Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

April 26, 2017

The anti-“End of History and the Last Man”

Filed under: Adam K Webb,Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 6:42 pm

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man has often been misconstrued. But, it did argue for the long term trend of the ascendancy of democracy and market values. Though Fukuyama did not necessarily predict the universal dominance of Western liberalism, that is one of the corollaries many associate with The End of History and the Last Man.

About 10 years ago I read a book which in many ways stood at total odds with Fukuyama’s thesis, Beyond the Global Culture War by Adam K Webb. I was very skeptical of Webb’s thesis, but intrigued by it. So much so that I did a 10 questions with him.

With hindsight I now believe that many of Webb’s contentions are much more relevant today in 2017 than they were when he wrote Beyond the Global Culture War. Though Webb was not prescient in the details, I think he did get at the fundamental limits of the Western liberal paradigm which were beginning to be exposed in the wake of 9/11.

(note, he has a newer book, Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalization, which I have not read)

April 24, 2017

The civilization before history

Filed under: History,Sumeria,Uruk — Razib Khan @ 10:36 pm

A forgotten civilization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empire of power, empire of ideas

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

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

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

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

Later analogs to the Uruk collapse

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

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

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

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

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

The Sumerian Dark Age and its aftermath

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

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

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

Forgotten Antediluvian Sumeria

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

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

The many civilizations before writing

My forebears?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curiouser and curiouser….

April 20, 2017

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

Filed under: Genetics,Genomics,History,India — Razib Khan @ 10:21 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(BEB = Bengali, GIH = Gujarati, PJL = Punjabi, STU = Sri Lanka Tamil, ITU = Indian Telugu)

The spatial distribution of Z93 lineages of R1a is as you can see to the left. There are branches in South Asia, Central Asia, and in the Altai region. Ancient DNA from the Bronze Age Mongolia has found Z93. Modern Mongolians clearly have a small, but appreciable, fraction of West Eurasian ancestry. Some also carry R1a1a. Z93 has also been found in North-Central Asian steppe samples that date to ~4,500 years before the present.

Today with ancient DNA we’re discovering individuals who lived around the time of the massive  expansion alluded to above. What are these individuals like? They are a mix of European, Central Eurasian, Near Eastern, and Siberian. Many of them share quite a bit of ancestry with South Asian populations, in particular those from the northwest of subcontinent, as well as upper castes more generally.

A new paper using ancient DNA from Scythians (Iranian speakers) also shows that they carried Z93. Some of them had East Asian admixture. These were the ones from the eastern steppe. So not entirely surprising. In the supplements of the paper they have an admixture plot with many populations. At K = 15 in supplementary figure 14 you see many ancient Central Eurasian populations run against modern groups. At this K there is a South Asian modal cluster which is found in South Asians as well as nearby Iranian groups from Afghanistan.

It is not light green or dark blue. You see see that this salmon color is modal in tribal South Indian populations, or non-Brahmin South Indians. It drops in frequency as you move north and west, and as you move up the caste ladder. Observe that is present even among the relatively isolated Kalash people of Chitral.

Outside of South Asia-Afghanistan, this salmon component is found among Thai and Cambodians. From talking to various researchers, and recent published findings, it seems clear that this signature is not spurious, but is indicative of some migration from South Asia to Southeast Asia in the historical period, as one might infer based on cultural affinities. It is also found at lower frequencies among the Uyghur of Xinjiang. This is not entirely surprising either. This region of the Tarim basin was connected to Kashmir across the Pamirs. The 4th century Buddhist monk from the Tarim basin city of Kucha, who was instrumental in the translation of texts into Chinese, Kumārajīva, may have had a Kashmiri father.

Even before Islam much of Northwest India and Central Asia were under the rule of the same polity, and after Islam there is extensive record of the enslavement of many Indians in the cities of the eastern Islamic world, as well as the travel of some Indian merchants and intellectuals into these regions.

And yet this South Asia cluster is not present in the ancient steppe samples carrying R1a1a-Z93. None of them to my knowledge. Many ancient samples share ancestry with South Asians. For example it seems that many ancient West Asian samples from Iran share common history as evident in genetic drift patterns with many South Asians. And, there is good evidence that a subset of South Asians, skewed toward northwest and upper caste groups, share drift with steppe Yamna samples. But South Asians are often clearly composites of these exogenous populations and an indigenous component with affinities with Andaman Islanders, and more distantly Southeast Asians and other eastern non-Africans.

How can you reconcile this with migration out of South Asia? The path is found in publications such as Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India. Here you have a paper which models mixing between Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI). The ANI would be the source population for the ancestry shared with West Eurasians. And, they would lack ASI ancestry because the mixing had not occurred. The admixture dates the paper are between two and four thousand years before the present.

There is a problem though. These methods detect the last admixture events. Therefore, they are a lower bound on major mixing events, not a record of when there was no mixing. Secondarily, but not less importantly, recent work indicates that because of the pulse admixture simplification these methods likely underestimate the time period of admixture.

Another issue for me is the idea that ANI and ASI could be so separate within India. If ANI is the source of gene flow into other parts of Eurasia from South Asia, then I believe that ASI is intrusive to the subcontinent. I don’t think that ASI being intrusive is so implausible. Southeast Asia has undergone massive genetic changes over the Holocene, and it may be that there was much more ASI ancestry in placers like Burma before the arrival of Austro-Asiatic rice farmers. The presence of Austro-Asiatic languages in northeast India and central India shows a precedent of migration from Southeast Asia into the subcontinent.

