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December 4, 2018

Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples

Filed under: Cultural Anthropology,Fantasy,Game of Thrones — Razib Khan @ 12:00 pm
Westeros and western Essos

The HBO television series, Games of Thrones, has captured the imagination of modern American culture. It has been used as a metaphor and example for many things, from national politics to international relations, and of course a reimagining of the medieval period in a grittier and more realistic fashion.

Characters from Game of Thrones have even inspired baby-names!

The television series is rich, complex, and multifaceted, but it draws from the novels of George R. R. Martin, a cycle which is called A Song of Ice and Fire. These works are much more deeply textured in their lore and backstory. Martin’s world-building has taken on a life of his own, with several books published related to the geographies, peoples, and histories, which serve as the backdrop for the plot and character.

One of the peculiar aspects of what we know about the historical background of the world that Martin has imagined, with its continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos, is at once very precise, and somewhat inaccurate. In the novels and accompanying books which elaborate on the ‘world-building’, the voice of the explanatory narrators are the ‘maesters’, a scholarly priesthood in Westeros.

Maesters give the reader a sense of what informed people in Westeros believe to have been their past, or the nature of distant lands, but they do not speak in an omniscient voice. That is, they may, in fact, be inaccurate their beliefs, though it seems likely that their interpretations usually contain a grain of truth. Martin has explicitly stated that one should not take assertions that the something happened “10,000 years ago” literally. Rather, if you are told that something happened 10,000 years ago, perhaps it is best to just understand it happened long, long, ago.

The history of Westeros in terms of its demographic past seems straightforward. The first humans who crossed over from the eastern continent, Essos, were the First Men. They rode on horses and used bronze weapons. House Royce of the Vale of Arryn have a family heirloom of bronze armor, that reputedly dates to this period.

When the First Men arrived in Westeros, the lands were empty of humans, but there were various other peoples, such as the diminutive Children of the Forest, who seem to have been hunter-gatherers. The conflict between the First Men and the Children of the Forest ended in a stalemate and a truce. The First Men brought their own gods, some of which may persist in the Iron Islands, but eventually, they adopted the religion of the Children of the Forest, which focused on nameless gods whose powers were located within groves with forbidding trees, the weirdwoods.

To a great extent, many of the things we know about the First Men are legends and folk memories. Though the First Men utilized simple runic scripts, the art of copious writing and recording was to come later, with the second great migration to Westeros, that the of the Andals

Where the First Men arrived in the mists of prehistory, the Andals came to prominence on the edge of the imaginary history of A Song of Ice and Fire. The Andal migration seems to have been triggered by the rise of the Vaylrian Freehold, whose emergence resulted in the crushing of the ancient empires to the east, west, and north. In the hinterlands of northwest Essos, around the “Hills of Andalos”, the Andal tribes came together. United by a belief in a monistic pantheon of gods, the Faith of the Seven. Each of the gods of the Andals was actually a manifestation of an underlying divinity.

The Andals escaped the expanding reach of the Valyrian Freehold by migrating west, across the Narrow Sea.

While the First Men are reputed to have crossed a land bridge that connected Dorne, the southeastern realm of Westeros, to Essos, the Andals landed in the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale. They brought their language, the ancestor of modern Westerosi, their religion, which became dominant in the far more populous southern half of the continent, as well as institutions such as knighthood.

The dominance of Andal culture is such that when people from Westeros travel to Essos they are often termed “Andals,” even if they are from the North, and so First Men in identity. And yet the Andals did not replace the lineages of the First Men. This is easiest to see for the elite houses.

In the North, the First Men remained preeminent. A region geographically protected from Andal invasions, the First Men in this vast lightly populated domain did not fuse with the Andals, for they turned them back. While the North eventually adopted the language of the Andals, they retained their own indigenous religion, the “old gods,” in contrast to the “new gods” of the Andals, the Faith of the Seven.

But in the South, a new aristocracy arose, Andal in religion and language, but often First Men in lineage. Some powerful families in the South, such as the Blackwoods and Royce claim First Men heritage. But, more importantly, when Aegon I Targaryen began to conquer Westeros 300 years before the events in Game of Thrones, only one of the Seven Kingdoms was ruled by an exclusively Andal ruling dynasty, the Kings of Mountain and Vale. The Storm Kings, the Gardener Kings of the Reach, the Lannisters of the Kingdom of the Rock, the Starks of the North, and the ruler of the Riverlands and Iron Islands, could all trace their ancestry to the First Men (though the Lannisters only through the maternal line).

If such prominent families were of at least partial First Men stock, it is reasonable that the Andal impact was significant culturally, but most of the common population retains ancestry from the original Bronze Age migration. Though there are subtle distinctive physical characteristics of Houses such as the Starks, it does not seem that there is anything particular to Andals or First Men by the time that Game of Thrones is occurring.

The final kingdom that is not listed above is the Principality of Dorne. And this hot southern domain is home to the last major group to arrive in Westeros: the Rhoynar. The full title of the individual who sits on the Iron Throne is the King or Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men.

