The civilization before history

A forgotten civilization?

No, I am not talking about Atlantis or Hyperborea or Lemuria. Nothing made up here. Nor am I talking about the real Neolithic cultures highlighted in War Before Civilization. I alluding to the period between 3500 and 3100 BCE in the Near East when the city of Uruk was the nexus for and a source of a massive cultural and mercantile expansion. I’ll quote Wikipedia:

Around 3600 BC, during the Middle Uruk period, Uruk trade networks started to expand to other parts of Mesopotamia, and as far as North Caucasus. According to archaeologist Konstantine Pitskhelauri, this expansion started even earlier, at the end of the 5th millennium BC, and continued in the 4th millennium.

Large masses of Uruk migrants settled in the South, and later in the North Caucasus. The sites in this general area include Habuba Kabira in Syria, and Arslantepe in Turkey. Uruk expansion to the northeast included sites like Godin Tepe in Iran. Tepe Gawra, in northwest Iraq, is another important site with deep stratigraphy that includes the Uruk period in later layers. Hamoukar is a large site in northeastern Syria that has been recently excavated; it includes Uruk and pre-Uruk layers.

Uruk enclaves have also been identified at Tell Brak and Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia, and on the Syrian Euphrates at Qrayya, and Jebel Aruda. On the Euphrates in Anatolia, Uruk enclaves were found at Hassek Hoyuk, Samsat, and Tepecik (Elazığ Province, near Keban Dam).

Sargon of Akkad is usually asserted to have been the first empire-builder in history, in that his rulership extended across many ethnicities, from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Four Corners of the World he claimed. But the Sargonid system lasted for but a century, and successor Mesopotamian hegemonies did not extend beyond the land of two rivers until the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire over 1,000 years later.

In contrast, the Uruk culture persisted for hundreds of years, far longer than successor polities in that area in the 3rd millennium. It was also more expansive than even than Sargon’s empire.

There has long been a debate about the nature of the Uruk expansion. What is ideology? Was it trade? Was it migration? Was it conquest?

Empire of power, empire of ideas

Since we do not have writing to tell us a narrative we can never know definitively, at least until ancient DNA clears up the demographic questions. In Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization the author points out that Communism spread across many societies without invasion (though in some cases there was external invasion; ask the Germans). Similarly, many religions have also spread without external invasion. Christianity’s spread to Armenia, Ethiopia, Georgia, and Ireland, occurred relatively gradually and synthesized without indigenous cultural forms due to broad-based diffusion as well as elite adoption so as to integrate into the Christian world system. But there is something very distinct about the Uruk expansion in contrast to the above examples: some of the cities seem to be replica copies of Uruk in toto.

If it was an ideological movement of emulation by local elites only there should have been at least some synthesis even these narrow regions of Uruk-outside-of-Sumeria. In fact there seem to have been small pieces of Uruk society scattered across the Fertile Crescent (and beyond!) during this period, embedded in wholly culturally alien territory. Additionally, there is some circumstantial evidence for fighting and conquest.

Now that we know there were massive migrations during the Neolithic and Bronze ages across the Near East and Europe, I think we should update our estimations of the alternative hypotheses. In light of radically decreasing genetic distance between the eastern and western portions of the Fertile Crescent since the rise of agriculture it seems implausible to think that the Uruk expansion might not have at least been partly mediated by the movement of people. People moved. So did ideas.

That being said, as observed in Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, the recession of the Uruk hegemony after ~3100 BCE was extreme in its totality and rapidity. Heretofore longstanding zones of Uruk civilization outside of southern Mesopotamia disappear immedlately. Peasant ways of life which had flourished in the local regions during earlier periods reappear as the city-states disappear. Not only does the way of life defined by the Uruk period retreat, but the sole overarching preeminence of Uruk in what became Sumeria disappears, to be replaced by a millennium of jostling between rival city-states, Uruk (Erech in the Bible), Ur, Kish, and Lagash.

Later analogs to the Uruk collapse

Does this remind you of something? The Late Bronze Age was characterized by a collapse of civilization as well, with a regress to old centers such as Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt. Smaller polities on the Levantine coast emerged in the wake of the decline of the earlier empires, while Greece and Anatolia went into “Dark Ages,” as the Mycenaean citadel society descended into barbarism and the Hittite domains totally collapsed.

The city-states of Classical Greece were fundamentally different from the Mycenaean citadel-culture that had preceded them centuries earlier. The Greek civilization of the Bronze Age had adopted many of the forms of the Minoan society based in Crete and extending around the Aegean. Aesthetically, and in terms of their writing system. Mycenaean civilization was fundamentally one of rough hewn barbarians grafted onto a beautiful well developed canopy of Minoan motifs. And the Minoans themselves were clearly influenced by the broader constellation of Near Eastern civilizations, from the Hittites to the kingdom of Cyprus and down to Egypt.

