In the comments below a question was asked about the non-European admixture in white Canadians, New Zealanders, and Australians. It was prompted by the fact that low levels of non-European admixture do seem to be found in most whites in the Family Tree DNA database where both parents were born in South Africa (granted, a small sample). My hunch is that these individuals must be Afrikaner, because I have a hard time understanding how else one would detect Khoisan and Southeast Asian ancestry (West African and South Asian ancestry would be easier to explain). So what about other “white dominions,” those realms of the British Empire united by being either dominated or ruled by white people. I actually just looked at the data for Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The sample size for New Zealand was small. But, in these cases those individuals of preponderant European ancestry have no non-European ancestry, by and large. A few Canadians do have some fractions of Native American ancestry. This seems in line with the data on American whites from 23andMe. Only a small minority have non-European ancestry. Afrikaners are somewhat like many Latin American whites, in being visibly white European, but usually carrying some recent non-European ancestry because of the history of their people.
Addendum: Please recall that lack of genetic signal from ancestors 200-300 years back is not uncommon. Most Americans with colonial stock for example can probably trace a line of genealogical descent back to a Native American. But, because of the small fraction most of these genealogical descendants will not exhibit any genomic segments identical by descent with these individuals.
I teased this yesterday, and I don’t like to do that, so I’m going to put up a quick post. Something more thorough will go up on the Family Tree DNA blog at some point soon. Basically I have heard through the grapevine that something on the genomewide patterns of Afrikaners would be published “soon” in the fall of 2012, but that hasn’t happened. So a few weeks ago I went looking in the Family Tree DNA database, and extracted individuals who stated that both parents were born in South Africa. Twelve of those had more than 90 percent European ancestry. So it is likely that these individuals are either Afrikaner or non-Afrikaner South African whites. I’ll hold off on the admixture results until the Family Tree post, but visual inspection made it clear that most of them they had non-European ancestry. American whites and Europeans generally have no non-West Eurasian/North African ancestry, with the exception of some Spaniards, who have small Sub-Saharan segments, probably mediated through the Moors. Many of these individuals had affinities at low levels to Khoisan, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and West Africans. These are as it happens the non-European groups who contributed ancestry to the Cape Coloureds.
So as a preview, below are MDS plots of various populations. I filtered the SNPs down to ~150,000.
Been busy. First, I’ll be posting about the genetic admixture of Afrikaners soon. What I can say is that using genome-wide data from hundreds of thousands of markers it’s pretty obvious that the genealogical studies were correct, and that the admixture into Afrikaners of non-European ancestry is on the order of 5 percent. The sources are Khoisan, Bantu, Southeast Asian an South Asian. Basically exactly what you see in Cape Coloureds, but obviously only a very small fraction. Also, this admixture is likely found to some level in most Afrikaners, probably because it dates to a very old period.
Second, there has been lots of reporting recently about the Islamic State kidnapping Yezidi women to convert them. This article in The Washington Post is interesting because it actually presents some nuance in this barbaric group. Because Yezidi women are not Muslim they are being encouraged to convert, but the militants are not molesting them. At least until they convert. A minor issue in the media coverage is that traditionally in Islam it is allowed to marry Christians and Jews. So this is a case where if they had kidnapped Christian women they could have married them without obtaining a conversion, at least by the standards of most Muslims. Also, note that in the Yezidi villages where massacres have occurred it is reported that it was prompted by the killing of several Yezidis who converted to Islam by the Yezidi elders of the village. This is the sort of thing I mean when I caution against rendering black and white judgments of good or evil in a world of gray.
I just want to mention that a friend is coming out with a book soon which many readers might find of great use (I’ve checked out some of the drafts), Bioinformatics Data Skills: Reproducible and Robust Research with Open Source Tools. Talking to some of my colleagues it’s obvious that 10-20 years from now so many of “best practices” will be established, and we’ll laugh at the ad hoc scripting which is so common today. There are some pipelines which are so difficult to implement that I’ve ended up writing my code own code, because I anticipate that it won’t take as much time.
