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July 25, 2017

Ancient Europeans: isolated, always on the edge of extinction

Filed under: Europe,Human Genetics,Scandinavia — Razib Khan @ 12:19 am

A few years ago I suggested to the paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer that the first modern humans who arrived in Europe did not contribute appreciable ancestry to modern populations in the continent (appreciable as in 1% or more of the genome).* It seems I may have been right according to results from a 2016 paper, The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. The very oldest European ancient genome samples “failed to contribute appreciably to the current European gene pool.”

Why did I make this claim? Two reasons:

1) 40,000 years is a long time, and there was already substantial evidence of major population turnovers across northern Eurasia by this point. You go far enough into the future and it’s not likely that a local population leaves any descendants. So just work that logic backward.

2) There was already evidence of low population sizes and high isolation levels between groups in Pleistocene and Mesolithic/Neolithic Europe. This would again argue in favor of a high likelihood of local extinctions give enough time.

This does not only apply to just modern humans, descendants of southern, likely African, populations. Neanderthals themselves show evidence of high homogeneity, and expansions through bottlenecks over the ~600,000 years of their flourishing.

The reason that these dynamics characterized modern humans and earlier hominins in northern Eurasia is what ecologists would term an abiotic factor: the Ice Age. Obviously humans could make a go of it on the margins of the tundra (the Neanderthals seem less adept at penetrating the very coldest of terrain in comparison to their modern human successors; they likely frequented the wooded fringes, see The Humans Who Went Extinct). We have the evidence of several million years of continuous habitation by our lineage. But many of the ancient genomes from these areas, whether they be Denisovan, Neanderthal, or Mesolithic European hunter-gatherer, show indications of being characterized by very low effective population sizes. Things only change with the arrival of farming and agro-pastoralism.

For two obvious reasons we happen to have many ancient European genomes. First, many of the researchers are located in Europe, and the continent has a well developed archaeological profession which can provide well preserved samples with provenance and dates. And second, Europe is cool enough that degradation rates are going to be lower than if the climate was warmer. But if Europe, as part of northern Eurasia, is subject to peculiar exceptional demographic dynamics we need to be cautious about generalizing in terms of the inferences we make about human population genetic history. Remember that ancient Middle Eastern farmers already show evidence of having notably larger effective population sizes than European hunter-gatherers.

Two new preprints confirm the long term population dynamics typical of European hunter-gatherers, Assessing the relationship of ancient and modern populations and Genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia reveal colonization routes and high-latitude adaptation. The first preprint is rather methods heavy, and seems more of a pathfinder toward new ways to extract more analytic juice from ancient DNA results. Those who have worked with population genomic data are probably not surprised at the emphasis on collecting numbers of individuals as opposed to single genome quality. That is, for the questions population geneticists are interested in “two samples sequenced to 0.5x coverage provide better resolution than a single sample sequenced to 2x coverage.”

I encourage readers (and “peer reviewers”) to dig into the appendix of Assessing the relationship of ancient and modern populations. I won’t pretend I have (yet). Rather, I want to highlight an interesting empirical finding when the method was applied to extant ancient genomic samples: “we found that no ancient samples represent direct ancestors of modern Europeans.”

This is not surprising. The ‘hunter-gatherer’ resurgence of the Middle Neolithic notwithstanding, Northern Europe was subject to two major population replacements, while Southern Europe was subject to one, but of a substantial nature. Recall that the Bell Beaker paper found that “spread of the Beaker Complex to Britain was mediated by migration from the continent that replaced >90% of Britain’s Neolithic gene pool within a few hundred years.” This means that less than 10% of modern Britons’ ancestry are a combination of hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers.

