Guest Right Is Holocene

With the surfeit of genomic data, whether contemporary or ancient, there is a lot of mileage to be gained by description and inference. That is, looking at the data, generating a result, and drawing some conclusion from that result. But another way to skin the cat is construct an explicit model and then test the data. There are details, and then there are generalities.

I’ll offer up a proposition here then: the transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and pastoralism has increased the rate of gene flow between neighbor populations. Several years ago Science published ancient DNA results which showed that there was little gene flow between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers in Germany. Those trained in population genetics will know that only a small rate of gene flow can quickly homogenize difference between neighboring groups. Large genetic distances between neighboring populations requires strong taboos in relation to intermarriage.

It also happens that this summer I saw a poster presented by Anders Bergstrom at SMBE where he reported very high genetic distance values in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Ethnographically we’re well aware that New Guinea is characterized by high degrees of linguistic diversity as well as xenophobia an war between neighboring groups. But a deeper dive into the genetic patterns suggest common descent in New Guinean from a random mating population on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, and more recent barriers to contact. New Guinea’s agriculture, which is gardening horticulture, is somewhat different from cereal cultivation. So there may be some differences there which we need to explore.

But something happened in the Holocene. In Game of Thrones “guest right” is sacred. That may seem like a silly observation, but the same principle is the clear in the Bible. The visitation of the angels to Sodom saw an attempt by the natives of the city attempt to violate the hospitality offered by the family of Lot, to the point where Lot offered his own daughters to the men who aimed to rape the angels.

The most recent genetic work suggest that the past 5,000 years or so have seen massing mixing across the world, and reduction of inter-group genetic distances. This is clearly the consequence of rapid increased rates of gene flow. You can take a cultural evolutionary viewpoint for the reason behind this, as Ara Norenzayan does in Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Or you can take a more traditional materialistic route which puts the causal agent in the hands of mechanistic processes having to due with increased density and economic complexity. But whatever the reason, we know a transition occurred.

Heraclius was a great man, but a dirty old man

The Emperor Heraclius is someone who more people should know. He saved the Byzantine Empire before it truly became the Byzantine Empire in a mature form. When he took power the Persians were on the march, and ruled vast swaths of the Asian and African possessions of the East Roman Empire. Theodore of Tarsus, one of the early Archbishops of Canterbury, grew up under Persian rule. Like Hannibal’s early victories Heraclius’ defeat of the Persians is a tour de force of strategic brilliance. I’ll leave it to the reader to find out why themselves (I recommend A History of the Byzantine State and Society to any reader).

But this post is inspired by pop-culture. People are talking about nephew-aunt relations right now. As it happens Heraclius’ second wife was his niece, Martina. Here is something I found on Wikipedia: “He had two children with Fabia and at least nine with Martina, most of whom were sickly children…Fabius (Flavius) had a paralyzed neck and Theodosios, who was a deaf-mute….” The history of this period can be patchy and unreliable. So I’m not sure there were nine children and most were sickly…but probably inbreeding was causing some serious issues.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a monthly deal

Just a heads up to readers, Amazon Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is $1.99 right now. I’d highly recommend you get this book if you are interested in this general topic.

Here is my review from about seven years ago.

Rome fell fast, and so did we

The fall of Rome has obviously been a topic of much interest and discussion. It is, after all, a conversation about the fall of civilization as we knew it.

If you read my blog you are probably aware that I lean toward a thesis of genuine and rapid fall. One of the most revelatory books I’ve read in the past 20 years is Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Ward-Perkins’ tale is an apocalyptic one. The material basis of Roman civilization the West collapsed. Perhaps the most relevant and evocative fact for me is that pollution due to manufacturing production in England did not match that of the Roman period until the industrial revolution. Though the Roman economy never achieved the industrial revolution’s gains in productivity, it did attain a level of Smithian efficiency and interdependence on the margins of the factors of production.

From a totally different perspective Peter Heather in The Fall of the Roman Empire broadly agrees with Ward-Perkins’ contention. The Roman Empire fell, and it fell fast, and the imperial elites didn’t see it coming. Remember, the Roman Empire was dismembered and disordered during the “crisis of the third century”. Under Diocletian and his successors in the 4th century it came back to health and strength before the distress of the 5th century in the West. But at the time contemporaries did not view the shocks and exigencies of these decades as any more distressing then the events of the 3rd century, and the Eastern Empire around Constantinople was reasonably robust.

Ultimately though 476 was a coup de grace to the Western Empire. The Gothic wars tore apart the fabric of the Italian peninsula in the 6th century, and the substantive reality of the old empire faded away. There was no going back. Of course I’m well aware of the argument that the Roman world evolved, that it did not collapse. And Late Antiquity and its continuities with the Classical world, and how it bridged itself to the Medieval world, are fascinating. But I do not accept that the preservation of Roman motifs and ideals in the courts of barbarian German warlords is evidence that substantively nothing changed.

Much of it depends on how you weight material vs. ideological parameters. The idea of Rome cast a shadow centuries beyond its substantive material integrity. After, the Byzantines called themselves Romans until the conquest of their city-stateless in 1453. But no matter the name, they were not Romans as the Romans were in 400 A.D.

The theoretical context of all this is that it strikes me cultures can go through rapid nonlinear shocks which induce very quick and unexpected changes. In the human past this would often entail collapses and regressions. The “Dark Age” after the chaos of the late Bronze Age is a case in point. In one generation the citadel society of Mycenanean Greece disappeared across much its extant range. The gap between 1966 and 1969 in much of the West was arguably greater than between 1956 and 1966.