In other news, my post on the Islamic State has been widely distributed, including being referenced in Ross Douthat’s column. I would have chosen a better title if I had known how it would blow up, but who knows such things. Most of the reaction has been positive, but a few have come up with this sort of feedback:
The ease with which the author rationalizes ISIS' genocidal ways has left me pretty much speechless! http://t.co/1tMxmpTO5s
The post was long, so this individual may not have read it in full. Or, they may have some issues with reading comprehension, I’m not the clearest writer sometimes (though often it is by design because sometimes I don’t want to be explicit about secondary or sideline issues). But it’s not an uncommon response over the years when I talk about controversial or difficult things. There are several definitions of rationalize, but the key is that often I write in a somewhat bloodless and detached manner about topics which people are emotional about. The problem here is with people who are emotional and allow their emotions to cloud all ability to reason. To understand something you need to engage in Epoche, detach yourself from your conventional perspective and attempt to fly over the landscape. Those who lack emotional self control can’t comprehend that sort of self control in others, and so impute emotional motives. This is unfortunate, since it helps turn everything into screaming match. On the other hand, I do agree with David Hume that reason serves emotions. But that service of reason is rendered null if the two aspects are muddled.
Above is part 1 of a VICE documentary on what it is like inside the Islamic State. Listening to what seem like the sincere voices from within the domains of the Islamic State I am struck by how detached from reality they are. And yet the fact is that a few months ago we would have thought the idea of a polity spanning eastern Syria and northwest Iraq, and leaning upon social-political paradigm notionally from the 7th century, was pure delusion. From the perspective of those who believe that they have the only access to truth, and whose victories defied the expectations of their opponents, it seems natural that dreams of grandiosity would ensue. They believe that they have the mandate of heaven.
It has been expectation that with the conquest of the northern part of Iraq the Islamic State would recapitulate the overreach by its predecessor organization, al Qaeda in Iraq. In short al Qaeda’s brutality toward those under its rule resulted in a rebellion of the people who it purportedly aimed to liberate. But the Islamic State has already forged a path which is different al Qaeda in Iraq. It has won victories on the field of battle, and created not just a shadow state, but the outlines of a true state. Social conformity is a powerful human instinct.
So I guess you need to be a more successful actor to get full teeth work done? Also, in most cases Key of Awesome actors are better looking than who they are parodying (see the Ke$ha and Rihanna). Not in this case.
I’ve talked about the Yezidis many times over the years. The main reason is that I find the obscure marginal sects of the Middle East interesting. This is a part of the world where religious pluralism existed under very precise and strict conditions, and these groups deviated from those conditions and lived to tell the tale. The Muslim rulers, and more specifically in historical memory the Ottomans, tolerated a specific set of enumerated dhimmi, generally traditional Christian and Jewish groups. Though subject to persecution and oppression, in principle these groups had rights to exist within the Islamic framework. Heretics and pagans on the other hand were not tolerated. For example, I have read the account from the 17th century of an Ottoman official who was making a progress from Baghdad to Istanbul, which turns out to be an excellent piece of ethnography. His entourage stopped in an isolated mountain valley in what is today Kurdistan. The local population were not Muslims, and when the official inquired as to their religion they told of how they worshiped the sun. Whatever the details of their origin this group obviously would be classed as pagans, and so the official was faced with what to do with these people. The choices were conversion to Islam or death, the implementation of which would have been difficult at that moment. As a solution the local Jacobite Orthodox Christian bishop agreed to accept them as his own, with nominal baptism. Presumably these people eventually became Christians in fact as well as name. But it goes to show that in the pre-modern world of the Middle East religious diversity persisted in the isolated places.
Groups such as the Druze offend Sunni Muslims because they are clearly derived from Islam itself, and Islam is the capstone religion in its own conception. Alawites seem to have emerged from the same milieu as the Druze, but they have retained a tenuous Muslim identity, which has accelerated under the Assad family. The Sunni Muslim stance toward these groups is that they are viewed as illegitimate heresies, not protected religions. The extent of Salafi* influence in one’s orientation also conditions how Sunnis view Shia (and there is variation within the Shia group, the Ismailis in particular viewed as heretical because their practice and theology differs more in obvious ways from Sunni orthodoxy; the Zaydi Shia are at the opposite extreme, being very similar to Sunni norms).
