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June 20, 2018

Why the world before 1450 matters

Filed under: History,History Books — Razib Khan @ 12:31 am

It is no surprise that I am not excited by the proposal to focus AP History in the United States on the period after 1450. Overall I agree with many of the comments made in T. Greer’s tweet thread. Though I have a concurrent opinion with many history teachers who oppose the change, my opposition is for different reasons. To be frank I don’t care about “showing our black and brown and native students that their histories matter—that their histories don’t start at slavery”.

Though my leanings are toward positivism, that is, I think history is an empirical discipline, even with a potential scientific scaffold, I understand that with finite time and resources your choices are conditional on your viewpoint. When I grew up in the American North the Civil War was taught with facts, but the arrangement and emphasis of those facts were not flattering to the Confederacy. I think objectively this isn’t hard from a modern perspective. But, the fact that some Union regiments were raised in the area where I grew up is certainly relevant

But this old-fashioned biased perspective still gave the nod to the importance of objectivity in some deep way. And though I was an immigrant who was routinely asked “where I was really from”, there was also an understanding that I needed to know this particular Union history, because it was the history which I inherited.  It was our history, which set the objective preconditions of the world in which we lived. The sharply critical cast of modern history teaching has its roots in this fundamental understanding. History may often have had propagandistic overtones, in that it inculcated, but the facts still mattered, and sometimes they were at counter-purposes to the narrative (e.g., the Abolitionists were clearly in the minority even in the North; good history teachers didn’t lie about this).

The idea that one’s history, “their” history, is rooted in descent is common sense. But it’s also an idea which brings together frog-Nazis and Critical Race Theorists. Because of the closeness of the past few hundred years, the histories will be contested on the grounds of ideology. All narratives are contested, but emotion and effort vary in the contestation. The way to push through the contestation is to flood-the-zone with facts, with robust models. But this isn’t feasible for high school students, many of whom simply want to obtain a good AP score so they never have to take a history course again.

Rather, I think history before 1450 is critical not because it is relevant to a diverse student body due to genealogical affinity, but because common human universal themes are easier to perceive in more distant peoples whose actions and choices don’t have as strong a direct connection to the lived present. Consider the Classical Greeks. It is reasonable to assert that the genesis of the West as we understand has to be traced at least in part to the Ionian flowering of the 5th century, and Athens in particular. But is not reasonable to make Classical Greeks a stand-in for modern Europeans, whose Christianity (at a minimum culturally) would be alien, and whose origins are from peoples who the ancient Greeks would term barbarians.

The Classical Greeks are profoundly alien to moderns, rupturing excessive identity, though that didn’t stop 19th century Romantics! Athenian democracy is very different from the modern democracies, with its participatory character and the large class of excluded residents. But Athenian democracy, and Classical Greece more generally, also highlights deep universal aspects of the human condition. It speaks more forcefully to man students because of the mental clutter of the past few centuries, and their ideological baggage, are removed from the picture.

Additionally, cross-cultural comparisons of similarities and differences in the ancient and medieval world are useful because they are less overshadowed by the “Great Divergence”, and the post-1800 European breakout. While the world before Classical Greece was one of the strange and isolated polities in a vast barbarous world, the world after 1450 points strongly in our mind’s eye to a world where Europe occludes our entire view. The problem is not slavery, because the age of European supremacy saw the abolition of slavery.

Obviously, even the period before 1450 can be fraught. Consider the rise of Islam, and the crystallization of the West as Christian Europe in tension with the rising civilization to the south, and the receding pagan wilderness to the north and east. There are plenty of opportunities for debate, disagreement, and ideological axes to grind. But contrast the same argument around the Arab-Israeli conflict or Sykes-Picot Agreement.  The fact is that pushing the past further back into the past muddles modern preoccupations. And that’s a feature, not a bug.

June 13, 2018

The days of the All-Fathers

Filed under: Father's Day,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:12 am
Citation: Zerjal et al.

“A man’s greatest joy is crushing his enemies.”

— Genghis Khan

There are many apocryphal quotes attributed to Genghis Khan. And there’s a reason for that — in a single generation he led an obscure group of Mongolian tribes to conquer most of the known world. His armies, and those of his descendants, ravaged lands as distant as Hungary, Iran and China. After the great wars, though, came great peace — the Pax Mongolica. But the scale of death and destruction were such that in the wake of the Mongol conquests great forests grew back from previously cultivated land, changing the very ecosystem of the planet.

It is no great surprise then that if there were ecological impacts of the Mongol conquest, there were also genetic ones. About ~10% percent of the men who live today within the former territories of the Mongol Empire at the death of Genghis Khan carry a particular Y chromosome lineage. About 15 years ago researchers tried to assess the relationship of these individuals on their Y chromosome, and were confronted by the reality that there wasn’t any neat relationship…the phylogeny was a “star.”

Citation: Zerjal et al.

What this means is that at some point in the past men who carried this Y chromosome underwent a very rapid expansion. So rapid that the genetic tree simply “explodes,” rather than accumulating mutations in a gradual manner which could outline different relationships between parental and offspring Y chromosomes. By looking at the pattern of diversity of the branches of the star lineage scientists concluded that this cluster must have expanded about ~1,000 year ago in the past.

Genghis Khan

What happened about ~1,000 years ago? It is notable that the lineage, the “star haplotype,” is most diverse and frequent in and around Mongolia. The conclusion was unmistakable: this Y-chromosome lineage comes down from the tribe of Genghis Khan, and its explosive growth occurred due to the explosive growth of the Mongol Empire.

Genes reflect history and social norms. The history of the Mongol expansion and the extermination of local elites across vast swathes of Inner Asia has left its legacy in the genomes of modern people, with the signature of explosive growth in the Genghis Khan Y haplotype, which stretches far and wide. The persistence and frequency of this lineage across nearly 1,000 years attests to the social prestige attached to be a direct male scion of Genghis Khan and his descendants.

The cultural importance of descent from Genghis Khan in Inner Asia can not be underestimated. Though he was a pagan through-and-through, among Muslim Turkic peoples descent from him became highly prestigious, and a mark that one was meant to rule.

Citation: Karmin et al.

In the case of the the Genghis Khan Y lineage there is a historical record that explains the cause of the genetic phenomenon. What about other Y-chromosomes?

It turns out that about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago a widespread bottleneck followed by an expansion occurred specifically on the Y chromosome for many lineages, not just one. This is particularly true of Eurasia.

For example, Y haplogroups R1a, R1b and I1 seem to have undergone expansion at this time after a population reduction. R1b is the most common haplogroup in Western Europe. R1a is the most common in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and much of South Asia. I1 is the dominant haplogroup of Scandinavia. But 5,000 years ago ancient DNA tells us that R1a ad R1b were very rare where today they are common. I1 seems to be a relic of the Pleistocene hunter-gatherers of Europe, but it only began expanding at the same time as R1a and R1b.

Unfortunately 5,000 years ago most of the world was cloaked in prehistory.
Light war chariot

History provides few clues about why a few Y chromosomal lineages came to be so dominant. But we do know that this was around the time when pastoralism and horse-powered warfare, in the form of the light chariot, came into being. New research suggests that only theoretical models that rely on “inter-group competition” can explain the Y-chromosome pattern we see. That is, it can’t be polygyny, where a few men have many wives within the tribe. Rather, it has to be a tribe as conceived of as a patrilineal kinship unit. The victory of one tribe was total loss for the males in another tribe, and each tribe was represented by a particular Y-chromosomal lineage.

Which sounds awfully familiar to the descendants of Genghis Khan…

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The days of the All-Fathers was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

June 12, 2018

The invention of Hinduism 1,000 years ago by a Muslim

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 10:43 am

On of the most annoying tropes in modern intellectual discourse, in particular of the postcolonial variety, is its Eurocentrism. That is, the focus on the Western colonial experience is so strong and unwavering that operationally the rest of history becomes prehistory, a formless period which we are ignorant of, when humans were different in fundamental ways.

Empirically this is of course false. Earlier I have mentioned that the Central Asian Iranian polymath, Al-Biruni, had much to say about India. His was one of the earliest extensive anthropologies we have about the subcontinent from the prespective of an outsider. Though Al-Biruni was from a region which had once had a flourishing Buddhist presence, by the 10th century this had faded from historically memory. Whereas earlier Islamic scholars from previous centuries allude to the persistence of Buddhists in what is today Central Asia and Afghanistan, by Al-Biruni’s lifetime non-Muslims were in sharp retreat (though in the fastness of area like Chitral paganism persisted for a thousand years).

In any case, here are some extracts of Al-Biruni on Indian religion:

The belief of educated and uneducated people differs in every nation; for the former strive to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles, while the latter do not pass beyond the apprehension of the senses and are content with derived rules, without caring for details, especially in questions of religion and law, regarding which opinions and interests are divided.

With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the Hindu literature….

This is what educated people believe about God. They consider the unity of God as absolute, but that everything beside God which may appear as a unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everything that exists, exists through him. It is not impossible to think

If we now pass from the ideas of the educated people among the Hindus to those of the common people, we must first state that they present a great variety. Some of them are simply abominable, but similar errors occur also in other religions. Nay, even in Islam we must decidedly disapprove of the anthropomorphic doctrines, the teachings of the Jabriyya sect, the prohibition of the discussion of religious topics, and such like. Every religious sentence destined for the people at large must be carefully worded, as the following example shows. Some Hindu scholar calls God “a point,” meaning to say thereby that the qualities of bodies do not apply to him. Now some uneducated man reads this and imagines that God is as small as a point, and he does not find out what the word “point” in this sentence was really intended to express. He will not even stop with this offensive comparison, but will describe God as much larger, and will say, “He is twelve fingers long and ten fingers broad.” Further, if an uneducated man hears what we have mentioned, that God comprehends the universe so that nothing is concealed from him, he will at once imagine that this comprehending is effected by means of eyesight; that eyesight is only possible by means of an eye, and that two eyes are better than only one; and in consequence he will describe God as having a thousand eyes, meaning to describe his omniscience.

