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

February 14, 2019

The Vedic People: Their History and Geography

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 4:15 am


My boss leant me is copy of Rajesh Kochhar’s The Vedic People: Their History and Geography. It’s a short and dense book that covers many fields. I highly recommend it. As usual, don’t take it as gospel, but as a starting point. The author’s command of the scholarship so is impressive.

February 11, 2019

What to read if you don’t want to read Guha

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 8:17 pm

In the podcast with Kushal Mehra he made an offhand comment that it was strange that conservative American intellectual Ben Shapiro was reading India After Gandhi to understand his country. Mehra’s confusion is simply that Shapiro is on the Right, but he is reading from the perspective of Indian Left to understand India. Though probably hyperbolic, perhaps it would be like a Hindu nationalist reading Howard Zinn’s A Peoples History of the United States to understand America.

I know there are issues India After Gandhi. My friend Reihan Salam thought that Amardeep Singh was entirely too uncritical when he blogged the book many years ago. Since I have no read the book I will not hazard to offer an opinion.

But, the question then remains: what books on Indian history should an American read to offer up some balance? This is a live issue, as an American conservative friend was himself considering reading  India After Gandhi before being taken aback by Mehra’s comment about Shapiro and his reading habits.

Please leave book recommendations!

February 8, 2019

We are all Aryans now

Filed under: Aryans,Genetics,History — Razib Khan @ 11:59 am

Last year I contributed a chapter to a book soon to be published in India, Which of Us are Aryans? In answer to the question, the straightforward answer is that almost all of us are Aryans. That is, the thin but persistent layer of Indo-Aryan (“steppe”) ancestry is present across the subcontinent. In higher fractions among Brahmins and Kshatriyas than in Dalits, in the northwest than the southeast, and among Indo-European speakers than Dravidians. But this ancestral component and its cultural correlates are found across southern Asia.

Secondarily, there has been some discussion about the negative valence in the West about the term “Aryans.” In particular, its “cultural appropriation” by German Nazis by way of Theosophy and various spiritual and quasi-spiritual movements in the early 20th century.

As an American to see the word “Aryan” bandied about like this is strange and a bit uncomfortable. But there are now more than 1 billion Indians, so I don’t believe we in the West are a position dictate in terms of the lexicon that we borrowed from Indians in the first place, often without clear attribution (most Americans and Europeans would be surprised that “Aryan” is an Indian and Iranian term).

January 11, 2019

Forgetting the past

Filed under: History,Vedas — Razib Khan @ 12:24 am

How could the Indo-Aryans have been from somewhere else if it is not recorded in their traditions? This is a common question that comes form many Indians. It is an entirely Indo-centric perspective. This is a description, not a critique. After all, the Indo-European Greeks have no lore of migration in the Hesiod. Many, such as the Athenians, consider themselves autochthonous. The Egyptians have no lore of migration. In contrast, the Sumerians seem to have had legends of migration from the “south” (perhaps marshland to the south of Mesopotamia proper). And the oldest Sumerian city does happen to be the most southern one (Eridu). The Norse have no history of migration from elsewhere, but it is almost certainly a fact that the Nordic Bronze Age cultures came out of the post-Bell Beaker and Corded Ware societies after 2000 BC, whose roots lay ultimately to the south and east.

Finally, as I have written elsewhere, in the space of less than 200 years the Celtic Britons of what became England abandoned their native language and cultural memory and replaced it with that of pagan Germans. We know from both fine-scale modern genetic analysis of the British Isles, as well as ancient DNA, that the majority of the ancestry of the modern English dates to the period before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons. And yet pre-Germanic language and cultural folkways had only a trivial impact on the English. Even royal houses, such as those of Wessex, who were likely of native British origin (the earlier rulers in the genealogy have Celtic forenames!) “retconned” their origin to be from the Germanic god Wotan.

If, as I believe, the Indo-Aryans are rooted primarily in the Sintashta culture which flourished around ~2000 BC, and the Vedic culture flourished in South Asia by ~1500 BC, that allows for only five centuries to “forget.” Your mileage may vary, but 20 generations seems a bit short to forget this when these people were punctilious in matters of antique ritual.

To answer this conundrum, I propose something entirely conjectural and hypothetical, but not impossible: the Brahmin caste emerged as a fusion of Indo-Aryan ritualists and pre-Aryan priests. In terms of total ancestral contribution, the latter is actually more preponderant than the former. Though the language of the former is dominant, most people accept that the Vedic culture was somehow synthetic. A hybrid. Perhaps the pre-Aryan priesthood was culturally more dominant than we may suppose, and as its roots were deeply indigenous, they promoted the ideology that their hybrid caste was in India in toto immemorial?

January 4, 2019

Why Indian forms dominated Chinese forms in mainland Southeast Asia

Filed under: History,Southeast Asia — Razib Khan @ 5:32 pm
On Twitter Peter Turchin had a question in response to me tweeting a new preprint on bioRxiv: I am particularly interested in what the data say about Indian genetic contributions — I thought that SE Asia just got Indian culture, without any substantial population movements involved — Peter Turchin (@Peter_Turchin) January 4, 2019 This was […]

January 2, 2019

How the English abolished their British (Celtic) ancestors

Filed under: History,Saxons — Razib Khan @ 1:04 am
Reading both Bryan Ward-Perkins’ 2000 paper Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become more British? and The fine scale genetic structure of the British population, published in 2015, is interesting. To date, this second paper is probably the “best of breed” when it comes to estimating Anglo-Saxon admixture into the British population in the 5th to […]

December 21, 2018

Hinduism before India

Filed under: History,India,Nationalism — Razib Khan @ 2:25 am

Azar Gat is one of my favorite scholars. He does not seem to be one who bows before fashion. If you haven’t, I recommend War Before Civilization a great deal.

With that being said, perhaps an overlooked work is his more recent Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. It is a reasonable antidote to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Anderson’s book is apparently one of the most assigned works to undergraduates in the United States, and I saw it cited so often that I went ahead and read it to see if there was any “there there.” Alas, that was not to be. I have come to conclude that those who find profundity in Imagined Communities are superficial thinkers, and want “information for free.” That is, a theory that can explain history without having to learn many facts.

Gat’s Nations is not a simplistic argument that the specific nations we see around us today have deep roots in antiquity. The chasms between Arminius, Luther, and Bismarck, are great indeed. But for Gat the conceptual framework of nationhood is derived from primal constituents and extends itself naturally from a common human set of cognitive reflexes and the selective sieve of cultural evolution. A late Roman Republican politician could understand broadly the process of the formation of the creation of modern Italy from various constituent polities which shared a cultural affinity, just as the Roman Republic itself was a fusion of tribes.

This is on my mind because of a post over at Brown Pundits, India Never Existed. In the post, there is a quote from a scholar of South Asia who is seemingly at the center of constant controversy with “Hindu Twitter”:

In the old days, India was not united. And there was no cohesive Hindu identity. Literally, “Hindus” did not call themselves Hindus in premodernity.

So far as today, Hindutva is an ideology of hate, based on early 20th-century European fascism, that derides religious minorities.

Overall I think this is an unhelpful and polemical way to present the facts. I am not a Hindu nationalist. But neither am a secular Indian. In the Indian context “secular” means a very precise thing which is not covered simply by being an irreligious atheist (which I am). As an American who has an intellectual, but frankly no deep emotional, interest in South Asian affairs it is up to Indians to sort out their cultural and political conflicts. But, just as the “Out of India” Hindu nationalists strike me as in the wrong, it seems clear that some secular Indian intellectuals engage in polemics unfounded in fact, or shading the truth in a manner that serves their ideology rather than the facts on the ground.

A certain school of scholars, who seem to be engaging in a culture war against Hindu nationalists, present the genesis of Indian identity as a pure reaction to the engagement with Europe. That is, Indianness develops as a mimic of Englishness. Before 1800 there were  jatis, Muslims of various ethnicities, and curious minorities like Parsis, all coresident across South Asia, but there was no Hindu identity except as a disjoint set of characteristics and cultures which were not included amongst Muslims, Christians, Parsis, etc.