In sum, the balance of evidence suggests male mediated migration into South Asia from Central Asia on the order of ~4-5,000 years ago. There are lots of details to be worked out, and this is not an assured model in terms of data, but it is the most likely. In the near future ancient DNA will clear up confusions. Writing very long but confused comments just won’t change this state of affairs. New data will.

Addendum: Indian populations have finally been relatively well sampled, thanks to Mait Mepsalu’s group in Estonia, David Reich’s lab and, the Indian collaborators of both, and the 1000 Genomes (HGDP gave us Pakistanis). Additionally, Zack Ajmal’s Harappa website did some work filling in some holes in the early 2010s.

* A Facebook argument broke out about one of my posts where one interlocutor asserted that he leaned on papers from the late 2000s, not all the new stuff. That’s obviously because the new stuff did not support his preferred position, while the old stuff did. I would prefer that faster-than-light travel were possible, so I’ll just stick to physics before 1910?

The Sounds of Sumer

Filed under: Epic of Gilgamesh in Sumerian,History,Sumer — Razib Khan @ 7:25 pm

10 Things About Ancient History You Should Really Know

Filed under: Ancient History,History — Razib Khan @ 3:07 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 13, 2017

The revenge of the cavemen

Filed under: Anthroplogy,History — Razib Khan @ 5:08 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reality of cultural hitchhiking

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Cultural hitchhiking,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 2:55 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 11, 2017

Living as Loki, friendship before Ragnarok

Filed under: Culture,History — Razib Khan @ 9:45 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addendum: Cool trailer:

April 10, 2017

Colonizing the past

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 11:54 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 4, 2017

Sex bias in migration from the steppe (revisited)

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Genetics,Genomics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:21 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

How a Eurasian “band of brothers” shaped the world

Filed under: Anthroplogy,Corded Ware,History,Indo-Europeans — Razib Khan @ 1:10 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 2, 2017

I’d stand with Erasmus, I could do no other

Filed under: History,Reformation — Razib Khan @ 2:43 pm

About ten years ago reading The English Civil War: A People’s History, I came to the realization that I was ‘against’ radical Protestantism, whatever that meant. Raised as a child in upstate New York there are certain Truths which are imparted by the educational system which you take for granted. For example, in the American Civil War you knew very well who the good guys and bad guys were. Though less stark and explicit, it was also rather obvious that the American revolutionaries were on the side of right and the British were wrong. Finally, though more subtextual, it was clear that Protestants and Puritans were on the right side of history, while the Roman Catholic church was a somewhat antiquated institution which had had to adapt to modernity.

By the values which I hold to at this age I think that my childhood views, shaped by teachers, curriculum, and frankly the milieu of upstate New York, I think I learned the sides which were right and wrong correctly, even if there are shades of gray to reality. When it comes to the American revolution I am more ambivalent, and honestly have a difficult time saying that the British were wrong by the values which I hold to today. Internally it’s still a process and I can see both sides.

But when it comes to Protestantism I have no doubts now; in the age of the Reformation my head tells me that I hope that I’d have the courage to stand with Erasmus. I qualify that it my head thinks this because for some reason my heart still sides with the Protestants, whether it be joy when reading about Elizabeth’s fleet defeating that of Phillip or the sadness over the travails of the Winter King.

When I say I am against the Reformation does that mean that I’m in favor the corruption that was the Church of the early 16th century? Clearly not. And when I say I’m against the Reformation, does that mean that I accept the metaphysical claims of a particular religion? Not at all. My concerns are both material and ideological in relation to the chaos that the Reformation wrought.

As most of us know Erasmus of Rotterdman was a catalyst for many of the ideas and impulses of the Reformation, even if he was neither necessary nor sufficient. His accomplishments are well known enough that I won’t rehash them here, while his criticism of the Church of his period are also rather famous. Erasmus clearly favored a reform of the practice of the religion of the Western Christian church, but at the end he never left the Church.

Though agreeing, even anticipating, many of the critiques of Protestants, ultimately he did not wish to see a rupture in Western Christianity. But there was also the scandalous cultural barbarism unleashed. One could critique priests for their corruption, but should the response be to beat them? One could suggest that relics were false, and that excessive attention to artistry within churches were a burden to the community, but should one burden the churches down? Perhaps the frivolity of feasts days were a bit much, but should peasants be denied their joy because they should tremble in the hands of an angry God?

Arguably the Reformation was critical in allowing for the space to develop so that the scientific rationalism which we appreciate today, though I don’t think it was necessary. And curiously, in Reformations, the author points out that John Calvin’s conception of false religion is rather like that of atheists in relation to all religion. But it also unleashed savage antinomian energies, most evident in what happened at Munster. When Erasmus critiqued the Church of his period he did not wish as a response barbaric iconoclasm which enforced its truth at the point of the sword. But that is what the Reformation became by and large (the later Anabaptist sectarians had a quite different view, but it is notable that they emerge in the failures of the violent Anabaptists).

Of course in the real world people like Erasmus were caught between fanatics in both campus. As a realist one might have to choose a side, even if one preferred that the conflict not occur. So when I say I’m against the Reformation, I’m pointing to the reality that often you create more problems by attempting to fix things too quickly and radically. Some parts of the Church, such as in Spain, had already reformed, and so were surprisingly immune to the emergence of dissent (what did emerge in Spain and Italy were often theological innovators of a Unitarian stripe). In our age the same impulse of the early Reformers exists: banish injustice and corruption. But that’s easier said than done, and sometimes the medicine of justice is worse than the disease of injustice.

March 29, 2017

10 Things About Roman History You Should Know

Filed under: Culture,History,rome — Razib Khan @ 9:42 pm

Since Since the earlier “10 Things” was quite popular, I thought I’d try my hand at another one on a topic I know rather well. This involves Roman history. Unfortunately, history is a less clear and distinct topic than evolutionary biology, so there may be some disagreement with the assertions below.