Similar hideous fictions are sometimes met with among the Hindus, especially among those castes who are not allowed to occupy themselves with science, of whom we shall speak hereafter.

As the word of confession, “There is no god but God, Mohammed is his prophet,” is the shibboleth of Islam, the Trinity that of Christianity, and the institution of the Sabbath that of Judaism, so metempsychosis is the shibboleth of the Hindu religion. Therefore he who does not believe in it does not belong to them, and is not reckoned as one of them. For they hold that the soul, as long as it has not risen to the highest absolute intelligence, does not comprehend the totality of objects at once. Therefore it must explore all particular beings and examine all the possibilities.

The point of this post is not to show that Al-Biruni had a good idea of what “Hinduism” was, though I think if you read it on the whole he isn’t that far removed from how some moderns would characterize it. Rather, it is to show that the distinctiveness of Indian religious thought was noticed long before Europeans arrived to create a specific system which we utilize today. The details of the system might deviate from Al-Biruni, or Adi Shankara, but in its broad outlines it’s describing the same thing.

(since some people are not subtle, the title is not to be taken literally)

June 9, 2018

Gene Expression 2018-06-09 00:09:44

Filed under: History,Nationalism — Razib Khan @ 12:09 am

One of the major conclusions of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is that Protestantism only captured societies with finality when the most powerful temporal leader pushed for the change from above or maintained the pressure. The “magisterial” Reformation succeeded in those nations where the king or the most powerful aristocrats defended Protestantism and made it their own.

In contrast, in much of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, vast territories which had been won over to Protestantism were slowly brought back to Catholicism over the course of the 17th century under imperial direction and force. The process is outlined in Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. It was a deliberate campaign to retake ground lost by the Habsburg monarchy and the Catholic Church.

The grinding down of Protestant faith in Hungary left such bitter feelings that Hungarian Calvinists marched with the armies of the Ottomans in the late 17th century during the Battle of Vienna. Even today the center of Hungarian Calvinism is in the far east, which was longest under the protection, neglect and toleration of the Ottomans.

French and Polish Protestants were well represented among the elites and parts of the nobility. Both states offered the Protestants a modicum of toleration, more or less, but in neither instance they did they capture the monarchy. In France, the Protestant Henry IV famously converted to Roman Catholicism, because the monarchy of the French state was tied so closely to the old religion. Polish Protestants, always a minority but concentrated among the upper echelons, slowly lost their position in society over the 17th and 18th centuries, to the point where being ethnically Polish and being Roman Catholic were synonymous. In contrast, the French Protestants suffered a major immediate shock when Louis XIV revoked the toleration and independence that they had enjoyed explicitly. They either had to convert, emigrate, or retreat deep into isolated areas such as the Massif Central.

The maxim adopted in 1555 was cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, his religion.”

But did this really hold? Henry VIII certainly dragged an England that wasn’t entirely comfortable with leaving Catholicism, especially in the north, to Protestantism (though not too far, as the Puritans would learn!). The Scandinavian monarchs transitioned their nations rather quickly to Lutheranism. The Dutch Protestant minority, motivated, concentrated among elite elements, rebelled against their Catholic Habsburg monarch, but rallied under the Protestant House of Orange.

And yet there were other cases where cuius regio, eius religio did not hold. Arguably Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism illustrates that the monarch was not all powerful…but this case is confounded by the reality that his kingship was conditional on his conversion.

In 1613 John Sigismund of the House of Hohenzollern made public his conversion to Calvinist Reformed Christianity. His Lutheran subjects balked, and did not follow him. Prussia remained a predominantly Lutheran domain with Calvinist rulers for hundreds of years.In 1697 the Wettin House of Saxony converted to Catholicism. While a minority of the subjects of the Hohenzollerns were Reformed Christians, almost no Catholics were present in the domains of the Lutheran Electorate. The overthrow of James II of England in part due to his Catholicism shows that by the latter half the 17th century cuius regio, eius religio did not hold.

The people were self-conscious in having a particular religious identity, and top-down pressure would be met and resisted strenuously.

It is sometimes stated that nationalism and self-identity emerged as late the French Revolution. I do not agree with this. Rather, I agree with Azar Gat’s position in Nations, that nationalism has deep historical and cultural roots. But that does not mean that I believe English self-identity in 1300 is and was the same as English self-identity in 1800. The Gordon Riots of 1780 illustrate how a strident Protestantism had become part and parcel of English national self-identity. In contrast, though there were religious conflicts between the early 16th century (with some rural peasants, especially in the north, retaining loyalty to the Catholic religion) and into the period of the English Civil War, the ultimate outcome seems to have been a matter of mobilizing elites, and up until the overthrow of Charles II retaining the favor of the monarch.

At some point the English monarchy personified the nation. The nation was not simply the extension of the monarch. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War resulted in the switch of their dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.

Today in the age of social media we talk about the power of the mob. But it seems like something happened between 1500 and 1750 in much of Western Europe. Nations-states shifted from being syndicates of elite interest groups ad powerful individuals, to becoming expressions of popular will and sentiment. This preceded democracy or liberalism by generations, and it was a gradual process. Mass society and identity emerged. Immovable, with its own will.

And this had happened before historically, from Greek democracies to the Roman republic. Polities were reflections of the public. At some point citizens become subjects, and the populace were simply resources from which to extract rents to fund aristocratic positional contests. The information revolution of the printing press, and economic development more generally, changed the calculus. The past came back.

These sorts of dynamics are universal, cyclical, and playing out to differing extents across the world.

Related: On the rectification of names and religion. A post over at Brown Pundits.

Gene Expression 2018-06-09 00:09:44

Filed under: History,Nationalism — Razib Khan @ 12:09 am

One of the major conclusions of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is that Protestantism only captured societies with finality when the most powerful temporal leader pushed for the change from above or maintained the pressure. The “magisterial” Reformation succeeded in those nations where the king or the most powerful aristocrats defended Protestantism and made it their own.

In contrast, in much of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia, vast territories which had been won over to Protestantism were slowly brought back to Catholicism over the course of the 17th century under imperial direction and force. The process is outlined in Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe. It was a deliberate campaign to retake ground lost by the Habsburg monarchy and the Catholic Church.

The grinding down of Protestant faith in Hungary left such bitter feelings that Hungarian Calvinists marched with the armies of the Ottomans in the late 17th century during the Battle of Vienna. Even today the center of Hungarian Calvinism is in the far east, which was longest under the protection, neglect and toleration of the Ottomans.

French and Polish Protestants were well represented among the elites and parts of the nobility. Both states offered the Protestants a modicum of toleration, more or less, but in neither instance they did they capture the monarchy. In France, the Protestant Henry IV famously converted to Roman Catholicism, because the monarchy of the French state was tied so closely to the old religion. Polish Protestants, always a minority but concentrated among the upper echelons, slowly lost their position in society over the 17th and 18th centuries, to the point where being ethnically Polish and being Roman Catholic were synonymous. In contrast, the French Protestants suffered a major immediate shock when Louis XIV revoked the toleration and independence that they had enjoyed explicitly. They either had to convert, emigrate, or retreat deep into isolated areas such as the Massif Central.

The maxim adopted in 1555 was cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, his religion.”

But did this really hold? Henry VIII certainly dragged an England that wasn’t entirely comfortable with leaving Catholicism, especially in the north, to Protestantism (though not too far, as the Puritans would learn!). The Scandinavian monarchs transitioned their nations rather quickly to Lutheranism. The Dutch Protestant minority, motivated, concentrated among elite elements, rebelled against their Catholic Habsburg monarch, but rallied under the Protestant House of Orange.

And yet there were other cases where cuius regio, eius religio did not hold. Arguably Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism illustrates that the monarch was not all powerful…but this case is confounded by the reality that his kingship was conditional on his conversion.

In 1613 John Sigismund of the House of Hohenzollern made public his conversion to Calvinist Reformed Christianity. His Lutheran subjects balked, and did not follow him. Prussia remained a predominantly Lutheran domain with Calvinist rulers for hundreds of years.In 1697 the Wettin House of Saxony converted to Catholicism. While a minority of the subjects of the Hohenzollerns were Reformed Christians, almost no Catholics were present in the domains of the Lutheran Electorate. The overthrow of James II of England in part due to his Catholicism shows that by the latter half the 17th century cuius regio, eius religio did not hold.

The people were self-conscious in having a particular religious identity, and top-down pressure would be met and resisted strenuously.

It is sometimes stated that nationalism and self-identity emerged as late the French Revolution. I do not agree with this. Rather, I agree with Azar Gat’s position in Nations, that nationalism has deep historical and cultural roots. But that does not mean that I believe English self-identity in 1300 is and was the same as English self-identity in 1800. The Gordon Riots of 1780 illustrate how a strident Protestantism had become part and parcel of English national self-identity. In contrast, though there were religious conflicts between the early 16th century (with some rural peasants, especially in the north, retaining loyalty to the Catholic religion) and into the period of the English Civil War, the ultimate outcome seems to have been a matter of mobilizing elites, and up until the overthrow of Charles II retaining the favor of the monarch.

At some point the English monarchy personified the nation. The nation was not simply the extension of the monarch. Anti-German sentiment during the First World War resulted in the switch of their dynastic name from Saxe-Coburg & Gotha to Windsor.

Today in the age of social media we talk about the power of the mob. But it seems like something happened between 1500 and 1750 in much of Western Europe. Nations-states shifted from being syndicates of elite interest groups ad powerful individuals, to becoming expressions of popular will and sentiment. This preceded democracy or liberalism by generations, and it was a gradual process. Mass society and identity emerged. Immovable, with its own will.

