked to the rate of technological development and increased efficiency of food producing techniques (Brace 1978). The Mesolithic populations have large teeth which are thought to be adaptive for a pre-agricultural, pre-pastoral society, whereas the subsequent Neolithic-Chalcolithic skeletal populations exhibit smaller dentition which is suited to the diet of an agricultural society. The pooled Total Crown Area (TCA) value for the Mesolithic populations is 1258 mm2, while the agricultural-pastoral Neolithic and Chalcolithic communities have the TCA values of 1203 mm2 and 1218 mm2, respectively (Walimbe and Kulkarni 1994). In addition to the soft carbohydrate diet, the sophistication of pottery use, quern processing, and other pounding activities enabled the settled agriculturalists to change their food preparation methods (i.e., from raw or roasted food to finely-ground and cooked food) eventually releasing the masticatory demand placed on the dental apparatus.

Dental size is related to the space available in the jaw bones during its development. The smaller dentition and smaller jaws in farming populations resulted in reduction of masticatory muscles, thereby causing gracility in the gonial, zygomatic, glabellar and temporal region as reflected in the metric data. All of these changes contributed in the progressive tendency towards a vertical facial angle (orthognathus) seen in these populations. In the prognathus facial appearance (as in the Mesolithic population), to counterbalance weight of the skull posteriorly, neck muscles of the occipital region are more pronounced. Gracility of the occipital bone (nuchal area) in later farming communities is thus the outcome of the modifications in the facial region. These cranio-facial modifications resulted in a decrease in cranial length, thereby increasing the value of the cranial index.

Hence the change from dolichocrany to mesocrany (and further to brachycrany) in populations experiencing the agricultural transition is a consequence of decrease in head length and cannot be attributed to an increase in head breadth. It may be noted on the basis of restudies on available crania (Walimbe 2007) that the average cranial length in hunting-gathering populations is stated to be 197 mm, while in the later agricultural / pastoral communities the measurement reads only 184 mm. On the other hand, the cranial breadth measurement remains more or less same (138 mm and 136 mm, respectively). In spite of the higher value of head height the Mesolithic crania appear 'low' in profile. On the other hand, though there is no significant change in the height value in the later populations, the skull appears 'high', and, when compared with the length, the index is considerably higher (basion-bregma height: 141 mm and 138 mm, and, index 71.5 and 74.7, respectively for pre-agricultural and agricultural groups). The relaxation of masticatory pressure is also reflected in lesser values of minimum frontal, bizygomatic and bigonial breadths (ft-ft diameter: 101 mm and 94 mm; zy-zy diameter: 130 mm and 128 mm; go-go diameter: 98 mm and 94 mm, respectively for pre-agricultural and agricultural groups). (Table 1)

Table 1. Average key measurements for 'pre-agricultural' and 'agricultural' populations

Measurement / Index Pre-agricultural populations
Agricultural populations (mm)

Maximum cranial length

197 184

Maximum cranial breadth

138 136

Cranial index

70.0 73.93

Basion-bregma height

141 138

Cranial height-length index

71.5 74.7

Minimum frontal diameter

101 94

Bizygomatic diameter

130 128

Bigonial breadth

98 94


181.69 cm 172.48 cm

(Modified from Walimbe 2007)

The gracility of settled farmers is manifested in the post-cranial features too. Robusticity of the Mesolithic people is displayed in the form of prominently developed processes and tubercles, indicating pronounced musculature. Mean statures for Mesolithic Sarai Nahar Rai and Mahadaha males was 181.47 cm and 181.69 cm, respectively, while the Chalcolithic populations were relatively short statured, with a mean stature of 172.48 cm (Lukacs and Walimbe 1984a; Kennedy et al. 1986, 1992).

Increased nutritional stress

Other contributory factors for the overall reduction in robusticity with the advent of agriculture might have been greater nutritional stress. The diet in the hunter-gathering stage was rich in minerals, proteins, vitamins and trace nutrients and relatively low in starch; on the contrary, in settled early farming communities there were greater dependence on carbohydrate rich food (Kajale 1991; Thomas 2000). It has been postulated that agriculture was practiced to increase the carrying capacity of the land in order to accommodate recurrent population growth. Farming is a destabilized system that permits people to raise production above the natural capacity of the land, and the most desirable cultigens (i.e., high energy yielders) typically have low nutrient densities (Cohen 1977). In other words, the intensified use of a vegetable food source in the farming stage assured greater food stability, it led to a less nutritive diet. It has been documented that the populations experiencing an agricultural transition tend to grow smaller in size because of protein malnutrition (Armelagos 1990). It is possible that the same phenomenon might have occurred with the Indian protohistoric populations.

It appears that in the incipient agriculture stage, especially in the Deccan, the problem concerned not only quality of diet, but also quantity. Hunter-gatherers probably ate both meat and forest products whereas agriculturists had a narrow choice of food with little to supplement their diet when their crops failed. From the skeletal series of Inamgaon, Daimabad and Kaothe, markers of periodic stress have been noticed on the long bones and teeth (Harris lines and enamel hypoplasia, respectively) which probably indicate periodic famines, food shortages and high infection rates (Walimbe and Lukacs 1992; Walimbe and Gambhir 1994), supported by archaeological evidence for ecological stress (Dhavalikar 1988).