Classical Greece was very different, mostly doing away with the autocratic kingships of the Bronze Age, as well as adopting a different form of writing from the Phoenicians. Linear B was impenetrable to them. All the scribes had died without passing their knowledge.

Though Homer and the broader corpus of Greek mythology clearly preserves elements of the Bronze Age society (translation of Mycenaean Linear B tablets makes it clear that many of the Classical gods had roots in the the pantheon of the Bronze Age), the Classical Greeks had forgotten their Mycenaean past (before Linear B was translated it was assumed by most that it was not Greek, but rather a mainland extension of Minoan civilization). The cyclopean masonry typical of Mycenaean citadels were believed by Greeks of the later period to have been constructed by…cyclops.  This method had been forgotten in the several hundred year Greek Dark Age. The battles depicted in the Iliad are clearly those between petty Dark Age warlords, not the kings of old (though the prominence of Mycenaean cities such as Pylos and Mycenae were recalled).

The point here is that Mycenaean Greek civilization, which was created to a great extent by imitating a non-Greek prototype, collapsed, after which there was total regression to peasant barbarism. The Greek civilization that emerged later was much more distinctive, and less imitative, than the initial incarnation.

The Sumerian Dark Age and its aftermath

Unlike the case with the Mycenaeans, I believe that Uruk expansion to the west, north, and east, was mediated by migration and conquest from the source. Mycenaean civilization was modeled upon, and strongly inflected by, Minoan civilization, which was modeled upon Near Eastern polities. But they were never total replicas of each other. Though there were certainly mercantile connections and colonies of Near Easterners in the Aegean, it seems likely that these later cases of influence were genuine instances of cultural diffusion. We have writing to back-up our presuppositions.

In contrast, the nature of the Uruk expansion indicates transplantation in totality and exact replication of the original society. To me this reminds me of Roman colonies. Unlike cultural diffusion, the colonies of Latin speaking Roman citizens in regions of southern Gaul, Iberia, and North Africa, served as entry-points for Romanitas. But this Romanization could be reversed. This was certainly the case in southern Britain, which had a fully developed Latin Roman urban society, but collapsed back to barbarism with the retreat of the legions. Arguably it was also the case in the hinterlands of the Balkans, with modern Vlachs and Romanians being the descendants of the Latin peasants.

It is not difficult then to assume that if there was some exogenous shock to the Uruk system ~3100 BCE, the isolated colonies would quickly whither. Just as the urban centers of southern Britain were replaced by fortresses of semi-barbaric British elites, so the subjugated hinterland cultures, which had persisted, quickly filled the vacuum left by the collapse of the Uruk polity. Eventually, just as Classical Greece developed its own distinct indigenous civilization in the broader commonwealth of eastern Mediterranean polities, so Ugarit, Ebla, Mari, the city-states of Hatti, and Urartu, came into the light of history in the 3rd millennium organically.

Forgotten Antediluvian Sumeria

In Babylon the author suggests that the flood legend allows them to partition their own literate civilization, which developed after 2900 BCE, from the fallow two century period after the collapse of the Uruk ascendancy. Could the the Sumerians have forgotten the greatness of the 4th millennium in a few centuries? I believe that they might have.
The Uruk ascendancy of the 4th millennium, if it took political form, would have have exhibited none of the totality and dominion of a modern nation-state. Rather, like the Maurya Empire, and many antique polities, it would have been defined by numerous strongpoints extending out from a dense and well networked core. In the outer zones of control the dominion would have consisted primarily of close supervision of the interstices between territories occupied by indigenous tribal chiefdoms, who may have given nominal fealty to the local governor appointed from Uruk. A collapse would have consisted proximately of the destruction or abandonment of the strongpoints, and ultimately the forgetting of the period of alien hegemony by the local populations.

At that time core Sumeria was an oral society, and in the centuries after the Uruk expansion there were major changes to many aspects of its physical superstructure, and therefore one presumes the ideologies underpinning the control of the population by the elite. Without written records the quasi-imperial past might have become muddied very quickly if there was a transition of elites. The peasants would have had no great incentive to remember the Uruk hegemony, while the nouveau elites may have wanted to created their own legends, rather than be haunted by the earlier greatness.

The many civilizations before writing

My forebears?

The Uruk ascendancy should not be a surprising idea when we think about it in the context of world “history.” The civilization of the Indus valley was certainly a civilization, but its script remains undeciphered. Though they were likely symbolic in some manner, it is quite possible that they were not a fully fleshed representation of language in the way cuneiform was. Most of the examples of the script are exceedingly short.

But we know something about the Indus people in part because we know that they traded with Sumeria, and there were people from this culture who were resident in Sumerian towns. Clearly Sumer viewed these people as peers, albeit aliens.

Another example would be the Inca. Before the Spanish overthrew their empire, it stretched from Columbia to central Chile. Because we have Spanish records, and memories of the Inca nobility who were assimilated into the post-conquest order, we know that this was not simply an ideological expansion. It was a military one. And one of demographic transplantation and imposition. Though there still debates, it seems most likely that the Inca did not have true literacy.