And this had happened before historically, from Greek democracies to the Roman republic. Polities were reflections of the public. At some point citizens become subjects, and the populace were simply resources from which to extract rents to fund aristocratic positional contests. The information revolution of the printing press, and economic development more generally, changed the calculus. The past came back.

These sorts of dynamics are universal, cyclical, and playing out to differing extents across the world.

Related: On the rectification of names and religion. A post over at Brown Pundits.

June 6, 2018

The Insight, Episode 17: Patrick Wyman, Barbarian Genetics

Filed under: History,History Books,Late Antiquity,The Insight — Razib Khan @ 9:42 pm


This week on The Insight we talk to Patrick Wyman of Tides of History. Patrick is now a professional podcaster for Wondery, but I got to know him originally through comments on this weblog. A historian of Late Antiquity, we originally encountered each other in 2010 after I had just finished a period where I was originally interested in the topic of his professional study, and he was interested in paleogenetics.

As Patrick said before we began recording, this podcast was a long time in coming. More precisely, the time is right, and it will get more right. More and more preprints like Amorin et al.’s Understanding 6th-Century Barbarian Social Organization and Migration through Paleogenomics will be coming out in the next few years. Ancient DNA extraction is cheap enough now that it will be used to explore historical lacunae, for example, what happened in sub-Roman Britain?

To get a sense of the period that we talk about in this podcast, I would highly recommend first The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. This is a materialist treatment whch makes clear how thoroughgoing the collapse of economic production was across much of the Roman world. Then, Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe, anticipates some of the work coming out of genetics. Heather at the time was making the case that many of the barbarian groups that entered the Roman Empire were in fact coherent ethno-cultural entities. That the period of the “folk wandering” were literally folk wanderings.

Finally, you can finish up with Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000.

As a complement, one might check out Hugh Kennedy’s two books on the early history of Islam, The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In and When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Kennedy doesn’t present a revisionist view, but that’s OK. Sometimes you need the null model. Like neutral theory.

The fall of Rome and the wandering of peoples

Filed under: Ancient History,Genetics,History,Roman Empire — Razib Khan @ 12:28 pm
The feat of Atilla

“…The people of the Huns, but little known from ancient records, dwelling beyond the Maeotic Sea near the ice-bound ocean, exceed every degree of savagery. Since there the cheeks of the children are deeply furrowed with the steel from their very birth, in order that the growth of hair, when it appears at the proper time, may be checked by the wrinkled scars, they grow old without beards and without any beauty, like eunuchs”. — Ammianus Marcellinus

In the year 400 AD, the city of Rome was inhabited by around 1 million people. Britain was a thoroughly Roman province with public baths and flourishing cities. By the year 600 AD Rome was home to 50,000 humans, and Britain was on its way to becoming England — dominated by pagan German tribes.

How did this happen?

The short answer is that the Roman Empire fell. The longer story — some scholars argue that Rome did not quite fall, rather, it transformed into something different.

Citation: Lead pollution recorded in Greenland ice indicates European emissions tracked plagues, wars, and imperial expansion during antiquity

To some extent, this is a matter of definitions. What we do know (rather definitively) is that the material conditions of the Western Roman Empire changed greatly over the centuries that we define as the decline and fall of the Empire. Recent work using lead pollution as a proxy for economic production overlaps very neatly to periods of decline and collapse… and subsequently recovery.

There is no doubt today that there were major changes in the later centuries of the Roman Empire, and its transition into the post-Roman world of barbarian kings. These changes were material, as the Roman system of economic production and exchange collapsed, and these changes were cultural, as the Christian religion and Latin language disappeared from provinces such as Britain and the interior of the Balkans.

But were the migrations of the barbarians the movement of distinct peoples, bound by kinship? Or, were they migrations of opportunists, who created identities on-the-fly to take advantage of the vacuum of authority in the collapsing Roman landscape?

King Arthur

The case of Britain, and how it became England, is illustrative of the debate. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the assumption was the the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes resulted in a mass slaughter of the native Romano-British. The conflict was remembered in Welsh folk-memory, and eventually transformed into the pseudo-historical legend of Arthur.

Despite King Arthur’s iconic status as the once and future king of the British Isles, it is important to remember that his enemies were the ancestors of the English!

Or were they? As the 20th century proceeded, a school of thought emerged that said that in fact the Anglo-Saxon hordes were a small group of mercenaries. The vast bulk of the ancestors of the English would have been Romano-British people who took up the culture of the new elites.

Citation: The fine scale genetic structure of the British population
This is where genetics comes in.

Over the past 20 years, a scientific project ambitiously titled “The Peopling of the British Isles” has collected data on thousands of individuals whose genealogies are verified to particular locales within the United Kingdom. Comparing the genetic profiles of British individuals, as well as comparing the British with peoples on the European continent, the group arrived at some conclusions which shed light on the “Anglo-Saxon” question.

It turns out that both extreme viewpoints were wrong. The most numerous population cluster in the British Isles, illustrated in red on the figure above, is a mix of both German and native British. The authors state: “We estimate the proportion of Saxon ancestry in C./S England as very likely to be under 50%, and most likely in the range 10%-40%.”

The majority of the ancestry in England does descend from Romano-British people. They were not exterminated, but rather a substantial minority, which varies by location and also descends from German migrants from the continent. This was not a small group of mercenaries which took over a preexistent order, but the migration of a people, who eventually assimilated the British majority into their folkways.

Of course not all cases were so extreme. Anglo-Saxon England in many ways was totally unrecognizable as Roman Britain, so sharp was the cultural rupture. In much of the post-Roman world, the conquest elite was much smaller, and eventually demographically absorbed by the local “Romans” (as they were still known).

Theodelinda, queen of the Lombards

Yet even in these cases, the distinctiveness of the invaders comes across both in the written records, and now, in the genetics. The Lombards were a German people who invaded and conquered much of the Italian peninsula in the second half of the 6th century A.D. Barely Christianized, and unfamiliar with the ways of the Romans, they are described as a very alien and barbaric people by historians of the period. They were often depicted as blonde.

Though eventually absorbed into the post-Roman elite, they gave their name to the northern region of Italy, Lombardy.

New work in ancient DNA clarifies just how distinct and separate the early Lombards were from their Roman subjects. The Lombards migrated to the Italian peninsula via what, today, is Hungary. A group of researchers excavated DNA from Lombard cemeteries in both Hungary and northern Italy, dating to the middle 6th century to the early 8th century respectively.

What they found is that there were two distinct clusters of people in the cemetery. One group, buried with rich grave goods, and some of whom seem to have very high protein diet, were genetically exactly like Northern Europeans. Another group were more like Southern Europeans. The two groups were generally segregated within the cemetery. The men buried with rich grave goods and of Northern European genetic heritage tended to be related along the paternal lineage.

What are the conclusions one can draw from this?

The Lombard migration was clearly a movement of a coherent ethno-religious group. The historical record is clear that these people were very culturally distinctive from the Romans whom they conquered. Additionally, these results indicate that the Lombards were accompanied by a group of lower status individuals (judging by the lack of grave goods and less rich diet) who were more genetically similar to the native peoples of Southern Europe. Finally, the leadership class of the Lombards were a paternal kinship group.

Finally — the Huns — where we started.

To a great extent the Huns are sui generis. Many of the barbarian peoples recorded in the historical records conquered parts of the Roman Empire and settled down. Eventually, they wrote down their own histories, and even put down their language in written form.

Not so for the Huns. They exploded on the scene in the late 4th century, as recorded by Ammianus Marcellinus. The Christians saw in their arrival the harbinger of the End of Days. A purely nomadic people, the Huns were like nothing the Romans had seen before. The arrival of the Huns set in motion the great migrations which coincided with the collapse of the West Roman Empire. But… where did they come from? Who were they?

The bestial manner in which the Huns are described by Classical authors has suggested to some historians that the descriptions were tropes. The power and vitality of the Huns had to be accompanied by descriptions which were as startling and novel. They had to be a force of nature to sweep all the peoples before them as they had.

But the Huns faded as quickly as they arrived. After the defeat of Attila in the middle of the 5th century, they slowly disappear from history. But they persist in archaeology. The Huns seem to have dispersed into the Balkan interior, and slowly become absorbed into the local population. Though they were never a literate people, they did have particular custom of skull deformation which leaves archaeological records. This practice persists in some locales deep into the 6th century.

Citation: Population genomic analysis of elongated skulls reveals extensive female-biased immigration in Early Medieval Bavaria

Recently, a paper was published that revealed a distinctive genetic profile, likely of females of Hunnic background. In Bavaria around 500 A.D. a group of high status males seem to have married women who were migrants from the Balkans, as adduced from isotope analysis. Some of these women exhibited distinctive skull deformations associated with Huns and other Central Asian peoples. One of these women was ~20% East Asian.

One hypothesis has been the Huns descend from a Turkic group present in Mongolia named the Xiongnu. The Huns were the westernmost extension of the Xiongnu horde. These results are the first definitive evidence that the Huns were in fact of East Asian provenance. When Ammianus Marcellinus commented on the beardlessness of the Huns, he may simply have been observing a characteristic more typical of East Asian peoples.

These examples show that the relationship between history, genetics, and archaeology is complex. Until recently the genetic component was not available to us. Now that researchers have access to the genetics of ancient peoples they can confirm or reject the hypothesis that these groups were distinct ethnolinguistic entities. Genetics also allows researchers to explore in depth the diversity and range of migration which characterized the collapsing post-Roman world, transforming vague guesswork into probabilities.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The fall of Rome and the wandering of peoples was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

May 26, 2018

Books on Indian history without recency bias

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 3:17 pm

One of the problems with Indian history is that a lot of the books are strongly biased toward the Muslim and colonial periods. There are numerous reasons for this. People are interested in the Muslim and colonial periods for nationalist and anti-nationalist reasons, if that makes any sense.