And yet if you look at various forms of model-based admixture analyses it seems as if modern Europeans have substantial dollops of hunter-gatherer ancestry (and hunter-gatherer U5 mtDNA and Y chromosomal lineage I1 and I2, associated with Pleistocene Europeans, is found at ~10% frequency in modern Europe in the aggregate; though I suspect this is a floor). What gives? Let’s look at the second preprint, which is more focused on new empirical results from ancient Scandinavian genomes, Genomics of Mesolithic Scandinavia reveal colonization routes and high-latitude adaptation. From early on in the preprint:

Based on SF12’s high-coverage and high-quality genome, we estimate the number of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) hitherto unknown (that are not recorded in dbSNP (v142)) to be c. 10,600. This is almost twice the number of unique variants (c. 6,000) per Finnish individual (Supplementary Information 3) and close to the median per European individual in the 1000 Genomes Project (23) (c. 11,400, Supplementary Information 3). At least 17% of these SNPs that are not found in modern-day individuals, were in fact common among the Mesolithic Scandinavians (seen in the low coverage data conditional on the observation in SF12), suggesting that a substantial fraction of human variation has been lost in the past 9,000 years (Supplementary Information 3). In other words, the SHGs (as well as WHGs and EHGs) have no direct descendants, or a population that show direct continuity with the Mesolithic populations (Supplementary Information 6) (13–17). Thus, many genetic variants found in Mesolithic individuals have not been carried over to modern-day groups.

The gist of the paper in terms of archaeology and demographic history is that Scandinavian hunter-gatherers were a compound population. One component of their ancestry is what we term “Western hunter-gatherers” (WHG), who descended from the late  Pleistocene Villabruna cluster (see paper mentioned earlier). Samples from Belgium, Switzerland, and Spain all belong to this cluster. The second element are “Eastern hunter-gatherers” (EHG). These samples derive from the Karelia region, to the east of modern Finland, bound by the White Sea to the north. EHG populations exhibit affinities to both WHG as well as Siberian populations who contributed ancestry to Amerindians, the “Ancestral North Eurasians” (ANE). There is a question at this point whether EHG are the product of a pulse admixture between an ANE and WHG population, or whether there was a long existent ANE-WHG east-west cline which the EHG were situated upon. That is neither here nor there (the Tartu group has a paper addressing this leaning toward isolation-by-distance from what I recall).

Explicitly testing models to the genetic data the authors conclude that there was a migration of EHG populations with a specific archaeological culture around the north fringe of Scandinavia, down the Norwegian coast. Conversely, a WHG population presumably migrated up from the south and somewhat to the east (from the Norwegian perspective).

And yet the distinctiveness of the very high quality genome as inferred from unique SNPs they have suggests to them that very little of the ancestry of modern Scandinavians (and Finns to be sure) derives from these ancient populations. Very little does not mean all. There is a lot of functional analysis in the paper and supplements which I will not discuss in this post, and one aspect is that it seems some adaptive alleles for high latitudes might persist down to the present in Nordic populations as a gift from these ancient forebears. This is no surprise, not all regions of the genome are created equal (a more extreme case is the Denisovan derived high altitude adaptation haplotype in modern Tibetans).

Nevertheless, there was a great disruption. First, the arrival of farmers whose ultimate origins were Anatolia ~6,000 years ago to the southern third of Scandinavia introduced a new element which came in force (agriculture spread over the south in a few centuries). A bit over a thousand years later the Corded Ware people, who were likely Indo-European speakers, arrived. These Indo-European speakers brought with them a substantial proportion of ancestry related to the hunter-gatherers because they descended in major fraction from the EHG (and later accrued more European hunter-gatherer ancestry from both the early farmers and likely some residual hunter-gatherer populations who switched to agro-pastoralism**).

For several years I’ve had discussions with researchers whose daily bread & butter are the ancient DNA data sets of Europe. I’ve gotten some impressions implicitly, and also from things they’ve said directly. It strikes me that the Bantu expansion may not be a bad analogy in regards to the expansion of farming in Europe (and later agro-pastoralism). Though the expanding farmers initial mixed with hunter-gatherers on the frontier, once they got a head of steam they likely replaced small hunter-gatherer groups in totality, except in areas like Scandinavia and along the maritime fringe where ecological conditions were such hunter-gatherers were at advantage (War Before Civilization seems to describe a massive farmer vs. coastal forager war on the North Sea).

But this is not the end of the story for Norden. At SMBE I saw some ancient genome analysis from Finland on a poster. Combined with ancient genomic analysis from the Baltic, along with deeper analysis of modern Finnish mtDNA, it seems likely that the expansion of Finno-Samic languages occurred on the order of ~2,000 years ago. After the initial expansion of Corded Ware agro-pastoralists.