This view is extremely misleading. The genetic evidence seems clear that the ethnogenesis of modern South Asians dates to the period between two and four thousand years ago, between the last massive phase of admixtures between different continental elements, and the emergence of an endogamous caste system. The antiquity of caste is genetically attested and spans much of North and South India. As far back as the time of the Greeks and Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent were known to those outside as a distinctive and coherent element, and the Hindu religious traditions certainly predate 1800. Adi Shankara, an 8th-century thinker who arguably outlined the core tenents tone of “elite Hinduism” as we know them today, was a Brahmin from the far South of the subcontinent.

It is true that the indigenous traditions of the Indian subcontinent were a diverse mix, and many communities (now termed “tribes”) were outside of the caste system and Hindu society. But by the time that Islam arrived in the subcontinent the influence of Brahmins had certainly spread a particular elite culture patronized by most rulers, with those who were skeptical often being devotees of religious groups more distinct from Hinduism (whether it be Buddhists or Jains). It is correct to point out that most people in the Indian subcontinent did not subscribe to Brahmin religious thought, but most of the population of Europe in 1000 AD practiced a very inchoate Christianity, and yet we do not hesitate to term this a Christian civilization, seeing as how much of the continent was bound together by a priestly elite which obtained sponsorship from kings and nobles.

To be frank, some of the anti-Hindutva scholars seem to be engaging in semantic games to win arguments with their ideological enemies. It is clear that Indian national identity in a political sense is recent, and is not analogous to that of China, which is ancient. But should one then say that a “European” identity did not exist in 1000 AD because most European polities were bound together by personal rule and the Christian religion, rather than geography and nationality as we understand it? It is clear that the outlines of what became Europe emerged in the wake of the Roman collapse, and the rise of Islam. Just because courtiers in the court of Charlemagne did not term themselves “Europeans” does not mean that the general outlines of Europeanness did not predate the ideological formulation in the early modern period, as Christians became Europeans.

A bigger framework is that we can see patterns across societies in time and space, and draw analogies and inferences. Human social and political institutions are commensurable. The development of Europe in the wake of the fall of Rome and the shock of the barbarian invasions is neatly analogous to the emergence of native Indian religious traditions in the wake of the shock of the arrival of Muslim Turks. There are differences, but Europe and Europe’s experience is not sui generis. One could state that France “did not exist” until the French Revolution, and the 19th century drives toward assimilation of local dialects and the emergence to prominence of “standard French.” But it is clear that something “French” clearly motivated the elites, Protestant and Catholic, who battled in the 16th and 17th centuries, at the intersection of religion and nationality. Even though most peasants had a rural and local identity, the stage was set for the national passions which inflamed the Revolutionary regime of the 1790s.

Similarly, the Indian republic has had its issues, but it is not a coincidence that it has managed to maintain continuity and integrity through all its ups and downs. Indian identity is clearly somewhat an artificiality because a unified Indian state was imposed relatively late in history, and only for a short period by a Mughal elite which was not in cultural solidarity with the diversity of its subjects. But across the cultural diversity, there is a level of affinity which has historical roots. An analogy here can be made to Indonesia, a diverse archipelago which was never a unitary state, but whose cultural cohesiveness is a product of history rather than politics. The regions of India and Indonesia, Kashmir and the northeast for India, and the eastern islands for Indonesia, are those regions with less cultural affinity and oftentimes no shared history with the central elite.

My understanding of these sorts of issues are informed by two things:

  • Specific attention to details of history, which is hard to obtain without just reading
  • A general understanding of human social development informed by evolutionary anthropology

Some systems of thought constrain comprehension in a semantic straightjacket. So, for example, there are those who would argue that “religion” in a Western context is qualitatively different from “religion” in an Eastern context. I think this is ridiculous. All religions exhibit cognitive features, which are the outcomes of our evolutionary history, which is shared. There is the idea that a nation-state has to be understood as a crisp definition which emerges in the period between the Peace of Westphalia and the French Revolution. That the nation-state was born in Western Europe, and all successor nation-states the world over are derived from Western European ideas.

There is some contingent truth to this. Modern nation-states are fundamentally Westphalian. The language and the framework of modern diplomacy are European. In particular, it comes out of the second half of the 17th century. But the European nation-state is not sui generis, and diplomacy was not invented by Europeans. The concept of a geographically delimited polity associated with a standing army and civilian bureaucracy is not just something particular to early modern Europe. The Romans, Chinese, and Muslims created such political systems. The Roman system collapsed in Western Europe, while the later European system overwhelmed the Chinese and Muslim political systems.

But even in their accession to the European forms, native societies retained their uniqueness. Their own deep roots. This is evident in both China and Japan, whose political systems outwardly are replicas of European ideologies and frameworks. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a peculiar hybrid of European and indigenous. When Western scholars deride Hindutva as based on “early 20th-century European fascism”, they remove from Indians any agency. As if Hindu nationalism is simply a curry-flavored form of European fascism. Like Baathism, Chinese Nationalism after the purge of the Communists, and the military regime of interwar Japan, there were clear influences from Europe, but all exhibited strong indigenous roots and bases as well.

There are things particular, and things general. It was almost inevitable that a traditionalist Hindu renaissance would develop long before the ferment of right-wing ideologies in early 20th century Europe. The small-scale decentralized Indian cultural complex which weathered the storm of Islamic rule was unlikely to ever maintain itself in the face of modernity (contra Gandhi). It was going to evolve in various directions, and one of them would be reactionary, even if that reaction was toward an imagined past which synthesized future hopes informed by the present with past solidities.

The past was very different. And other cultures are very different. But they are not incomprehensibly different. Outside of Europe the antecedent of the present is not simply the past of Europe. Other societies differ from Europe and reacted in various ways to the colonial experience, but the European shock is not the sum totality of what they are and what they will be. The terms and concepts we use to scaffold our comprehension of the world around us are important in their details, but they are not what we are comprehending. Just because we see the past darkly through the glass does not entail that we should simply refashion the past in our easier imagingings.

December 17, 2018

Donald Knuth in the Galactic Library!

Filed under: Donald Knuth,Future,History — Razib Khan @ 4:57 pm

If you are a nerd you have been waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete his A Song of Ice and Fire series. But if you are a next level nerd, what you’ve been waiting for is for Donald Knuth to finish The Art of Computer Programming.

If you’ve never heard of Knuth, The New York Times has a nice profile up, The Yoda of Silicon Valley-Donald Knuth, master of algorithms, reflects on 50 years of his opus-in-progress, “The Art of Computer Programming”. When you first encounter Knuth and his life you get a sense of what it means to live and breath the life of the mind (Paul Erdos seems in the same category).

But this got me to thinking: if human civilization collapses would The Art of Computer Programming make it through to the successor societies? Enough people have memorized large sections of the Bible and the Koran, and various other religious and mythic works, that we’d be able to reconstruct them (and they would be passed down orally in rough form). It is unlikely that all the books would be destroyed. Similarly, great works of literature such as Shakespeare are widely read and internalized by the public.

This is not the case for a lot of detailed technical knowledge. From what I know the paper we use today is relatively perishable. If our civilization collapsed, it isn’t assured that low volume publications wouldn’t simply disappear as the books degrade beyond recognition without being copied (and without our modern technology digital storage will disappear).

Though I do think religious and literary works have value, to be frank it seems that any sufficiently advanced civilization has to converge upon similar narratives to encapsulate the sort of normative framework around which a society can function. For example, cannibalizing other human beings “because you can” always seems to be understood to be in the “bad” category. Some level of generosity toward the downtrodden is usually classed in the “good” category. I don’t think this is arbitrary, I think it’s an interaction between social complexity beyond the tribal scale, and our cognitive architecture which has first-order “natural tools” to deal with clan-based dynamics, but not supra-clan systems.