But some of it is simply source availability of. When I am curious about the period between the Han dynasty and the Sui-Tang I’ll pick up a book like China between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties. In contrast The Gupta Empire is an out of print monograph.

Because at some point the Rakhigarhi DNA results will be coming out I want to do some more reading on ancient and medieval (using those epochs loosely in the South Asian context) history, but so much of it is archaeological because of the thin historiographical tradition in South Asia.

Do readers have suggestions?

(Please calibrate to my level of knowledge. I’ve already read Early India)

May 22, 2018

Our Edo period future?

Filed under: Edo period,History — Razib Khan @ 11:52 pm

The second season of Westworld has some scenes set in Edo period Japan. To spoil things for you there is apparently a scene-by-scene re-creation of a plot arc from the first season of the show set in the American West. Watching this scene, and comparing it to the earlier version, I can’t but help feel that the Edo period setting is more grand and refined. If the first season’s violent attack was brutalist, the scene above is more neoclassical.

Then again, Edo Japan and the American West are perhaps antipodes of second-millennium civilization. Where the 19th century American West was anarchic, chaotic, and creative, the Edo period in Japan was notable for its stability, order, and the perception that it was a culture in chrysalis. Old forms may have been reinvented, but those forms were treasured.

The context for the Edo period is that 16th century Japan was a dynamo. Not always in a good way. The islands were riven by internal warfare. The Japanese were known to be a piratical race by the Ming dynasty, and the 16th century ended with the warlord Hideyoshi’s disastrous invasion of Korea. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns, while Roman Catholic Christianity had great success in the southern island of Kyushu.

Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu set the stage for Japan’s nearly three hundred year exile from the congress of nations, turning his back on Hideyoshi’s adventurousness. Of course, it is false to assume that the Japanese were totally insulated from the outside world. Not only did they connect with the West through the Dutch, but the Japanese maintained a more intense relationship with Korea. Even in the 17th and 18th century, a movement of “Western Learning” persisted through the interaction with the Dutch (though arguably late Confucian influences may have been more significant).

The violent suppression of Christianity in the 17th century and the emergence of a static caste system strikes modern sensibilities as brutal, barbaric and regressive. But the Edo period’s reduction in distribution and production of lethal firearms shows the upside of a conservative and controlling social land political elite. Violence continued, but it was relatively controlled and channeled.

We think of the future as endlessly protean and dynamic. But science fiction offers up an alternative possibility far more like Edo period Japan: technologically stagnant, culturally conservative. Frank Herbert’s Dune was set in the context of a universe where there had been a religious jihad against artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally based on imperial Rome, but later incarnations admitted that the better model was imperial China. Just as in the Dune series, the Foundation universe had to grapple with humanity’s protean and chaotic violence, which threatened to take down our civilization periodically due to enthusiasms.

The Edo period stretches from the early 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. All in all this is not a bad run. Our own republic’s 250 year anniversary will be on us in 2026.

May 16, 2018

Migration at the roof of West Asia

Filed under: Historical Population Genetics,History,Indo-Europeans — Razib Khan @ 10:16 pm
Click to see the full figure

The figure to the left is from The genetic prehistory of the Greater Caucasus. If you are a regular reader of this weblog, or Eurogenes, you can figure out what’s going on, and keep track of the terminology. But in 2018 I think we’re getting to the end of the line in making sense of “admixture graphs” in relation to West Eurasian population structure. The models are just getting too complicated to keep everything straight, and the distinct-populations-subject-to-pulse-admixture seems to be an assumption that may not necessarily hold.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, the above preprint focuses on populations in and around the Caucasus region. One of the major reasons that this is important is that the Caucasus was and is to some extent a continental hinge, connecting Eastern Europe and the Pontic steppe, to the Near East. The Arab Muslims pushed north of the Caucasus, and came into conflict with the Khazars, while Cimmerians and Scythians moved south from the Pontic steppe.

The elephant in the room is the relevance to the “Indo-European controversy.” Colin Renfrew long ago posited that the Indo-European languages derive from West Asian farmers who expanded into Europe as early as ~9,000 years ago. A rival theory is that Indo-Europeans spread out of the Pontic steppe ~4,000 years ago. In 2015 two major papers suggested that the steppe was a major source of Indo-European expansion. Case closed? This preprint suggests perhaps not.

But we’ll get to that later. What do the results here show? The prose is a little hard to tease apart, but the major issues seem to be that in antiquity, or at least the period they’re focusing on, much of the gene flow seems to have been south (Near East) to the north (through the Caucasus, and out to the north slope). To some extent, we already knew this: the Yamna people of the Pontic steppe have “southern” ancestry from the Near East that earlier East European/Pontic people do not. In this preprint, the authors show that groups such as the Maykop of the north slope of the Caucasus carry Y haplogroups such as G2, and not the R1 lineages commonly found in the steppe. David W. suggests that this confirms that Near Eastern gene flow into the steppe was female-mediated.  This is plausible, but I would caution that Y chromosomes alone can be deceptive, due to the power of particular patrilineages. We’ll probably rely on the X chromosome to make a final judgment.

The plot below shows many of the relationships as a function of location and time. The green component is modal among “Iranian farmers,” the orange among “Anatolian farmers,” and the blue among “Western hunter-gatherers.”

A major aspect of this preprint is that it has to work hard to differentiate two Anatolian farmer-like signals: the first, from Anatolian farmers proper, and the second from the descendants of European farmers, who themselves are a mix of Anatolian farmers with a minority ancestry among the hunter-gatherers. The answers would probably be totally unintelligible if not for archaeology. It’s clear that the steppe people had contact with both European and Near Eastern farmers and that later East European groups that succeeded the Yamna were subject to reflux from Central Europe, and received European farmer ancestry.

Another curious nugget in their results is that there was early detection of both Ancestral North Eurasian (ANE) ancestry and, some East Eurasian gene flow (related to Han Chinese). One of their individuals carries the East Eurasian variant of EDAR, which today is only found in Finns, though it was found in reasonable frequencies among the Motala hunter-gatherers of Scandinavia. Additionally, Fu et al. 2016 found that the ancestors of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers received some gene flow from Eastern Eurasians as well (also in the supplements of Lazaridis et al. 2016).

The authors admit that there is probably population structure among ANE and undiscovered groups of East Eurasians who were traversing the Inner Asian landscape. I think this is all suggestive of some long-distance contacts, though the intensity and magnitude increased a lot with high-density societies and the mobility of pastoralism.

Much of the genetic mixing in the Near East, and to some extent in the trans-Caucasian region, seems to date to the 4th millennium. This is technically prehistory, but it is also the Uruk period. This was a phase of Mesopotamian culture expansion between 4000 and 3100 BC which resulted in replicas of Uruk style settlements as far away as Syria and southeastern Anatolia. There is even evidence of Uruk-related migration to the North Caucasus.

The Uruk experienced abrupt and sudden collapse. Uruk settlements outside of the core zone of Mesopatamia disappear.

It’s the final paragraph that warrants discussion:

The insight that the Caucasus mountains served not only as a corridor for the spread of CHG/Neolithic Iranian ancestry but also for later gene-flow from the south also has a bearing on the postulated homelands of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) languages and documented gene-flows that could have carried a consecutive spread of both across West Eurasia…Perceiving the Caucasus as an occasional bridge rather than a strict border during the Eneolithic and Bronze Age opens up the possibility of a homeland of PIE south of the Caucasus, which itself provides a parsimonious explanation for an early branching off of Anatolian languages. Geographically this would also work for Armenian and Greek, for which genetic data also supports an eastern influence from Anatolia or the southern Caucasus. A potential offshoot of the Indo-Iranian branch to the east is possible, but the latest ancient DNA results from South Asia also lend weight to an LMBA spread via the steppe belt…The spread of some or all of the proto-Indo-European branches would have been possible via the North Caucasus and Pontic region and from there, along with pastoralist expansions, to the heart of Europe. This scenario finds support from the well attested and now widely documented ‘steppe ancestry’ in European populations, the postulate of increasingly patrilinear societies in the wake of these expansions (exemplified by R1a/R1b), as attested in the latest study on the Bell Beaker phenomenon….

But instead of tackling this let’s focus on the paper that came out of the Willerslev group, The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia. This is a final manuscript in Science. That means it was probably written before The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia. When it comes to South Asia, the results from the two publications are consanant. There is no conflict.*

More interesting are the results in West Asia, and the linguistic supplement. In the authors note that tablets now indicate an Indo-Aryan presence in Syria ~1750 BC. Second, Assyrian merchants record Indo-European Hittite, or Nesili (the people of Nesa), as early as ~2500 BC.

As suggested in earlier work Hittite remains don’t suggest steppe influence. David W. says:

The apparent lack of steppe ancestry in five Hittite-era, perhaps Indo-European-speaking, Anatolians was interpreted in Damagaard et al. 2018 as a major discovery with profound implications for the origin of the Anatolian branch of Indo-European languages.

But I disagree with this assessment, simply because none of these Hittite-era individuals are from royal Hittite, or Nes, burials. Hence, there’s a very good chance that they were Hattians, who were not of Indo-European origin, even if they spoke the Indo-European Hittite language because it was imposed on them.

The main aspect I’d bring up with this is that in other areas steppe ancestry has spread deeply and widely into the population, including non-Indo-European ones. It is certainly possible that the sample is not needed enough to pick up the genuinely Hittite elite, but I probably lean to the likelihood that the steppe signal won’t be found. It seems that the Anatolian languages were already diversified by ~2000 BC, and perhaps earlier. Linguists have long suggested that they are the outgroup to other Indo-European languages, though this could just be a function of their isolation among highly settled and socially complex populations.

Two alternative models present themselves for these results. The Anatolian Indo-European languages expanded through elite diffusion,  part of the same general migrations that emerged out of the Yamna culture ~3000 BC. The lack of a steppe signal may be due to sampling bias, as David W. suggested, or, more likely in my opinion, simple dilution of the signal. Second, the steppe migrations were one part of a broader palette of population movements and cultural diffusions, and the Anatolian Indo-Europeans are basal to the efflorescence of the steppe derived branches.