The Sami in particular seem to have followed the same path along the northern fringe of Scandinavia that the EHG blazed. Though they herd reindeer, they were also Europe’s last indigenous hunter-gatherers. Genetically they exhibit the same minority eastern affinities in their ancestry that the Finns do, though to a greater extent. But their mtDNA harbors some distinctive lineages, which might be evidence of absorption of ancient Scandinavian substate.

I’ll leave it to someone else to explain how and why the Finns and Sami came to occupy the areas where they currently dominate (note that historically Sami were present much further south in Norway and Sweden than they are today). But note that in Latvia and Lithuania the N1c Y chromosomal lineage is very common, despite no language shift, indicating that there was a great deal of reciprocal mixing on the Baltic.

Overall the story is of both population and cultural turnover. This should not surprise when one considers that northern Eurasia is on the frontier of the human range. And perhaps it should temper the inferences we make about other areas of the world.

* You may notice that this threshold is lower than the Neanderthal admixture proportions in the non-African genome. Why is this old admixture still detectable while modern human lineages go extinct? Because it seems to have occurred with non-African humans had a very small effective population, and was mixed thoroughly. Because of the even genomic distribution this ancestry has not been lost in any of the daughter populations.

** Haplogroup I1, which descends from European late Pleistocene populations, exhibits a star phylogeny of similar time depth as R1b and R1a.

May 16, 2011

The genetic complexity of prehistoric Sweden

Thanks to the fact that northern Europe is cool and archaeological research is rather well developed in the region due to quirks of history, there are lots of findings from ancient DNA which are answering long-standing questions. In particular Scandinavia is of special interest in regards to the transition of Europeans from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural one. We know that hunting and gathering as dominant modes of economic production persisted relatively late in European history in this region, up to ~5,000 years before the present. From my cursory reading of the material on the spread of agriculture in northern Europe one dynamic which seems clear is that the rate of expansion was not always constant, and that at the northern fringes in particular social or ecological frontiers served to demarcate the limits to the expansion of farming groups, which often originated from the south and east. Additionally, on the maritime fringes of the North Sea and Baltic there seem to have been relatively dense agglomerations of hunter-gatherers which resisted or coexisted with farming populations for long periods of time (perhaps they were more accurately termed fisher-gatherers!).

This is where Anna Linderholm’s research comes into the picture. I’ve ...

February 4, 2011

The Vikings: A History

Filed under: Culture,History,Religion,Scandinavia,The Vikings: A History — Razib Khan @ 12:39 am

Link to review: How the Swedes became white

August 2, 2010

Ancient DNA and Norden

Filed under: Ancient DNA,Genetics,Genomics,Scandinavia — Razib Khan @ 2:29 am

Genetics is now being brought to bear on whether there were non-trivial population movements in the prehistorical period. Or more precisely, a combination of genetics and archaeology, whereby the archaeologists retrieve and extract genetic material which the geneticists amplify and analyze. This has helped establish that European hunter-gatherers were not lactase persistent. This is totally unsurprising, but was a nice proof of principle. When it comes to ascertaining genetic relationships among populations, as opposed to specific traits whose genetic architecture is well established, it’s a bit trickier. Who knows how many population movements may have interposed themselves between the present and a particular period in the past from which you have samples?

A new paper in PLoS ONE reports findings which do little to clarify, though add weight to skepticism as to the definitiveness of earlier results, Genetic Diversity among Ancient Nordic Populations:

Using established criteria for work with fossil DNA we have analysed mitochondrial DNA from 92 individuals from 18 locations in Denmark ranging in time from the Mesolithic to the Medieval Age. Unequivocal assignment of mtDNA haplotypes was possible for 56 of the ancient individuals; however, the success rate varied substantially between sites; the highest rates were obtained with untouched, freshly excavated material, whereas heavy handling, archeological preservation and storage for many years influenced the ability to obtain authentic endogenic DNA. While the nucleotide diversity at two locations was similar to that among extant Danes, the diversity at four sites was considerably higher. This supports previous observations for ancient Britons. The overall occurrence of haplogroups did not deviate from extant Scandinavians, however, haplogroup I was significantly more frequent among the ancient Danes (average 13%) than among extant Danes and Scandinavians (~2.5%) as well as among other ancient population samples reported. Haplogroup I could therefore have been an ancient Southern Scandinavian type “diluted” by later immigration events. Interestingly, the two Neolithic samples (4,200 YBP, Bell Beaker culture) that were typed were haplogroup U4 and U5a, respectively, and the single Bronze Age sample (3,300–3,500 YBP) was haplogroup U4. These two haplogroups have been associated with the Mesolithic populations of Central and Northern Europe. Therefore, at least for Southern Scandinavia, our findings do not support a possible replacement of a haplogroup U dominated hunter-gatherer population by a more haplogroup diverse Neolithic Culture.