The United States today is the most powerful nation in the world. And our cultural centrality and ascendency is such that we don’t challenge our implicit position as the premier power in the world. But I believe that we’ve become a inward looking involuted culture. There’s no point in litigating this, and obviously I may be wrong. But too often we confuse our own petty internecine squabbles with the concerns of the world. The world is passing us by….

Indian genetic history: before the storm

Over at Brown Pundits I’ve mentioned the continuing simmer of controversy over a recent piece, How genetics is settling the Aryan migration debate. This has prompted responses in the Indian media from a Hindu nationalist perspective. One of these notes that the author of the piece above cites me, and then goes on to observe I was fired from The New York Times a few years ago due to accusations of racism (also, there is the implication that I’m just a blogger and we should trust researchers with credibility like Gyaneshwer Chaubey; well, perhaps he should know that Gyaneshwer Chaubey considers me “unbiased” according to an email exchange which I had with him last week [we all have biases, so I think he’s wrong in a literal sense]).

I was a little surprised that a right-wing magazine would lend legitimacy to the slanders of social justice warriors, but this is the world we live in. Those who believe that everything written about me in the media, I invite you to submit your name and background to me. I have contacts in the media and can get things written if I so choose. Watch me write something which is mostly fact, but can easily be misinterpreted by those who Google you, and watch how much you value the objective “truth-telling” power of the press all of a sudden.

There’s a reason so many of us detest vast swaths of the media, though to be fair we the public give people who don’t make much money a great deal of power to engage in propaganda. Should we be surprised they sensationalize and misrepresent with no guilt or shame? I have seen most of those who snipe at me in the comments disappear once I tell them that I know what their real identity is. Most humans are cowards. I have put some evidence into the public record to suggest that I’m not.

Perhaps more strange for me is that the above piece was passed around favorably by Sanjeev Sanyal, who I was on friendly terms with (we had dinner & drinks in Brooklyn a few years back). I asked him about the slander in the piece and he unfollowed me on Twitter (a friend of Hindu nationalist bent asked Sanjeev on Facebook about the articles’ attack on me, but the comment was deleted). It shows how strongly people feel about these issues.

I’m in a weird position because I’m brown and have a deep interest in Indian history. But that interest in Indian history isn’t because I’m brown, I’m pretty interested in all the major zones of the Old World Oikoumene. Aside from some jocular R1a1a chauvinism I don’t have much investment personally (I just told said Hindu nationalist friend who turns out to be R2 to clean my latrine; joking of course, though I’m sure he resents that I’m descended on the direct paternal line from the All-Father & Lord of the Steppes and he is not!).

In the aughts I accepted the model outlined in 2006’s The Genetic Heritage of the Earliest Settlers Persists Both in Indian Tribal and Caste Populations. But to be frank it always struck me as a little confusing because the tentative autosomal data we had suggested that many South Asians were closer to West Eurasians than deep divergences dating to the Last Glacial Maximum would suggest. Since I’ve written something like 5 million words in 15 years, I actually can check if I’m remembering correctly. So here’s a post from 2008 where I express reservations of the idea of long term deep heritage of Indians separate from other West Eurasians. The reason I was so impressed by 2009’s Reconstructing Indian Population History is that it resolved the paradox of South Asian genetic relatedness.

To recap, Reich et al. proposed that modern Indians (South Asians) could be modeled as a two way mixture between two distinct populations with separate evolutionary genetic histories, Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI). How distinct? ANI were basically another West Eurasian population, while ASI was likely nested in the clade with Eastern Non-Africans. Additionally, there was a NW-to-SE and caste admixture cline. In other words, the higher you were on the caste ladder the more ANI you had, and the closer your ancestors were from the north and west, and more ANI you had. The difference between Y and mtDNA, male and female, could be explained by sex-biased migration.

But there were still aspects of the paper which I had reservations about. After all, it was a model.

  • Models are imperfect fits onto reality. The idea of mass migration seemed ridiculous to me at the time, because even by the time of the Classical Greeks it was noted that India was reputedly the most populous land in the world (to their knowledge). But ancient DNA has convinced me of the reality of mass migrations.
  • I wasn’t sure about the nature of the closest modern populations to the ANI. The researchers themselves (in particular, Nick Patterson) told me that the relatedness of ANI to Europeans was very close (on the order of intra-European differences). But modern Indians do not look to be descended from a population that is half Northern European physically. Again, ancient DNA has shown that there was lots of population turnover, and it turns out that Europeans and ANI were likely both compounds and mixed daughter populations of common ancestors (also, typical European physical appearance seems to have emerged in situ over the past 5,000 years).
  • The two way admixture modeled seemed too simple. I had run some data and it struck me that North Indian populations like Jats had something different than South Indian groups like Pulayars. In 2013 Priya Moorjani’s paper pretty much confirmed that it was more than a two way admixture along the ANI-ASI cline.

This March BMC Evolution Biology published Silva et al’s A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals. It has made a huge splash in India, arguably triggering the write up in The Hindu. But for me it was a bit ho-hum. If you read my 2008 post it is pretty clear that I suspected the most general of the findings in this paper at least 10 years back. It is nice to get confirmation of what you suspect, but I’m more interested to be surprised by something novel.