Thus, both under-nutrition and mal-nutrition contributed to skeletal gracility in early farming protohistoric communities. The interplay of non-genetic factors for influencing cranial shape is shown in Figure 2. Assessment of the quantum of the genetic and non-genetic influences on phenotypes is desired. However, an accurate picture cannot be drawn at present with the skeletal data available at hand due to two obvious limitations. First, the sample is statistically inadequate. Most of the archaeological sites yield remains of only a few individuals and preservation conditions are often far from satisfactory. Secondly, the archaeological populations come from a very large temporal span and occupy a wide geographic area. Forces of natural selection are always in operation and the population is expected to respond to local climatic situations, within the genotypically permissible limits. The validity of any statement on comparative morphology is therefore dependent on whether the skeletal data is 'representative' of the entire population under discussion. With the limited data available at hand, nevertheless, it can be concluded with fair certainty that life style and food habits appear to be more important than genetic inheritance in the expression of 'continuous' traits like craniometry. It seems therefore essential to evaluate the inferences based only on craniometric data cautiously while forwarding any hypothesis of entry of diverse genetic elements into India.

In sum, craniometric changes evidenced during the agricultural transition can more convincingly be interpreted in terms non-genetic factors rather than using them to hint at new or modified genetic composition.

ii. Discrete or non-metric data

Morphological traits with little to no sexual dimorphism, having low susceptibility to environmental change, and lacking age-related morphological changes have been given increased attention in recent years in Indian anthropology. To mention some important studies dealing with morphological variations are Mushrif and Walimbe 2006, Mushrif et al. 2008 and 2011, Hemphil et al. 1991 and 1997, and Hawkey 2002. In comparison with the continuous traits, non-metric cranial discrete traits and dental occlusal morphological features appear to be more important and relevant for understanding population distances, and thereby to infer past population relationships and movements. Dental morphological features are particularly important since they remain unchanged during the development process. The protohistoric skeletal series, especially in the Neolithic-Chalcolithic of India, is characterized by the overrepresentation of sub-adults, accounting for almost 70% of the collection. This population segment is of little use for calculating population distances in the conventional metric approach. Earlier bio-anthropological research, therefore, focused only on complete adult crania, discarding infant, sub-adult and fragmentary bones. With the changed research perspective inclusion of immature and fragmentary bones and loose teeth in the study sample became possible, thereby radically increasing sample size and justifying 'pooling' of the male and female sample.

A number of works have been undertaken with such a changed study design. Among the noteworthy institutions and scholars who included discrete traits in their skeletal studies are Kennedy from Cornell University, Lukacs from the University of Oregon (including Lukacs, Hemphill, Gwendolyn Robbins), Hawkey from Arizona University, and Walimbe from Deccan College (including Walimbe, Mushrif, Tavares and Kulkarni). These researchers have described the morphometric details of the skeletal series and have attempted to interpret the evidence from a bio-cultural perspective.

A recent study by Hawkey (2002) on 29 dental morphological features using a large sample size of 4,198 individuals is the most comprehensive account in this line of research. Major findings of this research are noteworthy. The major conclusions drawn from this study are as follows:

The Indus and the Deccan farming/ herding communities share similarities with Indian Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, reflecting a common origin for the protohistoric communities. According to this study, the inhabitants of the Indus Civilization appear most likely to have been descendants of the indigenous hunter-gather populations of South Asia, rather than intrusive (and genetically distinct) populations from the West. In other words, this inference implies genetic continuity in the sub-continent for at least during the last 20,000 years suggesting an indigenous and common origin for the people of the Indus and the Deccan Early agro-pastoral communities.

There is no substantial amount of gene flow between the Indus and the Deccan farming / herding communities. In other words, the Deccan Neolithic-Chalcolithic groups have evolved directly from the hunting-gathering Mesolithic communities, and not from Indus populations. In this case, few similarities seen between the Indus sample and contemporaneous peoples of the Deccan farming-herding cultures are due to cultural contacts (influencing food habits) rather than biological in nature.

The dental morphological data further indicates that there is little evidence to support an external origin for the Iron Age / Megalithic populations. The data rather suggest the origins of the Iron Age populations within central and southern peninsular India, and not from northwestern regions.

Therefore, it seems clear that in comparison with the 'continuous' metric traits, the nonmetric discrete traits, especially those related to dental occlusal morphological features, give far more reliable picture of the genetic affinities of the past populations. These parameters, being more genetically controlled, can more appropriately be used to hypothesize about protohistoric human movements in the subcontinent. The use of the whole range of skeletal collections, including immature and fragmentary elements, which were earlier routinely discarded, has been shown to be of great advantage.

iii. Peopling of the Indian sub-continent

Given this background let us examine the implications of this research to evaluate the theories of migration (with special reference to the theory of 'Aryan Invasion') and to understand the progress of cultural evolution in the sub-continent.

It must be noted in the beginning, however, that when attempting to hypothesize about population dispersals and migrations, the limitations of the archaeological and anthropological data are obvious. Archaeological inferences are based on the currently available evidence. More importantly, concepts and theories change as new discoveries are made. The traditional methods of biological anthropology, including those employed in skeletal analysis, are inadequate to trace human phylogenetic history and evolutionary change beyond a few generations. Therefore, additional skeletal and archaeological evidence, in conjunction with linguistic data and other biological tools (e.g., mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosome DNA), is required to explain the plausible scenarios in the process of the peopling of the subcontinent. Study of human population migrations necessarily demands a re-evaluation of linguistic and archaeological concepts.