The ultimate point is that ancient people were far more organized and cohesive across large territories than we likely give them credit for. Let me finish with this article from last year in Science, Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle:

About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.

And yet chemical tracers in the remains suggest that most of the Tollense warriors came from hundreds of kilometers away. The isotopes in your teeth reflect those in the food and water you ingest during childhood, which in turn mirror the surrounding geology—a marker of where you grew up…Just a few showed values typical of the northern European plain, which sprawls from Holland to Poland….

Further clues come from isotopes of another element, nitrogen, which reflect diet. Nitrogen isotopes in teeth from some of the men suggest they ate a diet heavy in millet, a crop more common at the time in southern than northern Europe.

Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”

As University of Aarhus’s Vandkilde puts it: “It’s an army like the one described in Homeric epics, made up of smaller war bands that gathered to sack Troy”—an event thought to have happened fewer than 100 years later, in 1184 B.C.E. That suggests an unexpectedly widespread social organization, Jantzen says. “To organize a battle like this over tremendous distances and gather all these people in one place was a tremendous accomplishment,” he says.

Standardized metal weaponry and the remains of the horses, which were found intermingled with the human bones at one spot, suggest that at least some of the combatants were well-equipped and well-trained. “They weren’t farmer-soldiers who went out every few years to brawl,” Terberger says. “These are professional fighters.”

Curiouser and curiouser….

Aryan marauders from the steppe came to India, yes they did!

Its seems every post on Indian genetics elicits dissents from loquacious commenters who are woolly on the details of the science, but convinced in their opinions (yes, they operate through uncertainty and obfuscation in their rhetoric, but you know where the axe is lodged). This post is an attempt to answer some questions so I don’t have to address this in the near future, as ancient DNA papers will finally start to come out soon, I hope (at least earlier than Winds of Winter).

In 2001’s The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity Wells et al. wrote:

The current distribution of the M17 haplotype is likely to represent traces of an ancient population migration originating in southern Russia/Ukraine, where M17 is found at high frequency (>50%). It is possible that the domestication of the horse in this region around 3,000 B.C. may have driven the migration (27). The distribution and age of M17 in Europe (17) and Central/Southern Asia is consistent with the inferred movements of these people, who left a clear pattern of archaeological remains known as the Kurgan culture, and are thought to have spoken an early Indo-European language (27, 28, 29). The decrease in frequency eastward across Siberia to the Altai-Sayan mountains (represented by the Tuvinian population) and Mongolia, and southward into India, overlaps exactly with the inferred migrations of the Indo-Iranians during the period 3,000 to 1,000 B.C. (27). It is worth noting that the Indo-European-speaking Sourashtrans, a population from Tamil Nadu in southern India, have a much higher frequency of M17 than their Dravidian-speaking neighbors, the Yadhavas and Kallars (39% vs. 13% and 4%, respectively), adding to the evidence that M17 is a diagnostic Indo-Iranian marker. The exceptionally high frequencies of this marker in the Kyrgyz, Tajik/Khojant, and Ishkashim populations are likely to be due to drift, as these populations are less diverse, and are characterized by relatively small numbers of individuals living in isolated mountain valleys.

In a 2002 interview with the India site Rediff, the first author was more explicit:

Some people say Aryans are the original inhabitants of India. What is your view on this theory?

The Aryans came from outside India. We actually have genetic evidence for that. Very clear genetic evidence from a marker that arose on the southern steppes of Russia and the Ukraine around 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. And it subsequently spread to the east and south through Central Asia reaching India. It is on the higher frequency in the Indo-European speakers, the people who claim they are descendants of the Aryans, the Hindi speakers, the Bengalis, the other groups. Then it is at a lower frequency in the Dravidians. But there is clear evidence that there was a heavy migration from the steppes down towards India.

But some people claim that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India. What do you have to say about this?

I don’t agree with them. The Aryans came later, after the Dravidians.

Over the past few years I’ve gotten to know the above first author Spencer Wells as a personal friend, and I think he would be OK with me relaying that to some extent he was under strong pressure to downplay these conclusions. Not only were, and are, these views not popular in India, but the idea of mass migration was in bad odor in much of the academy during this period. Additionally, there was later work which was less clear, and perhaps supported an Indian origin for R1a1a. Spencer himself told me that it was not impossible for R1a to have originated in India, but a branch eventually back-migrated to southern Asia.

But even researchers from the group at Stanford where he had done his postdoc did not support this model by the middle 2000s, Polarity and Temporality of High-Resolution Y-Chromosome Distributions in India Identify Both Indigenous and Exogenous Expansions and Reveal Minor Genetic Influence of Central Asian Pastoralists. In 2009 a paper out of an Indian group was even stronger in its conclusion for a South Asian origin of R1a1a, The Indian origin of paternal haplogroup R1a1* substantiates the autochthonous origin of Brahmins and the caste system.