In contrast, a lot of technical knowledge, what we bracket into “natural science”, is quite counter-intuitive, and has appeared in one single civilization, that of early modern Europe. I’m particularly thinking of the fruitful synthesis of mathematical formalism and empirical testing which has characterized natural philosophy since Galileo. The historical record is clear that proto-scientific thinking in various forms emerges in many societies, with disparate threads in the same culture even (e.g., empiricism and mathematical formalism were present, but not fused, in the Classical world). But the combination in early modern Europe that kick-started modernity as we know it is rare, and takes a fortuitous combination of circumstances to allow for its flowering.

I hope that the Long Now Foundation has figured out a way to inscribe various technical texts on long-lasting tablets (perhaps stone?) and store them somewhere!

December 3, 2018

Notes the emergence of “Indic civilization”

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 12:04 am

Note: This post is a supplement to the podcast below.

People get hung up on particular words a lot. This post is to clarify some terminology from my own perspective. It needs to make clear here that I am a semantic instrumentalist. Words don’t have power or meaning in and of themselves but point to particular concepts and patterns. If we disagree on words while agreeing on the concepts and patterns, the disagreement is semantic.

To give an illustration about the “power of words,” I have read works on “Western history” which begin the narrative in Egypt and Sumeria. As the centuries proceed, the focus moves north and west, and eventually, the Near East is excluded from the West. Clearly, most people can agree that the Near East is, and became, very distinct from what we term “the West,” but if our history is to deal with Northwestern Europe, it will start with the Roman period, and its roots clearly owe something to the earlier Near East. The reality is that the West that the histories outline developed much later (arguably after the fall of the Western Roman Empire), but its roots are diverse and broad, inclusive of Near East antiquity.

When I use the world “Indic,” please keep in mind that I am focused in particular on the civilization which had crystallized by the Gupta period across South Asia. The civilization which gave rise to concepts which form the basis of the Dharmic family of religions. Moving forward, and moving backward, this is the reference cluster of characteristics.

In the podcast below I made the assertion that the precursors to Indian, Indic, civilization from the north to the south are rooted in prehistory. That the adoption of a set of religious ideas and identities promoted by Brahmins across much of South India several thousand years ago was not a coincidence, because South India was connected in some deep ways to North India in the prehistory period after the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) 4,000 years ago.

Shortly I will have a book review in India Today on a work by Tony Joseph which tries to synthesize archaeology, linguistics, mythology, and genetics. Though I knew many of the details in the book, Joseph brings the strands together which clarified and solidified some general intuitions I have developed.

First, I do think that the most likely point when the Indo-Aryan eruption into South Asia occurred is around 1500 BC. Earlier I had been very vague about the timing because there had not been any ancient DNA. But the presence of people with a “steppe” genetic profile, which is ubiquitous in much of Northern India today, seems to date to the period after 2000 BC. Additionally, 1500 BC is when Indo-Aryan rulers (albeit, culturally assimilated) seem to become dominant in the Upper Euphrates are of Syria.

One can push the date a few centuries earlier (there is a possible Indo-Aryan text in Syria dated to 1750 BC), but not too much earlier. And, Joseph claims that the dominant metal in the earliest Vedas was copper, not iron. Since the Iron Age in India starts around 1200 BC that definitely puts a lower limit on when the Aryans arrived (though the earliest genetic samples in the Swat Valley with “steppe” ancestry shows up around 1200 BC, so we already knew this).

So we can put the ethnogenesis of the Indo-Aryan Indic component in Northwest India in the centuries around 1500 BC.

But they did not come into an empty subcontinent. The Harappan society, the IVC began to go into decline around 1900 BC. There are various debates as the regional continuity of this civilization down to 1300 BC, and as to why it declined. Though more archaeology needs to be done, here is my own personal position as of now:

– The IVC was likely fragile and in decline before the arrival of large numbers of agro-pastoralists

– A good model for the arrival and cultural domination of the Indo-Aryans may be the situation of post-Roman Britan or the post-Roman Balkans, where large numbers of barbarians arrived and assimilated peasant cultures whose elites had disappeared

– In the Near East the Indo-Aryans, and later the Iranians, show no overwhelming ideological reason to destroy civilizations that were existent prior to their arrival. On the contrary, agro-pastoralist elites aim often to take over elite positions in those societies so that they can extract rents and become wealthy. The problem is that sometimes the arrival of these people destabilize weak or declining societies, and the social order rearranges and regresses.

We don’t know the details of how the IVC was organized, but its relative uniformity of architectural design and layout indicate large-scale elite coordination of some sort. The societies and subsequent to the IVC seem simpler and less indicative of large-scale coordination. This sort of “unwinding” was common to earlier societies.

But we also need to move beyond the focus on the Indus Basin the Doab.

The Neolithic, indicative of a transition from hunting and gathering to pastoralism and farming, began in South India after ~2500-3000 BC (depending on the source). While the IVC was flourishing, a zone of agro-pastoralists seems to have pushed south along the western edge of the Deccan. Joseph (and others) reports that placenames of Dravidian origin seem to be common in both Maharashtra and Gujarat. Curiously, he notes that Dravidian placenames do not seem to exist in Bihar or Bengal.

Recent phylogenetic work on the extant Dravidian languages indicates diversification beginning 4,500 years ago. This is 2500 BC. A possible beginning date for the South Indian Neolithic.

When the IVC was a mature civilization it seems that some farmers pushed the frontier further. While the IVC was unwinding in the northwest of the Indian subcontinent, I believe that their “country cousins” in South India continued with their small-scale society.

The “Ancestral South Indians” (ASI) have now been shown by the Reich group to be about ~25% “West Eurasian” in ancestry. This is almost all “Iranian Farmer.” That is, the ancestry derived from western Iran before there was much mixing between Iranian farmers and Anatolian farmers (which occurred before the rise of civilization). Today there are tribal and low-caste groups in South India whose ancestry is nearly all ASI.

I believe that this ASI population formed during the South Indian Neolithic when ash mounds were common through the fusion of people out of the IVC with indigenous people, Ancient Ancestral North Indians (AASI).

But South India is not all ASI. There is in fact caste genetic stratification between Dalits and Adivasis on the one hand, and local non-Brahmin peasant and elite groups (e.g., Reddy). The latter has more “Ancestral North Indian” (ANI), specifically, Iranian farmer.

I believe this is a function of the second wave of continuous migration out of northwest India, likely via the lower Sindh and Gujarat. These people assimilate and conquered the earlier agro-pastoralists and likely absorbed the remaining hunter-gatherers. The relatively deprived position of the original  ASI populations is indicative to me of their long-term marginalization by the new arrivals.

But these people were not simply “Dravidian traditionalists” who were fleeing their homelands. A quick survey of Y haplogroups shows that R1a, associated with the Northwest, and upper-castes, is found through India. Though in far lower frequencies, it is found among Dravidian peoples, even Dalits, and Adivasis in the South.

To me, this is suggestive that the Dravidian-speaking populations that moved south along the western coast of India were, in fact, a synthetic people who were expanding out of a hybrid cultural zone. Some of the populations, tribes, in this hybrid zone, were Indo-Aryan. Likely the dominant element was. But some of them retained their Dravidian language, though they assimilated some Indo-Aryan groups in their mix. The linguistic diversity may have been greater than this, as indicated by the presence of Burusho, a linguistic isolate.

The later expansion of polities such as that of the Maurya to the south on the edge of history then is not an expansion into alien territory, but a conquest of a related set of peoples, distinct, but nevertheless connected.

Obviously, the push east out of the Doab, and down the Ganges, would have resulted in an encounter with Munda people. The people who were moving eastward were Indo-Aryans, who had possibly assimilated Dravidian peoples in the region of Harappa (most of the ancestry even of Brahmins from the Gangetic plain remains non-Indo-Aryan, as is the case for the Kalash of Pakistan). The Munda seem to have arrived after 2000 BC, and admixed with another AASI population. This suggests that Northeast South Asia was not touched by the movement of Dravidian peoples that affected the Deccan. Additionally, the extant Munda tribes lack Indo-Aryan ancestry.

