Genes, Peoples, Languages — Untangling Indian Castes and Ayurvedic Doshas

Genetics is certainly one of the most fascinating sciences. Not only does it tell a lot about us, but it can be used to trace our history. Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) by David Reich is a book that tells historic tales that historians and archaeologists would have never uncovered. Among those tales is the genetic history of India.

Let’s start with genes. The genetic history of India is somewhat complex, so I’ll have to simplify a bit here. Prior to the advent of agriculture India was inhabited by hunter-gatherers who were not related to the last remaining hunter-gatherers of India, the Andaman Islanders. For post-farming populations Reich found two principal components nicknamed ANI (Ancestral North Indian) and ASI (Ancestral South Indians), with ANIs typically of a lighter complexion and related to Central Asians and Eurpeans and the ASI of a darker complexion, comprising of the original Indian population. According to Reich it’s likely that the ANI spread Indoeuropean languages and the ASI spread Dravidian languages. The ANI are also typically found in higher concentration in higher casts, whereas the ASI are more frequently found in lower casts.

How exactly the caste system evolved is not entirely clear, but it may have arisen of the different tribes who initially kept to themselves and didn’t interbreed much. Reich writes:

How the varna [casts] and jati [tribes] relate to each other is a much-debated mystery. One hypothesis suggested by the anthropologist Irawati Karve is that thousands of years ago, Indian peoples lived in effectively endogamous tribal groups that did not mix, much like tribal groups in other parts of the world today. 34 Political elites then ensconced themselves at the top of the social system (as priests, kings, and merchants), creating a stratified system in which the tribal groups were incorporated into society in the form of laboring groups that remained at the bottom of society as Shudras and Dalits.

Many Indians are reluctant to call the Varna System Caste, arguing that it reflects are more natural order rather than an artificial hierarchical power structure. Varna actually means “color” or “complexion” () and when we time- travel back India 1000 BC when the Atharva veda, on which most of Ayurveda is based, we will find three different complexions as well as different body types (doshas), much less mixed than they are today:

Vata : dark skinned people. Most likely hunter-gatherers or people with a recent hunter-gatherer origin.

Pitta : light skinned people. Most likely Indoeuropean pastoralists from the North

Kapha : intermediate. Most likely originally Iranian farmers

One likely scenario was that light-skinned Yamnaya pastoralists conquered a large part the subcontinent and established themselves as the leading cast, over farmers and finally foragers. Reich writes that in many places the dominance hierarchy was reversed. This was very likely due to farmers being the most hard-working evolutionary type. Foragers who didn’t own much constituted the lowest stratum.

If my hypothesis is correct we will find more forager types among the ASI than the ANI. Indeed, Indeed this seems to be the case, with the Tamil (Dravidian), for example:

When interviewing Tamil-speaking Hindus in the 1960s, Gardner found that his subjects considered the forager to be admirable and “one of us.” In the Current Anthropology article, Gardner outlines three elements of Hindu culture that may have accommodated the continuation of hunter-gathering on the Indian subcontinent. First, Hinduism emphasizes a system of mutual dependence among occupational specialists in their society. Since hunter-gatherers collected and exchanged medicinal plants, wild honey, and other valuable forest products with their specialist neighbors, they were believed to serve an important economic function and were allowed to continue their way of life unmolested. Hindus considered these foragers to belong to the larger social system. In addition, since they were not viewed as outsiders, Indian hunter-gatherers were not expected to prove their adherence to cultural norms. As long as contacts remained tangential, they merely had to provide lip-service to Hindu notions of propriety to avoid harassment from their neighbors but did not have to change their customs in any meaningful way. ( )

However, unfortunately, these foragers were more often than not outcasts. The Dalits, who are outside the caste system are most likely recent descendants of foragers, who have to undergo a lot of bullying on top of being among the poorest and weakest members of society. We are seeing a similar demarginalization of the Bushmen in Southern Africa, who — not being able to pursue their traditional lifestyle — find it hard to take up farming or herding and are typically considered as third class citizens.

Whenever in history farmers-herders met foragers we can expect them to make up the lowest class. The reasons are many, they are typically not technologically advanced, they aren’t very materialistic and most of all are egalitarian and have therefore little incentives to work for money and status.

If the Indian system can be used as a general model, we can expect vata, pitta and kapha types everywhere to be descendants of foragers, herders and farmers respectively. I am predominantly a vata type. Ironically, I am much paler than most other people. Where I live in Central Europe, the Indian Varna system (complexion) is actually reversed. Vata types like me are typically the palest whereas pitta types are the darkest. Chiefly for two reasons: first they are easily hot (so far we already knew from Ayurvedic lore, in which pitta means “fire”) and love chill by the pool in summer, and secondly, because they are typically the ones who are most keen on showing off a beautifully tanned body.

Originally published at on May 6, 2021.

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