By 2009 one might have admitted that perhaps Spencer was wrong. I was certainly open to that possibility. There was very persuasive evidence that the mtDNA lineages of South Asia had little to do with Europe or the Middle East.

Yet a closer look at the above papers reveals two major systematic problems.

First, ancient DNA has made it clear that there has been major population turnover during the Holocene, but this was not the null hypothesis in the 2000s. Looking at extant distributions of lineages can give one a distorted view of the past. Frankly, the 2009 Indian paper was egregious in this way because they included Turkic groups in their Central Asian data set. Even in 2009 there was a whole lot of evidence that Central Asian Turkic groups were likely very different from Indo-European Turanian populations which would have been the putative ancestors of Indo-Aryans. Honestly the authors either consciously loaded the die to reduce the evidence for gene flow from Central Asia, or they were ignorant (the nature of the samples is much clearer in the supplements than the  primary text for what it’s worth).

Second, Y chromosomal marker sets in the 2000s were constrained to fast mutating microsatellite regions or less than 100 variant SNPs on the Y. Because it is so repetitive the Y chromosome is hard to sequence, and it really took the technologies of the last ten years to get it done. Both the above papers estimate the coalescence of extant R1a1a lineages to be 10-15,000 years before the present. In particular, they suggest that European and South Asian lineages date back to this period, pushing back any possible connection between the groups, and making it possible that European R1a1a descended from a South Asian founder group which was expanding after the retreat of the ice sheets. The conclusions were not unreasonable based on the methods they had.  But now we have better methods.*

Whole genome sequencing of the Y, as well as ancient DNA, seems to falsify the above dates. Though microsatellites are good for very coarse grain phyolgenetic inferences, one has to be very careful about them when looking at more fine grain population relationships (they are still useful in forensics to cheaply differentiate between individuals, since they accumulate variation very quickly). They mutate fast, and their clock may be erratic.

Additionally, diversity estimates were based on a subset of SNP that were clearly not robust. R1a1a is not diverse anywhere, though basal lineages seem to be present in ancient DNA on the Pontic steppe in some cases.

To show how lacking in diversity R1a1a is, here are the results of a 2016 paper which performed whole genome sequencing on the Y. Instead of relying on the order of 10 to 100 SNPs, this paper discover over 65,000 Y variants worldwide. Notice how little difference there is between different South Asian groups below, indicative of a massive population expansion relatively recently in time which didn’t even have time to exhibit regional population variation. They note that “The most striking are expansions within R1a-Z93 [the South Asian clade], ~4.0–4.5 kya. This time predates by a few centuries the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization, associated by some with the historical migration of Indo-European speakers from the western steppes into the Indian sub-continent.

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10 Things About Ancient History You Should Really Know

For this “10 things” I am going to constraint the historical period to the period before 1000 BCE. Basically all that came before Greece and Rome (from a Western perspective).

1) The Bronze Age Near East had its own equivalent of a Westphalian system. See The Brotherhood of Kings.

2) Even in the 3rd Millennium BCE the world was quite international. There are references in Sumerian tablets to expatriate communities of merchants from Meluhha. Meluhha almost certainly referring to what we call the Indus Valley civilization.

3) The relationship between Sumerians and Akkadians prefigures the relationship between the Greeks and Romans. Mesopotamia had long had Semitic speaking groups like Akkadians, as evidenced by their prominence in lists of rulers to an early date, but in the most antique period Sumerians were dominant. Over time though Sumerians disappeared as a distinct ethnicity, and the language was preserved as one of liturgy for thousands of years after their extinction.

4) The longstanding antagonists of Sumer, the nation of Elam in southwest Iran, persisted for 1,500 years after the Sumerians left the scene. They were finally absorbed by the Medes and Persians in the 6th century BCE.

5) Because cuneiform tablets can be baked and preserved our documentary evidence from some earlier periods in Near Eastern history is much better than more epochs, simply due to preservational differences.

6) The Hittite polity, which lasted for nearly 1,000 years as the dominant rival of many other Near Eastern powers, was analogous in some ways to the Hungarian kingdom, with a very distinct ruling class. The Hittites called themselves the Nesa, and ruled over various non-Indo-European popualtions, in particular the Hatti.

7) Sumeria likely had a larger population than the same area after the Mongol sack of Baghdad (there may also be an issue with salinization of lower Mesopotamia over time).

8) The Biblical Philistines may in part have been Bronze Age Greeks (bonus: the political units of Bronze Age Greece may have been larger than during the Classical period because bronze forging requires more mobilization of resources than iron).

9) Pleistocene “megafauna” survived into the Bronze Age.

10) Indo-Europeans of an Indo-Aryan variant called the Mittani were the ruling class in much of the territory ruled by ISIS for the past few years. They even worshipped Indo-Aryan gods.

Addendum: I invite readers to give me better suggestions. I’m not an ancient historian, just an enthusiast!