But here we go….

1) Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did not have an established religion, at that point, in any way we could understand today. Rather, there were customary subsidies given to traditional cults, and favor shown to particular religions by particular emperors. The subsidies from the state coffers to pagan cults were cut off more than two generations after Constantine.

2) By the late Republic most of the “noble” families of Roman society were originally plebeian, rather than patrician, in origin. They were defined by their wealth, power, and achievements, as opposed to their blood. There were still powerful patrician lineages, such as the Julii and Claudii, by they no longer held a monopoly on the public square (Julius Caesar may have been from an old patrician line, but his mother was a Cotta, who were plebeians).

3) Most of the emperors who were “not Roman,” were thoroughly Roman. Septimius Severus, the “African emperor,” born in Libya, did come from a paternal lineage of Punic (so Phoenician) origin. But his mother descended from Italian colonists in North Africa. He was culturally a man of the Latin West.

4) At the elite level Roman culture was to some extent dual-culture, with many Latin elites cultivating aspects of Greek culture and learning. But Western (Latin) and Eastern (which usually been Greek or Hellenized non-Greek) societies remained sharply differentiated in many ways. The first emperor who may have spoken Greek as his first language, Anastasius, reigned at the end of the 5th century. Greeks dominated philosophy, while Latins dominated rhetoric.

5) Though Latin political control collapsed in Italy in 476, the cultural and economic destruction of the Italian peninsula occurred during the East Roman reconquista of the 6th century.

6) The forms of Republican Rome persisted for centuries during the imperial period. The transformation of Roman Emperors into purely naked autocrats did not occur until after the chaos of the middle 3rd century.

7) Speaking of which, the Roman system almost collapsed during the “Crisis of the Third Century”.

8) The early “bad emperors,” such as Nero or Caligula, often caused problems for the Roman elites. But the overall institutional system persisted and was minimally impacted. In contrast, Julius Caesar would almost certainly be judged to have committed genocide in Gaul were he judged by modern standards.

9) Most of the expenditure of the Roman state went to the military.

10) Romans arguably invented Western bureaucracy. Though the Roman state in was incredibly understaffed by modern standards, one consequence of the Western Empire’s fall was the collapse of tax collection in specie as opposed to kind or service.

When the gods come crashing down

Filed under: Culture,Evolution,History — Razib Khan @ 9:03 pm

Sometimes the old gods slowly fade into oblivion. Contrary to popular perception this seems likely the case for ancient paganism. The conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion began the process of a hand-off and the commanding heights of classical culture that took over a century to complete. There were punctuating moments, such as the apostasy of Justinian in the 360s, or the mostly symbolic ban on public paganism by Theodosius in the 390s (the Serapeum was destroyed by a vigilante mob). But pagans in the form of the Neoplatonic school persisted into the 6th century, while elite pagans such as Marcellinus maintained power and influence deep into the second half of the 5th century.

Call this “normal” cultural evolution. Antiquity evolved from being predominantly pagan to predominantly Christian (though a small cultured pagan minority persisted even until the Islamic conquest in the Near East, such as the Sabians of Haran).

The Reformation period was different. In a single generation one thousand years of a coherent and unified Western Christian ideology collapsed, and was replaced by something very different.

Note here that I said Western Christian ideology. The reality is that Western Christianity was never as unified or coherent as Western Christians themselves envisaged themselves to be (or aspired to be). There were episodes of hostility between particular kingdoms and the Roman papacy. Heresies such as that of the Cathars, and popular revolts with a religious tinge such as that of the Hussites. And finally, there were periods of multiple popes, which undermined the credibility of the institution of the Church in the medieval period.

But all this pales next to the magnitude and scope of the revolt against the establishment of the Western Christian church that occurred in the 1520s. Martin Luther went from being a Christian cleric within the established Church to declaring the pope the anti-Christian! Previously devout peasants in Switzerland turned on the relics and churches which they had only recently venerated, and engaged in mob iconoclasm. Whereas monarchs, such as Henry IV, ultimately compromised with the clerical estate (or, submitted), Henry VIII of England managed to destroy or subordinate the institutions of the church to his own will and pleasure.

There are many theories for why the Reformation occurred when it did. Some of them are rooted in technology, in particular the printing press. Others point to the development of proto-national identities, such as the rise of German nationalism and its leveraging by Luther against his “Roman” persecutors.

These specific issues are not interesting to me. Rather, what they point out to us that there can be cultural revolutions that occur very rapidly. One can point to the pacific post-World War II Japanese, and contrast them with the militaristic Japanese of the first half of the 20th century. Or the shift of Russia from being a conservative autocracy in the 1910s to a revolutionary society in the 1920s. But these are modern events, and moderns are liable to suggest that our own epoch is sui generis in these sorts of turnovers of values. But the Reformation shows that revolutionary changes in whole societies can occur rather rapidly even in a pre-modern context.

In other words, cultural revolution is not a derived characteristic of our species, but perhaps a very old one. The rapid expansion of the Austronesians. Or the radiation of non-African humanity. These come out of a vacuum, a cultural-demographic analog to the inflationary universe. But given enough time perhaps our species is simply subject to these sorts of explosions of creative change and innovation.

March 27, 2017

Adaptation is ancient: the story of Duffy

Filed under: Duffy allele,Duffy antigen,Genomics,History,Malaria — Razib Khan @ 10:06 pm

Anyone with a passing familiar with human population genetics will know of the Duffy system, and the fact that there is a huge difference between Sub-Saharan Africans and other populations on this locus. Specifically, the classical Duffy allele exhibits a nearly disjoint distribution from Africa to non-Africa. It was naturally one of the illustrations in The Genetics of Human Populations, a classic textbook from the 1960s.