Here’s a review of an earlier paper on this topic. Here’s an important section from the discussion of the current paper:

…Given our small sample sizes from these crucial time periods further studies are certainly required. However, the frequency of Hg U4 and U5 declines significantly among our more recent Iron Age and Viking Age Danish population samples to the level observed among the extant Danish population. Our study therefore would point to the Early Iron Age and not the Neolithic Funnel Beaker Culture as suggested by Malmström et al. (2009)…as the time period when the mtDNA haplogroup frequency pattern, which is characteristic to the presently living population of Southern Scandinavia, emerged and remained by and large unaltered by the subsequent effects of genetic drift. In contrast to Hg U4, which is only found in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age samples, Hg U5 was observed in ~9% (5/53) of the remaining ancient samples and identified at all sites except Kongemarken and Skovgaarde.

I wouldn’t put too much stock in these specific results. The sample sizes and representativeness issues are probably such that each new paper is going to change our assessment. But, I think the section which I emphasized points to a shift in the Zeitgeist. Until recently there’s been a very strong bias among historical geneticists to assume that the genetic variation is more strongly affected by deep time events, and that recent replacements and perturbations will have less impact. I think there were good reasons for this assumption, and still are, generalizing from broader patterns. But the over-extrapolation of the rule-of-thumb may have led to models which will soon be falsified in many specific instances.

On a slightly bittersweet note, ancient DNA will be able to answer questions about the origins of many circumpolar populations, but will have far less to tell us about societies and cultures further south, simply because of less favorable conditions for preservation. The main exception to this truism will presumably be desert societies. For example, Tutankhamun has been typed as of the R1b Y lineage.

May 24, 2010

How the Swedes became white

Filed under: Anthroplogy,History,Norse,Scandinavia,Vikings — Razib Khan @ 6:15 am

vikingsA few weeks ago I read Peter Heather’s Empires an Barbarians, but I had another book waiting in the wings which I had planned to tackle as a companion volume, Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History. Heather covered the period of one thousand years between Arminius and the close of the Viking Age, but his real focus was on the three centuries between 300 and 600. It is telling that he spent more time on the rise and expansion of the domains of the Slavic speaking peoples than he did on the Viking assaults on Western civilization; an idiosyncratic take from the perspective of someone writing to an audience of English speakers. But within the larger narrative arc of Empires and Barbarians this was logical, the Slavs were far closer to the relevant action in terms of time and space than the Scandinavians who ravaged early medieval rather than post-Roman societies (where the latter bleeds into the former is up for debate). In Heather’s narrative the Viking invasions were a coda to the epoch of migration, the last efflorescence of the barbarian Europe beyond the gates of Rome before the emergence of a unified medieval Christian commonwealth. And these are the very reasons that Robert Ferguson’s narrative is a suitable complement to Peter Heather’s. Ferguson’s story begins after the central body of Heather’s, and most of its dramatic action is outside of the geographical purview of Empires and Barbarians. In The Vikings the post-Roman world has already congealed into the seeds of what we would term the Middle Ages, and it is this world which serves as the canvas upon which the Viking invasions are painted. Aside from what was Gaul the world of old Rome is on the peripheries of Ferguson’s narrative.