All this leads up to why the Islamic State, and Muslims generally to a lesser extent, tend to be extremely harsh in their attitude toward the Yezidi sect. The details of the Yezidi belief system are somewhat obscure, like that of the Druze, but they are clearly not Muslim. The media reports that the Yezidi are an ancient religion, with some relationship to Zoroastrianism. Many Kurds will also agree with this statement, assuming that something like Yezidism was the primal faith of their ethnic group. This may or may not be true. The origins of the Yezidi may actually be more like the Druze, if somewhat more ancient and obscure. Part of the lack of clarity I think goes back to the fact that there is some opaqueness overall in the first century or so of Islam. The social-religious world of the Middle East was a product of those years, but it is very different from them. For example Zoroastrianism and Zoroastrian-influenced syncretistic Muslim sects were powerful anti-establishment forces across the Iranian cultural zone down to the 9th century. Quite a few extremist Shia sects (ghulat) seem to have made the transition to post-Islam, often imbibing Zoroastrianism of a Mazdakite flavor. Such a transition though was usually a cultural death sentence. Survival depended upon attaching oneself to a Shia identity, however tenuous (the Alawite strategy), or, fleeing to a geographically isolated region (in some cases these sectarians fled to the Byzantine Empire, and converted to Orthodox Christianity rather than revert to normative Islam!). Flight from the world is what the Druze and Yezidi have done in their fastness.
The current capture of Sinjar has been a humanitarian catastrophe for the Yezidi because it has been one of their traditional redoubts. The kidnapping of women, and the summary beheading or crucifixion of men, can be comprehensible in light of the Salafi Muslim vision of groups such as the Yezidi, which literally should not exist. Their obliteration would bring balance back into the Salafi world. While Christians and Jews may persist with the barest of sufferance, the existence of the Yezidi is an abomination to Salafi Muslims. What is occurring is a ethnic cleansing and genocide in straightforward terms. In fact Salafi Muslims would probably agree with the appellation cleansing, because the Yezidi to them are an offence to Being itself. Their existence is a matter of ritual purity in a metaphysical sense. I am wary of ever making analogies to Nazi Germany and the way it viewed the Jews, but this one clearly is a close fit. There is no path toward accommodation of Yezidi existence for the Islamic State, it is now down to an animal battle of survival for them, as they flee into the mountains as they have done so many times in the past.
The relationship of Kurdish Muslims to the Yezidi has often been fraught, but there has been a modus vivendi of late. The Yezidi looked to the Peshmerga to protect them, though in this case the Peshmerga failed. The Kurdish reaction overall seems to confirm much of the argument in Azar Gat’s Nations. It is not civic virtue which is drawing out their outrage, or adherence to the state, but ethnic-national honor as a whole, irrespective of boundary. Their identity as Kurds is motivating them to fight the Islamic State first and foremost (whether the Yezidi are Kurds is under debate, but they are of the same general group of Iranian speaking mountain people). See in The New York Times, Iraq Agrees to Help Kurds Battle Sunni Extremists:
On Monday, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that for decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state, in a statement called for its fighters to go to Sinjar, one of three Iraqi towns where the Kurds were pushed out on Sunday.
“The treacherous ISIS attacks have been humiliating for the Kurds,” the statement said. “Until the Kurds develop a strong resistance, they will not be able to take back their honor.”
The soldiers of the Islamic State certainly seem to behave in a manner which we find ghoulish. But ghoulish behavior is not a monopoly of religious fundamentalists; Assad’s Syrian regime has sent militias to rape and murder children in front of their parents to sow fear into the opposition. The moderate Free Syrian Army has also committed war crimes. But the Islamic State is fighting for principles, a vision, with atrocity as the end and not the means. For the Assad regime atrocity is a tool to instill terror. For the Free Syrian Army atrocity is a reflex against the brutality of the Assad regime. An eye for an eye. In contrast, the vision of the Islamic State necessitates atrocity as the ends of their existence. In theory Yezidis could be given the option to convert to Islam, but the current pattern of killings indicates that pure elimination seems just as likely an end. From my perspective, and most people’s, it is an evil vision. But it is giving its fighters something to fight for. This vision has prompted four upper middle class Indian men to join them, to the shock of the Indian security establishment. The article waxes on about the privileged background of these men, but transnational jihadists have long had a more “up market” demographic. The Islamic State is fundamentally an abstraction, and so appeals to those who deal in abstractions. It is utopian in its fundamentals, just as the Khmer Rouge was utopian. They are attempting to go back to the “year zero” of Islam.
But even error sometimes speaks truth. The Islamic State is right that the Sykes-Pico Agreement is a shambles and ended. The delusion of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Iraq and Syria has collapsed. What replaces it we do not know. Currently the American government continues to support policies which strengthen the unitary Iraqi state. The major weak point in this strategy is that even the superficial appearance of a unitary Iraqi state seems out of reach. That game is lost. We don’t want to admit it, but it is over. We don’t know what gambits with follow, but the local actors will be ultimate deciders.