Today we know a lot more about human variation. On most alleles we don’t see such sharp distinctions. Almost certainly the detection of these very differentiated alleles early on in human genetics was partly a function of selection bias. The methods, techniques, and samples, were underpowered and limited, so only the largest differences would be visible. Today we often use single base pair variations, single nucleotide polymorphisms, and the frequency differences are much more modest on average. Ergo, the reality that only a minority of genetic variation is partitioned across geographic races.

Why is Duffy different? Obviously it could be random. Assuming you have a polymorphism, you’ll get a range of frequencies across populations, and in some cases those frequencies which map onto different geographic zones just by chance. Imagine constant mutation, and high structured bottlenecks. You could get a sequence of derived mutations fixing in populations one after the other, just by chance.

This is probably not the case with Duffy. I’ll quote from Wikipedia:

The Duffy antigen is located on the surface of red blood cells, and is named after the patient in which it was discovered. The protein encoded by this gene is a glycosylated membrane protein and a non-specific receptor for several chemokines. The protein is also the receptor for the human malarial parasites Plasmodium vivax and Plasmodium knowlesi. Polymorphisms in this gene are the basis of the Duffy blood group system.

Malaria is one of the strongest selection pressures known to humanity. The balancing selection which results in sickle-cell disease is well known even among the general public. But the likely selection pressures due to the vivax variety are well commonly talked about, partly because they don’t as a side-effect induce a serious disease. Duffy may be canonical if you are a human population geneticist, but it is of less interest more generally.

But a recent paper in PLOS GENETICS shows just how dynamic the evolutionary genetic past of our species was, through the lens of the Duffy system, Population genetic analysis of the DARC locus (Duffy) reveals adaptation from standing variation associated with malaria resistance in humans. Here’s the author summary:

Infectious diseases have undoubtedly played an important role in ancient and modern human history. Yet, there are relatively few regions of the genome involved in resistance to pathogens that show a strong selection signal in current genome-wide searches for this kind of signal. We revisit the evolutionary history of a gene associated with resistance to the most common malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium vivax, and show that it is one of regions of the human genome that has been under strongest selective pressure in our evolutionary history (selection coefficient: 4.3%). Our results are consistent with a complex evolutionary history of the locus involving selection on a mutation that was at a very low frequency in the ancestral African population (standing variation) and subsequent differentiation between European, Asian and African populations.

Why is it that regions of the genome subject to selection due to co-evolution with pathogens are hard to detect in relation to selection? My response would be that it’s because selection and adaptation are always happening in these regions, constantly erasing its footprints in these regions of the genome.

You may be familiar with the fact that the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are some of the most diverse regions of the genome. That’s because negative frequency dependent selection makes it so that rare variants never go extinct, as the rarer they get the more favored they are.

Many classical and modern techniques of selection require less protean dynamics when it comes to the model which they attempt to detect. Basically, many of the standard selection detection methods are looking for a simple perturbation in the pattern of variation that’s expected. A strong powerful recent sweep on a single mutation is like the spherical cow of evolutionary genetics. It happens. And it’s easy to model and detect. But it may not be nearly as important as our ability to detect these “hard sweeps” may suggest to us.

In contrast, if selection targets a larger number of independent mutations, then you get a “soft sweep,” which is harder to detect, because it is no singular event. Complexity is the enemy of detection. As a thought experiment, if you selected for height within a population you may catch some large effect alleles that would leave strong signals, but most of the dynamic would leave a polygenic footprint, distributed across innumerable genes.

The Duffy locus is somewhat in the middle. The authors distinguish between selection on standing variation (the allele frequency is higher than a single new mutation within the population) and a soft sweep, where multiple variants against different haplotypes are subject to selection. Their models and results strongly support selection on standing variation for the FY*O variant, and perhaps selection for the FY*A variant.

These selection events were very old, and very strong. Selection coefficients on the order of 4% are hard to believe in a natural environment. Curiously the coalescence times for the haplotypes some of these alleles indicate that selection was contemporaneous with the emergence of modern humans out of Africa, about ~50,000 years ago. From their sequence data analysis the different alleles have been segregating for a long time in the collective human population, and powerful sweeps fixed FY*O in both the ancestors of the Bantu and Pygmies before they diverged from each other. In contrast the Khoisan samples suggest that FY*O introgressed into their population from newcomers, while variants of FY*A are ancestral.

The big picture here is that selection is ancient, that it is powerful, and it was a dynamic even before our species diversified into various lineages.

If you read the paper, and you should, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the adaptive story was suspected. It’s just with modern genomics and fancy ABC methods you can put point estimates and intervals on these hunches. But another issue, as they note in the piece, is that we have a better grasp of African population structure today than in the past, and this allows for better framing.

But it is here I have some caution to throw. At one point citing a 2012 paper the authors suggest “The KhoeSan peoples are a highly diverse set of southern African populations that diverged from all other populations approximately 100 kya.” I can tell you that some credible researchers who have access to whole genome sequences and have been looking at this question peg the divergence date closer to 200,000 years. Some of the issue here is that you need to decompose later gene flow, which will reduce the distance between populations. Easier said than done.

The genetic prehistory of the African continent is almost certainly much more complex than what is presented in the paper, largely due to lack of ancient DNA within Africa. Northern Eurasia turned out to be far more complex than had earlier been guessed…and it is likely that Northern Eurasia has had a simpler history because of its much shorter time of habitation.