The following observations can be made on the basis of the emerging picture in the light of the available archaeological and anthropological data.

The subsistence economy of the Mesolithic period (c. 10,000-4,000 years before present) was primarily based on hunting and gathering. There appears to be marked growth in the human population as is attested by the significant increase in number of sites (Misra 2001). The explanation for the dramatic increase in human settlements lies in the increased rainfall and consequently availability of increased food resources. Introduction of microlithic tools led to enhanced efficiency in hunting, collection and processing of wild plant foods. Increased food security during this period led to reduction in nomadism and to seasonally sedentary settlement. This is reflected in the large size of Mesolithic sites, and the thickness of habitation deposits both in open-air and rock shelter sites.

The hunting-gathering way of life was slowly replaced by food production from about 8,000 years before present. The long period of interaction with wild animals and plants of the territory from the Upper Palaeolithic to Mesolithic gave inhabitants the knowledge that eventually led to breeding of selected wild animals and cultivation of selected wild grasses. The earliest evidence of agriculture in the sub-continent is reported from the site of Mehrgarh (6,500 B.C.). Evidence at Bagor gives the date of 4,600 B.C. for domesticating cattle and sheep/goats (Thomas 2000).

The evolution and spread of Dravidian language is associated with early domestication (Gadgil et al. 1998). The Dravidian populations are supposed to have initiated cultivation of wheat, and domestication of cattle, sheep/goats in the sub-continent. The origin of the Dravidian language family cannot be convincingly traced on the basis of archaeological data. It might have 33 evolved locally as the general morphological homogeneity seen in the skeletal data from the Mesolithic to later stages is not supporting the idea of a new population spread.

The transition from food gathering to food producing does not appear to have happened in a uniform pace across the subcontinent. At around 3,000-2000 B.C. farming became the primary mode of food procurement, especially in the North where land is fertile. In the peninsular region the change was slower because of the semi-arid climate and the topography, which was composed of hilly and rocky areas.

The food producing subsistence economy had a reflective impact on the evolution of human society. Farming demanded a sedentary life style and thus permanent villages were established. A surplus economy encouraged craft specialization. Knowledge of copper and bronze led to the invention of wheel which revolutionized transport and pottery production. By the beginning of the 4,000 B.C. the urbanization process began to appear in and around the Indus valley. Despite the increasing dependence on farming in the south, the Chalcolithic culture of the Deccan remained less developed in socio-cultural complexity. As stated earlier, studies on dental morphological features (Hawkey 2002) show that both the Indus and the Deccan farming/herding communities share similarities with Indian Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, reflecting their common origin. Yet, there is no substantial amount of gene flow between the Indus and the Deccan farming/herding communities. These observations, in general, suggest an independent evolution of the Harappan and the Neolithic-Chalcolithic populations of the peninsular region from the Mesolithic ancestors inhabiting their respective regions. The variation in cultural attainment of the Indus and Deccan populations has to be understood in terms of their ecology.

There are many hypotheses regarding the origin, development and extinction of the Indus Valley civilizations. The cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa were usually characterized as fully developed urban centres from their beginning. The inspiration for these settlements, if not the actual founding populations, was supposed to have come from Mesopotamia (Ratnagar 1981; Misra 2001). However, recent excavations at many sites, particularly at Harappa, Kalibangan, Mehrgarh, and Dholavira, highlight the process of the growth of urban settlements from small rural societies (Possehl 1999). The Harappan civilization is now viewed as a uniquely South Asian development. This interpretation corroborates the anthropological idea that the Indus population gradually evolved from hunting and gathering societies and rudimentary farming groups.

The decline and disappearance of the Indus civilization has been attributed to many factors, including climatic decline, environmental degradation due to excessive use of soil and plant resources, tectonic movements, and foreign invasions (Mughal 1990; Ratnagar 1999; Dhavalikar 2002, Agrawal and Kharakwal, 2003). The presumed invasion of Indo-European language speakers, who were thought to have destroyed the major urban centres of Harappa and Mohenjodaro, may be examined in physical anthropological perspectives.

One of the most important issues to shape social thinking in India is myth of the 'Aryan invasion'. The concept of Indo-Aryan group of peoples and their invasion has played a 35 prominent role in explaining the cultural history of the Indian sub-continent. This concept can be traced back to as early as the 18th century (cited from Poliakov 1974). Max Mueller (1867) thrilled by the complexity of Indian culture coined the word "Aryan Race" and thus emerged an imaginary creature: "Aryan Man". He propounded the theory that the Aryans, living somewhere outside India, invaded the Indian sub-continent around 1500 B.C. and after supplanting the indigenous powers and cultures settled in India. The Aryans were held responsible for the destruction of the earlier populations (esp. Indus valley civilization) and building of new cultures in the areas they invaded. The Sanskrit language and the Vedic religion was claimed to be their contribution to India. The Aryans spoke a language from which Sanskrit is derived. Originally Max Mueller used the words "Aryan Race" to indicate the 'Aryans' as a race with certain common genetic characteristics. He later changed his views (Max Mueller 1887) and said that he does not regard the 'Aryans' as a race in the genetic sense, but in linguistic sense. But Max Muller's subsequent amendment did not click. The word 'Aryan' continued to be used in the racial sense till very recently and consequently the concept of Indo-Aryan invasion in India had a decisive role in interpretive studies in South Asian protohistory.