Nevertheless A genetic chronology for the Indian Subcontinent points to heavily sex-biased dispersals has come in for lots of repeated attack in the right-wing Indian press. This is unfair, because it is a rather good paper. I suspect that it wasn’t published in a higher ranked journal because most scientists don’t consider the history of India to be that important, and they didn’t really apply new methods, as opposed to bringing a bunch of data and methods together (in contrast, the 2009 Reich et al. paper was one of the first publications which showed how to utilize “ghost populations” in explicit phylogenetic models with relevance to human demographic history).

As it happens I will be writing up my thoughts in detail in an article for a major Indian publication (similar circulation numbers as The Hindu). This has been in talks for over six months, but I’ve been busy. But a month or so ago I thought it was time that I put something into print for the Indian audience, because I felt there was some misrepresentation going on (i.e., the Aryan invasion theory has not been been refuted by genetics, but this is what many Indians assert).

For any years people have told me there are certain topics that shouldn’t be talked about. I have offended people greatly. There are many things people do not want to know. I have come to the conclusion this is not an entirely indefensible viewpoint (though if you accept this viewpoint, I think acceptance of authoritarianism is inevitable, so I hope people will toe the line when the new order arrives; knowing their personalities I think they will conform fine). But my nature is such that I continue to have nothing but contempt for the duplicitous and craven manner in which people go about these sorts of private conversations. I assume that as someone with the name “Razib Khan” I will be attacked vociferously by Hindu nationalists, who will no doubt make recourse to the Left-wing hit pieces against me to undermine my credibility. The fact that these groups are fellow travelers should tell us something, though I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.

I will write my piece that reflects the science as I believe it is, without much consideration of the attacks. That is rather easy for me to do in part because I live in the United States, where denigrating the deeply held views and self-esteem of Hindu nationalists is not sensitive or politically protected (unlike say, Muslims). And Hindu nationalists are less likely to kill me by orders of magnitude than Muslim radicals, and they have far less purchase in this nation then the latter (though you may be interested to know that very conservative Muslims follow me on Twitter; they’re actually more open-minded than many SJWs to be entirely honest).

Let me go over some general points that I see coming up over and over on the relationship between Indian (pre)history and genetics in the critiques .

One of the major critiques has to do with the nature of R1a-Z93 and its subclades. Basically this Y chromosomal haplogroup, the greatest that has ever been known, exhibits a strong signature of very rapid expansion over the past 4,000 years or so. It is divided from Z282. While Z93 is found in South Asia, Central Asia, and Siberia, Z282 is European, with its dominant subclade the one associated with Eastern Europeans. Both of these clades of R1a have gone through massive expansion. In the Altai region R1a is 40% of the heritage of peoples who are now predominantly East Eurasian today. But they are Z93. Additionally, ancient DNA from the Pontic Steppe dated ~4,000 years ago from Srubna remains is Z93, as are Scythian remains from the Iron Age.

Much of the argument comes down to dating, and citing papers that give deep coalescence numbers between difference branches of R1a1a. Hindu nationalists and their fellow travelers point to recent papers which give dates >10,000 years ago, and so place the origin of Z93 plausibly in the Pleistocene. The problem is that Y chromosomal coalescence dating is something of a mug’s game. Often they use microsatellite data whose mutational rates are highly uncertain. In contrast, using SNP data, which has a slower mutation rate but requires a lot more data, you get TRMCA (common ancestry) between Z93 and Z282 around ~5,800 years ago. But coalescence estimates often have wide confidence intervals of thousands of years. And even with these intervals, the assumptions you make (e.g., mutation rate) strongly influence your midpoint estimate.

The Y chromosomal data is powerful, but its interpretation is still buttressed upon other assumptions. The really big picture framework is the nature of ancient genome-wide variation across Eurasia. Lazaridis et al. 2016 condition us to a prior where much of Eurasia was subject to massive population-wide genetic changes since the Holocene. Therefore, I am much less surprised if there was massive genetic change in India relatively recently. The methods in Priya Moorjani’s paper and in other publications make it obvious that mixture was extensive in South Asia between very distinct groups until about ~2,000 years ago. In fact, Moorjani et al. using patterns of variation across the genome to come at a number of two to four thousand years ago as the period of massive admixture.

Though we don’t have relevant ancient DNA from India proper to answer any questions yet, we do have ancient DNA from across much of Europe, Central Asia, and the Near East. What they show is that Indian populations share ancestry from both Neolithic Iranians and peoples of the Pontic steppe, who flourished ~5 to ~10,000 years ago. To some extent the latter population is a daughter population of the former…which makes things complicated. Conversely, no West Eurasian population seems to harbor ancient signals of ASI ancestry.

One scientist who holds to the position that most South Asian ancestry dates to the Pleistocene argued to me that we don’t know if ancient Indian samples from the northwest won’t share even more ancestry than the Iranian Neolithic and Pontic steppe samples. In other words, ANI was part of some genetic continuum that extended to the west and north. This is possible, but I do not find it plausible.

The reasons are threefold. First, it doesn’t seem that continuous isolation-by-distance works across huge and rugged regions of Central Eurasia. Rather, there are demographic revolutions, and then relative stasis as the new social-cultural environment crystallizes. This inference I’m making from ancient DNA and extrapolating. This may be wrong, but I would bet I’m not off base here.

Second, it strikes me as implausible that there was literally apartheid between ASI and ANI populations for the whole Holocene right up until ~4,000 years before the present. That is, if Northwest India was involved in reciprocal gene flow with the rest of Eurasia over thousands of years I expect there should have been some distinctive South Asian ASI-like ancestry in the ancient DNA we have. We do not see it.