It was refreshing to me that the author of The Vikings makes a concerted effort toward balance (despite what I perceive to be his clear identification as a scholar of the Vikings with the Scandinavian peoples of the period in a broadly sympathetic sense). He explicitly lays out the tendency of previous scholars and commentators to lean excessively toward the Vikings or their victims in weighing the veracity of narratives, or ascribing a moral high ground to one particular vantage point. More common perhaps of the two is the tendency toward depicting the Vikings in the manner that Christians of the time viewed them, as an avaricious force of nature whose role was to punish civilization for its sins (in our era we may secularize the events, but the tendency toward viewing barbarians as deterministic elements operating upon civilized agents often remains). As a reaction against such a one-sided classic framing some scholars have reinterpreted the Vikings as well-armed traders who were simply misunderstood and libeled by their Christian antagonists. In this telling the Vikings sacked the monasteries because they were locked out of trade networks due to their status as cultural outsiders. Raiding was simply a substitute for trading. Both of these normative and simplified frames really belong in a “First Book” for children; individual humans are more complex than that, and history is more complex than individual humans. When it comes to history true objectivity is probably impossible, but admitting that past workers have had strong biases is probably a good place to start.

In The Vikings Robert Ferguson regales us with in large part is an ancient “Clash of Civilizations.” He notes that the sources invariably distinguish between Christians and Heathens as opposed to English and Norse (or Franks and Norse), and in keeping with this he lays out a dichotomy between Christian civilization and “Heathendom.” Our view of the past is colored by the reality of the victory of the former against the latter, but the slow and inexorable expansion of the arc of Christian civilization among the Scandinavians which we view in hindsight as a process which has a clear terminus actually took nearly five centuries, with most of the Christian success at the expense of the Heathens occurring within the last one hundred and fifty years (despite missionary endeavors across the whole period, mostly out of Bremen and Hamburg). Ferguson convincingly argues the Heathens had a sense of their own identity, distinctiveness, and even superiority, in relation to the Christians during this period when Scandinavia was outside of the boundaries of the West. This is actually most evident in Muslim sources, who had more distance from the pagan Scandinavian culture and so could view it with more ethnographic third party objectivity (the Muslim sources were often engaging in trade or diplomacy). They report for example the argument of one Scandinavian that his peoples’ practice of burning was far superior to the inhumation that was the norm among Christians, Muslims and Jews, because the transition to the afterlife is far faster with the rapid disintegration of the body, as opposed to decomposition and later consumption by “worms” (this critique is almost a trope from what I can tell when it comes to the perception of peoples who burn the bodies of their dead of the customs of those who bury). What we see here is not some deep philosophical sense of superiority, but the native chauvinism and ethnocentrism which most peoples have in regards to their own mores and traditions. Heathens were not simply a negation of Christian civilization, in contemporary parlance they were an indigenous folk of northern Europe resisting the expansion of an international and globalist Christian culture.

A more historically grounded rationale for Heathen sense of distinction from Christians, and their hostility toward Christian civilization generally, is the real history of forced conversion which they experienced at the hands of Christian powers. In particular the author points to the conquest and conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne as a turning point. These German tribes were on the margins of the Scandinavian world, so word of their oppression, and ultimate destruction of their native traditions at the hands of outsiders, must have percolated to the north (Saxon warriors took refuge among the Danes). In The Vikings the author explicitly suggests that the savagery of the Norse in their assaults on Christian monasteries may be connected to the fear and hostility engendered toward the Christian religion by these instances of mass forced conversion and aggression. The analogy here may be the Boxer Rebellion, where indigenous anger at the expansion of foreign powers and their cultural mores exploded in targeted violence. The brutal nature of Christian conversion is highlighted vividly by the anecdote of Olaf Tryggvason, Norway’s first explicitly Christian king, threating to kill the three year old son of a British Norse warlord in front of his father unless he and his people submitted to immediate baptism. Ferguson observes that the Christian chronicler records this action approvingly, but certainly this sort of behavior on the part of Christians against the Heathen Scandinavians integrated over centuries may account for some of the motive for the violence of the Vikings against Christian holy sites and institutions. For the Heathen the Christian was the threatening Other, and so thoroughly dehumanized.