The final point I’d like to make then is that the prehistoric roots of what we term perceive to mature into Indic civilization by the period of the Gupta as its Classical form has its roots in the synthesis between 2000 BC and 1000 BC. First, as the IVC as a civilization defined by widespread coordination and uniformity unwound, and Indo-Aryans enter into the matrix as a hegemonic agro-pastoralist group who introduced a way of life accessible to many local non-Aryan elites, who were assimilated into their culture. Meanwhile, other groups remained Dravidian speaking, while assimilating into themselves some groups of Indo-Aryans, and following a southward trajectory that had been pathbroken by cultural relatives centuries earlier during the IVC.

November 25, 2018

When myth becomes reality

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 9:40 pm


Netflix now has Arjun: The Warrior Prince on its stream. I watched most of it to get a feel for some of the details of the story. I know the general outline of the Mahabharata, but I know the Bible or the Iliad far better (in case you can’t be bothered to follow the link, it’s only a small part of Arjun’s early life).

Depending on the sources you trust, the events of the Mahabharata date to around ~1000 BC. They were probably refined at a later date, perhaps around 500 years later.

I watched a fair amount of Arjun: The Warrior Prince. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of the Iliad and the Odyssey. These two works are a melange of influences and time periods, synthesizing true recollections of the large polities with highly stratified social systems and literacy of the Bronze Age, with the simple chiefdoms of the Dark Age Greece. The issue is disentangling the different periods.

One assumes the same is true of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

The “wild card” here is that the most recent work has now likely confirmed the arrival of agro-pastoralists from the steppe in the period between 1500 and 1000 BC. By the time the historical analogs of the Pandavas were settled in the Gangetic plain, they’d likely been there for many centuries.

November 16, 2018

Random and inevitable forces in world history: the 6th century

Filed under: History,Roman History — Razib Khan @ 6:19 pm

In Science Anne Gibbons reports on new ice-core evidence for why the middle of the 6th century A.D. was so difficult in much of Europe:

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit. At a workshop at Harvard this week, the team reported that a cataclysmic volcanic eruption in Iceland spewed ash across the Northern Hemisphere early in 536. Two other massive eruptions followed, in 540 and 547. The repeated blows, followed by plague, plunged Europe into economic stagnation that lasted until 640, when another signal in the ice—a spike in airborne lead—marks a resurgence of silver mining, as the team reports in Antiquity this week.

Kyle Harper, author of the excellent The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, is quoted in the piece. It’s curious to me to observe the stochastic and correlated events in this particular story.

I assume that volcanic mega-eruptions occur in a pattern defined by a Poisson distribution. That is, they are rare and random events. One thing about the Poisson distribution is that the events tend to cluster together more than human intuition would predict based on what we think might occur when we hear “random events.” Those with more paleoclimate knowledge that I can evaluate this, but it seems that massive eruptions that occurring so close in time are going to be rare indeed, but, they will happen now and then.

That’s the random part. The outbreak of plague is probably less random. In Europe, the plague faded in the early modern period. Though people disagree about the reasons, modern developed societies where people are more well-fed are probably less susceptible to it (as well as low-density hunter-gatherer or pastoralist populations). As Peter Turchin has pointed out only one sitting European monarch died during the Black Death of the bubonic plague, even as 30-60% of the local population succumbed. It seems likely that extremely difficult conditions for agriculture, and the consequent malnutrition, made the spread of plague through vulnerable populations much more likely.

A major consequence of the calamities of the mid-6th century is the reconquest of the West Roman Empire under the push from Justinian and his heirs lost steam. Unlike in China, the Roman system was never recreated in full. Many explanations have to do with the violence of the Gothic Wars, or the inability of East Roman power to expand west while dealing with a more vigorous Persia to the east. We can’t rerun the experiment, but the above volcanic eruptions suggest that the likelihood of total reconquest took a major hit because of an event that was not inevitable.

Remember that the Roman state recovered by near total unwinding in the middle of the 3rd century.

Though we will never resolve the issue of whether the fall and collapse of the Roman Empire was inevitable and its reassembly impossible, by looking in totality at volcanic events and seeing how it correlates with state-formation or collapse, and social complexity, we may get a sense of the nature of the balance of endogenous cyclical forces and exogenous random shocks in the rise and fall of polities. By endogenous cyclical forces, I’m referring here to social cohesion and elite unity, which over time degrades and decays. As states and societies fracture and a new cycle of integration begins anew. I suspect that the exogenous shocks occur periodically, but that if they slam a society at its peak, then the social structure may be able to absorb the shock. In contrast, societies under stress collapse due to unexpected perturbations.

November 15, 2018

The 20,000 year adventur eof the

Filed under: Genetics,History,science — Razib Khan @ 1:28 am

The great adventure of the Native Americans

Comanche warriors in 19th century Texas

In 1492 Christopher Columbus made definitive and lasting contact between Europe and the New World. This was not the first contact. We know for a fact that Greenland Norse knew of the New World as “Vineland.” They visited Labrador and Newfoundland to obtain resources, and in one instance, at L’Anse aux Meadows, attempted to settle permanently. But aside from sagas, nothing came of this.

It was for Columbus and the Europeans who came after to grapple with the fact that across the Atlantic there was a whole world unknown to them. Not Asia, but something fundamentally new. Peoples beyond their ken. In the five centuries since that contact, the engagement between these two worlds has defined much of the history of the world, as the displacement of the native peoples tracked the ascension of European peoples and their eventual conquest of the globe.

But in geological history, five hundred years is but a blink of an eye. The story of the native peoples of the New World, called Native Americans in the United States of America, First Nations, Aboriginal or indigenous elsewhere, begins over 30,000 years ago at the “top of the world.” The Asian landmass adjacent to the Arctic.

Citation: The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene

Rather soon after modern humans break out of Africa ~50,000 years they began to expand all across Eurasia rapidly, absorbing groups like Neanderthals and Denisovans. One wave pushed north through the Caucasus and Central Asia and veered west, eventually giving rise to the various European hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic. Another group moved north and east, and gave rise a Siberian population, sometimes called “Ancient North Eurasians”, whose genetic shadow today spans Patagonia to Portugal.

But by ~25,000 years ago the appropriately named “Last Glacial Maximum” had commenced, and the habitable zones in Siberia shrank. These first Siberian populations retreated to the clement pockets available, and human habitation disappeared from much of the northern swaths of Eurasia.

A world of ice ~20,000 years ago
“This climatic change had major demographic consequences.”
Yakuts

Today most of the ancestry of people in Siberia does not descend from these Ancestral North Eurasians but from peoples related to the Han Chinese further to the south and east. While one group of African humans moved north rapidly ~50,000 years ago, another pushed eastward, through southern Asia, and onward toward the Pacific. Coming up from the south up through Manchuria as the climate warmed, these new Siberians eventually came to overwhelm the older populations. They contribute most of the ancestry of the Siberians of today.

But the genetic ghost of Ancient North Eurasians persisted as they were absorbed by other groups. This is how some of their ancestry can be found in many peoples to the west due to migrations out of the heart of Asia in the last 10,000 years. And yet another fragment of this people found itself far to the east, beyond the edge of modern Siberia, in a land now under the ocean in what is the Bering Sea. This was Beringia. A vast open tundra occupied by megafauna.

Further to the east were the vast ice sheets of North America, while to the west the rugged mountains of eastern Siberia, which were more frigid than they are today. But Beringia was not totally isolated. Sometime between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago, during the very heart of the Last Glacial Maximum, a group of hunter-gatherers migrated from the south and merged with a group of the older Siberian peoples.