What can be done? The Iraq invasion and occupation has made Americans wary of direct intervention. And rightly so. Unless we wish to take upon the mantle of a New Rome, sending our sons (and now daughters) to impose order and justice, and implicitly the American Way, in foreign lands we are better off not getting deeply involved. On the other hand there is no point in pretending that we are neutral in the clash between antinomian barbarians and ethno-religious autocrats. The latter are imperfect, but they have a vision of life which we recognize as life.** We must stand in some way with imperfect humans when they are battling against organic automata, motivated by an ideology which bears false witness to any traditional social order. People can disagree on the details, but there is a moderate position between total detachment and taking upon the burdens of the world upon one’s shoulders.
I do think that the rise of the Islamic State, and the past 10 years of chaos and violence, suggest that this is the end of the persistence of ethno-religious sects such as the Yezidi across most of the Fertile Crescent. The Jacobites Christians, Assyrians, and Yezidi, lack powerful patrons and protectors. Though most Sunni and Shia would not countenance genocide, they are focused more on the exigencies of their own internecine conflicts. Many minorities already have large Diaspora populations Europe. Tens of thousands of Yezidi live in Germany, and tens of thousands of Assyrians live in Sweden. The most practical short-term solution would be to extend refugee status selectively to ethno-religious minorities to prevent them from being eliminated by genocide. Certainly the dominant Muslim groups of the Fertile Crescent are dying in large numbers in the conflicts, but at the end of the day when peace comes the Syrian and Iraqi state(s) are going to be their making, their dominion. They will have something to build up from. In the long term it seems implausible that the Sunni majority can be excluded from the leading role in governance in Syria. When majoritarianism does come I doubt it will look keenly upon the rights of the minorities after the litany of horrors afflicted upon the Sunni populace by the Assad regime and its Alawite militias.
Of course a final irony is that the migration of the ancient Middle Eastern minorities to the West will likely result in their diminishing over the generations. The corporatist straight-jacket of the Middle Eastern milieu was constricting, but it allowed for a communal identity to maintain itself. In the individualist West these small communities are unlikely to be able to self-segregate in large enough ghettos where their cultural norms are dominant. This means that identity will become a choice, and over time intermarriage will likely result in a decrease in numbers. Though the Yezidi are rightly objects of sympathy, their cultural norms are quite retrograde in many ways. These folkways were adaptive in the circumstances of Kurdistan, a persecuted minority which had to maintain a high level of group cohesion. But in the West they are often impediments to full flourishing, and produce inter-generational conflicts.
Finally, currently the world is paying attention to the dire humanitarian situation in northern Iraq because that is where the media spotlight is. And rightly so. But let us remember that these sorts of events have an old pedigree. Consider the Assyrian Genocide of the early 20th century. Many thousands died then, and many thousands are dying now. And what about the three-year-old children shot in front of their parents by the militia loyal to the Assad regime? The events in Gaza are quite raw and fresh, but read Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War in Africa, and you gain perspective as to what atrocity truly is. It reminds me of the apocryphal quote attributed to Stalin, the “Death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Right now infants are dying of thirst in northern Iraq. Horrible. But the Central African Republic still teeters on the edge of genocide. I am not saying that because we cannot do all things we should not do anything, but we should keep in mind that for all the positive trends in the world there is a vale of tears we must confront. The soldiers of the Islamic State fight under the banner of demons, but their enemies are no angels.
But not all distinctions can be erased. When enumerating the horrors meted out by the Assad regime, or noting the ubiquity of rape in the Congo, I can not help but think that these are the products of human venality. The thugs who murder children for Assad, or the soldiers who rape women in the Congo, may have their ad hoc justifications for what they do. But they do what they do not in a spirit of purpose, but on the orders of their paymasters or in a fit of amorality coming to the fore. Atrocity, even on a grand scale, can still be the marshaling of individual human weakness. The power of the Islamic State derives in part from the fact that it inverts the moral order of the world. Some of its soldiers are clear psychopaths, as the most violent and brutal of international jihadis have been drawn to the Islamic State (as opposed to Al Qaeda, which is more pragmatic!). But a substantial number believe in its utopian vision of an Islamic society constructed upon narrow lines. A positive vision of a few evil goals, rather than a grand quantity of small evil pleasures. The Islamic State ushers in an evil new order, it does not unleash unbridled chaos. Though its self-conception that it is resurrecting the first decades of Islam is self-delusion in my opinion, it is still a vision which can entice some in the Islamic international.