The evidence of the explosion of Indo-Aryans in the years after 2000 BC in West and South Asia, as well as the expansion of Iranians across vast swaths of Inner Asia during the same period, suggest to me that Indo-Iranians are most definitely part of the steppe pulse. The connection to the Sintashta charioteers presents itself, and, connections to the Uralic languages indicates incubation in the trans-Volga region.

In West Asia, the Indo-Aryans crashed themselves against the most advanced civilizations of their time. Like the Bulgars, and unlike the Hittites, Indo-Aryan Mitanni was totally absorbed by their non-Indo-European Hurrian substrate. Indo-Aryan linguistic influence was preserved in their names, their gods, and in particular words relating to chariots. And yet in 2017’s Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences, the authors observe:

We next tested a model of the present-day Lebanese as a mixture of Sidon_BA and any other ancient Eurasian population using qpAdm. We found that the Lebanese can be best modeled as Sidon_BA 93% ± 1.6% and a Steppe Bronze Age population 7% ± 1.6% (Figure 3C; Table S6). To estimate the time when the Steppe ancestry penetrated the Levant, we used, as above, LD-based inference and set the Lebanese as admixed test population with Natufians, Levant_N, Sidon_BA, Steppe_EMBA, and Steppe_MLBA as reference populations. We found support (p = 0.00017) for a mixture between Sidon_BA and Steppe_EMBA which has occurred around 2,950 ± 790 ya (Figure S13B).

This needs to be more explored. The admixture could have come from many sources. I am curious about the frequency of R1a1a-z93 among modern-day Syrians and Lebanese.

For me these arguments can only be resolved with a deeper understanding of linguistic evolution. The close relationship of Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages is obvious to any speaker of either of these languages (I can speak some Bengali). A divergence in the range of 4 to 5 thousand years before the present seems most likely to me. But the relationship of the other Indo-European languages is much less clear.

One of the arguments in Peter Bellwood’s First Farmers is that the Indo-European languages exhibit a “rake-like” topology with the exception of Indo-Iranian, which forms a clear clade. To him and others in his camp, this argues for deep divergences very early in time.

It is hard to deny that the steppe migrations between 4 and 5 thousand years ago had something to do with the distribution of modern Indo-European languages. But, it is harder to falsify the model that there were earlier Indo-European migrations, perhaps out of the Near East, that preceded these. Only a deeper understanding of linguistic evolution, and multidisciplinary analysis of regional substrates will generate the clarity we need.

* I’m going to skip the Botai angle in this post.

May 10, 2018

India as the hydra against Islam

Filed under: History,Islam,Islamicization — Razib Khan @ 9:19 pm

In some versions of the legend of the Hydra, every time you cut off one of the heads of the monster two more grow in its place.

I have been thinking about why and how India remained predominantly non-Muslim despite most of the subcontinent being under Muslim ruling for 500 years (dating from 1250 to 1750 approximately). The contrast here would be most stark with Iran and Turan. While the zone of the Islamic Empire between Mesopotamia and the Maghreb was dominated by a Christian populace which spoke an Afro-Asiatic language, Iran and Turan retained their language and their cultural distinctiveness, as evidenced in the nationalism clear in the Shahnameh.

There was a comment on this weblog that implied India was unique because of violent resistance to Islamicization. This is patently false. To give a concrete example, the region of Tabaristan in northern Iran was dominated by warlords and dynasties which adhered to the Zoroastrian region until the 9th century, 200 years after the Arab defeat of the Sassanians. Despite the inroads of Islam in the 9th century, after more thorough integration into the Abbassid Caliphate, Tabaristan was still throwing up Zoroastrian anti-Muslim warlords into the 10th century.

But most attempts to infer the religious demographics of Iran, which are to a great extent guesswork, suggest that it was in the 10th century the region became majority Muslim. One indication of this that this is so is that this period correlates with a more muscular and resurgent Iranian high culture and reemergence of political non-Arab political power. As Zoroastrianism was no longer seen as a threat to Islam, Persian cultural identity could reassert itself without a non-Islamic connotation (there is in the 10th century a shift away from ostentatiously Arab names by Persian Muslim elites).

Basically, it seems that it took about 300 years for Iran to become majority Muslim. I’ve seen similar numbers for Egypt and the Maghreb, though in the latter region indigenous Christianity became extinct by the medieval period.

There are two related issues that I want to suggest for South Asia: scale and complexity. Though the Indian subcontinent is geographically smaller than the Arab Caliphates as their height on paper, the reality is much of the Near  East and North Africa are empty of people. Islamic rule really consisted of a string of cities and fortifications interlaced over broad swaths of the territory occupied by pastoralists, as well as a few regions of dense cultivation.

Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world consist of between 400 and 500 million people. The Indian subcontinent has 1.7 billion people. The population in the past may have been different, but I think it gives one a rough sense of the differences in magnitude over the long-term.

Second, the social complexity of South Asia is astounding. I say this as a geneticist: the differences between different castes in the same region are hard to believe. Though there is a great deal of ethno-religious diversity in the Middle East, they are not surprising. Arabs engage in a great deal of consanguinity. Ethno-religious minorities such as Copts or Assyrians have less cosmopolitan ancestry than their Muslim neighbors. This is all to be expected.

In contrast, any analysis of ethnic “Telugus” has to take into account local structure because it is so extreme. Dalits are different from middle castes are different from Brahmins. Some of this is due to genetic drift, but much of it is due to continental-scale differences in genetic admixture.

The genetic differences are something us deep about the nature of South Asian social relations. Defection to Islam occurred on the individual scale, but generally, quantity could only be had by mass conversions. Even when groups of people of the same community are of different religions it was probably through mass conversion of particular subsegments.

Which brings me to Bengalis. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier was written many years ago, and I read it long before I ever knew much about the genetics of South Asians. In it the author explains that the dominance of Islam on the eastern march of Bengal was due to the fact that it was a frontier society that emerged during the period of Islamic rule. Meanwhile, western Bengal was a culture which was in a stationary state.

The ability of Islam to penetrate into the Bengali-speaking peasantry was due to its fluid and unordered character. In contrast in western Bengal, a more traditional South Asia society with well-delineated caste boundaries had already crystallized by the time of the Muslim conquest.

So here’s the thing that genetics adds: the topology of genetic variation of Bangladeshis is totally different than what you see in other South Asians. There’s very little structure. Basically aside from a few half-Brahmins and a small community of Dalits, the 1000 Genomes sample from Bangladesh shows none of the genetic variation partitioned by the community you see in most Indian samples. Or, that you see in the Indian Telugus, Gujuratis and Pakistani Punjabis (the Tamils from Sri Lanka are somewhat less structured, but still have more than the Bangladeshis).

To me, this confirms the thesis of The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier. As a frontier society, eastern Bengal was mixed in a way where the structure socially and genetically that was the norm in most of South Asia by the time the Muslims arrived. Without the powerful collective substructure, Islam was able to swallow up the rural society in toto. Perhaps the best analogy might be to Indian communities in Trinidad, where caste has mostly disappeared, and Christianity has made extensive inroads.

Note: I moderate comments, please don’t stupid spam me.

April 30, 2018

Diaspora culture are often more conservative

Filed under: Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 8:45 am

Zach made a comment below about conservatism and Diaspora cultures. There are two trends one has to highlight here. One the one hand Diaspora cultures often exhibit synthesis with host cultures and can be quite novel and innovative.

But there is another trend which is a cultural universal: Diaspora cultures often exhibit archaism and crystallize old-fashioned norms and practices. To give a concrete example foot-binding persisted the longest, down to the 1970s, in the Chinese communities of Borneo. The French of Quebec is peculiar in part because it preserves characteristics of older French dialects. The same is true of some Anglo-American English dialects.

April 27, 2018

Why Bronze Age steppe people replaced the farmers they conquered

Filed under: Historical Genetics,History,steppe — Razib Khan @ 9:59 pm

One of the major revisions in my own mind about the demographic and historical processes of the Holocene in relation to humans has been the reality that large and dense agglomerations of agriculturalists could be marginalized by later peoples, to the point of having a smaller genetic footprint in the future than anyone might have imagined. If you had asked me ten years ago I just wouldn’t have believed that the first farmers of Europe or South Asia wouldn’t account for the vast majority of the ancestry of the contemporary populations of the region. By “first farmers” I don’t even mean migrants. At that point, I had assumed a primarily Pleistocene indigenous hypothesis for the origin of Europeans and South Asians, with farming diffusing through a mixture of a few migrants along a demographic wave of advance.

That’s not what it looks like according to ancient DNA. In Northern Europe, it seems that around half or more of the ancestry is due to the incursions of a pastoralist steppe population during the Bronze Age. In Southern Europe and South Asia, the fraction is closer to 10-25%. But even in the latter case, the fraction of steppe ancestry is far higher than I had expected.

I had assumed that the steppe migrants would contribute 1-5% of the ancestry of Europeans and South Asians and that the spread of Indo-European languages was a matter of elite transmission and emulation. Think the Hungarians, for example, as an example of what had assumed.

So what explains what really happened?

During the Mongol conquest of Northern China Genghis Khan reputedly wanted to turn the land that had been the heart of the Middle Kingdom into pasture, first by exterminating the whole population. Part of the motive was to punish the Chinese for resisting his armies, and part of it was to increase his wealth. One of his advisors, Yelu Chucai, a functionary from the Khitai people, dissuaded him from this path through appealing to his selfishness. Chinese peasants taxed on their surplus would enrich Genghis Khan far more than enlarging his herds. Rather than focus on primary production, Genghis Khan could sit atop a more complex economic system and extract rents.