The revenge of the cavemen

In 2012 I wrote Post-Neolithic revenge of the foragers. There were two proximate rationales for my thoughts at the time. First, I thought Peter Bellwood’s thesis of agricultural based demographic expansions in First Farmers was being vindicated in the broadest sketch, but there were many countervailing details. Second, there were already suggestions that genetic data was not indicative of a final victory of farmers by pastoralists.

There were several immediate issues that came to mind in the non-genetic domain. Bellwood argued that agriculture shape the distribution of modern language families, but the spread of Turkic and Finnic peoples seem likely to have been post-agricultural, and not based on farming. Both these groups were arguably nomadic, one pastoralist, and the other engaging in mixed use lifestyles which were reminiscent of classic hunting and gathering. And, there has been anthropological evidence that though pure hunter-gatherers, such as indigenous Australians, do not take to cultivation easily, they quickly transition to pastoralism. In other words, the skills and mores which are common among hunter-gatherers can translate rapidly once domesticate based nomadism spreads.

The Turks, or the Saami with their reindeer, are evidence of this transition, and its success. It seems plausible that the same was the case with Indo-Europeans, and that is what I thought at the time.

Now we have more data from ancient DNA. It does seem there was a “resurgence” of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer ancestry as time passed, with Neolithic farmers exhibiting a more indigenous genetic profile in Europe. Additionally, the arrival of Indo-European steppe ancestry brought another dollop of “hunter-gatherer” ancestry from beyond the fringes of Europe proper.

So what story can we tell of the transition between the Late Neolithic (LN) and the Early Bronze Age (ENA) in Europe? First, the proto-Indo-Europeans were people from the fringes and boundaries. Their genetics indicate some sort of influence from the Near East, likely via the Maykop people. But their roots were also deep in eastern Europe, from the local hunter-gatherers who had affinities with Siberians to their east and European hunter-gatherers to their west. From from this synthesis emerged something special, a warlike group of mobile pastoralists who quickly swept the field.

This reminds me of something from Peter Turchin’s book, War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. Populations on the borders or frontiers of ethno-cultural (and possibly political) zones may exhibit more group cohesion than those from “core” areas. The Indo-Europeans were a border folk. They may also take to cultural innovations more quickly, in The Making of a Christian Aristocracy it is clear that switching to the new religion occurred faster among elites in outlying regions than in the core.

A second issue, which is not proven, but may be possible, is that once the Indo-Europeans moved into the North European plain, they allied with residual hunter-gatherer populations. A classic enemy-is-my-enemy proposition. This would likely result in a higher proportions of Pleistocene ancestry in later generations due to assimilation.

The moral of the story is that often there is no final victory in the war. Human history is full of reversals.

The reality of cultural hitchhiking

The figure to the left is from a paper, The mountains of giants: an anthropometric survey of male youths in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which attempts to explain why the people from the uplands of the western Balkans are so tall. Anyone who has watched high level basketball, or perused old physical anthropology textbooks, knows that average heights in the Dinaric Alps are quite high in comparison to the rest of Europe, matched only in the region around Scandinavia. The Dutch of late have been the world champions in height, and explanations such as recent selection and their high consumption of dairy products have been given. In this paper the authors point out that the people who live in the Dinaric uplands are not a population which consumes a inordinately high protein diet, at least in relation to their neighbors.

Rather, they suggest that the height of the people who reside in the Dinarics is due to a genetic factor. There is now good genomic evidence that selection accounts for at least some of the difference in height between Northern and Southern Europeans. That is, seems that there have been divergent pressures in these two locales, their genetic differences due to historical demography aside.

The exception to this north-south gradient is obviously in the Dinarics. Another way in which the Dinarics are exception is that it has the highest frequency of Y chromosomal haplgroup I. The other mode of haplogroup I is in Scandinavia. I1 is common among people who live in Sweden, while I2 among the peoples of the western Balkans. I has an interesting history because the vast majority of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer males in Europe belong to this haplogroup. It is very rare outside of Europe. This is in contrast to the other major European haplogroups, which are found outside of Europe at appreciable frequencies.

It is likely that I is indicative of a lineage with roots in Europe which go back to the late Pleistocene period after Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago. As the world warmed ~10,000 years ago small populations of hunter-gatherers rapidly expanded from their refuges and either most of the males were I, or in the drift process on the edge of the wave of advance I became very common. It is plausible that in terms of alleles which account for variation in height these hunter-gatherers were enriched for those conferring larger size. Cold weather populations tend to be larger. Additionally, they probably consumed a relatively diversified but high protein diet, allowing for greater median size than among farmers at the Malthusian carrying capacity.

But, there has been a lot of selection over the past 10,000 years, and I am skeptical that this correlation between I and height in Europe is anything but a coincidence. Rather, the phylogeny which I exhibits brings me to another issue which I think is not often highlighted: I1 in particular may have “hitchhiked” with the exogenous lineages such as R1b and R1a in early Indo-European society.

That is, in the patrilineal descent groups expanding across the landscape and monopolizing access to resources and mates, the non-invasive I somehow integrated themselves into the broader cultural complex, and partook in the plenty. Like R1b and R1a it exhibits a rake-like topology which suggests rapid recent expansion.