Long after the Andals arrived and settled in Westeros, the Rhoynar too fled the expanding might of the Valyrian Freehold. A vast armada led by their princess, Nymeria, sailed westward until they reached the shores of Dorne. There the Rhoyne mixed with the local Andal and First Men populations and produced a fused culture with its own distinctive elements. While the Andals and First Men are fair-skinned people, the Rhoyne, who migrated out of the warm lands of southwest Essos, are darker in complexion. But the Dornish exhibit a range, from sandy and salty Dornish people who live in the deserts and coasts, who have more Rhoynish blood and culture, to the stony Dornish of the mountains, who are more akin to the Andals and First Men.

Though there are other peoples who have inflected the cultural landscape of Westeros, the First Men, Andals, and the Rhoynar, together contribute to the vast majority of threads that create the tapestry of Westeros. The First Men cleared the ancient forest and brought settled life to the land. Most of the ancestors of the people of Westeros were these Bronze Age tribes. Their adopted religion persists in the North, and in parts of the South, but the language that they spoke has mostly disappeared, only found north of the Wall, and perhaps among the barbarian tribes of the Mountains of the Moon.

History and iron came to Westeros with the Andals, warlike followers of a new religion who were fleeing an ancient enemy. Andal warlords fused with the ruling class of the First Men, and brought their institutions and language, and made them dominant across the land. Though only a minority of the ancestry of the people of Westeros derives from the Hills of Andalos, in the main the language they speak and the gods they worship are those of the Andals.

Finally, there are the Rhoynar. Unlike the First Men and the Andals, their influence is not suffused through Westeros but preoccupies a particular corner. They stand as a contrast and rebuke to the cold and harsh First Men of the North and the stuffy Andals of the South. Dorne is a hybrid land of its own, exotic and yet of Westeros. The Dornish bring together the three distinct human strands of Westeros into one, and out of it comes a rich and unique melange which adds a spice to A Song of Ice and Fire.

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

Game of Thrones, a journey of three peoples was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

November 23, 2018

When ferocity is a feature, not a bug

Filed under: Cultural Anthropology,John All Chau,Sentinelese — Razib Khan @ 7:57 pm

The sad story of John Allen Chau, the young self-styled missionary who was killed on North Sentinel Island, has some really strange elements that are coming to the surface. The New York Times has published a piece which reports on extracts of a letter he wrote to his parents describing his motivations and observations when it came to proselytizing among the Sentinelese.

The people Mr. Chau chose for his mission are among the most impenetrable communities in the world, known for their intense hostility to outsiders. They have killed or tried to kill many outsiders who attempted to step on their rugged island 700 miles off India’s mainland, where they are one of the last undiluted hunter and gatherer societies.

The man yelled, and Mr. Chau tried to respond, singing some worship songs and yelling back something in Xhosa, a language he apparently knew a few words of from when he coached soccer in South Africa a few years ago.

In one passage, he asked God if North Sentinel was “Satan’s last stronghold.” In another: “What makes them become this defensive and hostile?”

The article mentions that “Anthropologists say the islanders’ ancestors possibly migrated from Africa more than a thousand years ago.” This really doesn’t make any sense, but it jumped out at me because of the weird fact that Chau tried to speak to them in Xhosa, a Bantu language with influences from Khoesan dialects. Perhaps the reason he did this inexplicable thing is he’s read too much the pap that the people of North Sentinel are some pristine population descended from early Africans?

A more interesting aspect of the article is the questioning of why these last isolated island hunter-gatherers are so hostile. The fact is if they weren’t so hostile, they would almost certainly be extinct by now. The record of hunter-gatherer populations interacting with agriculturalists is one of absorption, assimilation, extermination or subordination.

The hostility of the peoples of the Andaman Islanders to outsiders has long been attested:

Situated in the bay of Bengal, the Andaman islands have been known to outsiders since ancient times. Andaman islanders respond with intense hostility at any attempt of outside contact, hurling arrows and stones at any unlucky visitor approaching their shores.

Early Arab and Persian documents report that Andaman islands were inhabited by cannibals – an exaggeration probably originating from the ferocity of attacks with which these travelers were greeted. Later Indian and European explorers steered clear off these islands to avoid the hostile inhabitants.

And this is why the Andaman Islanders remained relatively distinct ethnographically down to the early modern period. The Negrito people of Malaysia and the Philippines no longer speak their ancestral languages, while the Andamanese did until recently.

This incident reminds me of a dark passage from Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee. Contrary to the optimism of Carl Sagan, Diamond asserted that if there were aliens out there, we should work very hard not to have them know we exist. His reasoning was that less culturally advanced peoples never had a good interaction more culturally advanced people.