Most of you at this point can see the general framework then. For thousands of years, pastoralist people of the Inner Asian steppe and forest would extract rents out of the oikoumene by threatening them with force. The reason the East Roman Empire did not face the Hunnic onslaught during the lifetime of Attila is that they paid the horde tribute. Imperial China did the same during some periods. In other instances, civilized states found in the barbarians of the steppe useful confederates. The Tang dynasty did not collapse during the 750s because of the intervention of the Uyghurs, who suppressed the rebellion of An Lushan. In 9th century Baghdad the rise of the Turks was enabled by their usefulness in court politics and distance from any given faction.

The rise of the “gunpowder empires” during the 16th century and the eventual closing of the Inner Asian frontier with the crushing of the last embers of the Oirat confederacy between the Russian and Chinese Empires in the 18th century marked the end of thousands of years of interaction between the farmland and pasture.

But this makes us ask: when did this dynamic begin? I don’t think it was primordial. It was invented and developed over time through trial and error. I believe that the initial instinct of pastoralists was to turn farmland into pasture for his herds. This was Genghis Khan’s instinct. The rude barbarian that he was he had not grown up in the extortive system which more civilized barbarians, such as the Khitai, had been habituated to.

In these situations where pastoralists expropriated the land, there wouldn’t have been an opportunity for the farmer to raise a family. Barbarian warlords throughout history have aspired to be rich by plundering from the civilized the peoples…but would the earliest generations have understood the complexity of the institutions that they would have to extract rents out of if there wasn’t a precedent?

Instead of conventional historical dynamics of predatory elites and static peasantry, a better way to understand what occurred with the incursion of steppe pastoralists during the Bronze Age might be a simple ecological model of intra-specific competition. In a pre-state society defined by clan and tribal ties, steppe elites may have seen the farmers who were earlier residents in the territories which they were expanding into as competitors rather than resources from which a life of leisure might be obtained. In other words, instead of conquest, the dynamic was of animal competition.

Of course, pre-modern societies did not have totalitarian states and deadly technology. Rapid organized genocide in a way that we would understand was unlikely to have happened. Rather, in a world on the Malthusian margin, a few generations of deprivation may have resulted in the rapid demographic extinction of whole cultures. You don’t need to kill them if they starve because they were driven off their land.

In fact, we have some precedent of this historically. The Spaniards were intent on extracting rents out of the native peoples of the New World and living a life of leisure, but in many areas disease and exploitation resulted in demographic collapse. Imagine a conquest elite as vicious as the Spaniards, but without thousands of years of precedent that conquered peoples were more useful alive rather than dead. 

Addendum: The fraction of haplogroup M, which is probably derived from Pleistocene South Asians, is greater than 50% in places like Sindh. This indicates that the steppe migrations were strongly male biased in the initial generations.

April 25, 2018

Beyond cultural parochialism

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 11:21 pm

A major personal peeve of mine is that the past few centuries of Western colonialism have overshadowed so much that moderns are often unequipped to understand the vast tapestry of human historical and geographical diversity. If you are a modern Indian or Chinese or African person you know your own culture and its history…and its relationship to the modern West. This is a shadow of a bygone age which is down in its terminal stage.

Presuming that the audience of this weblog is mostly South Asian, here are some very broad surveys which I think the audience might find interesting:

The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian

China: A History

Africa: A Biography of the Continent

The Russian Moment in World History

Strange Parallels…Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830

History of Japan

A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

Aboriginal Australians: A History Since 1788

If anyone can recommend a good survey of Latin American history, I’m game.

April 5, 2018

The Jewish people: genetic unity in diversity

Filed under: Genetics,History,Jews,science — Razib Khan @ 4:17 am
The Western Wall

The religion of the Jews has had a great influence on the history of the world. Both Christianity and and Islam look to the Jewish tradition. Figures such as Moses are iconic in the Abrahamic context as lawgivers, setting a precedent for modern nation-states. The stories of the Bible suffuse Western civilization.

David and Goliath

But the Jews are also a people with their own history. For the past 2,000 years the custom among most Jews has been to determine one’s Jewishness through the maternal line, irrespective of religious practice. And yet as Jews have spread across the world, from Spain to China, they have mixed with local populations. Conversion to Judaism enables one to become a Jew. Like Ruth, becoming a Jew confers membership in the Hebrew tribes.

Jews are identified with a religion and a “tribe”

Today there are brown-skinned South Indian Jews, fair-haired Lithuanian Jews, and olive-skinned Persian Jews. They may all be united by religious custom, but clearly there are differences in heritage.

Though Jews have been part of the landscape of human history for millennia, only within the last 20 years has their genetic ancestry been well studied. This research has highlighted the fact that most Jewish people seem to exhibit both commonalities from shared ancestors and differences shaped by more recent history.

The high priest Aaron

In 1997 researchers noticed a pattern in the Y chromosomes of men who belonged to the Cohen lineage — the priestly caste of Jews descended in a direct male line from the brother of Moses, Aaron. They have a very similar subtype of haplogroup J1. The religious tradition that these men descend from a common male ancestor seems to be true genetically. Using molecular methods the authors eventually estimated that the common ancestor lived about ~3,000 years ago…the time when the Biblical Aaron supposedly lived!

Jewish men with the surname Cohen descend in a direct paternal line from the brother of Moses, Aaron

Since its discovery there has been a great deal of discussion about the “Cohen Modal Haplotype” (CMH) and its origins. Not all Cohens carry the CMH, and not all carriers of CMH are Cohens, or even Jews. The CMH and its brother lineages happen to be common among many peoples in the Middle East, and one of them is frequent in people who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammed!

But what these results showed is that Jews, whether they be German Jews or the Bene Israel of India, share a genetic commonality through the CMH. Jewish men from all over the world, irrespective of region, were very frequently carriers of the CMH. This was the first major clue that Jews are a people in more than ideology, but also as a group with common shared ancestors. And, those common ancestors were rooted in the Middle East, just as the Jewish tradition says.

Most Jews have ancestry from the Middle East

There are also maternal lineages shared in the mtDNA. For the Ashkenazi Jews of Northern Europe it turns out that these lineages are often similar to Europeans, not to Middle Easterners. The plot thickens….did the male and female ancestors of modern Jews differ?

Two papers in 2010 clarified the issue using genome-wide data. That is, hundreds of thousands of markers across the whole genome were analyzed to explore the genealogy of both the maternal and paternal ancestors of hundreds of Jews.

Emmanuelle Chriqui is Sephardic Jewish

The first result was to confirm what Y and mtDNA implied: Jews from varied regions are genetically similar to each other, but they also exhibit differences. The origins of the Jewish people in any given region indicate shared ancestry from a group in the Middle East — the pattern seen in their Y chromosomes. But as Jews spread across Eurasia and North Africa they mixed with local populations, as suggested by the mtDNA.

Jewish communities may have formed through the union of Jewish men with gentile women

European Jews mixed with European peoples, while Jews in North Africa mixed with Berber peoples of that region. Jews in the Near East resemble the peoples who have lived there since time immemorial, while Yemenite Jews resemble the tribes of southern Arabia. Finally, Jews from more exotic locales such as those of India also have mixed with the native groups there, a fact evident in their features and complexion.

Source: The time and place of European admixture in Ashkenazi Jewish history

Today, the most recent work has elucidated the demographic history of Ashkenazi Jews in much greater detail. The Ashkenazim are the the most numerous of the various Jewish cultural groups, and one whose origins are somewhat mysterious. While Ashkenazi Jews have ancestors in the Middle East, but how did they get to distant Russia?

Researchers have known for almost a decade that the Ashkenazi are a mix of Middle Eastern and European. But now they have confirmed rather definitively that their forebears were predominantly a Levantine population, mixed with Southern Europeans such as Italians and Iberians. But the big surprise is that a minority of their ancestry seems to be Northern European, probably Slavic.

Ashkenazi Jews have Levantine, Southern European, and Northern European ancestors
Fred Savage is Ashkenazi Jewish

Genetically Ashkenazi Jews are quite similar to each other, and form a coherent cluster in a way that is less true of Sephardic Jews. This is because the genetic data indicates that the ancestors of these Northern European Jews went through a bottleneck, or reduction in population size, around ~1,000 years ago. The community may have had fewer than 1,000 peoples this point. From this small group — which had migrated from the Mediterranean to western Germany — arose the vast millions who eventually settled in much of Central and Eastern Europe. And it was after the bottleneck as the community was expanding to the east that it likely integrated gentile women from the surrounding Eastern European populations.

Each Jewish community tells similar tales, though that of the Ashkenazi has been explored the furthest genetically. Ancient roots and new syntheses, bound by a shared faith, and bound together by a common genetic lineage.

Explore your Regional Ancestry story today.


The Jewish people: genetic unity in diversity was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

March 29, 2018

Abraham on the shoulders of Zoroaster (and others)

Filed under: History,Zoroastrianism — Razib Khan @ 7:54 pm

Yesterday on Twitter I made a quip about “linear Western models of time.” A friend pointed out that that was actually “Judeo-Christian.” I was going to agree…but then I realized something: I vaguely recalled that eschatology and millenarianism were things that some have hypothesized came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism.

The historical context is straightforward. The Babylonians took the Jews to Mesopotamia, where they were strongly influenced by the local cultures. Mesopotamia for most of the period before the Islamic conquest was dominated by Iranian polities, the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids. Though the non-Iranian populace of Mesopotamia never took to Zoroastrianism, which was considered somewhat the ethnic religion of Iranian peoples,* it has hard to imagine they were not influenced by the religion.

Early Islamic chronicles describe a religious culture in Mesopotamia in the early centuries after Muhammad that would be both familiar and alien. The familiar aspect would be the dominance of various forms of Christianity and Judaism among the Semitic speaking population. The form of Judaism which came to be dominant by the medieval period was strongly influenced by Jewish thinkers in late antique Mesopotamia, who operated with a certain freedom that Jews under Christian rule did not have. Though Christians in Mesopotamia tended to be Oriental Orthodox, whether it be what we would today term Jacobite or the Church of the East, they were Christian.

