South Asian Ethnicity

From the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas

Discover more about your ethnicity with AncestryDNA. By comparing your genetic signature to the DNA of people from the South Asian region, AncestryDNA can give you a clearer picture of your ethnic origins.

People in this DNA ethnicity group may identify as:
Indian, Pakistani, Nepali, Bhutanese, Bengali, Sri Lankan

The story of your ethnicity lives in your DNA.

South Asian Ethnicity

The Asia South region includes the modern-day nations of Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan and is home to approximately 20% of the world’s population. The mighty mountain ranges of the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram were formed here around 75 million years ago when the floating Indian tectonic plate smashed into southern Asia, giving birth to the world's tallest mountains peaks. These include Mount Everest, known to the Nepalese as “Sagarmatha.”

South Asian History

Secluded by the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, Southern Asia has largely been a region unto itself. But the very first migration of modern humans, called “Out of Africa,” is thought to have followed a southern coastal route. Those migrants would have trekked along the outline of the Indian subcontinent and then farther east into Southeast Asia, eventually reaching Australia. The indigenous people of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean are thought to have been isolated there during this initial migration, after ocean levels rose. Austroasiatic populations are believed to have moved south from China, eventually spreading west into India and also using water routes to other agricultural zones, including the islands of the South Pacific.

The invention of farming in the Middle East led to the spread of Neolithic people into Pakistan and northern India. About 7000 B.C., Indo-European farmers arrived, bringing wheat, cattle and a distinct language. Even today, there is a gradient of ancestry from the Middle East that ranges from the highest concentrations in the north to the lowest in the south of India. These Neolithic people founded the great Indus Valley Civilization.


Isolated by nearly impenetrable mountains to the north, India cultivated its own unique culture over the millennia. Almost as old as Indian civilization itself, the caste system of social hierarchy determined a person's status and rights from birth. The caste system was officially outlawed in 1950, and great strides have been made in purging it from contemporary Indian society.

Hinduism and Buddhism, the world's third- and fourth-largest religions, were both born in India. Exported to Asia, Buddhism was an important part of the cultural fabric of Imperial China and is the predominant religion in most of Southeast Asia today. India was gradually conquered by the British East India Company in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was a British colony until 1947. Mohandas Gandhi became one of the key players in achieving Indian independence. Realizing that armed resistance against the British was dangerous and probably futile, he began a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience and protest that helped end British colonial rule.


Modern-day Nepal is a mixture of ethnic groups that lived in several different historical kingdoms. The Sherpas, famous for their mountaineering skills, come from Nepal. Nepal's fierce Gurkha soldiers resisted encroachments of the British East India Company, earning the grudging respect of the British. The conflicts led to the Anglo-Nepalese War (1814-16), which ended in a treaty that preserved Nepal’s sovereignty (although it was forced to cede some territory). In 1951, the Nepali monarch ended the century-old system of rule by hereditary premiers and instituted a cabinet system of government. In 1953 Tenzig Norgay, a Sherpa, joined Sir Edmund Hillary as they became the first people to successfully summit Mt. Everest. Nepal’s legendary city of Kathmandu is today a large metropolis with a rich history stretching back over 2,000 years.

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The Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan country bordered by India and China. Three main ethnic groups make up the majority of the population. The Ngalops are of Tibetan origin and thought to have migrated to Bhutan in the 8th or 9th century A.D., bringing both Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The Sharchops are considered the indigenous people of Bhutan, descendants of early settlers who migrated from the east centuries before the Ngalops. The Lhotsampas emigrated from Nepal in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, “land of the thunder dragon.”


Ruled at various times by Persians, Greeks, Arabs and Turks, Pakistan is home to a diverse mix of cultures and ethnic groups. The Arab Empire called it “the Gate of Islam,” and the country remains primarily Muslim to this day. The Balochi, descended from the Persians who settled the area centuries ago, live in the southern half of Pakistan and along the coast. The Brahui, a Sunni Muslim tribe living in the same region, speak a Dravidian language related to languages found in the distant southern reaches of India, leaving historians to wonder how they got there. The Pashtun are a tribal society in the rugged border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Burusho, or Hunza, live in the foothills of the Hindu Kush and speak a unique language unrelated to any other. Legend says that they are descended from the soldiers of Alexander the Great, but scientific evidence shows that they are genetically linked to the European Romani, also known as “Gypsies.”

When India gained independence from Great Britain, the religious and ethnic differences between Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan led to the region being partitioned into India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. This division led to one of the largest single migrations in history, as 14 million people tried to cross borders according to their religious ties. Millions followed the Grand Trunk Road and Railway in the Kashmir region, and hundreds of thousands were killed in the violence that engulfed the area. Sectarian violence has subsided for the most part, but there are still tense border disagreements between India and Pakistan, particularly over the Kashmir region in the Karakoram foothills. After years of border disputes and war, East Pakistan seceded and became Bangladesh in 1971.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an island nation divided into two groups: the majority Buddhist Sinhalese in the south and the minority Hindu Tamils in the north. The first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka late in the 6th century B.C., probably from northern India. Buddhism was introduced in the 3rd century B.C., and a great civilization developed at the cities of Anuradhapura (from about 200 B.C. to 1000 A.D.) and Polonnaruwa (from about 1070 to 1200). In the 14th century, a South Indian dynasty established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. The coastal areas of the island were controlled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, then by the Dutch in the 17th century. The island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a Crown Colony in 1802, and was formally united under British rule by 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948; its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972.

Migrations from this region

A significant wave of migration out of India began during the early 19th century and continued until the end of the British Raj. Britain abolished slavery in 1833 and was soon followed by other colonial powers such as France, the Netherlands and Portugal—but then their colonies needed manpower to work the sugar and rubber plantations once worked by African slaves. To meet this demand, the British established the system of “Indentured Labor Migration” from the Indian subcontinent. Britain first began exporting bonded Indian labor in 1834, to Mauritius. The Dutch and French, following the British system, also exported Indian workers to their colonies. In less than 10 years, the migration burgeoned into a mass movement to provide cheap labor to British and other European colonies.

Conditions of absolute poverty in many parts of India, coupled with the prospect of earning wealth overseas, motivated people to sell themselves as bonded laborers. Workers for plantations in Mauritius, Suriname, Trinidad and Fiji were mainly recruited from the present-day states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In Guyana and East Africa, laborers originated primarily from Punjab and Gujarat. Given the proximity of Tamil Nadu to French possessions in India like Pondicherry, the workers in most French colonies—such as Guadeloupe, Martinique, and La Reunion—were Tamils and almost all male.

The Indentured Labor Migration system lasted until 1916 when, in response to severe criticism, Britain abolished it. By that time, more than 1.5 million Indians had been shipped to colonies in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. During roughly the same period, another form of labor migration was taking place. The owners of tea, coffee and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Burma used local Indian leaders to recruit entire families, mostly from what is today the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and ship them to plantations. About 5 million Indians, mostly impoverished Tamils, immigrated to these three countries. This outflow continued until just before World War II.

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