Fused together, these became what we term “Beringians,” inhabitants of a lost subcontinent. About ~40% of the ancestry of the Beringians derived from the Ancient North Eurasians, and so connects them with people all across Eurasia, from Europe to India. No people in the world is predominantly Ancient North Eurasian today, but many people in the world are partly Ancient North Eurasian. The remaining ~60% of the ancestry of Beringians comes from a group of people who split from the ancestors of modern Chinese ~25,000 years ago. This is likely one reason that many anthropologists have long observed an affinity between Native Americans and the people of eastern Eurasia.

Modern Native Americans are overwhelmingly descendants of these ancient Beringians. Modern Native Americans are therefore ~40% Ancient North Eurasian, and 60% descended from a group of ancient East Asians.

This fusion likely occurred by ~20,000 years ago. But the archaeology seems to indicate that the native people of the New World did not begin to spread across the landscape of North and South America until ~15,000 years ago. The reason is simple: ice sheets blocked migration south and west. But by ~15,000 years ago we see evidence of humans as far as south as Chile! The movement seems to have been rapid and immediate.

One of the consequences of the period of isolation in Beringia is that the ancestral population of the Native Americans was relatively homogeneous, and went through what population geneticists term a “bottleneck.” When isolated populations remain small for many generations they lose much of their genetic variation by chance. And so it is that anyone who looks at the genetics of the peoples of the Americas notices that from north to south they are relatively similar to each other.

The rapid expansion from such a small population means that ancient DNA suggests that much of the genetic structure we see, differences between groups, have emerged only in the last 15,000 years. The thousands and thousands of languages of the indigenous peoples of these two continents are also the consequence of human cultural evolution over the last 15,000 years.

The native language families of North America

As these tribes diverged and separated, they began to develop their own distinctiveness through isolation. In some cases, population replacements and admixtures occurred. The latest evidence suggests that waves of people moved both north and south out of modern-day Mesoamerica in the last 10,000 years. Meanwhile, far to the north, populations continued to move out of northeastern Siberia well after the initial expansion phase and added to the palimpsest of peoples. The Na-Dene speaking groups of the western half of the United States and Canada seem distantly related to various Siberian tribes, and their linguistic unity and more noticeable East Asian appearance suggest a more recent history in the New World than those of the peoples to their south and east.

Surui elders of the Amazon

From the original unity has come a wide diversity. And yet there is one curious lacuna and perplexity: both ancient DNA and analyses of modern samples indicate that some tribes in the Amazon have a deep affinity with the hunter-gatherer tribes of Southeast Asia and the peoples of Papua New Guinea and Australia! And yet there is no signal of this ancestry in peoples to the north, ancient or modern.

Fundamentally, this is a deep mystery which no researchers have a good explanation for. And that goes to show that science can still present us with surprises that defy our expectations and to which we can present no good response.

The future will be filled with surprises, but the last 15,000 years of humans in the Americas have already been a great adventure.

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


The 20,000 year adventur eof the was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

November 14, 2018

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 7: the genetics of Native Americans

Filed under: Genetics,History,Native Americans,science — Razib Khan @ 7:34 pm

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 7: the genetics of Native Americans

Ancient Beringians

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts and Stitcher) Razib Khan and Spencer Wells discuss the genetics and history of Native Americans, from the icy shores of the Arctic and to the frigid windswept plains of Patagonia, and all places in between. A 15,000 years story of migration and settlement.

Beringia

There was a lot of talk about Beringia. This is a region between Alaska and Siberia which is now under the ocean. But during the Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago when sea levels were lower it likely served as a refuge for Paleo-Siberians who retreated from other zones of northeast Asia. Once the climate warmed and the ice sheets opened up, about 15,000 years ago it seems that humans began to migrate southward.

A new preprint, The population history of northeastern Siberia since the Pleistocene, outlines the context of the emergence of the Beringian ancestors of modern Native Americans about 20,000 years ago. They were the fusion of two populations. One group was related to the people of modern East Asia, such as the Han Chinese. This group contributed about 60–70% of the ancestry to the Beringian population.

But the second population, sometimes termed “Ancient North Eurasians”, are very distantly related to the peoples of Europe. This group contributed to 30–40% of the ancestry to modern Native Americans, as well as 10–20% of the ancestry of Northern Europeans, and substantial fractions in parts of West and South Asia. See, 24,000-Year-Old Body Shows Kinship to Europeans and American Indians.

We alluded to the Beringian standstill hypothesis, that the Berengians were bottled up within their small corner of the world for many thousands of years. This is also connected to the small founding population of the New World.

Spencer discussed that haplogroup Q, the paternal lineage common in the New World, has a wide distribution in Eurasia. This could be the impact of the Ancient North Eurasians:

There was an extensive survey of the archaeology of the New World, and the Clovis First hypothesis. The Monte Verde site was mentioned as one of the primary ways in which Clovis First was refuted. Finally, we mentioned a paper in Nature that might push the occupation as far back as 130,000 years! (though most archaeologists dismiss it).

There was some reference to the Greenberg model of the classification of Amerind languages, as well as the Dené–Yeniseian family.

Much of the middle of the podcast focused on two papers that came out this week that filled in many details of the populating of the New World, one in Cell, and another in Science.

We talked about a 2015 result that indicated an Australasian population contributed some ancestry to people in the Amazon.

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


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 7: the genetics of Native Americans was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

October 29, 2018

The rise of printing and the populist republic

Filed under: History,Populism — Razib Khan @ 10:44 pm

The media needs clicks and people are rather myopic. This explains patently false pieces such as this in Buzzfeed, This Is How We Radicalized The World. It is a rather unorganized list of facts, but they are assembled in a way to convince and persuade the reading audience that modern information technology has facilitated the rise of political radicalism, as if it is something new and notable. So wrong it hurts.

Anyone who knows history will realize this is patently false. Anyone who is aware of the Taping Rebellion, the October Revolution, or the unrest of 1848. Of course, that “anyone” is a small set of individuals because most people don’t know history. Their minds are devoid of most facts not having to do with the Khardasians. And journalists are not much better. Many of them are in the game of creating stories rather than interpreting the world. If public relations operatives are well paid propagandists on a short leash, many journalists are poorly paid propagandists compensated with the freedom to be fabulists.

A piece like the above could convince, but only with a scatterplot. Social science can convince whether history says otherwise, because it is systematic and clear. But most people are not fluent and competent enough to do such data analysis, so they create a conclusion that is congenial to their audience, and marshal evidence in a biased manner (wittingly or unwittingly) to support their conclusion.

To get a sense of what we’re seeing today in the world, we need to go back centuries.

In the early 16th century, the unity of Western Christianity shattered. The standard story you see in the movies is that a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther led a rebellion against the Roman Church, what became the Roman Catholic Church after it was clear that the Protestants were going to go their own way.

An alternative model would be that the invention of the printing press naturally unleashed fissiparous tendencies pregnant within late medieval Western Christianity. Luther was the right man at the right time to claim the mantle of the first reformer, but it was no coincidence that others such Zwingli were having issues with Western Christianity as it was configured during this period as well.

The truth is in dispute, but if you are curious about this period I highly recommend Diarmaid MacCulloh’s The Reformation. Rather, I want to use the Reformation to illustrate the reality that the early modern period led to the emergence of a mass popular culture which eventually produced the ascendancy of a demotic ethos. In politics the people now rule.

In the mid-16th century cuius regio eius religio held that the religion of the prince became the religion of the people. In England and much of Northern Europe monarchs and broader political elites (such as in the cities of Switzerland and in the Low Countries) dragged the traditionalist peasantry into the new religion. I believe this was feasible in part because for much of the peasantry true sectarianism had not taken deep root. Their religion was customary, traditional. But it was not a systematic ideology to which they were bound. The emergence of Protestantism, printing, and then the Catholic reaction, transformed confessional identities into something more solid and persistent.