I do not think that the Islamic State is here to stay. I believe it will be gone within the next five years, torn apart by its own contradictions and its rebellion against normal human conventions, traditions, and instincts. But that does not mean it is not going to cause misery for many on its way down. The irony is that the iconoclastic Islamic State may as well be worshiping the idols conjured in the most fervid of Christian evangelical apocalyptic literature, because they shall tear the land end to end and leave it in a thousand pieces, a material sacrifice to their god. They live under the illusion that they are building utopia, but they are coming to destroy an imperfect world and leave hell in its wake.
* The modern Salafis are just the latest in a particular extreme of Sunni belief, which goes back to individuals such as Ibn Taymiyyah.
Posting will be light in August. I probably won’t get to Nick Bostrom’sSuperintelligence, but I wish I could. I often don’t agree with people who take transhumanism and its assorted topics seriously, but generally I find engaging them extremely though provoking. Usually people use “thought provoking” as a throwaway line, but I mean it literally.
We are Whigs, whether we want to be or not. History moves in one direction, and that direction is associated with progress. Progress being something we would recognize as associated with ourselves in some fashion. Ergo, the “mystery” of the evacuation of Greenland by Scandinavians in the 1400s. Today that mystery seems to be solved to the satisfaction of most. With the waning of the Medieval Warm Period the Scandinavian agro-pastoral economic system of production was not a viable form of subsistence at high latitudes. Greenland got less green. In contrast the Greenland Inuit’s ancestors, the Thule culture, were eminently well prepared for the shift in climatic regimes. In a previous more Eurocentric age the curiosity was that a European society which was advanced enough to receive bishops from Rome could be replaced by hunter-gatherers in sealskin canoes.
Of course many peoples would not have been shocked, the ancients were well aware of the concept of societies falling from states of greater complexity or social elaboration to ones of simplicity, as a matter of necessity (see: Dark Age Greece). It was in Europe where the Age of Discovery transformed into the industry & science driven era of European colonialism, that gave us the idea that the world was ascending up a ladder of development evermore, under the aegis of the white race. Cases where Europeans gave ground to non-Europeans, and ones in an earlier mode of production in a historical determinist sense (i.e., societies moving through modes of production in sequence), would certainly raise eyebrows in a culture where the Garden of Eden had been turned into a legend and Greek myths of ages of Gold giving way to Silver and Bronze were seen as anthropological curiosities.
Obviously things have changed a great deal, but the shadow of the Whig, and the vision of eternal progress haunts us. Scratch a Critical Race theorist, and you get James Mill. A Whiggish and Eurocentric perspective colors our own perceptions of the past, even if we live in an age of the critique of all things Western and white. Most especially thees sorts of biases are a problem when it comes to prehistory, when we don’t even have to bother to twist and interpret the past’s words to fit our preconceptions. We can simply impute upon it because it is mute. In this blog I have been talking about the impact ancient DNA has had upon our understanding, and the impact it will have. But the inferences we make are only as good as our interpretative framework. The researchers who are working at the cutting edge of the field understand they aren’t explaining everything. Rather, they are attempting to construct some broad sketches which can serve as a scaffold for more specific detailed understanding of events which transpired before history.
In Proceedings of the Royal Society B there is a paper which explores the dynamics of the transition from hunting & gathering to farming as the dominant way of life in Finland, Neolithic dairy farming at the extreme of agriculture in northern Europe. As you can see in the map to the left Finland spans the same latitudes as southern Greenland. Only its position along the western maritime fringe of Eurasia moderates the conditions so as to make agriculture marginally viable. The paper takes as a starting point what we know in general about the transition to farming in the far northeast of Europe. It came late. Around ~2500 BC. It was associated with the Corded Ware culture. Though such suppositions are fraught with uncertainty, believe that the Corded Ware were the first early Indo-Europeans in Northern Europe. The hunter-gatherers preceding the Corded Ware were of the Comb Cermic culture. The culture relatives of these people in Scandinavia were the Pitted Ware culture.