As stated earlier, in Indian bio-anthropological literature skull shape has often been used to establish population identity. The same approach was adapted for interpreting the features of Harappan skeletons. Human skeletal material is recovered from many Harappan sites. This is an extensive skeletal series with a well documented record of cultural identity. The skeletal collection was studied anthropologically in order to assess their racial affinities. The catastrophic termination of the Harappan culture was hypothesized by identifying a "foreign" element in mature Harappan phase. The "foreign" element supposed to have represented Aryans or other 36 non-Harappan invaders. Guha (1935, 1944) in his attempt to classify the prehistoric and living population of India identified four racial elements at Mohenjo-daro which he called Mediterranean, Proto-Australoid, Alpine and Mongoloid. This classification became a model for later studies of Harappan skeletons at other sites. Gupta et al. (1962) studied the skeletal collection from Cemetery R-37, Area-G, Area-AB and Cemetery-H at Harappa and classified the population on similar lines. According to this study the long-headed (dolichocranic) element is present in all the areas while the round-headed (brachycranic) element is identified only from the Area-G. There is no evidence of round-headed type in earlier period (Cemetery R-37) and therefore was considered to be a new type.

It must be noted that in the racial classification of the Harappan skeletal series, though based on bodily features, only a limited number of anatomical variables were used. The dimensions/indices most commonly used include cranial index, facial index, nasal index and facial-nasal perspective in profile. In the Harappan series specimens which departed from mean morphometric values were ascribed to "foreign" racial element (Sewell and Guha 1931; Gupta et al. 1962). As already explained craniometric changes evidenced in the Harappan series can more convincingly be interpreted in terms non-genetic factors rather than using them to hint at new or modified genetic composition.

Other physical anthropological studies also do not support a movement of Aryan speakers into the Indus Valley around 1500 B.C. (Hemphill et al. 1991, 1997). According to these investigators, gene flow from Bactria is an event of much later date, not having any impact on Indus Valley gene pools until around the beginning of Christian era. Kennedy (1982, 1984a) 37 examined 300 skeletons from the Indus Valley Civilization and concluded that the ancient Harappans are not markedly different in their skeletal biology from the present-day inhabitants of Northwestern India and Pakistan. Kennedy (1995) remarks that if an Aryan invasion had taken place, obvious discontinuities in the skeletal record should be found. Hemphill et al. (1991) and Kennedy (1995) suggest that there existed two phases of biological discontinuity within the Indus Valley from the Neolithic times to the beginning of the Christian era. The first is said to occur between 6000-2500 B.C., which is reflected in the strong differences irrespective of the occupational continuity between the Neolithic and Chalcolithic inhabitants of Mehrgarh. The second discontinuity exists between the inhabitants of Harappa, Chalcolithic Mehrgarh and post- Harappan Timargarha on the one hand, and the Early Iron Age (better known as the Gandhara Grave culture) inhabitants Sarai Khola, on the other, between 800 and 200 B.C. Kennedy (1995:53) concludes that, "if Vedic Aryans were a biological entity represented by the skeletons from Timargarha, then their biological features of cranial and dental anatomy were not distinct to a marked degree from what we encountered in the ancient Harappans." Comparing the Harppan and the Gandhara Grave cultures, Kennedy (1995:54) remarks, "our multivariate approach does not define the biological identity of an ancient Aryan population, but it does indicate that the Indus Valley and Gandhara peoples shared a number of craniometric, odontometric and discrete traits that point to a high degree of biological affinity."

In short, on the basis of recent reevaluation of the Harappan skeletal collection and new approach of interpretation it can be concluded that these populations do not exhibit any significant phenotypic diversity. Though the skeletal material at Harappa is coming from three different deposits, the population belongs to a single morphometric homogenous series. The 38 variation in size and form is very much in the acceptable range and can better be understood as normal range of physical variability present in most urban populations, past and present. If there exists any heterogeneity in the Harappan sample the same may be explained by continuous immigration of rural people to these urban centres. Peasant agriculturalists are made up of acculturated tribal populations from regions of relative genetic isolation. Thus it seems probable that the phenotypically heterogeneous urban populations received relatively homogeneous tribal elements. It is this process, rather than migratory invasions of "foreign" elements into Harappan urban centres, which explain the range of phenotypic diversity.

The hypothesis of 'Aryan invasion' can also be questioned in the light of palaeopathological evidence.

Besides the 'foreign phenotypic element' (broad headed individuals) in the later phases of at Harappa, the 'massacre' evidence at Mohenjodaro was also used as a convincing proof to plead the theory of 'Aryan invasion' (Gupta et al. 1962). At Mohenjodaro a number of skeletons, unlike those found in other Harappan sites, were collected from the residential area or streets of this ancient city. There is no evidence of a cemetery so far found at the site. The evidence comprised of 37 skeletons, or parts thereof. Some of these skeletons were found in contorted positions and groupings that can suggest anything but ordinary and unceremonial burials. Many skeletons are either disarticulated or incomplete. Earlier anthropological works (Sewell and Guha 1931, Gupta, et al. 1962) claimed that the 'fractures' on these skulls were diagnostic of wound marks and can be directly related to the cause of death. The disorderly disposal of dead bodies indicated that the 'massacre' was a specific event at Mohenjodaro when armed foreign invaders 39 destroyed the city and liquidated its citizens. Archaeological reassessment more than two decades later (Dales 1964) disproved the massacre theory. As Kennedy (1984b, 1994) puts it, any conclusion to traumatic stress should rest on indisputable skeletal evidence. His re-study of Mohenjodaro skeletal collection in the light of new methodological tools provides very critical judgment in this regard. Of the 24 skulls studied thoroughly only one specimen had convincing and irrefutable signs of trauma which may be the cause of death. All other reputed wound marks appear to be erosional in origin or are cases of successfully healed lesions unrelated to circumstances and places of burial.