And one thing that is notable about the 17th century is that during this century changes in the religion of the prince did not entail changes in the religion of the people! In England James II lost his crown because his nobles, and the people more broadly, rejected a Catholic monarch who imposed religious toleration upon them (though of course it is likely James II would have liked to drag all of England and Scotland back to Catholicism by force, but he did not have the power to do so, so toleration was a reasonable compromise). In Prussia the Hohenzollern line became Calvinist, but their people held fast to Lutheranism. In Saxony the ruling dynasty converted to Catholicism, but the only Catholics in their domain for many years were those in the court.

Between 1500 and 1700 population religious identity became strong enough that peoples could resist the interests and whims of their rulers. A collective identity, horizontal and thick, developed which could withstand vertical shocks from the elites. In The Great Upheaval Jay Winik observes that 18th century observers of the emergence of the American republic were skeptical of its sustainability because of its geographic expanse. Ancient republics did not scale well. Democracies and republics were all well and good for city-states, but once the polity became large, it always evolved into a monarchy.

America falsified this hypothesis drawn from historical experience. Why? How? I believe that the printing press and the development of mass media in the form of newspapers and pamphlets allowed for the emergence of a thick and horizontal demotic national identity, where elites had to cater to the considerations of the populace, because the populace could act as a unit if it felt its interests were being suborned. This was something that was not possible in the ancient world. Popular revolts for various reasons occurred, but they were often local. The Nika riots are a case in point.

The Roman or Chinese societies were bound together by loyalties, fidelities, and identities. But, they tended to percolate down from on high, as local populations adhered to sub-elites or a distant theoretical monarch. Populist uprisings were often due to material considerations, such as famines, and their aims were often not ideological, but pragmatic. Men, such as the first Ming Emperor, could rise to power due to populist fervor and sectarian ideologies, but once in power they could and often did set them aside as inconveniences.

Modernity changed that by demanding that the people who ruled bow down before the values of those who were ruled. The first presidents of the American republic were nominal Christians at best. The first prime ministers of Italy tended to have poor relations with the Catholic Church. The autocrat Frederick the Great founded the Prussian state as the core of the Protestant dominated Germany of the 19th century, but his own personal beliefs tended toward contempt and disdain toward religion. Over time leaders of modern nation-states had had to give more fealty to the dominant ethos of the populace, as they present themselves as exemplars and representatives of the people they rule. Pious and approachable. Refined and aristocratic men such as Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t have pretended to have the common touch, but by the 21st century politicians such as George W. Bush downplayed their plainly blue-blood background and affected a more common image.

Modern social media amplifies and accelerates these trends, as collective consciousness is even more interconnected, responsive, and cohesive. But these trends predate the “social graph” and email. They are the natural outcome of the democratization of information flow that occurred with the rise of the printing press and cheap paper. The key is that you don’t need 80% of the population emailing or on social media to develop a critical mass, you need influencers in each community to develop a common identity through communication. Modern science is one such community, which developed in the 17th century as one of the many republics of letters. Similarly, social and political eminences within a town could serve as information nodes for the local populace.

The big changes were all pre-modern. First, there was writing, which allowed for the sidelining of memory, and the persistence of linguistic forms and cultures even after they were no longer spoken by living people (Sumerian and Latin are cases in point). I believe written histories and self-conceptions are qualitatively different from oral ones. Less protean, more stable, and easier to scale across time an space.

Then the early modern revolution in printing, paper, and economies of scale allowed for the development of near universal literacy societies in scale and scope. Economic productivity and the demographic transition allowed for the emergence of consumer middle class societies, where the broad middle element of society was all that truly mattered in name if not always in fact.

The fact that modern politics is more response to the people means that modern politics is more base, volatile, and often more radical. This is a feature, not a bug, of democratic republics. When the “Arab Spring” was in full swing I predicted that democratic populism would lead to the ascendancy of Islamism and cultural conservatism. Not liberalism. I was right. Democratic republics become less liberal as they broaden their base and sink roots in the populace, because the average voter is not particularly liberal. Ancient hunter-gatherer tribes were not liberal. They enforced strong norms and social taboos. But they were democratic in seeking social consensus within the band.

The founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a religious nonobservant Shia Muslim whose grandfather was a Hindu. Though strongly attached to the Muslim identity as a national one, he was not a religious fanatic, and was only nominally Muslim in his beliefs and practices (he drank). But over the last several decades Pakistan has Islamicized the founder of the republic, and transformed itself into something that he likely wouldn’t have ever recognized. The madrassa has come into the halls of power, and forced the elites to conform to its folkways.

It is fashionable to emphasize the role of Facebook and social media for the ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar. I would argue that the conflict develops out of the native Buddhist majority hostility to the Muslim minority which is also ethnically and racially different. Autocratic rule in places like Myanmar, Syria, and probably China, often allows for more toleration of minorities for various reasons. Once democratic majoritarianism kicks in, you may overturn authoritarian elite tolerance and usher in an era of majority persecution of hated minorities. Aung San Suu Kyi may not be saying much about the Rohingya precisely because she is reflecting the mood of the population of the people she represents. Dictators can ignore the passions of the people. Democrats can not if they wish to continue their hold on power.

We overestimate the impact of information technology in many areas of life. Modern scholars have access to a much wider assemblage of resources and are able to communicate at lightning speed with their colleagues, but are they that much more productive and insightful than their pre-computer predecessors? Surely there has been some change, but it is on the margin, a quantitative shift, not a qualitative one. Those who claim otherwise fall prey to presentism and their own ignorance at best, and are liars at worst.

October 17, 2018

The expansion of the polar people

Filed under: Finland,History,science — Razib Khan @ 10:58 am

The expansion of the polar people

Sami in the far north of Europe

Since the development of agriculture 12,000 years ago, the cultural and genetic landscape of our world has been transformed by the emergence of peasants as the dominant demographic. For most of the recorded history, the average human was a peasant; a laboring tiller of the soil.

There were of course exceptions. Some peoples took up pastoralism. Others specialized in extracting resources from the sea — such as fisherman. And of course, there were hunter-gatherers who continued to practice a lifestyle as old as the human race itself.

Muskox in the Taimyr Peninsula

Though we often think of hunter-gatherers in a tropical context, the reality is that some of the most successful practitioners of this lifestyle have flourished in and around the Arctic. Not only have they flourished, but they have vastly expanded! For instance, the Thule culture of North America famously replaced the Norse agriculturalists of Greenland in the 15th century.

But perhaps the most speculator expansion of a non-agriculturalists in the north has been that of the Uralic peoples. A paper titled “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations” has an excellent map which illustrates the geographic span of this language family:

Citation: Tambets, Kristiina, et al. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations.” Genome biology 19.1 (2018): 139.

Over twenty years ago researchers noted that one particular Y haplogroup lineage, N1c, was very common among Uralic peoples. Notice the overlap in distribution between this lineage and the Uralic populations below.

Distribution of N1c

The question then emerges: did the Uralic peoples come from the east, into northern Europe, or were they indigenous to northern Europe and expanded eastward? Examining patterns of genetic diversity indicate that this Y chromosomal lineage emerged in Siberia and later spread to northern Europe. Why? Because diversity accumulates in regions where the lineage has been present the longest.

Citation: Lamnidis, Thiseas Christos, et al. “Ancient Fennoscandian genomes reveal origin and spread of Siberian ancestry in Europe.” bioRxiv (2018): 285437.

New research from ancient DNA has clarified the timing of the arrival of these Siberians, Ancient Fennoscandian genomes reveal origin and spread of Siberian ancestry in Europe.

What we do know from modern genetic variation is that the Uralic people, including the Finns, seem to have recent Siberian affinities. In contrast, most other Northern Europeans do not have this — making it even more distinct. This Siberian affinity is strongest in the Sami hunter-gatherers of the far north.

Samples from a population in the Kola Peninsula of northern Russia from to 3,500 years ago yielded individuals who were even more Siberian than the Sami — as you can see in the admixture plot to the left. In particular, the Siberian ancestry of the Finnic people seems to be similar to that of the Ngananasn people of the Taymyr peninsula in Russia.