Third, one of the populations with strong affinities to some Indian populations are those of the Pontic steppe. But we know that this group itself is a compound of admixture that arose 5,000-6,000 years ago. Because of the complexity of the likely population model of ANI this is not definitive, but it seems strange to imagine that ANI could have predated one of the populations with which it was in genetic continuum as part of a quasi-panmictic deme.

Finally, many of the critiques involve evaluation of the scientific literature in this field. Unfortunately this is hard to do from the outside. Citing papers from the aughts, for example, is not wrong, but evolutionary human population genomics is such a fast moving field that even papers published a few years ago are often out of date.

Many are citing a 2012 paper by a respected group which argues for the dominant model of the aughts (marginal population movement into South Asia). One of their arguments, that Central Asian migrant should have East Asian ancestry, is a red herring since it is well known that this dates to the last ~2,000 years or so (we know more now with ancient DNA). But the second point that is more persuasive in the paper is that when they look at local ancestry of ANI vs. ASI in modern Indians, the ANI haplotypes are more diverse than West Eurasians, indicating that they are  not descendants but rather antecedents (usually the direction of ancestry is from more diverse to less due to subsampling).

There are two points that I have make here. First, local ancestry analysis is difficult, so I would not be surprised if they integrated ASI regions into ANI and so elevated the diversity in that way (though they think they’ve taken care of it in the paper). Second, if the ANI are a compound of several West Eurasian groups then we expect them to be more diverse than their parents. In other words, the paper is refuting a model which is almost certainly incorrect, but the alternative hypothesis is not necessarily the true hypothesis (which is a more complex demographic model than many were testing in 2012).

But there are many things we do not know still. Many free variables which we haven’t nailed down. Here are some major points:

  • Y chromosomal lineages have a correlation with ethno-linguistic groups, but the correlation is imperfect. R1b and R1a seems correlated with Indo-European groups, but both these are found in high proportions in groups which are putatively mostly “pre-Indo-European” in origin (e.g., Basques, Sardinians, and South Indian tribals and non-Brahmin Dravidian speaking groups). Also, haplogroups like I1 in Europe expand with Indo-Europeans locally, suggesting there was lots of heterogeneity in Indo-Europeans as they expanded. In other words, Indo-European expansion in relation to powerful paternal lineages did not always correlate with ethno-linguistic change.
  • There are probably at minimum two Holocene intrusions from the northwest into South Asia, but this is a floor. The models that are constructed always lack power to detect more complexity. E.g., it is not impossible that there were several migrations of Indo-Europeans into South Asia which we can not distinguish genetically over a period of a few thousand years.
  • If one looks over all of South Asia it may be that ASI ancestry in totality is >50% of the total genome ancestry. I don’t have a good guess of the numbers. If this is correct, perhaps most South Asian ancestors 10,000 years ago were living in South Asia (though the fertility rate are such in Pakistan that ANI ancestry is increasing right now in relative rates).
  • But, this presupposes that ASI were present in South Asia in totality 10,000 years ago, rather than being migrants themselves. If ancient DNA confirms that ANI were long present in Northwest India, I hold then it is entirely likely that ASI was intrusive to South Asia! The BMC Evolutionary Biology Paper does a lot of interpretation of deep structure in haplogroup M in South Asia. I’m moderately skeptical of this. Europe may not be a good model for South Asia, but there we see lots of Pleistocene turnover.

So where does this leave us? Ancient DNA will answer a lot of questions. Pretty much all scientists I’ve talked to agree on this. My predictions, some of which I’ve made before:

  1. The first period of admixture is old, and dates to the founding of Mehrgarh as an agricultural settlement. The dominant ANI component dates to this period and mixture event, all across South Asia. The presence in South India is due to expansion of these farming populations.
  2. A second admixture event occurred with the arrival of steppe people. Those who argue for the Aryan invasion model posit 1500 BCE as the date. But these people probably were expanding in some form before this date.
  3. We still don’t know who the antecedents for the Indo-Aryans were. Probably they were a compound of different steppe groups, and also other populations which were mixed in (by analogy, in Europe it is obvious now that there was some mixture with the local European farmers and hunter-gatherers as Europeans expanded their frontier westward; the same probably applies for Indo-Aryans are the BMAC).

The system of the world by William H. McNeill

In the post below on book recommendations I forgot to mention William H. McNeill and John Robert McNeill’s The Human Web: A Bird’s-Eye View of World History. It’s arguably been one of the most influential works that has percolated in my mind throughout the years. It’s less than 400 pages, and illustrates in broad sketches that history has been through many random shocks, but that there are broad patterns that one can discern.

The elder McNeill is most famous for The Rise of the West and Plagues and Peoples. To a great extent he was Jared Diamond before there ever was Jared Diamond.

Unfortunately I did not notice that McNeill died last summer. From his obituary:

Refuting Francis Fukuyama’s premise in “The End of History and the Last Man” in 1992 that the American model of a liberal, capitalist democracy had become the paradigm for governance, Professor McNeill wrote in The New York Times Book Review: “I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.”

“When Asian models of social and economic efficiency seem to be gaining ground every day, and when millions of Muslims are at pains to sustain the differences, great and small, that distinguish them from Americans,” he continued, “it is hard to believe that all the world is destined to imitate us.”

Books I suggest you read so you won’t be misled as often

People often ask me for history books on a very specific topics often, assuming I’ve read something on an issue because I exhibit some fluency discussing something that might seem abstruse or arcane. The thing is that I haven’t always read a monograph on a singular topic even if I know a fair amount on it. It’s just that I’ve read a larger number of history books, so the union of my knowledge set is quite wide and expansive.

