Y‑DNA genetic evidence reveals several different ancient origins in the Brahmin population

David G. Mahal

Received: 11 July 2020 / Accepted: 9 September 2020


The ancient geographical origins of Brahmins—a prominent ethnic group in the Indian subcontinent—have remained controversial for a long time. This study employed the AMOVA (analysis of molecular variance) test to evaluate genetic affinities of this group with thirty populations of Central Asia and Europe. A domestic comparison was performed with fifty non-Brahmin groups in India. The results showed that Brahmins had genetic affinities with several foreign populations and also shared their genetic heritage with several domestic non-Brahmin groups. The study identified the deep ancient origins of Brahmins by tracing their Y-chromosome haplogroups and genetic markers on the Y-DNA phylogenetic tree. It was confirmed that the progenitors of this group emerged from at least 12 different geographic regions of the world. The study concluded that about 83% of the Brahmins in the dataset belonged to four major haplogroups, of which two emerged from Central Asia, one from the Fertile Crescent, and one was of an indigenous Indian origin.


Emergence of Indo‑Aryans

The nomadic people known as the Yamnaya occupied the steppes of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine between about 4500 and 2500 BCE. Their two branches known as the Sintashta (2200–1800 BCE) and Andronovo (2000–900 BCE) are identified with the expansion of people known as Indo-Aryans in the steppes around present day  Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan (Anthony 2007; Kuz’mina and Mallory 2007). The Sintashta are credited with crafting the wheel and domesticating the horse about ~ 7 kya (Curry 2019), which facilitated their expansion to other parts of Europe, central Asia, and beyond. Viktor Sarianidi, a Soviet archaeologist discovered the Bactria Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC) which is located above the Amu Darya river in the Pamir Mountains and represents a Bronze age Oxus Civilization of around 4000 BCE (Sarianidi 2007). Sarianidi found evidence of sacred alters; traces of poppy seeds, cannabis, and ephedra, ingredients for an intoxicating drink called soma (used in some ancient Vedic rituals); horse sacrifices; four wheeled chariots; and other connections with the Aryan teachings (Wood 2007). According to recent research, the steppe pastoralists (i.e., the descendants of Yamnaya) migrated toward south Asia, impacted BMAC but apparently bypassed it to move further toward India, later appearing as some outlier communities by the turn of the second millennium BCE (Narasimhan et al. 2019). An earlier study by Silva et al. indicated that the Andronovo and Sintashta people, also descendants of the Yamnaya, infiltrated and dominated the soma-using BMAC by ~ 3.5 kya—possibly earlier—and proposed that R1a was a “highly plausible” subclade for the spread of Indo-Aryans into south Asia (Silva et al. 2017). This study concurs with Silva et al., because the results are widely supported: (a) the Indo-Aryans appear to have borrowed their distinctive religious beliefs and practices from the BMAC culture (Beckwith 2011), (b) two Indologists have previously associated the Indo-Aryans with BMAC (Mallory 1989; Parpola 1999), (c) some BMAC materials have been found in IVC sites (Lamberg-Karlovsky 2002; Anthony 2007), and (d) the soma-drinking practices of the Indo-Aryans are documented in early books of Indian history (Havell 1918; Smith 1921). Based on DNA analyses of one human skeleton from Rakhigarhi—an IVC site—and eleven outliers from about 2800 to 2300 BCE, a recent study found little or no genetic traces of Central Asian steppe pastoralists or Iranian farmers/ herders, suggesting these people were not abundant in northwest India at the time (Shinde et al. 2019). However, the report also acknowledged that the sample size was underpowered for any broad conclusions of this type. By 2000 BCE, the population of IVC was estimated to be about five million people (McEvedy and Jones 1978), suggesting the presence of several different genetic lineages, as elucidated in this study. Emerging primarily from haplogroup R from beyond the far side of Afghanistan, the Indo-Aryans—ancestors of Brahmins—started migrating south and arrived in North India during the second millennium BCE (Erdosy 1995; Joseph 2018), probably earlier. By then IVC had started to decline and de-urbanize, possibly due to environmental degradation and conflicts between the newcomers and the earlier settlers (Cavalli-Sforza and Cavalli-Sforza 1995). Renfrew’s elite dominance model explains the intrusion of a small but well-organized group which can dislodge an existing Molecular Genetics and Genomics 1 3 population and take over the region (Renfrew 1992), which the Indo-Aryans apparently did. Evidently, in addition to their religious beliefs the new migrants were aggressive warriors. It is reported that Alexander the Great’s encounter with Brahmin priests was not peaceful. The Brahmins incited a holy war and all along his route Alexander met some of the fiercest resistance during his campaign. His army participated in several battles with the locals and one of these conflicts culminated in a lethal wound to Alexander that prompted his retreat from India (Fildes and Fletcher 2002).


By exploiting an in-silico analyses of Y-DNA profiles of 1201 Brahmin men, this study concluded that this ethnic group did not originate from a single ancestral population, but instead emerged from at least 12 progenitors who, with one exception (haplogroup H), emerged from foreign lands that were geographically near or coterminous with India. There was a convergence of haplogroups in North India starting about ~ 12 kya. Some members of haplogroups R, H, and L were already inhabiting the area, mostly as hunters and gatherers. Members of haplogroup J arrived from the west and brought their knowledge of agriculture to the region. These four haplogroups (R, J, H and L) represented about 83% of the Brahmins in this study. The populations admixed and became involved with creation of the IVC in North India. More members of other haplogroups arrived in a series of waves, and newer members of haplogroup R—the BMAC related Indo-Aryan ancestors of Brahmins—brought Sanskrit and tenets of the Vedic religion with them. After the demise of IVC, starting around the second millennium BCE, some inhabitants, mostly the newcomers, remained in the north and others dispersed to the eastern and southern parts of India, resulting in the ANI and ASI population clusters. Over time, the Brahmins expanded and spread Hinduism throughout the Indian subcontinent. As the result of religious conversions and admixture, at least 12 genetic lineages or Y-DNA haplogroups developed in this ethnic group. A larger data sample may uncover a few additional lineages. This study provided a contemporary assessment of the diverse ancient origins of this major ethnic group in the Indian subcontinent. It is expected that these findings will lead to additional insights about how the haplogroups expanded and evolved into various communities of Brahmins and other ethnic groups in the Indian subcontinent.