Looking at patterns within the genome of these ancient people, researchers have concluded that these people are the product of mixing between Siberians and indigenous European hunter-gatherers, which began to occur ~4,000 years ago. This aligns with other work that suggests that the Ceramic Comb Culture, the dominant Mesolithic hunter-gatherer society of northeast Europe before the expansion of agriculture, lacked Siberian ancestry.

Nenet Samoyed people

Where does this leave us? If we use genetics as a guide, it seems that around ~4,000 years ago a migration of Arctic hunter-gatherers swept out of the northern fringe of Siberia to the west. These people were likely related to the easternmost of modern Uralic peoples: the Samoyed tribes. The Y chromosomes of western Uralic peoples, such as the Sami and Finn, carry the hallmarks of ancestry similar to the Samoyeds. But the mitochondrial lineage is almost wholly similar to their European neighbors. Therefore, it seems that the spread of Uralic languages westward was due to the migration of males.

One of the implications of these conclusions is that the Uralic languages may have arrived in the Baltic after the Indo-European languages! In much of Estonia and southern Finland, the Corded Ware culture, presumed to be associated with Indo-Europeans, predates 2000 BC by centuries.

Though we often imagine that history and culture move in a singular direction, toward agriculture, the Uralic people may be an instance of an exception. If it is correct that hunter-gatherer Siberian men moved into large areas of northeastern Europe, and culturally assimilated more numerous peoples, some of whom were agriculturalists, it may indicate that the trajectory of history is more winding and complex than we may imagine.

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


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

October 13, 2018

The leisure class of the ancient world

Filed under: History,trade — Razib Khan @ 8:06 pm

The years before 1914 and the First World War are often termed the “first age of globalization” (with our current era the second). But that’s a little short-right, even though arguably correct in some sense.

Books such as The Fate of Rome and The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization make it quite clear that Classical Antiquity achieved some level of globalization in its corner of Eurasia. At the other end of Eurasia, the Grand Canal also illustrates the importance of trade and economic interdependence in complex pre-modern societies.

But what has been made can be unmade. One of the major arguments in Framing the Early Middle Ages is that the decline in the social complexity of the early medieval period in Europe was due in part to the collapse of the whole fiscal apparatus of the Roman bureaucratic state. Some of these weak post-Roman states were really chiefdoms bound together with personalized rule. A process which advanced the furthest in Britain and the Balkans.

And yet during the first grat maximum of human civilization in the years after 0 international trade extended even beyond the bounds of specific imperium, from one end of Eurasia to the other.

The Roman Empire and the Indian Ocean: The Ancient World Economy and the Kingdoms of Africa, Arabia and India focus mostly on the international aspect of the trade. Much of it is concerned with the role of conspicuous consumption among elites in the Roman Empire in driving this trade, and so the bullion drain to the east. Silk, incense, ivory, and medicines were all imported in large quantities from the east. The state benefited in some sense through taxation, but the drain on specie was a constant consideration. It is well known that Roman coinage, sometimes modified, became the standard in the southern half of India in the first centuries AD.

In a stepwise fashion, East Roman traders pushed across the Indian ocean until in 166 we know that they reached the imperial court in China. This connection seems to have been made by following the trade routes which were already established by Indians into Southeast Asia. Roman geographers were familiar with the general shape of Peninsular Malaysia, as well as Java.

Because our records from China and the Roman Empire are very good, is easy to ignore the reality that a whole network of cities existed along the shores of the Indian ocean. These cities grew up around trade and acted as intermediaries for the demand for particular luxury goods which also pumped specie out of Roman mines. But the decades after the Antonine plague seems to have been defined by multiple regressions across Eurasia, as societies dependent and expecting trade faltered when local nodes collapsed and interrupted the flow.

October 9, 2018

How the Greeks came to be

Filed under: Greeks,History — Razib Khan @ 4:01 pm

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.

Who are the Greeks? Where did they come from?

We have enough ancient DNA now to answer many of these questions. It seems that the largest component of Greek ancestry derives from the expansion of farmers out of Anatolia ~9,000 years ago. But at some point in the latter phases of prehistory, another wave of migrants pushed out from the east, with affinities to peoples as far away as Iran. And then during the Bronze Age, another pulse of migration arrived, likely correlated with the arrival of Greek-speaking peoples as such, the Mycenaeans. Finally, there is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that the peregrinations of the pagan Slavs during Late Antiquity and the early Medieval period left their imprint on many Hellenes, in particular in the north of the country, around Salonika.

But that’s just genetics. What about culture? In terms of religion, Greek paganism is a composite. Zeus pater is clearly a standard Indo-European sky-god. Jupiter in Latin. Dyáuṣ Pitṛ́ for the ancient Aryans. In contrast, gods such as Athena seem to have synthetic, and at least partly pre-Indo-European origins. Finally, Dionysius was possibly an eastern import relatively late in prehistory.

Though the Greek language is definitely Indo-European, there are also extensive loanwords indicating an indigenous substrate. For example, words with the syllabic fragment nth, such as in Hyacinth, are likely native. The Greeks settled amongst peoples who had a long history of settled life, and had developed their own civilization.

The point is that it is probably not even wrong to say that the Greeks as we understand came from elsewhere, or, that they were indigenous. To be Greek probably emerged in the period after 2500 BC, as Indo-Europeans mixed with the local cultures, and created something new. Autochthonous.

October 1, 2018

Postcolonial imperialism

Filed under: History,Postcolonialism — Razib Khan @ 7:03 pm

Rereading Edward Said’s Orientalism I am struck by the fact that he’s a very good writer compared to his heirs in postcolonial studies. As someone who cites Foucault, it is natural that there is a fair amount of vapid but lexically textured passages in Orientalism (you can open up any page and stumble upon a polished by inscrutable passage). But the general thesis and the review of the literary works seems moderately coherent actually. Far less of a screen than the more recent distillations. Who says evolution ascends upward in complexity?

As someone who isn’t well versed in literature I can’t really comment on the validity of the interpretations, but, there is one thing that I noticed in Said’s argument which prefigures modern postcolonialism: it abstracts and generalizes from a particular instance in human history, European interactions with non-Europeans in the early modern and modern period, and projects them across all of history. Like tachyons going back in time the manipulations and predations of early modern Europeans echo back through time and forward into infinite.

Here is a representative sample of what I’m talking about. The first section is a quote from Aeschylus:

Now all Asia’s land
Moans in emptiness.
Xerxes led forth, oh oh!
Xerxes destroyed, woe woe!
Xerxes’ plans have all miscarried
In ships of the sea.
Why did Darius then
Bring no harm to his men
When he led them into battle,
That beloved leader of men from Susa?

What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile “other” world beyond the seas….

Said is quoting here someone who lived in the 5th century BC. What Aeschylus meant by “Asia” had a much different connotation than what we think of today. In part, the idea of a decadent civilization and the decline from more vigorous ages is a common theme in the ancient oriented, and the Romans in their turn depicted the Greeks as the Greeks had depicted the Persians.

And, of course, the context here is that some people of Hellas were resisting the domination and expansion of the world’s greatest empire of the time, that of the Persians, which was based in Asia. Aeschylus was a bard of the subaltern in this context! The whole passage when exposed is actually an inversion of the larger thesis.

The author does not mask the historical context of the passage, but it strikes me that it’s totally silly to make any identity between Europe in the 5th century BC to Europe in the 18th to 20th centuries, and Asia in the 5th century BC to Asia in the 18th to 20th century.

To be honest, the concept of différance may apply here. Said cannot be so naive as to not understand the chasm between Europe in the Classical World, which was an almost clinical description of the geography, and Europe in the early modern period, which was freighted with the weight of history. The Thracians did not care if they were European, but the Russian nobility yearned to be so thought.