If the hypothesis of 'Aryan invasion' cannot be supported using physical anthropological data, then the spread of Indo-European languages in the sub-continent needs to be explained on non-biological grounds. There is no doubt that surplus agricultural economy of Harappans induced increased trade contacts with others (esp. to the West). It seems much more likely that multiple waves of Indo-European migration, in small numbers, are possible causing a mingling of the immigrants and local populations. There may have been significant exchange and assimilation of culture and language on both sides. The immigrants may have travelled back and forth to their original lands taking language and culture to other Indo-European peoples. Human skeletal remains excavated from sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro show a mixed ethnic composition similar to the present showing support for migration rather than an invasion.

Human population genetics data generated in recent years corroborates the physical anthropological inferences, concluding that there is no material evidence for any large scale migrations into India over the period of 4500 to 800 BC.

Though the DNA based studies on Indian populations began during the early 1990s, some of the initial studies dealt with populations which were neither anthropologically well defined nor were really representative of the Indian populations. Studies were undertaken by molecular biologists themselves, and anthropologists were not involved in the research designs. The anthropological value of these works is limited owing to the defective sampling procedures. A significant change is seen in recent years where studies are designed by anthropologists themselves. Prof. Partho Majumdar is welcome example in this regard. A broader range of populations is being examined following precise sampling procedures.

Basu et al. (2003) examine genetic variation in 44 geographically, linguistically, and socially disparate ethnic populations of India and use U2 frequencies to infer the existence of 'Aryan' movements. U2 comprises two sub-lineages, U2e (European-specific sub-lineage) and U2i (Indian-specific sub-lineage). Basu et al. (2003) have shown that U2e is not present in the Indian tribal groups, but only among castes. The U2e frequency is therefore more important in estimating the number of Aryan-speaking people entering India. Such evidence showed a much smaller estimate of migrants, though the actual number is difficult to estimate. Aryan speakers possibly came into India in small bands over a long period of time, as opposed to in a single wave of migration.

The main issue is that the genetic data can only speak about the migration of people and not the culture of the dispersing populations. The conjectures about language migrations can be substantiated only by linguistic evidence, texts and archaeological data. If language transmission 41 takes place through contact and spread of farming (not a spread of the farmers), then it will leave little signature in the genetic record. Similarly, if a small group of speakers become the dominant elite through military conquest or by economic supremacy they can impose their language on the general population, again without a significant sign in the genetic record. Is it then logical to assume that increasing trade relations probably persuaded people to adopt the Indo-European language for economic purposes?

One may wonder whether the 'dominance' of Indo-Aryan speakers in the north explains the large-scale recedence of 'indigenous' Dravidians towards the south. If the Dravidians speakers were widespread throughout India before the arrival entry of Indo-Europeans arriving (in small numbers and in multiple waves) their 'total retreat' to southern India to avoid dominance of the later appears to be sociologically unrealistic. It is quite logical to believe captivity of indigenous peoples (especially women) for labour by the dominant group. However, there is no 'Dravidian racial element' in the North. Therefore, the incorporation of an Indo- European language as a result of increasing trade is a more appealing explanation. The change to agriculture was slow in the South, but animal domestication was proving profitable, as seen in the rural-based Neolithic-Chalcolithic cultures. Usage of the Dravidian languages continued effectively in the South since their contacts with the north remained limited because of the difficult terrain. As Hawkey (2002) points out, the Deccan region has been a relatively stable dental pattern from the prehistoric times to the present-day. In her opinion, there is little dental evidence to support inter-regional gene flow between the northerly populations and the peoples of the Deccan for which probably the Vindhyan Range was an effective barrier.

To conclude on the enigma of the Aryan invasion in the Indian sub-continent, it may be stated that reassessment of the skeletal record strongly indicates that the hypothesis of identification of "foreign phenotypic element" or unceremonious slaughter of native Harappans is not supplemented by bone evidence. Recent anthropological, archaeological or genetic data do not support the hypothesis of 'Aryan invasion'.

The settled village life of early agro-pastorals beyond the domain of the Indus civilization can be divided into two culture groups, namely Neolithic and Chalcolithic, which flourished simultaneously during 4000-500 B.C. These early village cultures constitute the basis of present-day Indian rural society, which has changed slowly, as indicated by the replacement of iron to copper technology and the transformation of occupational groups into castes (Misra, 2001). According to Hawkey (2002), the dental morphological data suggests the origins of the Iron Age culture within central and southern peninsular India, and not from north-western regions. Iron Age populations, however, maintain affinity with the farming-herding groups of the Deccan.