The basic results of the paper are easy to understand from a non-specialist perspective. Around ~2500 BC there was a very rapid shift to agro-pastoralism utilizing dairy from a predominantly marine diet. This correlates with the switch from Comb Ceramic hunter-gatherers, who were specifically reliant on marine animals in much of Finland, to the Corded Ware people. Later it seems that marine organisms made something of a comeback in the diet of the peoples of Finland, and a culturally more synthetic society emerged, with elements from the Comb Ceramic and the Corded Ware.
This should be somewhat familiar. Genetically it seems that in Northern Europe the arrival of agriculture was heralded by a demographic and culture eruption, which was eventually synthesized with the local substrate. If you read ancient DNA papers Scandinavians today are genetically an admixture of farmers and hunter-gatherers, with perhaps a modest bias toward the latter. The figure at the top of the post illustrates that the Pitted Ware populations seem to be genetically distinct from modern Northern Europeans, and in particular Finns. The same goes for the first farmer populations in the north. They were either emulsified in the still dominant hunter-gatherer demographic substrate, or, they experienced a major die off.
A simple model, implied in this paper, is that the modern Finns are a synthesis of the Corded Ware agro-pastoralists and indigenous hunter-gatherers populations. One can then envisage an admixture shock ~2500 BCE, and the past 5,000 years have been an equilibration. Obviously most people will immediately wonder though about the fact that Finns speak a Uralic language. And more specifically a Finno-Permian language. There have long been arguments about whether the Finns, in a cultural sense, are primal to Northern Europe. This plays out in the context of the fact that non-Indo-European languages in Europe always get special attention. What we do know from high density SNP data, as well as earlier Y chromosomal work, is that Finnic peoples seem to have a connection to populations in Siberia. By this, I do not mean the Ancestral North Eurasians. Rather, a population with affinities to modern Northeast Asians. If the Pitted Ware genetic results can be generalized to the Comb Ceramic people, and I do think they can be, then the Siberian admixture in Finns post dates 2500 BC. Since this element is not found in most populations descended from the Corded Ware (the ones where it is found, the Russians, have historical reasons for likely admixture from Asian populations, or, were Russified Finns), I doubt it is from the Corded Ware. Rather, the most likely scenario involves Finnic peoples moving into the population, and adding themselves as a dominant cultural element. The modern Indo-European language spoken in Finland by natives is Swedish, which arrived during the Common Era. With Swedish cultural hegemony and some colonization broad coastal zones of modern Finland are dominated by ethnic Swedes. But if the model I’m outlining above is corrected then Swedish is not the first dominant Indo-European language in Finland. Rather, an earlier Indo-European speaking population were absorbed by the Finns.
Swedish hegemony over Finland after 1200 was to a large extent a function of the fact that Swedes were a post-tribal population which were in the early states of constructing a nation-state. In Finland they encountered a tribal population which was easy to dominate, and integrated into a Swedish Baltic zone of rule. One ultimate basis of the Swedish superiority in domains of statecraft and social mobilization is probably economic, in that the ecology of Sweden was marginally more favorable to agriculture than that of Finland. The Finnish tribes were operating closer to the margins of subsistence, and at a lower limit of population density enforced by Malthusian strictures. But like the Thule conquest of Greenland I suspect the success of the Finnic tribes from the margins of Siberia is the very fact that they were masters of the cultural adaptations necessary for survival on the sub-arctic littoral of Eurasia. The Corded Ware people were like the Greenlanders of their era, agro-pastoralists who attempted to transfer a southern way of life in totality, but who ultimately were transformed and superseded.
Humans are a pretty big deal. I’m human, you’re human. We’re a very successful large mammal. A substantial proportion of the earth’s biomass is us, or, is due to us. So the field of human paleoanthropology gets a lot of attention in comparison to something like materials science, even though materials science is far more practical, and a much bigger deal in our day to day life. Most people have heard the name Richard Leakey. They might not even know there’s a field called materials science.
Because people are interested in paleoanthropology there’s a demand for discoveries, and people promising understanding. The root of a lot of this is ontological. Why us? Necessarily us? But more prosaically many scholars have responded by generating models of the rise of humanity with silver bullet explanations. To give a few examples, fire, tools, gossip, and meat. One phenomenon that has interested scientists for years is the rise to dominance of an African lineage 50,000 years ago, and the subsequent manifestation of “behavioral modernity” in the archaeological record. To illustrate behavioral modernity researchers might present you with the image of ostrich shells which may have been painted, or the artistic caves of France and Spain. I think it is simply enough to contrast behavioral modernity with what came before. The Acheulean tool culture persisted for over 1 million years. Can you imagine a cultural tradition today persisting for 10,000 years? Obviously something changed.