This would not be exceptional. The modern Russian state’s origins are in the polities created by Keivan Rus, who were famously Scandinavian. Rurik was by origin a Swede, and his dynasty eventually came to encompass most of the eastern Slavic peoples, and rule over the Russian people and state until the 17th century. Because there were so any descendants of this dynasty it was possible to adduce its Y chromosomal haplogroup, N1c1. The kicker is that this is clearly a Finnic lineage, with the most recent evidence being that it is a remnant of a recent migration out of Siberia to the west. The implication here is that the direct male lineage of Rurik were assimilated into the Scandinavian culture and power structure, and were possibly chieftains of Finnic tribes somewhere along the Baltic littoral.

Another example is the House of Wessex. Alfred the Great is arguably the first true king of England. Here are the names of some of the earlier monarchs of the House of Wessex, Ceawlin, Cynric, and Cynegils. Even someone without a background in historical linguistics may be curious about whether these are Anglo-Saxons, and there is a line of thinking that perhaps the forebears of Alfred were British warlords, who “went Saxon,” in a fashion analogous to Gallo-Roman aristocrats who assimilated to Frankish-Germanic norms and forms in the 6th and 7th centuries in the Merovingian domains.

Overall what you see in the genetic data are many things, but rarely a straightforward story. Just as genes can impact culture (e.g., lactase persistence), so culture impacts the distribution of genes. Just as human polities are coalitions, so genetic lineages themselves in their distribution and evolutionary history exhibit fingerprints of these past socio-political events and ideas.

Living as Loki, friendship before Ragnarok

In Norse mythology Loki is a trickster frost giant who also plays a god. His relationship to the Aesir is complicated, but at the end of days when the world is nearing its final hours he is fated to stand against his erstwhile companions. I do not know much about the Marvel comics adaptation of Loki, though I have seen the films, and this element of alternating between good and evil is evident onscreen.

Does the fact that Loki is destined to stand against Odin negate all their experiences together? Is the full measure of a life the final act? I don’t think so.

Today we live in an age when he center is not holding. Politics and public life are polarizing. Apocalyptic language is in the air. Barack Obama was a socialist, a Communist, a Muslim. Now Donald J. Trump is the worst, thing, ever. And so on. There are two teams, and if you do not choose a team, you have lost the game before it is played. My pessimism about the possibility for a reinvigoration of a broadly liberal democratic order are for another post.

Recently my friend Heather Mac Donald wrote about her experience with protesters at Claremont McKenna. Her description of the student body’s hysterics are almost anodyne in how predictable they behaved. Rather, I was struck by how much invective Heather directed toward the silent faculty:

…Those professors also maintain that to challenge that claim of ubiquitous bigotry is to engage in “hate speech,” and that such speech is tantamount to a physical assault on minorities and females. As such, it can rightly be suppressed and punished. To those faculty, I am indeed a fascist, and a white supremacist, with the attendant loss of communication rights.

Of course not all faculty have abandoned classical liberal ideals. Nicholas Christakis and Alice Dreger are by any definition progressive liberals, but also adhere stridently to ideals of freedom of thought and speech. But both have been subject to abuse and personal attacks. They clearly fight on not because they are assured of victory, but because they believe in the justness of their cause.

Many of my liberal friends express some exasperation that I identify as conservative. But the fact of the matter is that the far Left writes off much of this country, and many of my friends, and arguably me, as a white supremacist and a fascist. Ours are not thoughts worth having in the eyes of the heirs of repressive tolerance. My liberal friends, being broad minded an of a tolerant bent, do not have sympathy with repression of thought. But at the end of the days when sides are taken what side will they choose?

I think here of an academic who is jaded and contemptuous of the infantile antics of the campus Left. He is worried that their provocations will result in the academy being targeted by the political Right. He does not relish conflict. Like me, he wants to be left alone to explore the topics which interest him. We share a mutual interest in evolutionary genetics. But, when and if the fight comes he does admit he must march with his colleagues, no matter how loony, and defend his side.

We both wish the world were not this polarized. But what we wish is not always what is. But until Ragnarok we can continue to drink beer and fight our battles shoulder to shoulder as friends. Neither of us want the Ragnarok of this liberal democratic republic to come, and I still hope it doesn’t. But we both understand that on that day we’ll be on different sides. And I’m OK with that. Life is not perfect, we do the best we can.

Addendum: Cool trailer:

Colonizing the past

In 1793 the Macartney Mission went to China to open up the country for the British. The overall evaluation is that it failed. The Chinese under the Qing dynasty were in the last throes of the Indian summer of a great demographic expansion dating back three hundred years, capped off by an era of peace which had lasted more than 100 years. The Qianlong Emperor was in the 57th year of his reign. And he firmly rejected all British entreaties. China was the Middle Kingdom. It did not have European wares. It did not need European wares. It could easily dismiss European concerns and sensitivities.