But the exotic aspect is that many other religious groups, inflected with Zoroastrian and pagan beliefs, were also present. The pagans of Harran persisted down to the Islamic period because of the protection that they had received from the Persian emperors during the Byzantine period. Though groups like Mandeans and Yazidis seems exotic to us today, they were probably part of the bubbling matrix of beliefs which produced novel religious movements rather regularly (ghulat Shia sects like the Alawites probably have laundered some of these old beliefs into modern outwardly Muslim groups).

Manicheanism, for example, seems to have emerged at this intersection of religions. The prophet himself was from a heterodox (from our perspective) Christian background, but his new religion integrated aspects of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism, as well as agnosticism which seems to have channeled Neoplatonic conceptions of the corruption of this world.

The important point here is that this was not a unique confluence of events. Centuries before the Roman Empire, exiled Judaeans were in contact with Zoroastrians in Mesopotamia. The dislocation probably helped force their shift away from belief in a geographically delimited tribal god, local to Palestine, toward a more mature monotheism. But they were also introduced to new ideas which seem to be derived from Zoroastrianism: angels, the prominent role of Satan as God’s foil, an elaborated heaven, and eschatology, seem to be derived from the milieu of Zoroastrian influenced culture.

But were they? One of the major themes, perhaps the most interesting one, in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, are the common Mesopotamian motifs which seem to pervade the West Eurasian oikoumene, from Europe to South Asia.

Perhaps the Zoroastrian influence on the Abrahamic religions is less about the creative genius of the Iranian peoples as they impinged upon the older civilizations of West Asia, as it is about their absorption and synthesis of far older motifs?

Again, this sort of synthesis, cooption, and appropriation should be unsurprising. The more and more I’ve dug into the early history of Islam, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that subjugated Iran & Turan held captive the uncouth Arab and brought the arts to the rustic desert nomads! Actually, that appropriation of a classicist jibe misleads as to my view of the early Arab conquerors of Persia. I suspect they were primarily civilized peoples on the margins of the Persian and Roman world, not raw Bedouins. But, many of the aspects of Islam that we think of as constitutive to the religion probably only dates to the Abbasid period and later, when Iranians of Zoroastrian, Christian, and Buddhist background dominated the culture (e.g, the emphasis messianism in Shia Islam probably is accentuated by Zoroastrian influences, while Sunni Islam’s focus on learning of the ulema in a formal sense may be modeled on Central Asian Buddhist monastic forms).

Ultimately the reason I’ve brought this up is that many things that we in the modern world find beautiful or good are said to be contingent on the nature of Christianity, and Christianity is contingent on Jewish thought. Quite often this is false. I used to watch Bible documentaries where David Wolpe was a frequent guest. Wolpe was wont to say that the genius of the Jews was the invention of ethical monotheism. If I had to bet I think this is just wrong. My own suspicion is that on the probability the Jewish shift toward ethical monotheism in their conception of their tribal religion was given a strong push sufficiently, if not necessarily, by the widespread currency of proto-Zoroastrian ideas in Persian Babylon (and later Ctesiphon).

The idea of linear time is often connected liberal individualism and the possibility of progress. The caricature is that the “Judeo-Christian tradition invented progress,” ergo, liberalism, science, etc. This sort of reductive causal model has always struck me as implausible, in part because most of the people (thought not all!) who make this assertion know very little outside of our their own tradition, so they are easily impressed by its uniqueness due to its singular hold on their imagination.

I’m not presupposing here that Zoroastrianism was a necessary condition for the emergence of many traits unique to Judaism. It seems likely that something like ethical monotheism was going to be “invented” somewhere (note that millenarianism seems to have developed in China independently before the first “Western” influences, such as Buddhism and Manichaeanism).

This speaks to the thesis of whether history is driven by unique ideas, or structural forces. They aren’t exclusive, nor are they unrelated. Peter Turchin and others have suggested that ethical metaphysical/religious systems were nearly inevitable with the maturing of large multi-ethnic imperial polities. I believe that evolutionary psychology allows us to understand why those ethical systems were broadly similar in the generalities. The human quest for cosmic justice is just an elaboration of our intuitions about fair-play in a Paleolithic tribal band.

* Zoroastrianism was more successful in the Caucasus, probably because Caucasian elites were integrated into the military elite of the Iranian states.

March 26, 2018

Humanity’s Genes Reveal Its Tangled History

Filed under: Culture,History,science,Science & Tech — Razib Khan @ 2:30 am
Reality, it turns out, is more complex and interesting than scientists ever imagined.

Communities only exist only in the Minds of Europeans

Filed under: History,Imagined Communities — Razib Khan @ 12:28 am

I read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origins and spread of Nationalism because other people read it. This is a book that is routinely alluded to in discussions by pundits of various stripes. On the back of the 2006 edition, the publisher notes that over 250,000 copies have been printed of this short academic work. Time put this as 48th out of 100 all-time great nonfiction books. It’s one of the most assigned works to undergraduates at universities.

There are two things about Imagined Communities that drove me crazy. First, there’s a tendency to just assert something that is perhaps profound, perhaps inscrutable. Honestly, I just don’t know. I randomly opened to page 23, and found this:

Figuring the Virgin Mary with “Semitic” feature or “first-century” costumes in the restoring spirit of the modern museum was unimaginable because the medieval [sic] Christian mind had no conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separation between past and present.30

But wait, there’s a note! What does it cite? “For us, the idea of ‘modern dress,’ a metaphorical equivalencing of past with present, is a backhanded recognition of their fatal separation.”

This is pretty typical throughout the book. I’m really skeptical of this strong assertion that medieval Christians didn’t understand cause and effect, and the past or present, considering that they periodically went through millenarian enthusiasms about the End of the World. But perhaps I misunderstand Anderson? It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s just not that clear a lot of the time.

About ten years ago Jonathan Gottschall observed that often in literary scholarship all their “experiments” confirm their theories. Imagined Communities follows this model. I’m very confused why pundits with backgrounds in political science are citing a work which is basically a long analysis of literature, with some historical references thrown in. Though there are numbers in the book, there are no graphs or tables. This is a work of literary scholarship.

Second,  Anderson likes to use a lot of words which are very obscure. For example, “the philological-lexicographic revolution and the rise of intra-European nationalist movements, themselves the products, not only of capitalism, but of the elephantiasis of the dynastic states….”

I understood what the author meant by “elephantiasis.” But that’s a really unnecessary word. If it was the exception, I’d shrug it off. But this reliance on overly obscure terminology is pretty common in this book, and again, it makes me wonder what undergrads are getting out of it. Not to brag, but I have a pretty big vocabulary, and the lexical flourishes were obscuring the point of whole passages. If that’s how I feel, what about someone with a smaller vocabulary?

Probably the most intellectually creative thing about Imagined Communities is that the author begins by examining the emergence of nation-states in Latin America, and the role of white Creole communities in the rebellion against the Spaniards. Anderson contends that this model influenced Europeans. The United States as well showed much of Europe that a large continental republic could actually flourish. From here Imagined Communities digs deeply into the various intricate details of how the Empire of the Romanovs began to assert a more clear Russian identity, or the nationalities trapped into the Habsburg polity.

Much of this material is interesting and has clearly percolated to other areas of scholarship, as I was familiar with it. Again, the author has a tendency toward abstruse phraseology or obscure word choices, but the portion on Europe was relatively coherent and familiar, though there was a strong bias to present nationalism as novel and new, rather than primordial.

But when the story moves to Asia it lost me. This is strange insofar as Anderson has a background in Asian scholarship, with a focus on Indonesia. He devotes a fair amount of time to Southeast Asia for these reason. And perhaps it wasn’t intended, but Imagined Communities depicts the emergence of Southeast Asian nation-states as an outcome of the agency of Europeans. The British created Burma. The French created Vietnam (Anderson makes much of the name changes that “Vietnam” has undergone over the past few centuries). China was a diverse motley of dialects before being dragged into the modern world by European-influenced intellectuals. Japan was given form with the Meiji revolution. Thailand created itself due to its engagement with colonial powers. Indonesia was stitched together by the Dutch.

Non-Europeans have no agency or originality in creating their own national identities. They were blank slates upon which European colonials drew something.

Luckily for me, I don’t come into reading Imagined Communities totally ignorant of other viewpoints. I’ve read Victor Lieberman’s Strange Parallels, which makes the case that mainland Southeast Asia resembled Europe in the coalescence of distinct proto-national identities one to two thousand years ago.

The same is true to the north. China was arguably a nation-empire long before Europeans arrived. Though the Chinese peasantry spoke different dialects, it was united by a ruling class with a sense of coherency. The modern Japanese nation-state state is modeled on Western nation-states, in particular, Prussia. It strikes as bizarre to hold that this unique and isolated nation didn’t exist in the imagination of Japanese when the Europeans first arrived.

Anderson, like many scholars of his ilk, gets carried away with the novelty and power of European rationalism. For example, he focuses on European censuses with the clear implication that they somehow created many ethnicities. Not to sidetrack, but modern genetics shows that this is just false. It’s false in India. It’s false in Southeast Asia. It’s probably false more or less everywhere.

Western science and the bureaucratic machinery of the Western nation-state, were novel and revolutionary. But peoples existed with a self-identity long before Europeans arrived. To be honest I found Anderson’s treatment of the Vietnamese almost insulting. The first edition of Imagined Communities was written in the early 1980s, and the work is pervaded by Cold War concerns. Though Vietnam has been a catspaw in the game of great power, the fact that they began adjuncts to, but did not become absorbed into, the Chinese system highlights that their national identity in some inchoate way is very old.

