Alexander’s soldiers left no mark

By Razib Khan | July 30, 2013 12:28 am

It is well known that Alexander the Great invaded the Indus river valley. Coincidentally in the mountains shadowing this region are isolated groups of tribal populations whose physical appearance is at at variance with South Asians. In particular, they are much lighter skinned, and often blonde or blue eyed. Naturally this led to 19th and early 20th century speculation that they were lost white races, perhaps descended from some of the Macedonian soldiers of Alexander. This was partly the basis of the Rudyard Kipling novel The Man Who Would Be King. Naturally over time some of these people themselves have forwarded this idea. In the case of a group such as the Kalash of Pakistan this conjecture is supported by the exotic nature of their religion, which seems to be Indo-European, and similar to Vedic Hinduism, with minimal influence from Islam.

Kalash girl, Credit: Dave Watts

The major problem with this set of theses is that they are wrong. And the reason I bring up this tired old idea is that many people, including Wikipedia apparently, do not know that this is wrong. I’ve had correspondents sincerely bringing up this model, and, I’ve seen it presented by scholars offhand during talks. There are many historical genetic issues which remain mysterious, or tendentious. This is not one of them. There are hundreds of thousands of SNPs of the Kalash and Burusho distributed to the public. If you want to know how these populations stack up genetically, analyze them yourself. I know that they aren’t related to Macedonians because I have plenty of European population data sets, and I have plenty of South Asian ones. The peoples of the hills of Pakistan are clearly part of the continuum of the latter, albeit shifted toward Iranian peoples.

Those seeking further proof, and unable to analyze the data themselves for any reason, can check out my posts on the topic:

The Kalash in perspective

Kalash on the human tree

Addendum: It would be nice of someone corrected the appropriate Wikipedia entries.

  • Jacob M

    I wonder if there indeed are any populations that show some significant unexpected admixture that could likely be explained by Alexander’s armies.

    Or is it just the case that their genetic contribution to certian conquered lands was close to zero?

    • razibkhan

      not zero. but the greco-bactrians would not have left imprint in the backwoods of chitral.

      • Jacob M

        Are there any South Asian populations that retain Alexandrian admixture to this day, similar to how Ethiopians show significant admixture from West-Eurasian populations from a few thousand years ago?

        • Karl Zimmerman

          I think it would be difficult to disentangle for a few reasons.

          1. India had been subject to the Aryan migration only around 1,200 years prior. The Aryans were presumably pretty West Eurasian as well, and arguably may have actually been lighter to begin with than Greeks.

          2. Alexander’s troops also only marched through portions of the subcontinent where the Aryan migration had the heaviest genetic impact.

          3. We don’t actually know how ancient Greek genetics differed from the those of modern Greeks. We know that many modern Greeks today came from families who spoke South Slavic, Aromanian, Turkish, or Albanian as recently as a century ago. In the Dark Ages, there were enormous influxes of Slavs into Greece, to the point where more “Greeks” probably lived in Asia Minor than in Peloponnesus and the walled cities which held out. The slavs were Hellenized. Arguably some modern Turks may have genetics closer to ancient Greeks.

          4. Much of Alexander’s army wasn’t Greek (even if you assume the Macedonians were Greek). He recruited soldiers from Thrace, Paionia, and Illyria. He certainly began to use Persians in his army as time passed as well, although the extent has been debated.

          I think the echo could ultimately be uncovered, but it’s almost as difficult as separating out Anglo-Saxon and Norse genetic components in England.

  • 2shanbe

    Many Pamirian Tajiks also have very light hair and eyes. Some Kyrgyz do too. Outsiders will claim this is the result of “Slavic” or “Greek” admixture, but Slavs never intermarried with Central Asians (only at low level). Alexander’s army was tiny– so how could it have had any genetic impact?

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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