But the relationship of Heathendom to Christian civilization, and the local and indigenous Scandinavian tradition to global cultures, was not simply one of hostility and mutual exploitation and brutality. One of the interesting aspects of the Scandinavian expansion of the 8th to 10th centuries is its geographic range. Their presence on the northwestern fringes of Europe as Vikings is well known in the English speaking world. But Scandinavian raiders were prominent in Muslim Spain, and even broke into the Mediterranean. Of more permanence was the influence and power of a group known as the Rus across the vast swaths of land from the Baltic to the Caspian. It seems probably that Slavicized Rus were the core of the early polities of Novgorod and Kiev, which later gave rise to Russian identity. In the generation of the grandfather of Vladimir I of Kiev, credited with bringing the Russians to Christianity, the elite of the Kiev seemed invariably to possess Scandinavian names. This was an empire of war, trade and colonization along the fringe of early medieval Christendom, and sweeping down toward the margins of the world of Islam on the Caspian.

Why the expansion? A conventional explanation has been overpopulation. This doesn’t hold water, in pre-modern societies Malthusian dynamics were always at play. That is, growth was very slow because high fertility was counterbalanced by high mortality. In the event of an epidemic there may be a period when demographic expansion is possible, but these would be transient phases. There is evidence that across northern Europe in the first millennium there was underway a transition toward more productive forms of agriculture which allowed for a larger basal population, but this was a general feature of European societies, not one restricted to Scandinavia. In fact the increase in population was probably most pronounced in two regions to which the Vikings were most drawn to plunder: northern France and the Low Countries. And this may explain a cause for the Viking expansion, they sought wealth, and more wealth was to be gotten in the Christian lands than within Heathendom.

Ferguson seems to posit both push and pull dynamics. The push dynamics had to do with a restructuring of Scandinavian society in the centuries before 1000. This involved the emergence of more powerful apex leaders who marginalized the numerous figures lower down on the status hierarchy. A shift toward a more centralized political order would have concentrated power and wealth in the hands of few at the expense of the many. In this case the many in fact is going to be a minority of the population, free males who are part of the political and military class, and who collect rents from peasants and extract labor out of their human property (thralls). This dynamic is not conjecture, the migration of warlords to the British Isles in the wake of the rise of Harald I of Norway is apparently documented. The rise of a Great Man seems to invariably come at the expense of many less great men in a zero sum world. Similarly, the arrival of the reputed sons of Ragnar Lodbrok to British Isles may have had to do with political events in Denmark in the decades before the reemergence of the Jelling dynasty. But this push process can not be decoupled from wider social and historical events. In other words, the parameter is not purely endogenous. Rather, the events within Scandinavia were strongly shaped by the emergence of a global political and economic order which Heathendom was a participant, if at times a reluctant and belligerent party. Scandinavia’s political connection to other parts of Europe was clear even in the Late Antique period; Scandinavian warriors and kings were a presence at the courts of post-Roman figures such as Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoths. Conversely, German peoples who were on the losing side in the post-Roman scramble would on occasion exercise an exit option of migration back to their homelands, which sometimes included southern Scandinavia.

So the elites of Scandinavia were aware of the wider world well before the Viking Age, and certainly had a sense of the possibilities of unitary political systems as far back as Classical Antiquity. There is also a great deal of circumstantial evidence that the elaborated nature of late Scandinavian paganism has much do with the model which Christianity presented as a complex institutional religion. The mythos around Balder has often be assumed to have been influenced by the Christian mythos around Jesus, but we need not hinge our inference on literary recollections which may have been influenced by later generations who were Christian. There is a great deal of evidence from the Wends and Lithuanians, who persisted in their paganism even longer than the Scandinavians, of the development of a pagan “anti-Christianity” around which their ethnically based polities could coalesce (there are references to a shadowy pagan equivalent to the pope among the later Lithuanians during the apogee of their empire in the 14th century). In Empires and Barbarians and Empires of the Silk Road the authors argue that the emergence of more complex and large scale political and social orders beyond the limes of settled agricultural civilizations dominated by literate elites was a reaction to developments within the ecumene. For the nomadic confederations of the east Eurasian steppe it was the unification of China under Qin Shi Huangdi. For the Germanic tribes beyond the Roman limes it was Rome itself, which periodically erupted beyond its borders to engage in punitive expeditions (archaeology has been uncovering unrecorded Roman expeditions into Germania in the century following the defeat of Varus’ legions). For the Scandinavians it seems to have been the rise of the Frankish political order, and particular the Carolingian dynasty, which annexed and Christianized the lands of the Saxons just to the south of Scandinavia which served as a spur to their social and political revolution.