The introduction of iron technology was of crucial importance to the expansion of an agriculture-based settled life. Copper and bronze were scarce and precious and accessible only to influential members of the society (Agrawal 2000). However, once iron technology was mastered, more individuals had access to this material for tools, weapons and vessels. Agricultural surpluses, influenced by fertile soils, perennial availability of water, iron technology, and human enterprise, led to the emergence of a second urbanization in the Ganga valley around 600 B.C., and a slow spread to peninsular India. The Early Historic phase began 43 with neatly planned cities, increasing trade relations, efficient network of trade routes, defined social stratification, social complexity, refined knowledge of arts, literature, science, and medicine (Dhavalikar 1999). There is archaeological evidence for the development of an early historic trade network from the 6th century BC onwards (Lahiri 1992). There is every reason to believe that small-scale migrations of various bands of traders from the west, north and east were interacting. The well-established 'silk route', from the 300 B.C. onwards, and the establishment of port cities, on the eastern and western coast, provide testimony of maritime trade that was flourishing in and through India (Begley and Puma 1992; Ray and Salles 1996). Various groups continued coming into India in later phases as well, including during 7-11 century AD (Majumdar 1993).

The introduction of iron technology greatly accelerated the expansion of agriculture, which in turn led to the dramatic increase in human population. One of the consequences of these developments was increased deforestation and loss of wildlife depriving hunter-gatherers of the resources of their livelihood. Hunter-gatherers were forced to adopt agriculture or occupations associated with agriculture and get assimilated into the expanding farming society (Misra 2001). The origin of caste structure in India may be correlated with the expansion of agriculture. Some populations, however, maintained former lifestyles and remained isolated, continuing to maintain their tribal identity, even up to the present day.

Assessment of cultural evolutionary trends using physical anthropological data is given in figure 3.

b. Palaeopathology

One major development in Indian human skeletal biology is the research in palaeopathology. The pattern of disease or injury that affects any group of people is never a matter of chance. It is not only the expression of stresses to which they were exposed but also reflects their genetic inheritance, the climate in which they lived, the soil that gave them sustenance and the animals or plants around. Their daily occupation, dietary habits, their choice of dwellings and clothes, their social structure and even their customs influence their morbidity pattern. The stress experienced by the bygone populations can be judged by carefully examining the morphological changes in skeletal and dental remains. Palaeopathology is the study of the evolution and progress of disease through long periods of time. Combining biological and cultural data, it aims to examine how humans adapted to change in their environment.

Before 1980 reporting on the palaeopathological aspects largely remained limited to gross lesions like dental caries, ante-mortem tooth loss, or obvious fractures, and interpretive angle was almost lacking. In fact the subject of palaeopathology commands optimum research potential in Indian anthropology. Indian archaeological sites provide a wide spectrum of human skeletal record of the last ten thousand years, populations experiencing the major cultural revolution, viz. the change from nomadic hunting-gathering to settled agro-pastoral life style. Sedentism and subsequent adoption of agriculture led to adverse effect on health (Cohen and Armelagos 1984). The early farming Neolithic-Chalcolithic communities who could not improve food production beyond a certain level to meet the demands of the increasing population pressure experienced nutritional stress, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Nutrition and 45 disease are integrally and synergistically related with one another. Thus, a low quality diet and an increased population density contributed to deterioration in health of early farming communities. Moreover, hunter-gatherers moved about more often and hence could hardly be prone to epidemics. Infection of disease was thus not high whereas in the more settled lifestyle incidences of infection may have a greater chance of spreading and if host resistance is low chance of survival is not much. Also domestication of animals might have introduced new pathogens in the pastoral populations.

A number of techniques and perspectives have emerged during the last two decades to help skeletal biologists in testing propositions and hypotheses about the relative quality of hunter-gatherer's and farmer's health and nutrition, more specifically, the effects of an increase in the population densities and less nutritious diet of the farmers as compared to that of the hunter-gatherers. The important pathologies that are observed on Indian sample include evidences of congenetical (present at birth) and acquired (developed during life) diseases. General or cumulative stress is reflected in higher mortality rates, decreased ages at death, retarded body growth, reduced robusticity and stature, and reduced sexual dimorphism. Increased dental crowding and dental asymmetry can be indicative of severe or chronic stress. Periodic indicators of stress provide information on the age at which stress episodes occurred. Two common examples of such periodic stress indicators are Harris lines, i.e. disruption in linear bone growth, and enamel hypoplasia, i.e. disruption in tooth enamel matrix formation. Some diseases leave more specific indicators of stress on bone and teeth. Infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies, traumatic and degenerative lesions are classified in this category. Porotic hyperostosis, cribra orbitalia (vitamin C deficiency) and iron deficiency anemia indicate 46 nutritional stress. Specific infectious diseases, such as treponema (yaws/syphilis), tuberculosis and leprosy, or non-specific infectious lesions like periosteal reactions, osteomyelitis (inflammation of bone) can be diagnosed. Traumatic lesions such as fractures, dislocations and artificially induced deformities are caused by physical force or by contact with blunt or sharp objects. Degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis (joint disease) and vertebral osteophytosis (vertebral lipping) are common in old individuals. Dental pathologies like caries, attrition, alveolar resorption (abscess in jaw bone), tartar accumulation and premature tooth loss, all reflect dietary habits.