If I had to guess I suspect that the ancestors of the Khoisan as we understand them were a separate and distinct group who diverged between ~100,000 and ~200,000 years ago from other extant African populations. But I suspect our clarity is very low in relation the sort of structure which eventually resulted in the shake-out of only a few large groups of Sub-Saharan Africans aside from the Khoisan.

Citation: Population genetic analysis of the DARC locus (Duffy) reveals adaptation from standing variation associated with malaria resistance in humans.

January 6, 2013

Rome: who we were and who we are

Filed under: Bryan Ward-Perkins,Fall of Rome,History,Late Antiquity — Razib Khan @ 5:52 pm

Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization spends a great deal of time on the archaeology of the Classical and post-Classical world. But, he also devotes only somewhat less space to the historiography of the study of the Roman Empire, and Late Antiquity. That is because the study of the past is not just the study of the past, but it is the study of the concerns and values of the present. We look through the dark mirror to the past, and in it we see our own outlines. Similarly, science fiction which purports to be a projection of the future is often nothing much more than a retelling of the present in shinier garb. This reality of history, its reflection of the prescription of the present despite the conceit that it is a description of the past, needs to be kept in mind. It is not a failing which pollutes the whole enterprise, it is a reality which must inform our interpretation of it. The study of Rome is a study of what humanity was, but it can not help but also reflect and define what we wish to be, by comparison and contrast.

But before I go on, a minor mea culpa. After further research and correspondence I believe that I extrapolated too far from lead concentrations in Greenland ice caps in a previous post. Though I still believe that it is a good reflection of the decline in proto-industrial vigor in the Western world, I do think that distance from China means that we do not have a good gauge on any comparisons between 0 AD and 750 AD (the later date being the apogee of the Tang). Though I do note that world population estimates seem to be somewhat lower for 700 than 0. But these are not precise estimates, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Chinese census records indicate that Tang population was higher than that of the Han, while it seems plausible that the Arab Imperium of the 8th century resulted in a higher population for the regions under its purview than during antiquity. Therefore to make the “math work” one can reasonably assume that the population in Europe was far lower.

Additionally, to clarify my points from the previous post, I was presenting a description of the decline, not any allusion to the causes of the fall. And, my argument was that the rate of decline was far greater after the fall of Rome, not that there was no decline from the Principate to the Dominate. Though my opinions are not particularly well informed or strong, I would hazard to bet greater per person production during the Antonine period of the mid-2nd century than the relatively quiescent epochs of the 4th century. My argument is simply that in terms of economic production the 4th century resembles the 2nd far more than it does the 6th in the Roman West. The world of Procopius was further from that of Constantine than that of Constantine was from that of the Antonines, despite the fact that Justinian’s Byzantium perceived itself to be (and rightly) simply a continuation of antique Rome.

The argument of The Fall of Rome which is powerful and persuasive as a description is fundamentally a material one. Political unity within the Roman Empire decreased the fixed costs of production (e.g., no need for city walls, no political boundaries imposing extortionate levels of duty, etc.). Rome was the Western world’s first free trade zone where military conflict was ended by the imperial monopoly on force. This resulted in gains in wealth due to the economies of scale and classic Smithian productivity increases through specialization. Ancient Rome was not a consumer society characterized by eternal expectations of growth, but neither was there an expectation of collapse and regression (e.g., “The Eternal City”). I find the Malthusian logic of biology powerful in that greater  productivity should be swallowed up by population increase, so that over the long term average well being for most humans has been approximately the same (increased aggregate wealth coexisting with the same per capita wealth). But there are many qualifications within that statement; the long term may actually have been longer than the course of the empire, suggesting that Rome never attained Malthusian equilibrium.

To support his proposition about material prosperity Bryan Ward-Perkins recounts the quality and number of pots and amphorae, as well as extensive archaeological evidence of a dense network of cities all across the Roman Empire. And though the average Roman peasant did not avail themselves of the consumption of the broad upper orders, they were at least free of the fear of marauders and enslavement by foreign peoples. One might respond here that they were subject to grueling taxation, but this is fundamentally a different argument. Modern examples seems to imply that high taxation is preferable to an anarchic order of no taxation and no services (e.g., Afghanistan). Bryan Ward-Perkins makes a compelling case in The Fall of Rome that the economic and political order of the Western Mediterranean and Northwest Europe regressed back to a pre-Iron Age level of complexity in the two centuries after the fall of Rome! In other words, the “Dark Ages” saw the unraveling of a set of organically developed norms and connections which had matured from the 5th century B.C. onward. A 1,000 year old civilization expired, as defined by the innumerable threads which had bound together the Western Mediterranean, Gaul, and Britain.

But there looms over this argument aspects which are just not material, but also normative. When alluding to literacy we obtain here a case where the material and normative intersect. By various means Ward-Perkins argues that rates of literacy were far higher during the period of the Roman Empire than after. It is famously well known that across the centuries of Rome it was not until 518 that an Emperor donned the purple who may have been illiterate (Procopius is not entirely reliable on matters factual when it comes to the family of Justinian!). In contrast, Dark Age princes such as Charlemagne were often illiterate. The most evocative and persuasive component of the argument in regards to penetration of literacy is that graffiti and casual scribbling are legion from the Roman period, but far rarer afterward. There is even documentary evidence that most priests during this the Dark Ages were functionally illiterate, with a substantial minority being totally illiterate (i.e., they could not sign their own names to documents).