For example, in reading The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise the author recounts with some tinge of outrage that North Africa, which is had been predominantly Christian since the early 4th century, was conquered by the Muslims in the late 7th century as a prequel to the conquest of the Visigothic kingdom in Iberia (I knew the loss of Carthage occurred between Justinian II’s two reigns thanks for the fine historical novel Justinian!). First, the tinge of taking sides is kind of adolescent in my opinion and detracts from the narrative, though that’s a matter of personal taste. Second, North Africa was not majority Christian in the early 4th century.

No, I’ve not read specifically about North Africa Christianity (aside from a few books here and there about St. Augustine, who was North African and a Christian). Rather, I have read The Making of the Christian Aristocracy, which addresses the religious change in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, as well as works such as Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, where religious change is a theme if not a central one (I would say that really it is a book with a greater focus on material culture and politics and economics than religion as such). Additionally, it is clear that many people confuse Constantine’s toleration and then later espousal of Christianity under a united Roman Empire in 325 as the point at which Christianity became the official religion of the state. An “official state religion” in a modern sense is an anachronism. It took decades for the customary subsidies to the pre-Christian traditional cults to cease (that really occurred in earnest under Gratian in the 380s), with elite public paganism’s coup de grace occurring under Theodosius in the 390s (paganism persisted as a counter-culture down to the early 6th century, and it seems very likely that some pagan philosophers were still present in Alexandria up to the Arab conquest, while the Syrian city of Haran maintained a pagan religious culture with an appreciation for Hellenic religious values down to the 10th century A.D.).

In any case, what books should you read? It’s useful to read big general surveys because they allow you to frame and interpret narrower monographs. Long-time readers are aware that I am a big fan of Warren Treadgold’s History of Byzantine State and Society. This survey is expansive. And, it touches upon many of the different peoples who interacted with Byzantium. You should read it.

Next I would recommend Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples. To a great extent this is a history of Islamic civilization. If you want more specificity on early Islam, try Hugh Kennedy’s When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World. For later Islam, Osman’s Dream. But really should read some survey first before drilling down to a specific epoch or region.

For China it has to be John King Fairbank and his China: A New History. If you want something more accessible, John Keay’s China: A History is where you want to go. Division by periods is important in China though. For a little more specificity, The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is good. Obviously there are books which cover the later dynasties, but the Qin and Han are really the hinges of Chinese history, and essential supplements to any survey. For a book which explores how China related to the rest of the world with a light theoretical touch I’d suggest Adshead’s China in World History.

For India I would recommend Romilla Thapar’s A History of India: v. 1. This recommendation will raise many peoples’ hackles because Thapar is accused of being biased and ideological, and she probably is. But if you keep that in mind usually you will survive. John Keay also has a book on this Asian civilization, India: A History. Again, it is really aimed at the general lay reader at a very middle-brow level. But if that’s where you think you need to start, that’s how it goes. If you want a very dramatic narrative focused on biography then The Peacock Throne does an OK job in relation to Mughal India, which is to a great extent a formative period to understanding modern India.

For Southeast Asia I don’t have any suggestion aside from Strange Parallels. This will leave a lacunae for maritime Southeast Asia, which is a pretty big blind spot. I did read The History of Indonesia about 10 years ago, but that book was strongly biased toward modern periods. Reader suggestions welcome.

At some point we need to loop back to Europe, and Rome before Byzantium. For this Michael Grant is really a good resource for surveys. His History of Rome is an A-Z review from legendary times to the fall. It’s old and probably out of print, but usually you can find library copies, or paperback used versions somewhere.

Speaking of the fall though, if you haven’t read The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization, please do so. I know many of you have already read this book, but it’s really a major work. I can’t emphasize this enough. It makes history more than just interpretation because of its utilization to material metrics.

When it comes to Greece, I’m in a peculiar position. Much of my reading of ancient Greece was done in my elementary school years. So a lot of it is fuzzy and I don’t recall specific books, though I know enough about the travesty of the Sicilian expedition or the futile resistance against Philip of Macedon to follow broad sketches. Honestly I need to read something about this topic, in fact several books, as a grown ass adult.

I’ll recommend Grant again, with The Classical Greeks.

For the Hellenistic period that spans the gap between the rise of Rome and the decline of Classical Greece, Alexander to Actium should do the trick. But that’s a long book, and the same author has more recently published The Hellenistic Age: A Short History. That’s probably a better bet for many readers.

One book I am somewhat partial to is Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World, which is a really broad work which has many topics it doesn’t touch. But Fox is a really great historical writer, so with consideration for its shortcomings (it’s not a straight ahead survey), I think some readers might enjoy it.

Since I’ve hit Athens, what about Jerusalem? Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain is a history of the Jewish people. I read it in 1995, so I don’t know exactly that it’s the most up to date work, but there is surely goodness in it still.

If you want to focus on the cultural tension between Jew and gentile, then Rome and Jerusalem might be of interest. It’s probably too narrow focus for what I’m recommending here…but it’s a good book so I thought I had to mention it.

In regards to post-Rome but the proto-West, Europe in the High Middle Ages is good. Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe is a bit too focused on the author’s materialist hobby-horses in my opinion for the naive reader (e.g., not enough about the Cluniac Reforms).

A little earlier than that, I think Peter Heather’s work is probably sufficient. First, Empires and Barbarians, and then the Restoration of RomeEmpires and Barbarians is easily the better book if you had to pick one.