Or so Qianlong and his court believed. Within 50 years the British would defeat the Chinese on their home turf, and impose a humiliating peace upon them. Over the next few decades European powers would begin to dissect the rotting carcass of late Qing China, which was also being eaten alive from the inside by convulsions such as the Taiping rebellion.

Though it was difficult for people at the time to perceive, and in particular the Chinese, the signs were already present in 1793 that the British star would ascend, while that of the Chinese would dim in comparison. The Chinese economic system was at its Malthusian carrying capacity, and had squeezed all it could out of the margins of Adam Smith’s classical factors of production, land, labor, and capital. In contrast, the British were in the midst of a revolution in economic production driven by innovation would would explode the underlying parameter of growth, all the while restructuring their social conditions so as to undergo demographic transition.

The British were inventing the modern economy. The Chinese were nursing along the classical agricultural stationary state as best as they could.

Aspects of this were already evident to the British implicitly. McCartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese Emperor, maintaining dignity, whereas previous factors would likely have abased themselves. The period around 1800 in India also saw the shift away from the traditional accommodationism of the East India Company with native cultural forms and practices, toward exporting elite British folkways in toto to overseas administrative posts.

In general people living in an age of transition don’t perceive the transition themselves, and continue to fixate on earlier assumptions and truths. The period between the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the outbreak of World War I saw the high tide of European colonialism and hegemony, but the seeds of its relative decline were already there. The United States of America became the largest economy early in the 20th century. British, French, and German intellectuals may have had their disputes and contributions in those first decades, but the future was already going to be across the Atlantic.

Today I feel that many Americans are living in the past, and not admitting and acknowledging that the present is pointing to the future. The world is becoming genuinely multipolar. There is more than one sun in the sky. Though there are nearly 1 billion people speaking English on the internet (often second language speakers), there are 750 million Chinese speakers. As the year 2020 approaches we’re living in a genuinely multipolar and multicultural world, but a lot of the discussion I see on my part of the internet is about white colonialist males. As if those are the only bright white suns in the sky. Men like McCartney. But the fixation of cultural elites is often a reflection of the last war, and past priorities, just as science fiction futures reflect the present. Change is in the air, even if we don’t realize it….

Sex bias in migration from the steppe (revisited)

Last fall I blogged a preprint which eventually came out as a paper in PNAS, Ancient X chromosomes reveal contrasting sex bias in Neolithic and Bronze Age Eurasian migrations. The upshot is that the authors found that there was far less steppe ancestry on the X chromosomes of Bronze Age Central Europeans than across the whole genome. The natural inference here is that you had migrations of males into territory where they had to find local wives.

But the story does not end there. Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich have put out a short not on biorxiv, Failure to Replicate a Genetic Signal for Sex Bias in the Steppe Migration into Central Europe. It’s short, so I suggest you read the note yourself, but the major issue seems to be that on X chromosomes ADMIXTURE in supervised mode seems to behave really strangely. Lazaridis and Reich find that there seems to be a downward bias of steppe ancestry. Ergo, the finding was an artifact.

Goldberg et al. almost immediately responded, Reply To Lazaridis And Reich: Robust Model-Based Inference Of Male-Biased Admixture During Bronze Age Migration From The Pontic-Caspian Steppe. Their response seems to be that yes, ADMIXTURE does behave strangely, but the overall finding is still robust.

With these uncertainties I do wonder if it’s hard at this point to evaluate the alternative models. But, we do have archaeology and mtDNA. What do those say? On that basis, from what little I know, I am inclined to suspect a strong male bias of migration.

Citation: Reply To Lazaridis And Reich: Robust Model-Based Inference Of Male-Biased Admixture During Bronze Age Migration From The Pontic-Caspian Steppe, Amy Goldberg, Torsten Gunther, Noah A Rosenberg, Mattias Jakobsson
bioRxiv 122218; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/122218

Citation: Failure to Replicate a Genetic Signal for Sex Bias in the Steppe Migration into Central Europe, Iosif Lazaridis, David Reich, bioRxiv 114124; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/114124

How a Eurasian “band of brothers” shaped the world


When I was eight years old I saw a map which genuinely confused me. I had opened up deluxe dictionary at my elementary school and saw a map of the world’s language families, and noticed that there were a group of dialects which spanned the Bay of Bengal to the North Sea. In fact, according to this map the language I had first learned to speak, Bengali, was in the same language family as English.

This was hard to wrap my mind around, but there it was in front of me. Further research at the public library confirmed this fact. And, upon further reflection it was obvious to me there were similarities…I had been learning French at school, and English, Bengali, and French, all exhibited similarities in the first ten numbers. English and French I understood in terms of a natural relationship, but Bengali?

My personal and professional interests have never been in domains where I would explore the topic first hand, but the origins of Indo-European languages have always been a hobby. I read books such as The Horse, the Wheel, and Language and In Search of the Indo-Europeans when I could. When taking in excellent works such as Empires of the Silk Road the Indo-European thread was always something I kept in mind.