Overall it is worth reading Imagined Communities because of its purported cultural significance. But much of it is so garbled and unclear I’m not sure what people are taking from it, aside from the proposition that the modern nation-state was invented in the last few centuries due to modernity. In the end the book is kind of a long tautology.

March 18, 2018

A preview review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

Filed under: History,Who We Are and How We Got Here — Razib Khan @ 4:22 pm

So I read the final version of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past. It’s good. You can finally set aside The History and Geography of Human Genes, though with the rate of change in the field of ancient DNA I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a major revision of Who We Are and How We Got Here in two to four years.

I’m writing up a full reaction for National Review Online, so I’m not going to say too much here in specifics. And, since the book is still not out for a bit over a week I think it would be kind of rude of me to spill the beans on anything too juicy (though if you read this blog closely there won’t be any huge reveals).

So let me say something in the generality first. I’ve told the story of my friend Barry* before. Barry is a smart guy. He has a Ph.D. in the physical sciences from an eminent university in the Boston area. Barry works as a senior research engineer at a major semiconductor firm. Barry is interested in many things about the world. In 2011 I mentioned in passing to Barry over dinner that researchers had published in Science last year the fact that most humans alive today carry appreciable Neanderthal DNA. Barry was shocked. This was news to him. When I expressed shock that someone like Barry would be ignorant of this fact, Barry suggested perhaps I needed to expand my horizons as to the nature of things that the typical educated and interested person knows about science at any given time. That’s fair enough.

Someone like Barry is a perfect audience for Who We Are and How We Got Here. Barry hasn’t taken much biology, so the review of concepts such as recombination (even if the author doesn’t use that word) and mutation are useful. But more importantly, Who We Are and How We Got Here catches someone like Barry up to the state-of-the-art knowledge that we have in terms of human history, deep and prehistoric.

But it’s not just Barry. I’ve talked to plenty of people who work in evolutionary genomics who are not totally up-to-speed on the ancient DNA revolution. They too would benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here front to back. I know people who work in the field of cultural evolution, who would also benefit from reading Who We Are and How We Got Here. I know behavior geneticists who would benefit from reading  Who We Are and How We Got Here. And so forth.

If you can’t find it in yourself to read 200-page supplements top to bottom, Who We Are and How We Got Here also is what you need.

Last summer I had the pleasure of having lunch with the author of Who We Are and How We Got Here, David Reich. If you read the prose it’s hard not to hear his precise and careful words echoing in your mind. Who We Are and How We Got Here is not rich with the same stylistic flourish and engagement as one might find in a popularization by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins. And I don’t think that was its intent, judging by how much space is given over to the four-population test! This is a serious book that is earnest in focusing on the substance of the science first, second, and last.

David expressed his discomfort with the opportunity cost that writing this book entailed for him when we spoke. While focusing on the book for the past few years he hasn’t had much time to do original analysis himself. His body language indicated the deep discomfort this caused him, and in Who We Are and How We Got Here he admits frankly that devoting himself to the book resulted in him not performing many analyses and publishing many papers.

One reason to write Who We Are and How We Got Here is that a book will reach outside the circle of those consuming and participating in the ancient DNA revolution. And a revolution it is! David Reich is already a highly eminent academic by any measure.  Who We Are and How We Got Here will do nothing to elevate his standing among his peers, because amongst them his stature is measured by the scientific papers published and projects in which he is involved.

So why make the sacrifice and write this book? Let me quote David Reich himself:

…I finally thank several people who repeatedly encouraged me to write this book. I resisted the idea for years because I did not want to distract myself from the science, and because for geneticists papers are the currency, not books. But my mind hanged as my colleagues grew to include archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and others eager to come to grips with the ancient DNA revolution.

I would expand the purview here more broadly: all public intellectuals should know about the human past in its fullness. It’s a shadow that hangs over us and frames our arguments about the present. How we came to be where we are matters unless you are the most clinical of logicians. If you are Gilbert Ryle, turn away!

In Who We Are and How We Got Here Reich recounts an encounter with an impudent undergraduate at MIT who wondered at the end of a lecture how it was he got funding for his abstruse projects. He responded with the standard pitch that goes into NIH grant proposals, that to understand human disease, one must also understand human population structure, and to understand human population structure it helps to understand human population history. After recollecting this anecdote Reich observes that he wishes he had responded differently. He concludes:

The study of the human past-as of art, music, literature, or cosmology-is vital because it makes us aware of aspects of our common condition that are profounding important that we heretofore never imagined.

To me, this goes back to the Greek distinction of techne vs. telos. Science as an instrument in expanding the limits of human longevity and health is important, but it is not the only thing that science is capable of. If we turn science into pure instrument, we lose something essential and integral in its purpose.

These are old, ancient, universal disagreements. In ancient China, there were groups of philosophers who outlined a vision that had little use for the fripperies of the past. Legalists who wished to turn the whole society into an instrument of production and power, for whom techne was prominent. The Legalists expressed a cold calculating face of practicality and instrumentality, but the universal altruists who followed Mozi ultimately had some of the same inclinations. How could men make merry with music when there was still suffering in the world? Shouldn’t nonproductive cultural practices be curtailed before we achieve the Utopia of plentitude?

Because the disciplines of Confucius won the ancient culture wars the Legalists and Mohists are remembered as crass caricatures. But the Confucian respect and reverence for accumulated human wisdom, the customs, and folkways of the past, were wise, insofar as a Confucian system persisted in China for over 2,000 years.** They gelled with deep human dispositions.

If we are to view human beings more than production and consumption machines shackled to the modern capitalist hedonic treadmill, then we need to consider the past as part of who we are. It is part of the treasury of human existence, which is more than just feelings of the present, but echoes down through the generations, through family lines, and cultures, and even in our genes. Humans without root float freely, but they are never truly free.

* I’m changing names, though if you know me from college or know me personally, you know who I’m talking about.

** Obviously this is a coarse generalization, one could argue that Legalism was laundered through State Confucianism!

January 21, 2018

The first ethical revolution

Filed under: axial age,History — Razib Khan @ 11:33 pm

My maternal grandfather was born in 1896. He died in 1996. He saw a great many changes in his life. If my children live 100 years what changes will they see? To the same extent? In the biological sciences, I suspect so. In particular, in the domain of stell cells and genetic engineering it strikes me that many revolutions will occur. My confidence when it comes to automation and AI is weaker, but the potential is great.

That being said, there probably won’t be flying cars or day-trips to the moon base.

Why? This may be a function of the nature of the low hanging fruit that we’ve picked in the area of physics with engineering application to technology. If you agree with the work of scholars such as Robert J Gordon there’s been a decrease in technological innovation which changes our lives over the past century so (see The Rise and Fall of American Growth). This isn’t for lack of trying. The institutional structures and organizational effort toward novel innovation are far more directed, conscious and planned than in the past (here’s a Planet Money podcast on how technological change is slower now, though not for lack of trying).

Arguably the only major technological revolution of this century is the smart-phone. And I don’t think that that’s something you can dismiss, the smart-phone has interposed itself today into our lives in some deep and fundamental ways.

But the point of this post is that perhaps human society periodically goes through phases of innovation. And then, there’s nothing.

Twenty years ago Julian Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Seventy years ago Karl Jaspers introduced the concept of the Axial Age. Both point to the same dynamic historically.

Something happened in the centuries around 500 BCE all around the world. Great religions and philosophies arose. The Indian religious traditions, the Chinese philosophical-political ones, and the roots of what we can recognize as Judaism. In Greece, the precursors of many modern philosophical streams emerged formally, along with a variety of political systems.

The next few centuries saw some more innovation. Rabbinical Judaism transformed a ritualistic tribal religion into an ethical one, and Christianity universalized Jewish religious thought, as well as infusing it with Greek systematic concepts. Meanwhile, Indian and Chinese thought continued to evolve, often due to interactions each other (it is hard to imagine certain later developments in Confucianism without the Buddhist stimulus). Finally, in the 7th century, Islam emerges as the last great world religion.

It has long puzzled me why all the great institutional faiths arose in about 1,000 years. And then not much since then (numerically Sikhs are marginal, while the fracturing of Christianity in the 16th still left the daughter sects recognizable and possibly reconcilable).

I think here perhaps an analogy to our technological conundrum applies. One reason we don’t have jetpacks and flying cars is that the limitations of physics make it difficult.  Some things may be physically possible, but the engineering costs are prohibitive. The several waves of life-transforming technological revolutions between 1750 and 1950 slowly started to ebb in the past generations. Why? It turns out that going from horse and human power, to fossil fuels, and nuclear power, were huge transitions in terms of gains in power. There may not be much to do at this point (fusion is perhaps the major exception).

Similarly, the reason that modern people can get a lot out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Confucius’ Analects, and the Bible, is that the ethical low-hanging fruit was picked. Recently there have been advances in domains such as the abolition of slavery, so it isn’t as if no progress has been made. But if you read about the Bronze Age world, you see one where human sacrifice is still routinely practiced, as opposed to being an aberration. The distance between 0 AD and 1000 BC is arguably greater ethically than between 0 AD and 2000 AD.

Living in large complex societies with social stratification posed challenges. A religion such as Christianity was not a coincidence, something of its broad outlines may have been inevitable. Universal, portable, ethical, and infused with transcendence and coherency. Similarly, god-kings seem to have universally transformed themselves into the human who binds heaven to earth in some fashion.

The second wave of social-ethical transformation occurred in the early modern period, starting in Europe. My own opinion is that economic growth triggered by innovation and gains in productivity unleashed constraints which had dampened further transformations in the domain of ethics. But the new developments ultimately were simply extensions and modifications on the earlier “source code” (e.g., whereas for nearly two thousand years Christianity had had to make peace with the existence of slavery, in the 19th century anti-slavery activists began marshaling Christian language against the institution).

We may be living in the 21st century, but we’re still living by Iron Age ethics. And that’s not surprising.

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