Perhaps you want to jump back to the edge of history, A History of the Ancient Near East is pretty good. Then there is the The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt, highly recommended. For later in the Bronze Age 1177 B.C. covers a lot of the states and the several centuries before the collapse.

Japan is pretty important in many ways to understanding the evolution of civilizations and cultural exchange. I would recommend A History of Japan by Mason and Caiger. But those who want a somewhat more contemporary skew might want to check out The Making of Modern Japan.

And as long as we’re going to talk about islands, readers know I’m a fan of The Isles. Norman Davies does not give short shrift to the Celtic fringe.

Moving back to the heart of Eurasia, Grousset’s The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia is old, but I think it’s a decent survey.

Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is probably a little too in the weeds for many readers, but if you are interested in the topic I recommend it. Like Thapar this is an author with a perspective…just keep that in mind. Where Empires of the Silk Road is panoramic, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane takes a narrower focus, following a particular thread over seven hundred years.

Taking a 50,000 foot view again, Africa: biography of a continent is definitely worth your time. I read it twice.

We’re now venturing in territory where there is less history conventionally defined. That is, based on writing. But some parts of the world don’t really have that, but you should probably know something about them.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is not a survey like some of the ones above, but it does reflect what I think is the new orthodoxy (which is being subject to its own revisionism). I’m broadly persuaded that the revisionists-turned-mainstream viewpoint that is presented by Charles C. Man in 1491 has a lot going for it (ancient DNA adds broadly the likelihood in my opinion, perhaps more on that in some other post). Our knowledge of peoples like the Aztecs and Inca are to a great extent happenstance; they flourished when Europeans arrived. We don’t know the history of the peoples who came before. But we do know the history of the Maya because of the decipherment their hieroglyphs. In A Forest of Kings you’ll read about warlords like 18-Rabbit (a name I’ll never forget).

For Oceania all I’ve really only read is Richard Broome’s Aboriginal Australians. I don’t know of any primer, as such, about the history of Austronesians, though someone should write one. After all, these are a people who settled from Madagascar, off the coast of Mozambique, to Eastern Island to the west of Chile.

There are two nations which occupy roles in history which are somehow both liminal and central which like Japan, India, and China, deserve their own treatments. Russia is one. Gregory L. Freeze’s Russia: A History is pretty good. A history of Russia is essential because it is weird to see prominent pundits (I will not name, but it shocked me) not understand that Russia’s identification as a Western nation is substantively problematic.

There’s a whole historiography that covers the tension between Westernizers and Slavophiles (or their prototypes). Strangely this is another case where Western liberals and white nationalists are well aligned, they only see race, as the Russians are white, therefore they are Western (and another alignment, this racial essentialism to Western identity disappears for Southeast European Muslims like Albanians, Pomaks and Bonsiaks, who are often treated like “people of color”). The Russian Moment in World History is a short little book which outlines just now non-Western, and oppositional to the West, in many ways Russia has been.

Then we have Iran: Empire of the Mind. The conceit of the subtitle is a little annoying, but it reflects the role of Persian culture as hegemonic from Istanbul to Delhi to Samarkand. And, as you know if you read this weblog, a huge disproportionate number of scholars and intellectuals during the “Arab Islamic” intellectual Golden Age were ethno-linguistically of Iranian background (although many hailed from Turan, the Central Asian Iranian regions, and many of the non-Persians, like Thabit ibn Qurra, were non-Muslims).

Excuse my Eurocentrism, but Europe did conquer the world recently. So The Pursuit of Glory: The Five Revolutions that Made Modern Europe: 1648-1815. It’s a page turner (and you see how Russia reintegrated itself into Europe, at least its elites). The Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is still the best sweeping history on the topic I’ve ever read (I’ve read probably a dozen big tomes on this period and subject?). World Goods: A New History of the Renaissance. We’ll miss the author, Lisa Jardine. At least I will.

As we move into the 19th and 20th century there is so much out there. Books like The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914 are useful and very interesting, but there are so many on these sorts of topics, and we’re all more familiar with the era, so I’ll forgo giving you recommendations aside from one: After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000. It’s close enough to many thinks people talk about that it’s useful. For the rest, you can find documentaries.

I’ve focused on surveys which zoom in on a region and skim over a time period purposely. Traditional histories if you will. But I’ll finish out with some more unconventional stuff that I think would be useful. A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present covers all the bases. Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium has a narrower time frame. The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World is self-explanatory, but Niall Ferguson is a great writer for all his faults.

Yes, read Guns, Germs and Steel. Not so much for the detailed assertions of fact, but for the way to think about historical processes and the forces that shape them. Reach Peter Turchin’s War Peace and War because it gives you a framework for decomposing patterns (some of the models in War Peace and War I have actually applied to books I read years before it, as I still have the “data” in my head).

Finally, read books like Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome. Social history is important, though many of the books above actually cover society and culture in great depth. There are so many “daily life in….” that you can take your pick. But remember that for most of history most people were peasants, and peasants had a lot in common in their daily life, with differences being relatively trivial (e.g., gruel of barely vs. gruel of wheat or a porridge of rice).

The list above is not exhaustive. It is limited by the fact that I read on some periods of history (e.g., Classical Greece) as far back as the 1980s, so I’m not up to date on the latest survey books. Reader suggestions are welcome.

What is my goal with providing you this list? I want you to be able to iterate through historical assertions people in the media and politics make against your internal data set. See if they are full of shit. They often are.

There are two classes of bullshit. The first class are the nakedly mendacious. This is more common in the political class, where lying is a form of art. The second class are just ignorant and don’t know any better. This is more common in the pundit class.