Now transfer this to a typical undergraduate. Are they intuitively aware of the chasm of history, the centuries, the transmutation of words and their implications? To be entirely frank, I think some of the teaching assistants guiding the students are probably too stupid and ignorant to actually understand these nuances themselves.

But the students learn about terms like postcolonialism and Orientalism, and as some of them move into the professions and the media these words became part of the common lexicon to show you are an educated person, just as dialectical materialism was for an earlier generation.

And that is how postcolonial theory mutated from being a system that decomposes very precise and delimited historical dynamics to becoming an heir to classical Marxism, a theory for all of history in the past and into the future.

Forgive them their ignorance, for they infer the path through the darkness by Theory alone.

September 26, 2018

India is eternal but Indians are not

Filed under: History,India,science — Razib Khan @ 10:18 pm

This week’s episode of The Insight dug deeply into the current scientific understanding of the genetic origins of the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Recent publications and media coverage have caught the science in midstream, as scholars have to deal with the clamor for new information in the face of the need to be careful and cautious when presenting new results.

Steppe Chariot

The show notes linked extensively to the scientific literature which documents the interface between cutting-edge genomics, modern population genetics and computation, and finally the abstruse lab science of ancient DNA. Or, just go to the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

The general outline of what we know so far is straightforward. Over the past 10,000 years, the Indian subcontinent has been a great vortex, sucking in peoples from various corners of Eurasia. The overwhelming proportion of the ancestry of any given person in the Indian subcontinent, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, binds together the heritage of three peoples. First, the longstanding residents of South Asia who were descended from the original migrants out of Africa. Second, farmers and pastoralists from the hills of western Iran. And finally, Indo-Aryan peoples who arrived in chariots and drove their cattle before them.

Meenakshi Temple, South India

As noted on the podcast, the slippery and sometimes sloppy usage of labels can mislead as much as illuminate. The term “Indian” can refer to many things, whether it’s a geographic landmass, or, people. More esoteric but still widely used terms such as “Indo-Aryan” are properly linguistic, but they have gained ethnic connotations. A shorthand that communicates, and sometimes, distorts.

In some of the scholarly literature, and on the podcast, you may hear terms such as “Iranian farmer” without context. By this, we do not mean the farmers of modern Iran, but the people nearly 10,000 years ago who lived in what became Iran, and began to herd goats and grow wheat. These people then migrated eastward, eventually to India. Of the great farming cultures of the Middle East that arose with agriculture, these were the easternmost extension.

Obviously, the same caveat applies to the “steppe ancestry”, which is associated with likely Indo-European peoples, from the early Yamnaya to the successor Corded Ware, Andronovo and Sintashta cultures. The fact is that there were different peoples on the steppe before these cultures arose, and there were, and are, people on the steppe after they left the stage of history. But, in the context of Indian history what we mean by “steppe ancestry” are these particular cultures, and the genetic imprint we see on the steppe between the Volga and the Aral Sea, and later among the peoples of India after 2000 BC. The term is not genetic, but specific.

Indra atop his mount, an elephant

The latest genetic work aligns with earlier theories that the Indo-Aryans arrived in India after the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization. All signs point to their connection to peoples on the Eurasian steppe, whose origins are themselves a melange of West Asian, European and Siberian. This has led some commentators to suggest that the Indo-Aryans were “alien invaders.”

In sharp contrast, Indian nationalists have long been keen to point out that the earliest texts written down from the oral epics of the Indian Aryans do not seem to record a memory of a land outside of South Asia. In the Vedas, the oldest of the memories of the Indo-Aryan tribes, the Thunder God Indra sits atop an elephant, an Indian beast if there ever was one.

Though the origin of the Indo-Aryans was likely outside of the continent, it is important to remember that their cultural and historical identity as we understand them today seem to have been forged in the Indian subcontinent. The Vedas themselves bear the imprint of non-Aryans words, indicating that by the time the warlike and pastoralist tribes began to fashion the seminal epics which defined their identity, they had already become of the soil of the subcontinent in a deep sense.

Diversification of the Dravidian languages 4,500 years ago

One of the major dichotomies in the prehistory of South Asia on the edge of the history, from the arrival of Alexander the Great in the north to the Sangam period flourishing in the south, is between Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Often, the Indo-Aryans are posited to be newcomers, while the Dravidians are aboriginals. But new research in linguistics and archaeology is pointing to the conclusion that Dravidian languages themselves diversified in the period after 2,500 BC. In other words, not very much earlier than when the Indo-Aryans arrived in the subcontinent.,

Though the Dravidian populations of the south often lack the ancestry from the Eurasian steppe, so common among Brahmins, in particular, they invariably show signs of being descended from the ancient Iranian farmers. Like Indo-Aryan speaking peoples, the Dravidians are themselves likely a fusion of newcomers from the north and west, and indigenous hunter-gatherers. The linguistic evidence, along with the start of the South Indian Neolithic in 2,500 BC, indicates that Dravidian-speaking peoples forded the path for the Indo-Aryans that came after them.

What genetics has told us over the past generation is that most of the world’s populations are mixes between very different groups of people. 10,000 years ago no one lived in the world who looked much like modern Indians. Or Northern Europeans. Or, likely Southeast Asians. And so on.

Underneath all the statistics, the new science and old history, the final truth is that in the game of precedence and indigeneity, no one really comes out ahead. It’s been a long and complicated dance between many different peoples, and everyone’s ancestry leads to both outsiders and insiders.

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


India is eternal but Indians are not was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 3: ANI, ASI, IVC and The Genetics of India

Filed under: Genetics,History,India,science — Razib Khan @ 3:49 pm
A scene from an ancient Indian epic

This week on The Insight (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Google Play) we discussed how the genetics of 25% of the world’s population, the people of South Asia, came to be. It’s a journey of thousands of years.

We cited the preprint, The Genomic Formation of South and Central Asia.

Additionally, we cite a chapter in David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here, where he discusses the genetics of India, and how it’s analogous to Europe.

A cover story from India Today, 4500-year-old DNA from Rakhigarhi reveals evidence that will unsettle Hindutva nationalists, was also referenced. Please read with caution! The research has not been published, and there are likely going to be changes based on new results (actually, probably certainly from what I have heard)….

There was a discussion of some technical, but important, statistical genetic tests to infer admixture. The paper in Genetics, Ancient Admixture in Human History, outlines these methods in detail. The three and four population tests, as well LD decay estimates of admixture time are all discussed in this paper. All are alluded to or discussed in the podcast.

Linguistic families in South Asia

There was extensive discussion of the various language families in India, in particular, Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, and Munda. We discussed the results of a recent, paper A Bayesian phylogenetic study of the Dravidian language family, which indicates a recent expansion of this language family in South Asia. Also, a new preprint on Munda, The genetic legacy of continental scale admixture in Indian Austroasiatic speakers suggests that the Munda emerged around the same time as the Dravidians.

A lot of ethnographic terms were thrown around with deeper exploration. If you want to follow-up, Elamites from ancient Iran, Indo-European Sintashta culture, and the Bactria-Margiana culture of Central Asia.

We talked about ANI and ASI. The 2009 paper, Reconstructing Indian Population History, introduced these terms and constructs. The Kalash and Pulayar people of Pakistan and southern India respectively were mentioned as modern-day exemplars of ANI and ASI.

Distribution of R1a1a

The distribution of R1a1a in India and Eastern Europe was also discussed, and how it is associated with expanding steppes. Also, caste and its antiquity were discussed, in particular, that modern boundaries between groups seem to have emerged around 2,000 years ago, after several thousand years of admixture between disparate Indian groups. The promise of disease gene discovery in South Asia is a preprint that explores the relevance of this endogamy today for health risks.

Linguistic isolates Burusho and Nihali were mentioned. And, the development of the “Yankee” identity, which Razib analogized to Indo-Aryans!

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


The Insight Show Notes — Season 2, Episode 3: ANI, ASI, IVC and The Genetics of India was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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