The pathological reading provides good perspective for archaeological interpretation. As has been elaborated earlier, the hunting-gathering way of life probably brought with it a dramatically low density dispersal leading to the exploitation of new areas in a variety of ecological settings and advancement in technology to cope with the new environment (see Cohen 1977). The stability of the food resource base for many hunting-gathering communities is evidenced in the skeletal record in the form of relatively high ages at the time of death as compared to the lower ages evidenced in the later farming-herding communities. A combination of factors appears to be responsible for this. The high incidence of pathologies noticed in the later farming-herding communities in the skeletal record in India may be due to a nutritionally poor diet which consisted mostly of cereals and/or root crops. Moreover, hunter-gatherers probably ate both meat and forest products whereas the agriculturists had a narrow choice of food with nothing to supplement their diet if and when their crops failed. For example, the evidenced nutritional stress in the Deccan Chalcolithic populations (Lukacs et al. 1986, Walimbe and Gambhir 1994, Mushrif and Walimbe 2006, Walimbe and Lukacs 1992, Tavares 1998) was 47 probably caused by the deficiency of nutrients in staple crops, periodic famines evidenced by archaeological data, food shortages and high infection rates due to population growth. In brief, the skeletal record that exhibits such pathologies gives us a lucid picture of the population's behaviour - their subsistence economy, structure of settlements, warfare, division of labour, social class structure and even trade networks. Although the etiology of a lesion may be multiple and its exact cause unknown, it is possible to reconstruct the history of stress for a given population by taking into account the various other lesions that may have affected the rest of the population.

In continuation with the evolutionary changes discussed earlier, it may be stated that higher morbidity levels in settled early agro-pastoral populations, which affected the growth rate and metabolism in general, appears to be a yet another contributory factor for their delicate body built.

Such a detailed osteological study demands a multidisciplinary approach and seeks help from other physical sciences. Advanced macroscopic and microscopic analysis (SEM) of the bone has contributed a lot to the understanding of lesions and the complexity of human adaptation. Radiographs and photographs of bone are non-destructive ways of analyzing bones. Chemical analysis on dry bone has provided new insights into the dynamics of bone tissue in health, disease and nutrition. Trace element and isotopic analysis have forwarded a better understanding of skeletal pathologies not visible by gross analysis. The most investigated and studied has been the Strontium-Calcium ratio, which highlights the cereal versus meat intake by humans. The Sr/Ca ratio has also supplied information on the pattern of dietary supplementation 48 and age of weaning of infants. Change in the weaning age is said to indicate a shift in the subsistence base and is also important to project estimates for population growth rate.

Nonetheless, the health hazards of the early agro-pastoral Neolithic-Chalcolithic populations must have proved beneficial to the later populations, by providing impetus for the development of the indigenous medical science. The Sushruta Samhita is a Sanskrit redaction text on all of the major concepts of Ayurvedic medicine with innovative chapters on surgery, attributed to Sushruta. There are references that a cataract surgery was performed by Sushruta before 800 BC. The Sushruta Samhita text dates to the 3rd-4th century AD. The Atharvaveda is the first Indic text to mention Iron, so that scholarly consensus dates the bulk of the Atharvaveda hymns to the early Indian Iron Age, corresponding to the 12th to 10th centuries BC. This text describes different notions and approaches of the society to different health-nutrition problems

Model explaining stress indicators in the Early-agricultural populations is given in Fig. 4.


Human skeletal studies in India have experienced transition from descriptive to interpretive phase. It has come a long way from the classification of the fossils of 'ancient man' and grouping them into 'ethnic classes' to studying the skeletal record as an entity in itself, which has a wide scope for providing answers regarding the continuous biocultural adaptation of ancient populations of the subcontinent. Yet there is a long way to go.

Human bones were never a priority area of research in the Indian Archaeology. For that matter general ignorance is seen for human remains in archaeology at the global level also. A few citations from the writings of leading palaeopathologist Larsen (1997) would be interesting. "…. burials on historical sites are much more trouble than they are worth…Unless the circumstances are very special, I would advise quickly covering them over and forgetting you ever saw them" (Noel Hume 1975:158-160). "Unaware of the potential of human skeletal remains, many archaeologists view them as, at best, an irrelevance, and when encountered in situ as object whose excavation is time consuming and which somehow does not constitute 'real' archaeology" Bush and Zvelebil (1991:5). (Both the citations are copied from Larsen 1997). This sentiment was eloquently expressed by the late S. S. Sarkar, a biological anthropologist at the University of Calcutta: "I have felt that archaeologists of this country are not yet so interested in skeletal remains as they are with potsherds. I tried to ascertain in certain cases as to what happened with the excavated skeletal remains, their whereabouts, or the completion of their reports, but I failed to obtain a scientific answer from any quarter. And if those facts were available, some lacunae in our knowledge would have been filled up. . . . The reconstruction of the skeletal remains should not be considered at par with pottery- washing and mending." 50 (Sarkar 1972). Along with Sarkar's feelings Prof. Kennedy writes "the osteological company is not always welcome at the archaeological banquet. Some excavators have left the burials unexhumed; others packed them off to a museum or other institution, where they linger unexamined for decades; and not infrequently the excavated skeletons were lost, purposefully destroyed, or reburied without scientific study" (Kennedy 2003b).