One elegant model proposed by the paleoanthropologist Richard Klein is that human culture is a product of a punctuated evolutionary change, which resulted in a revolution in capacities, and a rapid marginalization of all other populations. The phenotypic manifestation of that neurological shift may have been the capacity for fully featured language. In this scenario the chasm between archaic and modern human populations is enormous. At the opposite extreme you have theories which posit a gradual shift across the Homo lineage over time, with behavioral modernity being only the latest manifestation of a trajectory which was initiated long ago. A possible implication in this framework is that something like us was inevitable at some point, or, the Homo lineage would just go extinct (yes, we are going to go extinct at some point in any case).
In 2005 or so I would probably have been close to the Klein model of relatively quick biological driven changes that gave rise to H. sapiens. Today I am much nearer the second scenario. One of the reasons is that a few years back the geneticist Luke Jostins produced the result that Homo as a whole was undergoing encephalization. To some extent this is obvious in hindsight. Neanderthals had larger brains than their ancestors. But Jostin’s plot suggested to me that the path which led to our big brained lineage had roots somehow early on in the emergence of our broader lineage, and not just in the recent past of H. sapiens sapiens. Only that could explain a world wide pattern across disparate lineages which were genetically isolated. I don’t have a specific outline of what I’m thinking of, but in the generality there are cases where evolutionary processes exhibit path dependence. One could argue then that Homo was going to get big brained, or go extinct. We do know that apes as a whole have been less successful in the evolutionary game if being speciose is a guide over the Cenozoic. Monkeys have taken over many of the niches which were previous held by the apes. There used to many more of us. Homo is then the exception to the rule, as it broke out of the niche which monkeys were taking over, and made lemonade from lemons.
So how might this inevitable process have played out? As implied in the title I suspect that early in the Pleistocene Homo got “trapped” in a unidirectional ratchet where biological changes allowed for the elaboration of complex culture, which then drove further biological changes, again resulting in culture transformations, and so forth. The evolutionary process did not explore the whole parameter space with equal frequency. H. floresiensis stumbled upon a unique, but rare, niche (you can speculate about what it was, but its small size and peculiar anatomy indicate sit differed from others of the lineage quite a bit in its circumstances). In contrast other groups of Homo were getting bigger brained. In fact the shift toward bigger brains leveled off at about ~100,000 years ago, before behavioral modernity. This is probably a consequence of the fact that there are various biological limits in terms of how disproportionate our brains and heads can be in relation to the rest of our bodies (e.g., we are born at a rather fetal stage because otherwise our heads would get too large to fit through the birth canal, whose widening is achieved at some cost to female locomotion). At yet changed continued.
A new paper in Current Anthropology attempts to bring various threads together to explain the rise of modern humans in a manner Charles Darwin would appreciate, Craniofacial feminization and the origin of behavioral modernity. Like most of you I can see that the figure above at the top of this post illustrates two individuals where one is more gracile or feminized than the other. But that’s about it. I don’t know skeletal anatomy well enough to comment with great force on the data within the paper, though it does seem that the results are somewhat confused, with data scarcity and combining agriculturalists and foragers in the Holocene confounding the signal. Nevertheless, they conjecture is that over the past 100,000 years humans have been subject to the domestication syndrome. Less aggressive social behavior at higher densities due to reduction in androgen levels produces the more feminine features in the fossil record. At least according to their model.
The major problems I have is that the signal in their data is not that clear to me. There is a lot of talk about why agriculturalists seem more masculinized than Holocene foragers. Obviously that sort of result is not as “neat” as they might like across the time period of interest. They acknowledge that limitations on their data set might explain this, but that makes me wonder what conclusions they can draw then in the first place from their data. Or, their model is just too simple. It’s a bit rich for me to say that, because compared to Richard Klein’s thesis that one mutation produced modern human behavior the argument outlined in exceedingly elaborate. But, if behavioral modernity arose via processes which were gradual, and often worked upon standing genetic variation, I don’t see why the selection should have been through the same processes across hundreds of thousands of years. It could be that in some epochs higher population density was due to biological changes in humans triggered by culture shifts, while in other phases the higher density itself was driving biological change. This is not congenial from a scientific perspective because it isn’t parsimonious. But it isn’t wrong on the face of it.