But the above works take a more old-fashioned Eurasian heartland “marauders from the steppe” viewpoint. Starting about 15 years ago I began to look into a different framework: Indo-Europeans as farmers. For me begins with the 2002 paper, Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family, which finds that “the inferred timing and root location of the Indo-European language trees fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8000 to 9500 years ago” (this is the last paper I can remember reading in paper format). The model is elaborated by Peter Bellwood in works such as First Farmers, though he applies it to most language families.

But its origins go back decades, with the archaeologist Colin Renfrew. Rather than dramatic explosions from the steppe, Renfrew and colleagues suggest that the demographic expansion enabled by agriculture as a mode of production allowed for groups like Indo-Europeans to rapidly swamp their neighbors and enter into a process known as a wave of advance. There wasn’t a organized movement. Rather, farming enables the growth of population to such an extent that it was almost an undirected thermodynamic law that the original farmers would radiate outward, away from zones at the Malthusian carrying capacity and out toward virgin land.

It was a parsimonious theory, and phylogenetic techniques seem to have supported it. But then came ancient DNA to overturn the apple-cart. I won’t reshash what you probably already know, but will point to the two most relevant papers, Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe and Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Basically there was massive population turnover during the early Bronze Age. The genetic data aligned well with predictions you’d make from the old “marauders from the steppe” model, not the demic diffusion of farmers who were subject to high endogenous population growth over time.

Of course the Anatolian model proponents have an answer. There is a thesis whereby the steppe pastoralists derive from Anatolians, and so the European population turnover was of one Indo-European group by another. This is possible, but to my knowledge this model was never foregrounded by Anatolianists before. Rather, it strikes me as a way to “save” their framework.

So far much of the battle has been between archaeologists, who tend to favor gradualism, and often even  cultural diffusion as opposed to migration, and historical linguists and arriviste geneticists, who tend toward a more classical migration-from-the-steppe perspective.

A new paper in Antiquity takes the sledgehammer to the Anatolian hypothesis with an archaeology first tack. Re-theorising mobility and the formation of culture and language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe. They don’t pull punches:

…the Anatolian hypothesis must be considered largely falsified. Those Indo-European languages that later came to dominate in western Eurasia were those originating in the migrations from the Russian steppe during the third millennium BC.

Why would they say this? There is a major paper coming out:

These local processes of social integration between intruding Yamnaya/Corded Ware populations and remnant Neolithic populations can be applied to language dispersal. We should expect that the transformation from Proto-Indo-European to Pre-Proto Germanic would reveal the same kind of hybridisation between an earlier Neolithic language of the Funnel Beaker Culture, and the incoming Proto-Indo-European language. This is precisely what recent linguistic research has been able to demonstrate (Kroonen & Iversen in press). In their study on the formation of Proto-Germanic in Northern Europe, Kroonen and Iversen document a bundle of linguistic terms of non-Indo-European origin linked to agriculture that were adopted by Indo-European-speaking groups who were not fully fledged farmers.

They also contend that the Neolithic language was roughly the same throughout the zone of Indo-European expansion. From what those who would know about these sorts of things have told me this is plausible, because the Neolithic farmers spread so rapidly from a small founder culture, and exhibited broad Europe-wide similarities for a thousand years. Curiously, the chart shows that Germanic languages may have been influenced by a hunter-gatherer language, which the others were not. I suspect this may have to do with the relatively late persistence of hunter-gatherers in some maritime environments facing the Baltic and North Sea.

The paper, which is open access, needs to be read in full. Here are some important points:

  • Burial type seems to be a more robust form of indicator of dominant cultural identity
  • Corded Ware males practiced exogamy
  • Corded Ware males traveled long distances
  • Corded Ware culture was initially exclusively pastoralist
  • There is a great deal of circumstantial, and some genetic, evidence that Corded Ware communities were characterized by having women who were clearly from the Neolithic farming population
  • There was intergroup violence as a function of culture
  • The Corded Ware and Neolithic populations persisted near each other geographically, though the Neolithic groups seem to have retreated to uplands
  • The Corded War engaged in a wholesale pattern of landscape sculpting, burning down forests to produce pasture

Neolithic Y lineages, such as G2, are far rarer in Northern Europea today that R1a and R1b (in contrast, the hunter-gatherer I seems to have gone through an expansion just like R1a and R1b). We already have a model for what went on here, the Iberian settlement of the New World. Among mestizo populations there are huge skews of mtDNA and Y, with the former almost all Amerindian (with some African) and the latter almost all European (with some African).

The Corded War are the ancestors of the German peoples who we see emerge into the light of history during antiquity. What these data are telling is that the Germans are the product of a massive period of biological and cultural amalgamation and synthesis between indigenous groups and intrusive populations from the steppe. The archaeological data indicate that the intrusion was male mediated. The “battle axe” culture probably lived up to its name. And they weren’t likely exceptional….