The sons of the wolf

When I am not feeling well I often watch Netflix, since my brain really operates at a lower level (passive, consumptive). Curiously I was recommended a Turkish series about the father of Osman (the founder of the Ottoman dynasty), Ertuğrul. I only watched a little bit of it, but it reminded me of the mini-series from the early 2000s around Attila. There are so many commonalities across the nearly one thousand years that separate the Ottomans and Attila, but it shouldn’t be surprising, as it is highly likely that some element of the Hunnic horde was Turkic in origin.

Though I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about Indo-Europeans, because they are a rather big deal, and, they are prehistoric, I think it is important to remember the Turks as well. The similarities are clear. Both groups began at one end of the great Eurasian steppe but swept repeatedly to the other end. Both were at least in part nomadic, and both integrated with other ethnic groups along with their expansions. But the Turks operated on the edges of, and within, history. We know, for example, the importance of Sogdians in playing the role of Greeks to their Romans.

There is a curious tendency, perhaps somewhat justified, of focusing on the Turks after their predominant conversion to Islam around the centuries of 1000 A.D. But Turkic customs and folkways persisted for many centuries, and continue down to the present in a relatively unadulterated form in places like Kyrgyzstan. In The Turks in World History the author recounts how a Cuman chief leading his host into battle against the Byzantines gave a cry that mimicked a wolf, and how his horde repeated it in en masse. This is a callback to the earliest legends of the origins of the Turks, which assert that they were birthed from a she-wolf, and lived as smiths among other peoples.

Probably the best treatment of their common ancestry is in The Genetic Legacy of the Expansion of Turkic-Speaking Nomads across Eurasia. Though genome-wide the predominant northeast Eurasian character of the original Turks is swamped out by the time one reaches Anatolia, there is still an enrichment of i.b.d. tracts even that far, indicating a lineal which stretched from Siberia down to the Middle East.

Anyone who first sees a map of Indo-European languages is often amazed and surprised by their expanse. How could premodern people be so expansive and widespread? And yet the Turks show exactly how such a thing could happen, and they expanded into a much more densely populated and civilized world than the Indo-Europeans.

4 thoughts on “The sons of the wolf

  1. i recently added tons of ancient history series on my Amazon Prime Video list. i watched “The Dark Ages: an Age of Light” where the host argues that the Dark Ages weren’t that dark. I read the SSCodex piece on the Dark Ages so I don’t know who to believe but I can say the the art and jewelry created during that period was stunning. I loved the show, i had no idea there are still so many monuments and artifacts from that time that are right out in nature and not in museums.

  2. That Eurasian steppe, man. The highway of the pre-modern world, spitting out wave after wave of peoples on horseback (or on horse-drawn chariots – I remember you pointing out that that was a critical innovation in ancient expansion).

  3. We have some Kyrgyz friends. Last night, at their place, listening to the host explaining how politics works there to my father (particularly the tribal element of it) was pretty interesting. They are part of our ‘Russian’ group of friends (as my wife is Russian), but they also have their own flair. K’s position in Central Asia and next to China make it an interesting place.

    One of my favorite stories from a couple of years ago was when Chinese truck drivers and Kyrgyz truck drivers were having increasingly violent confrontations over who could drive where (the’Belt Road’ goes through Kyrgyzstan). Finally, a wealthy Kyrgyz who was losing business contacted the ‘Don’ of the Chinese drivers and arranged for a big meeting. Everyone met up at the border and camped. Sheep were slaughtered and cooked (they probably made plouf or something like it) and a quota system was worked out. I like to imagine that at least a few yurts were set up.

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