Marcus Aurelius

So what that 10% of Western Europeans in 400 may have been functionally literate, while only 1% in 700 were? The “what” is that the penetration of literacy allows for a critical mass to develop for a particular form of cultural discourse. A fundamental aspect of the Classical World is that it developed out of a world of citizens. This does not mean that it was a democratic world. Rather, it means that a broad expanse of the populace was vested in the political order, whether in an Athenian democracy, Spartan oligarchy, or Roman republic. Only 100 years into the Empire were emperors actually called Emperor. Rather, they were Princeps, “First Citizens.” The false conceit of the Roman Empire was that it was a restoration of the republic. Rome never had kings, and the slide toward explicit and formalized autocracy and despotism was gradual. The early republican army was one of freeborn citizens, and even after the Marian reforms which opened up the army to the proletariat the Roman legions were draw from the citizenry. Between the era of Augustus and the 3rd century the military became progressively less Italian, but it remained Roman, with only auxiliaries derived from barbarian people who were not citizens (after Caracalla granted citizenship to all freeborn Romans barbarian would mean someone from outside the imperial frontiers).

This alien world of emperors, slaves, and gladiatorial battles was nevertheless populated by familiar figures. There were philosophers and civil servants, city councils and a professional army paid in coin or salt. What was fundamentally alien is that it was ‘pagan.’ This is to some extent a catchall term which developed relatively late in history (in the Greek-speaking world pagans were termed ‘Hellenes’), but it reflects the view that the old religion of the West was alien in a deep manner from what came after. Until recently faiths like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism were termed ‘higher religions.’ Today such judgmental terminology is less common, and they might be classed together as ‘institutional religions,’ or more more colloquially ‘organized religions.’ Often the term pagan is used to encompass the faiths outside of the Abrahamic religions, but because of the pejorative connotations of pagan this is probably not advisable.

The critical aspect which I think needs elaborating here is that in regards to the relatively seamless coherency and integration of all aspects of religiosity, high and low, and ritualistic, mystical, and philosophical, there is a qualitative difference between the institutional religions, and the older traditions. The ancients had ethical philosophy, they had rites, and they had mystical and ecstatic communal worship. What they often did not have was an organized system which packaged all these aspects together. If Constantine had fallen at the battle of Milvian Bridge then the West may not have become Christian, but it would not have remained pagan in a way which we understand it. The exact nature of the organic development of an institutional religion varies across civilizations, but it seems that a complex culture invariably demands a religious system which binds together various sentiments across elements of society. This is clear in the rise of solar religion in the late 3rd century, and points to the fact that in the 1st millennium all civilizations were moving toward a system where an institutional religion with metaphysical grounding anchored and gave legitimacy to the body politic.

But is this enough to differentiate us from the Romans and align ourselves with what became Christendom? Bryan Ward-Perkins observes that the study of Late Antiquity is rife with a fixation on cultural change in the domain of religion, with a neglect of the material and  political dimensions of life. In particular there is much attention paid to ascetic religious figures who were instrumental in transforming Roman Christianity into Medieval Christianity. Granting the materialist argument (which even the doyen of Late Antique studies, Peter Brown, seems to do in Through the Eye of a Needle), are the cultural changes of Late Antiquity which make the world of Europe more familiar stark enough to make that age truly the seedbed of recognizable modernity?

Charlemagne receiving homage from Saxons

It is critical to note that Late Antiquity lives on genealogically. The modern British royal family can trace descent back to at least the 8th century kings of Wessex. The dispossession of the Roman elites was such that despite the persistence of eminent families with roots in the late Classical period across Europe at the local level it is difficult to validate any European royal genealogies before the early Dark Ages. The modern nation-states of Europe also date back in their embryonic sense to this period. And critically one must distinguish between the Dark Ages from the High Medieval period. The latter phase saw a reemergence of social complexity, in particular in northern France, southern England, and the Low Countries. The Aristotelian Renaissance illustrates that after 1000 A.D. Western Europe began to rouse itself from its intellectual slumber.

But all that notwithstanding for me the critical aspect to emphasize is that the Germanic elites of the post-Roman Western European world were fundamentally military gangs; warlords and their underlings. This is not atypical. Rather, this is the normal state of pre-modern societies. And in this way it is fundamentally alien to the modern sensibility. The lords of the post-Roman world were of the same category as anax of Mycenaean Greece. Their profession was war, and their cultivation was of the sword. Though the Roman world was militarized, in fact most of the Imperial expenditure was on the legions, its elite was fundamentally civilian in orientation. Roman aristocrats were often military leaders, but more universally they defined themselves as being cultured and refined in relation to the common. No Roman could rise to a status of prominence without being literate, and the established nobility was educated in classical literature and rhetoric. This is not entirely surprising, as for several centuries the Roman world was characterized by peace, and high status was not likely to be won through feats of martial prowess. A similar process seems to have occurred in early modern Europe, as the military elites who were often the descendants in spirit if not genealogy from the post-Roman Germanic warlords began to cultivate their manners and fashions to signal their gentility. Part of this is due to the same decline in violence which characterized the Roman world. But it is also perhaps a response to the rise of firearms, which made aristocratic cavalry vulnerable on the field of battle. The civilian orientation of the Roman aristocracy is similar in many ways to that of China, where dynasties founded by generals nevertheless marginalized the military over time.

All of the above is why I state that my agreement with Bryan Ward-Perkins’ contentions are to some extent normative. I feel that a brutal Classical Roman autocrat such as Marcus Aurelius is more modern than a brutal Dark Age autocrat such as Charlemagne. Then again, some of Aurelius’ self-serving thoughts are preserved for us in his Meditations, while Charlemagne was an illiterate whose character is filtered through chroniclers. Charlemagne may have been the defender of Roman Christianity, but he was an exemplar of Romanitas in the same manner that the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) is democratic (for example, he was an open de facto polygamist). The American republic was founded as a republic. Granted many of its institutions evolved organically from English common law tradition, but it is clear that the injection of ancient political theory revitalized the organization of Western nation-states. The Napoleonic Code draws inspiration from the rediscovery of Roman law. Ultimately it strikes me that the modern world manifests many of the structural features of the Roman world, with the Dark Ages being an unwinding from which the West only slowly recovered. Your mileage may vary, but that says more about differences in values among contemporaries, than it truly does about the factual assessment about the shape of the past.

