This term has traditionally been applied to groups from the Indian subcontinent that speak Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Brahui, and Tulu. Most of these linguistic groups live in the southern portion of the subcontinent.
The word Dravidian comes from the Sanskrit term dravida, which means “southern.” During the 19th century linguistic scholars began to realize that the Dravidian languages differed significantly from many of those spoken in the north.
Early anthropologists and sociologists began to suggest that the darker-skinned inhabitants of the subcontinent were the ones who predominantly spoke the Dravidian languages and that they in fact may have been the original inhabitants of India.
Modern geneticists suggest that the color of skin may have had more to do with adapting to sunnier conditions in the southern part of India than actual racial differences. Theories concerning the darker-skinned Dravidians also played to issues of political, regional, caste, and religious strife in 19th-century India.
Notions of possible historical Dravidian displacement in the Indus River valley due to an invasion or migration began to be entertained by Western scholars who joined in interdisciplinary studies of the origins of the Hindu religion.
Archaeological evidence from the 1920s concerning the ascension and demise of the ancient polytheistic Indus civilization (3500–1700 b.c.e.) gave rise to the theory of an invasion of the Indus region by lighter-skinned northern peoples, who began to be known as Aryans.
In fact, there were a number of religion scholars like Bloch and Witzel who felt that Indus River valley inhabitants composed the oldest parts of the Rig-Veda. The Rig-Veda is the most ancient form of Hindu religious literature, dating in written form to around 800 b.c.e. and possibly stemming from oral formulas and prayers dating as far back as 2000 b.c.e.
Even the ancient Puranas point to the Dravidians as being descended from the earliest Vedic peoples. (Elements of the Puranic oral traditions may date as early as 1500 b.c.e. but did not reach their final written form until around 500 c.e.). The Matsya Puranas also indicate that the first man, Manu, was a king from the southern part of India.
Numerous attempts continued through the 20th century to connect the Dravidians to the Indus civilization. Scholars insisted that Hinduism emerged from a blending of Aryan and Dravidian culture.
Many modern studies of the ancient Indus Valley civilization presumed that the inhabitants who occupied a wide range of ancient city-states all along the Indus (including the very large urban centers at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro) were all Dravidian.
It is believed that more than 500 highly civilized centers, all inhabited before 900 b.c.e., were part of the network of Indus and Ghaggar Rivers. Their economy was supported by agriculture from the crops that grew from the rich deposits of soil along the Indus and its tributaries. However, most inhabitants of cities were artisans, merchants, or craftspersons.
Many of the towns exhibit signs of urban planning with straight streets, sanitation systems, municipal governments, and even multilevel housing. Cities like Harappa even had dockyards, warehouses, granaries, and public baths.
Meteorologists, archaeologists, and geologists claim that the collapse of the early Indus civilization was due to climactic and environmental issues, tectonic events, and most likely drought. One group then possibly resettled the Indus area, or several other groups migrated into the area.
Given these hypotheses it is easy to see why the linguistic differences first noticed by scholars in the mid-19th century could be explained by a northern invasion from settlers beyond the Khyber Pass and the eventual domination of the area by a lighter-skinned ruling class.
How ever, there is a whole group of contemporary scholars who now think the Aryans may not have been Middle Eastern or European but were part of a group proximate to the Indian subcontinent all along.
Some geneticists interpret the earliest settlement of India as connecting Middle Eastern peoples such as the Elamites with the Dravidians, to placing the Dravidian group as the last among ancient migrants into India behind other earlier Indo-European settlers and more ancient Australoid peoples.