With the rise of a powerful Christian state to its south bent on cultural, political and economic conquest and assimilation, there would naturally have been greater self-consciousness of the peoples of Scandinavia in regards to their indigenous traditions. Despite periodic attempts by powerful aristocrats and kings from the 9th century on there was stubborn resistance from sub-elites in acceding to the shift from their customary cults to the Christian religion. I think a little bit of Homo economicus in terms of rational behavior might allow us to explain this disjunction between the apex elites in the form of kings, and sub-elites. In societies without a tradition of autocracy under a singular individual a broad level of consent from numerous sub-elites of modest means was necessary for an individual to rise to kingship. But these sub-elites may not have been economically advanced enough to see any gains in integration into a globalized political order where their nations were part of a commonwealth of Christian monarchies. Rather, they perceived a dispossession of their traditional cultic roles under the aegis of a transnational church apparatus (albeit, one which operationally co-opted local elites rather rapidly after Christianization by assimilating them into the clerical superstructure). Put more simply, there was great gain to monarch in becoming part of the international order, but little for the population as a whole, even among the lesser nobility, who were dependent on local rents, not international trade or conquest.* In the world of the Malthusian trap the lives of the peasantry would be little changed by an ideological shift on high, so they were of no consequence (in fact, Protestant Reformers routinely complained that the Church had left the peasantry of many nations barely Christian in anything but name).

Of course there was a way for sub-elites to become wealthy rather rapidly: steal from wealthier societies instead of depending on protection money (rent) from your poor peasants. It is notable that the Viking Age spans the period which saw the decline of Charlemagne’s political system, but before the emergence of the medieval antecedents of the nation-states which would crystallize in the early modern period. It was also during this time that northern France and the Low Countries, and to a lesser extent England, saw an expansion of aggregate wealth because of improved agricultural techniques and tools such as the three field system and the mould-board plough as well as the beginning of the Medieval Climatic Optimum. The idea that one could steal wealth was not an innovation of the Vikings, Charlemagne’s campaigns were in part motivated by the need to generate plunder to satisfy his vassals. Similarly the Roman wars of conquest were magnificently lucrative for the Republic’s aristocracy, and it can be argued that the wealth stolen from the early conquests were critical in maintaining Roman dynamism. It is possible that no imperial conquest after that of Dacia in the early second century was profitable, and it is this period which saw the high water mark of the Roman civilization, the century of the Good Emperors.

Shifting back to the Vikings, the model then is rather easy to summarize. Step 1, Western civilization in the form of the Christian Frankish polities push north and east, toward the fringes of Scandinavia. Step 2, this results in a coalescence of counter-identities among the populations which are being impinged upon and destabilized. In the case of the Saxons under Widukind and his confederates resistance was futile, and they were absorbed into the new Christian order (in fact, Saxon Christian monarchs in the 10th century placed so much pressure on pagan Denmark that it probably facilitated the final absorption of the Jelling monarchy into the Christian state system as another lever to maintain their independence). But for populations further out, as in Scandinavia, or in the eastern marches which were inhabited by the West Slavs, the Frankish expansion lost its steam before it could fully absorb them. This left these populations in a stronger position in terms of the ability to engage in coordinated action than before, because they now had a common identity in the face of Christian expansion as well as more powerful military leaders who had come to the fore in the face of the threat from the alien superpower. Step 3, the collapse of the Frankish Empire into sub-states leaves the margins of Christian civilization more vulnerable as none of these polities now can bring to the fore overwhelming force against small groups of raiders. Step 4, the integrative phase within the cultures outside of Christian civilization combined with wealth differentials across civilizational boundaries produce the convulsions which result in the out-migration of militarized sub-elites. They are well aware enough of wealthier societies to understand the cost vs. benefit for them, and they lack ideological affinity with those wealthier societies, so their actions are unencumbered by any moral or ethical framework. In other words, Heathens and Christians exhibited a much less robust sense of empathy toward each other than they did those from within their own culture, so the depredation of one upon the other was particularly savage and utility maximizing (in the Middle Ages the paganism of many Baltic populations was somewhat convenient because Christians were allowed to enslave pagans, making them extremely economically profitable as tenants since they lacked human rights). Step 5, the military assault upon civilization by the barbarians eventually peters out and results in the assimilation to a great extent of the barbarians into the civilized order. Once the windfall wealth is spent the inevitable consequence is the absorption of the less numerous and organized society into the more numerous and organized one.