January 2, 2013

When Rome fell civilization did decline

Filed under: Antiquity,History,Late Antiquity,Roman History — Razib Khan @ 9:37 pm

Before the Holidays I mentioned that I was rereading Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Why do I hold this book in such high esteem? Because of figures such as the one to the left. Granted, this chart is not from The Fall of Rome, but that book has an extensive bibliography which drew me to research on long term trends in pollutant concentrations. What you see illustrated are variations in the concentration of lead in ice cores from Greenland. Why is lead so important? Because it is a noxious byproduct in various primitive metallurgical processes. The basic thesis that Ward-Perkins fleshes out in great detail in The Fall of Rome is that the material basis of European life suffered a sharp regression after the collapse of the Roman Empire. In short the fall of Rome was the end of civilization, and what came after was coarser and more elementary in character. This may seem “common sense,” but it is actually a matter of some dispute and debate in the academy.

When discussing this issue there are two primary objections which always seem to come to the fore. First, after the de facto collapse of the West Roman imperium in the first half of the 5th century there were other societies of importance and grandness on the historical stage (see The Inheritance of Rome, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, and China’s Cosmopolitan Empire). Far to the east of faded Rome Tang China’s glory waxed in the nadir of the European regression between 600 and 750. More well known to Westerners, the same period saw the apogee of Arab Islamic civilization. But the data above indicate that the industrial production of these two polities did not match that of the period around the peak of the Roman Empire. I refer here to period, because of course the Roman Empire flourished at the same time as Han China, and Sassanian Persia. The collapse of the 5th century was not a collapse of civilization as such, but of the western terminus of the oikoumene. And this decline was not compensated for by greater vigor in the Islamic center, or Chinese east.

Marcus Aurelius, 2nd century

A materialist perspective has the elegant attribute that it is less malleable in the hands of those with stylistic polish and the will and skill to engage in selective massaging of sources. I can assert plausibly I think that that the classical civilization which produced Thucydides, and later Polybius, Tacitus, and Ammianus Marcellinus, was superior in the fineness of its high culture than that in which Jordanes or the Venerable Bede flourished. But if an individual is clever, erudite, and set in their proposition, it will be impossible to definitively refute someone who holds that 8th century Anglo-Saxon England was no less cultured than 5th century Athens or 2nd century Rome. And if the exposition of the counter-intuitive position is placed in the hands of a cunning sophist, and the one who endorses common sense is plain and less learned, then the battle is already lost before it is begun. Terms like “superior” and “cultured” are slippery, and the whole enterprise of grading societies is held in bad odor in our age. A barrage of facts curated with intent to support a preposterous thesis can overwhelm simple sincerity. But the quantitative consequences of material production are not as contextualized or easily problematized. It is simply fact that proto-industrial production in the post-Roman world had regressed, and with it an array of material comforts and minor luxuries vanish from the record or become very rare. The dull can defeat the sly simply by pointing to the angle of the line on a chart.

A broader and more fundamental issue is that one must question how one judges the rise and fall of civilizations and society. From an orthodox Muslim or Christian perspective the collapse of Rome in the 5th century was an unfortunate incident, but ultimately secondary to the reality that the western half of the civilized world was to soon to be permeated by the presuppositions of their respective religious creeds. St. Augustine’s The City of God is only the most extended and thorough of many contemporaneous Christian apologetics which purport to explain the peculiarity of the collapse of the civilized (i.e., Roman) world just as the old pagan high traditions were finally superseded by Christianity. This is why I say that I find The Fall of Rome persuasive for partially normative considerations. Though I am willing to grant the superiority for various reasons of Christianity or Islam over the animistic primal religion of Republican Rome, or the Mystery Cults of the High Empire, I weight the extinction of industrial production of pottery and the reversion to localized barter economies as of greater consequence. Matter is more critical necessary precondition for civilization than mind. I doubt that Tacitus was anymore brilliant than Bede, but the former shone with more absolute greatness of the cultural capital which he could mine and leverage. The withering of the Christian church in the Balkans and England is a testament to the fact that higher religion themselves are preconditioned on a minimal level of social complexity and organization. It seems likely that by the 5th century Christianity succeeded in spite of the collapse of the West Roman Empire, not because of it. Rather than being a minor problem of history, the disturbance of the Roman order was a disaster for institutional Christianity, from which it only slowly recovered, still maintaining its original Roman outlines despite the Germanic interlude.

There are often debates as to whether fields like anthropology or history are humanities or social sciences. The truth is almost certainly both. In many ways I find archaeologists, particularly those of prehistory, theory-poor. Rather, what theory they attach to their wealth of material remains seems to be imbibed from the spirit of the times. Before World War II they were keen to illustrate the congruence of their material results with a migrationist narrative, while after World War II they rejected such models. But though archaeology can often tell us little directly in and of itself about the creators of a material culture, the flux of that material culture can tell us a great deal about aspects of that given society’s material workings. Technology is predicated on basic laws of nature, and those laws of nature produce constraints in the possibilities. Though it is possible in theory that Europeans between 500 and 1000 AD developed complex social systems which were also more ecologically friendly than those of antiquity (so as to generate less pollution in the material record), a more parsimonious explanation seems to me to be that in fact those societies were simpler, and that the order and institutions necessary for large scale proto-industrial production which had evolved organically from 1st millennium BC down to the Roman era had disappeared. This is simply not a matter of discourse, dialogue, debate, or contexualization. It is.