One trick that the pundit class pulls sincerely because they are often ignorant is that they cite a historian to buttress an assertion, even getting a quote from that historian. But quite often the historian is clearly misleading the audience…the historian may not utter a lie, but in their presentation they allow the reader to have a takeaway that aligns with the normative bias of the pundit, and the historian that has prostituted themselves to some cause. Obviously you will never master a specific area of history like an academic with a command of another language, but if you know enough you can easily smell bullshit when it’s being injected into the information stream.

The nadir of genetics in the Soviet Union

A fascinating excerpt in Slate from How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), :

This skepticism of genetics all started when, in the mid-1920s, the Communist Party leadership elevated a number of uneducated men from the proletariat into positions of authority in the scientific community, as part of a program to glorify the average citizen after centuries of monarchy had perpetuated wide class divisions between the wealthy and the workers and peasants. Lysenko fit the bill perfectly, having been raised by peasant farmer parents in the Ukraine. He hadn’t learned to read until he was 13, and he had no university degree, having studied at what amounted to a gardening school, which awarded him a correspondence degree. The only training he had in crop-breeding was a brief course in cultivating sugar beets. In 1925, he landed a middle-level job at the Gandzha Plant Breeding Laboratory in Azerbaijan, where he worked on sowing peas. Lysenko convinced a Pravda reporter who was writing a puff piece about the wonders of peasant scientists that the yield from his pea crop was far above average and that his technique could help feed his starving country. In the glowing article the reporter claimed, “the barefoot professor Lysenko has followers … and the luminaries of agronomy visit … and gratefully shake his hand.” The article was pure fiction. But it propelled Lysenko to national attention, including that of Josef Stalin.

Sometimes it is easy to believe that the period in the Soviet Union under Stalin or in China under Mao or in Germany under Hitler, to name a few, were aberrations. But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The story of how Lysenko became influential hooks into so many historical tropes and psychological instincts of our species that we should be wary of it.

There have been great scholars without requisite qualifications. Ramanujan and Faraday come to mind. But great scholars are exceptional people. They are not average.

At an inflection point of archaeology and genetics

People always ask me what to read in relation to the field of historical population genetics. In the 2000s there were a series of books which focused on the mtDNA and Y results from modern phylogeographic analysis. Journey of Man, Seven Daughters of Eve, The Real Eve, and Mapping Human History. But there hasn’t been much equivalent in the 2010s.

Why? I think part of the issue is that the rate of change has been so fast that scholars and journalists haven’t been able to keep up. And, the change is happening right now, so it would likely mean that any book written over a year would be moderately out of date by publication.

I noticed today that Jean Manco has an updated and revised version of her book, Ancestral Journeys: The Peopling of Europe from the First Venturers to the Vikings. This was needed, because the original book was written before some major recent findings, though after some preliminary ones. As Manco has observed herself it was feasible to replace speculations with facts.

Since it seems likely that George R. R. Martin’s next book will be published before David Reich’s, I think that’s all you got. Any suggestions would be welcome.

As for the flip side for history that might be useful to understanding the genetics results, J. M. Roberts The History of the World is the best cliff notes I can think of. It’s obviously a high level survey, but frankly that would improve the interpretation I see in some papers. The fact that much of the history has no contemporary relevance is pretty unimportant, since you want to focus on the older stuff, which is where ancient DNA really shows its metal.

At some point ancient DNA will start to exhibit diminishing returns. Then the long hard slog of interpretation and synthesis will have to begin in earnest.

The eternal Axial Age

As I have noted before one of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek history is that in many ways the socio-political identities and outlook of the Hellenic people before and after the Bronze Age were probably as distinct as that between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. That is, the citadel culture of the Mycenaeans was constructed out of recognizable elements. Take one dollop Near Eastern autocracy, add a dash of semi-civilized barbarian warlord, and finish off with the tincture of brutalist post-Minoan aesthetic, and you have the pirate kings of Achaea, who so plagued the kings of the Hittites and later transformed themselves into the “Sea Peoples.”

The story of what happened after the end of the Bronze Age is somewhat well known to us, because the roots of our civilizations are clear in the ideas which emerged in the period between 1000 BCE and 0 CE. The basis of the institutional religions which we see around us date to the Axial Age. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, either arose or ripened in the one thousand years after the birth of Christ, but from a naturalistic perspective the bases of these traditions are present in the early Iron Age. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, Judaism over its history truly takes shape in the centuries leading up to, and subsequent to, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. But the disparate threads of Rabbinical Judaism were already there in the centuries before Christ; they were simply synthesized and extended later on.

Much the same can be said about science. On the one hand, a narrow view of science is that it is the cultural product of a group of individuals who began collectively exploring aspects of the natural world in the 17th century. Eventually this contingent cultural enterprise spread across the whole world. But the roots of the scientific enterprise can also be seen in the Pre-Socratic philosophies. It was already there 2,500 years ago. But the victory of Platonism, and later the rise of Hellenistic ethical systems, and finally the ideological uniformity imposed by Christianity, dampened the efflorescence of heterodox speculations which flourished for the few centuries around 450 BCE. The steam went out of the scientific enterprise, and it never truly became science as we understand it in the modern world. But pieces of it that came together later on were familiar to us of old.

And then there are the political innovations. The Greeks gave us all their different varieties; democracy, oligarchy, the mixed monarchy-oligarchy of Sparta. The Romans had their republic, and even during the imperial period rejected the institution of ‘kinship,’ though all the powers of a king were eventually accrued to the emperors.

