Genographic Project Research in India Looks to Add Deep Branches to Our Human Family Tree

The path along India’s coast is thought to be the original human migratory route from Africa. Today India is home to many distinct languages and cultures. Genographic research extends to the Jammu and Kashmir state where present day and ancient history combine.

Genographic Project grantee Dr. Swarkar Sharma wants to share a story – the rich and ancient history of the people of northern India. The story he wants to tell is hidden in the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains in the landlocked Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, but also locked in the DNA of the residents of this majestic region. Through the analysis of the DNA, Dr. Sharma is looking to unlock the stories of the region by collaborating with the local people and revealing their fascinating ancient history.

Jammu region of Northern India. Photo courtesy of W.E. Garrett/National Geographic Creative

Dr. Sharma explains that Jammu and Kashmir state is one of the most fascinating places to study ancient ancestry. Just back from the field, he recounts, “within India, Jammu and Kashmir has the distinction of possessing modern, medieval and ancient history, as well as rich archaeological data.”

As the world’s second-most populous nation, India has been a region of interest for the project since Genographic’s inception. Its history holds a key to our understanding of the world’s genetic diversity. Not only is India’s coast thought to be the original human migratory path out of Africa, but India is also home to hundreds of languages including the large families of the Dravidian in the south and Indo-European in the north. Given its size, linguistic diversity, and key geographic location in South-Central Asia, India remains one of the most important places to study genetic diversity.

Kid from Jammu and Kashmir state. Photo courtesy of Swarkar Sharma
Kid from Jammu and Kashmir state. Photo courtesy of Swarkar Sharma

“These areas have human signatures that date back to the late Pleistocene,” explains Dr. Sharma. “And the Jammu and Kashmir region specifically has difficult mountainous terrain, but also valleys that may have acted as doorways to Central Asia from the Indian Subcontinent plains.”

Previous genetic research in India has revealed very deep branches, or haplogroups, of the human family tree. India is home to maternal macro-haplogroups M and N, among others, the presumed grandmothers to all non-African maternal lineages. With regards to paternal haplogroups, India is the birthplace of haplogroup R1, the most common group in Europe; haplogroup Q, the grandfather of most Native American lineages; and even haplogroups C and D, the oldest paternal branches outside of Africa. India is also home to its own unique haplogroups – such as H and L – found almost nowhere else in the world. The diversity and history of the region are both rich and complex, and we are just now starting to piece them together.

The Team during field work. Photo courtesy of Swarkar Sharma.
The team during field work. Photo courtesy of Swarkar Sharma.

“We may discover some untold evolutionary stories and most likely discover some novel maternal and paternal lineages, isolated and restricted to these regions,” explains Dr. Sharma excitedly. Stay tuned to future Genographic Project updates to learn more about what Dr. Sharma and his team are discovering.

Read more about the Genographic Project’s scientific grants and how you can become involved by visiting us at www.genographic.com.

Changing Planet

Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.