The Indian skeletal record, covering a vast time span, can be used to carry out meaningful research and would help skeletal biologists as well as archaeologists to understand the interaction between ancient populations and their habitats, the shift from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to a settled way of life. National level efforts are required to overcome the serious lacunae and drawbacks and meaningfully utilize the evidence. Some of the skeletal collections have been studied by the scholars of Anthropological Survey of India in the 1960's and 70's, and the reports of this research are still highly acclaimed. However, considering the new developments in the field of skeletal biology and the current research trends that prevail in this field it is highly recommended that fresh re-scrutiny of these collections be done. Also the collections which have not still been examined are to be studied immediately.

Simultaneously the immediate step required is to create an inventory of the skeletal collections stored in the different laboratories and repositories. Storage conditions in many repositories are far below the desired standard. There are cases where human bones are kept in gunny-bags! The suggested inventory is not mere listing of the specimens in the register, but while keeping record each specimen needs to be assessed for age and sex. Besides the cultural affiliation, site name, excavating agency, etc., salient morphological and pathological features, 51 and publication data, if any, needs to be indicated. Each entry should be supplemented by digital photographs. Proposed inventory can be computer based, which can be made available to interested parties in future. Maintaining the inventory will be an ongoing process. The data sheets need to be updated as the fresh studies get completed.

Eventually there will be a need of central repository for archaeological human remains.

The osseous remains should be collected with great care; not only should adult crania be recorded and collected but every post-cranial and sub-adult or infant bone, fragmentary or complete should be attended to. In the current scenario the skeletal evidence is neglected even in cemetery excavations, and more seriously, treated unethically in the field. Skeletons are kept in exposed condition not for weeks but for months! Often only the 'important' parts of the skeleton are lifted, leaving the remaining skeleton unattended. Therefore the situation demands a more intimate interaction between archaeologists and skeletal biologists. There needs to be better coordination of activities of the two major organizations, Archaeological Survey of India and Anthropological Survey of India. As of now, physical anthropologists rarely participate in excavations. It should be mandatory for the excavating agency to seek help of physical anthropologist while exposing a human burial. Since not many trained skeletal biologists are available in the country for the purpose, the Archaeological Survey of India should organize weeklong training-workshops for archaeologists for training in field methodology pertaining to excavation, field-recording, packing and transportation of human bones to qualified scientist. Guidelines for post-mortem treatment of excavated human bones should be printed and the handbooks be made available to all excavating agencies.

Lack of adequate training facilities, limited exposure of students to the skeletal remains and inadequate literature limits the growth of this interesting field of research in the subcontinent. Frequent workshops may be planned for JRFs/SRFs/University faculty members and research students in anthropology on methodological and theoretical aspects of human skeletal research. This may help us promoting this subject and create the necessary man-power for effective implementation of the proposed research scheme. Gradually the AnSI should think of permanent recruitment of required personnel in staff.

The study of human remains is desired not merely in the academic interests, but it will serve far more beneficial purpose for the society, more specifically by studying lesions and anomalies of ancient diseases. Palaeopathological scrutiny of archaeological skeletons is extremely important in the light of recently evolving 'ancient DNA' techniques, which might prove useful to trace the evolutionary history of different pathogens and thereby to understand the patterns of human health that have unfolded in the sub-continent since the Paleolithic times. With the advancement of molecular technology it is now becoming possible to determine the genetic predisposition of various diseases and to suggest possible measures of their prevention. Based on the individual genotype, the future medicine is going to move from curative mode to predictive and preventive mode. Therefore it is highly recommended that the Anthropological Survey of India initiates palaeopathological studies on its own collections. Further, the Survey should take urgent steps to initiate national level palaeopathology project to include more than 3000 human skeletal specimens which are housed at various anthropology/archaeology departments. It is highly recommended that these skeletons be studied immediately, and cases of 53 known pathologies be sorted out for potential ancient-DNA sequencing. This is the most urgent step in view of the 'ancient DNA' facility being developed by the AnSI. 'National Repository for Human Genetic Resources and Data' is being planned. The success of the 'ancient DNA' studies depends primarily on the careful scrutiny of the available skeletal material. Moreover, this database developed on the lines of 'History of Global Health Project' being undertaken by western anthropologists will be highly precious at the international level in the years to come. Similarly, interaction between medical practitioners and palaeopathologists is expected. There is a lack of clinical database with a good cross-section of the population of a particular region and community.

In short, it is extremely necessary at the national level, and for Anthropological Survey of India in particular, to set a research agenda in human skeletal biology for the next 20 years. At the moment this vision is virtually lacking. Several foreign scholars visit our repositories with their own research schemes. They study our material, but in the process the job of Indian collaborator often remains limited just to providing the material; he is happy to get authorship in publications. Instead the office should depute a JRF/SRF to actually participate in the study and get himself acquainted with the methodology and technology, and thereby develop local expertise to undertake future studies.

The subject human skeletal biology has very high research potential, and the efforts will fructify only if there is will and resources at the institutional level.


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Fig. 1. Cranio-facial evolutionary changes during the transition from the pre-agricultural to the agricultural stage.

Fig. 1. Cranio-facial evolutionary changes during the transition from the pre-agricultural to the agricultural stage.

Fig. 2. Model explaining the cranio-facial morphological changes in agricultural transition.

Fig. 2. Model explaining the cranio-facial morphological changes in agricultural transition.

Fig. 3. Assessment of cultural evolutionary trends using physical anthropological data.

Fig. 3. Assessment of cultural evolutionary trends using physical anthropological data.

 Fig. 4. Model explaining stress indicators in agricultural population.

Fig. 4. Model explaining stress indicators in agricultural population.

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