But political debate existed outside of Greece and Rome. In China political and ethical philosophy were intertwined, the tension between Legalism and Confucianism would continue down through the ages after the official ascendancy of the latter during the Former Han. In India there was a variety of forms of governance characterized by differing levels of centrality before the conquest of the Mauryas set the horizons and template for much of the rest of South Asian history.

Democracy and republics faded. Republican governments eventually made periodic revivals. During the period of the American Revolution many were skeptical of the idea of such a geographically expansive state such as the United States being able to maintain a republican form of governance. The shift toward a more democratic self-identity in the early 19th century with the rise of Jacksonian populism was even more shocking, because for much of history democracy was seen as a failed Greek experiment which often devolved into illiberal mob rule.

I recall 15 years ago Steven Pinker observing that one reason philosophy has made little progress is that what one could not make progress in was consigned to philosophy, while the natural and social sciences waxed in their ability to model and explain the world around us. This is uncharitable to philosophy in many ways, but it gets at something real: we haven’t pushed much further beyond the Greeks on foundational questions. Similarly, Islam is the last major religion to have emerged, and the theology of Christian churches and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Hinduism are all one to two thousand years old. Instead of progress we’ve seen shifts back and forth in fashion. Reworking of templates, not the creation of new things.

Over the past few centuries we have witnessed something different than this. The birth of the modern. The explosion of democracy and liberalism, and economic well being through massive gains to welfare and well being to the non-elites. Between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled in Western societies shrank. Seen from the first half of the 1960s the future was shiny, infectious disease was going to be unknown, and robots would allow us a life of leisure.

Though we do have iPhones and other shiny devices, and nerds like me can consume lots information on the web, things have not quite worked out in exactly the way predicted. Yes, China and much of the developing world has improved in terms of vital statistics. And it looks like space commerce may finally arrive in the next decade. But we do not have a Mars colony in 2017, let alone a Moon colony.

Economic productivity combined with a demographic transition mean that extreme deprivation is slowly being strangled. But inequality flourishes, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled began to increase after 1970 in the developed world. Whereas at one point the Whiggish perception that history was progressive, and that it would end in some quasi-utopian terminus, was self-evident, today many are not as certain. The unipolar geopolitics of the 1990s has given way to a new farcical world of the “Great Game,” while secular Arab nationalism has faded to irrelevance in the face of a resurgence Islamic identity.

History does not move in cycles where the future reenacts the past. But much of the modular furniture of existence seems to be 2,000 years old. The Salafi movements the world over are fundamentally products of modernity, or the reaction to various elements of European modernity. Their roots pre-date the 20th century, and go back to revivals in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century which parallel a reconstruction of self conscious orthodox Islam in India as the Mughal order was collapsing. But ultimately they are refurbishing the furniture put together by Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who himself might have been comfortable among Judaean Zealots. The Taliban are simply the Maccabees of our age.

From an American perspective the reality, the necessity, of the spread of democracy and the expansion of liberalism seem self-evident. Inevitable. Along with technology and science, it all seemed to hang together. In the 1990s the future was arriving as scheduled.

In 2017 the Russian experiment with Western democratic forms has not turned out how we wanted. Though China is economically liberal, it is not democratic. The global capitalist elite were as surprised as everyone else by 2008, and in the wake of that shock they have persuaded themselves that there is no need for a fundamental rethink of the institutions that they’ve developed over the past 70 years since the Bretton Woods Agreement.

As the Western economic elite continues to persist in denial, the cultural elite has been making a broad push to sweep post-1960s social liberalism throughout the world. This, all the while that Western societies have been demographically stagnant, and Western economic power has been declining in relative terms.

We are in the late stages of the long 20th century. The institutions and mores of the post-World War II are still with us, like Zeitgeist zombies. But the combination of global capitalism, individualism, democratic values always constrained by oligarchic preferences, and the universal acid of Critical Theory infused identity politics, does not hang together in a robust fashion. In most of the world if people have to pick between their ‘sexual identity’ and their ‘religious identity’, I think it will be the latter (assuming they concede that a sexual identity is a thing). In the early 20th century Marxists had to confront the fact that internationalism was not capable of overcoming nationalism. In the 21st century the identity politics of individual self-actualization and self-definition will likely confront 2,000 year old identities.

Ideologues dream of final victories. Of ideologies sweep through the world, from sea to sea. Global Communism. A world-wide capitalist order defined by free trade and free movement of peoples. China and India converting to Christianity and finally ending the civilizational conflict between Christendom and Islam, as Muslim MENA is constricted between Christian Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But pluralism has defined the last few thousand years. The final victory has been elusive. The old ideologies and religions do not die, they evolve, they reinvent, they repurpose. The stories are different in each age, but they live in a shared universe of characters who also repeat similar plot elements.

The second century BC was a strange time for the Roman republic. It was an empire in all but name. The ancient enemy Carthage was no more. But destitution was also coming to some of the Roman people. This resulted in reformers attempting to right the ship of state. The brothers Gracchi attempted to help the plight of the Roman poor with redistribution.  Marcus Livius Drusus expanded the franchise to non-Roman Italians. Political redistribution if you will. Gaius Marius began as a necessary general, but ended as a chaotic autocrat. The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.

Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.

Sulla is efficient. Cruel, but certain in his rightness. Sulla is not a clown. He is not narcissistic, for Sulla does have ideals, even if you hold that those ideals are cruel or callous. Sulla is a piece of furniture, found in many places at many times. The United States of America has not seen Sulla yet. I believe it will.