December 23, 2012

History as intellectual hydrography

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:26 am

One of the great aspects of owning a Kindle has been that I have been able to load it with cheap copies of “classics.”* As it happens I had physical copies of many of these works, but often it became difficult to keep track of various books in even my modest personal library. Generally scientific references were placed prominently, and I made use of them often, and so always was able to mark exactly where they were. But when it came to Nicomachean Ethics or The Critique of Pure Reason, I would proactively seek them on only rare occasions. Now with a compact and well organized personal digital library I find that I revisit the ancients much more often to engage with them in dialogue. Here I recall what Niccolò Machiavelli once asserted:

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

Meghna River

I am far too much a Whig in instinct to agree with this sentiment without reservation. When I trudge through the extended diatribe that is City of God I cannot help but scoff at St. Augustine’s screed, 1,600 years on. And yet this contempt instills in me a sense of deep humility, for surely generations future will look toward our own orthodoxies and sneer and laugh. We are all embedded in our own presuppositions, and the ecology of ideas which nourish our prejudices, for good or ill.

It is as if we are an element of a broad and powerful river, flowing through familiar territory. If you asked a stream of the river to describe its place in the context of the whole, it would be at a loss, because the river is one, and as a category is indivisible. But step back, rise up, and you can see the topography and the overall course of the flow, from headwaters down to the floodplain. Similarly, ideas have history, and people have history, even if they are not aware of that history as it flows past them.

Human cognition is such that there is a strong bias to imagine that we are idealized rationality machines, who derive our own positions by force of our free will. But the reality is that much of our cognition is socially and historically contingent. This does not mean that beliefs are arbitrary, but, they are flexible and strongly shaded by context. The folly of the most brilliant of ancients brings home to us the reality that pure force of mental acuity can not break free of the shackles of history. What follies do we adhere to? What positions are we “evolving” toward at this very moment?

During a typical day my own interactions are with young people of a very precise and specific technical bent. There is no lack of cognitive processing power, but when conversation drifts away from areas of deep technical fluency, then St. Augustine begins to strike me as a man of objective ahistorical clarity. The technics of the modern age are humans who sustain our civilization, but they often lack background or interest in the human past, or a more expansive view of the present. There is a very definite poverty of imagination in regards to the range of human opinion, and a conceit that the shape of the world is as precisely defined as the arc of planetary motions.

Whereas before I had held to the position that a minimal level of liberal classical education was critical in tying together the higher orders of a social system through a common set of narratives and frames, today I believe that a canon is essential to allow people at any given moment to see that human experience is broad, and that we are all creatures in a specific time and place. I cannot help but wonder if the occasional outbursts of extreme relativism which issue out of the academy may simply be a function of the inability of narrowly trained moderns to comprehend that one can hold onto one’s values and views, while at the same time appreciating differences of perspective. It may be to difficult to withhold ill will across the chasms of contemporary partisanship, but surely one must acknowledge Aristotle’s brilliance and his folly!

* You may wonder why I would pay even a nominal fee when these are public domain. My personal experience is that a minimal amount of commentary and attention to formatting is worth a few dollars.

October 8, 2012

Ancient DNA and Sumerians

Filed under: History,Sumerians — Razib Khan @ 6:49 pm

A few months ago someone asked me (via email) which populations I would love to get typed (genetically that is). There is one population which did not come to mind at the time: the Sumerians. Why? Because these are arguably the first historic nation. The first self-conscious ethnic group which operated by the rules which we define as the fundamentals of literate civilization. Strangely, they are an ethno-linguistic isolate. My own assumption until lately has been that this is not too surprising, in that prior to the rise of expansive civilizations (Sargon of Akkad) there was much more linguistic and ethnic diversity than we currently see around us. Or, was evident even in the early Iron Age. In other words, the ancient Fertile Crescent may have resembled the highlands of Papua, with Hurrians, Akkadians, Gutians, Elamites, Sumerians, etc., all speaking mutually unintelligible dialects which diverged very far back in the mists of antiquity.

I am no longer quite so sure about this model. That is largely due to the possibility that there was a great deal of demographic change between the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age, with successive waves ...

September 17, 2012

The great Eurasian explosion

Filed under: Genetics,Genomics,History,Prehistory — Razib Khan @ 8:38 pm

Dr. Joseph Pickrell has updated his preprint, The genetic prehistory of southern Africa, with some more material on the Sandawe. I’ve explored the genetics of the Sandawe a bit using ADMIXTURE, so I jumped straight to the section on ROLLOFF:

…To further examine this, we turned to ROLLOFF. We used Dinka and French as representatives of the mixing populations (since date estimates are robust to improperly specified reference populations). The results are shown in Supplementary Figure S22. Both populations show a detectable curve, though the signal is much stronger in the Sandawe than in the Hadza. The implied dates are 89 generations (2500 years) ago for the Hadza and 66 generations (2000 years) ago for the Sandawe. These are qualitatively similar signals to those seen by Pagani et al. [65] in Ethiopian populations. There are two possible historical scenarios that could lead to these signals: either the Hadza and Sandawe both directly admixed with a western Eurasian population about 2,000 years ago, or they admixed with an east African population that was itself admixed with a western Eurasian population. The latter possibility would be consistent with known east African admixture into the Sandawe [16] .


Pagani et al. refers to the paper Ethiopian Genetic Diversity Reveals Linguistic ...

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