These steps in general seem broadly applicable to the post-Roman and post-Han dynasty periods in Europe and China as well. In the end the barbarian societies which initially have a strong aversion to the civilized societies whom they oppose, are oppressed by, and often conquer, became ideologically identified with those societies. This generally occurs through religion, but also often through other aspects of assimilation in identity (e.g., the Franks became the Latinate French, the barbarian groups in China often became Chinese speaking and switch their ethnic identity to Han). The main exception to this general trend which I can think of is the case of the Arab Muslim conquest, and in this case the barbarians brought with them an ideology which was robust and in large part mimicked that of civilized societies.**

We do not live in the world of the Vikings, where Malthusian parameters reign supreme, elites live off the toil of peasants, and religion is a matter of life and death (excepting parts of the Muslim world like Sudan or the Communist world like North Korea). But cultural identity still matters. Today when we speak of “indigenous people” we allude to relics of a bygone age, small-scale cultures on the margins. But as recently as one thousand years ago vast swaths of Europe, in particular its north and east, were populated by indigenous peoples, attempting to preserve their ancient traditions and customs in the face of Christian globalization. More broadly, in the period between 500 and 1000 numerous peoples outside of the Eurasian Rimland, to the north, east and west, contingent upon the point of reference, were affected by the expansion of ideological systems from the Rimland civilizations, which arrived through military, demographic and economic means. The Gauls of France lost almost all unique aspects of their identity, their language, their religion, even their name for themselves. Other populations, such as the Germans and the Turks retained much of their identity, and profited through integration into a broader civilization through which they channeled their cultural influence. But this process took centuries, and was not without tumult. The Viking Age was not an act of God, it was not an isolated case. It was rather an instance of a general process whereby the cultural configurations of the World Island were assigned in a manner which we would recognize today, with civilizational boundaries hardening into forms which were robust to exogenous shocks.

One interesting aesthetic observation which I will take away from The Vikings: A History is that the peoples of the north were generally tattooed and made recourse to eye shadow and other such body adornment. Christian sources point to this only in a negative fashion, that is, the practice is explicitly banned for Christians in the north, presumably because this was previously a common practice (as well as the consumption of horseflesh, which had cultic significance). But the Muslim sources describe the obsession of the northern people with aesthetic detail thoroughly, and it notable to me that Otzi the Iceman was also tattooed. These sorts of markings have obvious functional purposes, in identifying a member of one tribe from another in an indelible fashion, but they also are perhaps reflective of societies where aesthetic expression was personalized and small scale. Their Pantheons were their bodies. This is familiar to us today from small-scale societies and small indigenous groups, who maintain these traditions and this outlook. It was only 1,000 years ago that many European peoples were still vigorously adhering to these folkways, before they became Christian, and therefore white.

Note: I have avoided discussing the likely brisk trade between Scandinavia and the pre-Muslim and post-Muslim Middle East, which is vividly documented in coinage. The blockage of this trade by steppe powers such as the Khazars has been argued to be one of the major motives for the Rus exploration of the Dnieper and Volga river systems. It’s an interesting story, but takes us a bit afar, though illustrates another economic motive in the barbarian expansion.

Additionally, in keeping with the tone of the book I have exhibited some broad empathy to the Viking societies transformed beyond recognition by assimilation into European society around 1000. But I will add into the record that as a personal normative preference I believe that cultural homogeneity, in particular in language and religion, can often be beneficial in generating economic and ethical economies of scale. Though I believe that there are diminishing returns on the margin here (there is harm when police states attempt to impose one language and one religion on the whole populace through extreme tactics).

* In the late Roman Empire the aristocratic nobility remained pagan far longer than the Emperors and the service nobility dependent upon the Empire, as opposed their personal wealth.

** There is a great deal of debate as to how Islam arose, and some scholars argue that Islam is actually a relatively late development out of a sect of Arab Christians. If this is true the Islamic exception is no exception at all, but serves as an alternative history where the Goths remain Arian and assimilate their Roman subjects to their religion and language.

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