September 18, 2018

The Philippines as a postcolonial exemplar: out of wedlock birthrates

Filed under: Cultural Anthropology,Cultural Differences,Illegitimacy — Razib Khan @ 3:28 pm

Edward Said’s Orientalism was a book I first read in the fall of 2001. I recall not being too impressed and finding simple historical errors in it. But mostly it bore me. I am now rereading it because in 2018 the book is far more relevant to our current American culture, if not the world in a real sense. That’s because Orientalism is one of the most influential and seminal works in the field of postcolonialism (and to be frank, it seems more comprehensible than the stuff written by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak).

At some point, I may put down into a post my thoughts on Orientalism. But long-time readers are familiar with my position that postcolonialists, and most progressive Westerners, overemphasize the importance of the colonial in most non-Western societies. But this is not the same as saying the colonial is not important, and, that the colonial does not affect different societies in varied ways.

The Philippines is the mostly large majority Christian country in Asia. It is predominantly Roman Catholic, though like many Catholic nations it’s religiosity is declining. The brutal and blunt current president of the country has had some harsh things to say about the Church.

I bring up the Philippines because in comparison to other Southeast Asia nations it seems clear that it is a creature of colonialism. A hybrid of Western and Asian values that is somewhat out of place. The French influence Vietnam is undeniable, but fundamentally Vietnam remains part of the broader Sinic cultural sphere, as it was before the rise of Europe. This is not so with the Philippines, which was in the early stages of Islamicization when the Spaniards arrived and had only been lightly impacted by Indic civilization in comparison to Java or the Austronesian kingdom of the Chams in mainland Vietnam.

One of the most striking things to me is that more than half of the babies in the Philippines are now born out of wedlock. This is an exception within Asia and even Southeast Asia.

There is one set group of nations which has long had high rates of out of wedlock births: those of Latin America. My reading of the ethnography indicated that this is partly a function of the fact that Iberian males entered into de facto polygynous family relationships early on during the conquest of the New World. And, unlike some other European nations, “natural children” did have some customary rights in Spanish law. Hernan Cortes had two sons with the name Martin. One of them was a mestizo, the product of a relationship with an indigenous woman of New World. The other was the legitimate offspring with Cortes’ aristocratic Spanish wife.

Though Martin Cortes, known as “El Mestizo,” did not have the rights of his brother, he was still provided for. He fought in Central Europe for the Habsburgs, and married and had children.

This pattern of giving some rights and consideration to illegitimate children has been argued as a major reason for the high rates of out of wedlock birth in much of Latin America today. But, the problem with this model is that the number of Spaniards in the islands of the Phillippines was always far lower than in the New World. Demographically they made a marginal impact, and in fact, the Chinese were more numerous.

But it remains the case that Spanish colonial regimes in environs as distinct as the Philippines and the New World left a legacy of high rates out of wedlock births. It could be coincidental, but I doubt that. Scholars genuinely interested in the impact of exogenous colonial shocks should be exploring these cross-cultural patterns theoretically and empirically, not engaging in abstruse linguistic analysis or deploying Theory toward the ends of particular politics.

December 11, 2010

What is this “Western culture” you speak of?

Filed under: anthropology,Cultural Anthropology,Culture — Razib Khan @ 7:25 pm

This is my comment of the month:

Pontifications about “Western culture” bother me. The people who use the term seem to assume that “we” are part of “Western culture” and know what it is. No explanation is necessary. But if you stop and think about it, in what sense are a Hungarian peasant farmer and a Morgan Stanley executive part of the same “culture”? How far does this culture extend? In space? In time?

When someone like Marshall Sahlins (famous cultural anthropologist) talks about Western culture, he quotes figures like Hobbes and Kant … as if Western “culture” were epitomized by philosophy and not by such pragmatic matters as kinship, economics, religion, cuisine. Probably because if you started talking about specifics, any semblance of uniformity would collapse.

I’ve also noticed that the post-modern school of anthropology is remarkably culture-bound, even in this limited philosophical sense. There are thinkers one must have read and are allowed to quote (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu) — who all happen to be European white males. It reminds me of Christians debating (volleys of scripture texts from each side), Muslims disputing (Quranic verses and hadith), and Chinese scholars quoting Confucius or famous poets.

No one is citing Ibn Khaldun.

The attitude that the commenter is pointing to is one reason I’ve been beating the drum about taking the end of the age of white supremacy seriously. Sloppy default positions predicated on a Western/non-Western model will be as useful as the heuristics of the Confucian bureaucrat in the wake of defeat by the British during the Opium Wars within the generation. A post-colonial mindset takes the Western/non-Western dichotomy for granted as the primary axis around which all power relations are organized. But in a world where whites are declining in relative power this is no longer so useful.

I would grant that there is something one can term “Western” culture. Or at least one can make an argument about what it is, and what unifies it. But, I think the commenter is spot on in pointing to the reality that the enthusiastic promoters of deconstruction, problematization, and “thick description,” take Western culture for granted as a useful and self-evident category or term. The standard rules don’t apply when it comes to what is invariably their culture. Which of course makes them very similar to Orientalists of old, if I may say so.

December 10, 2010

“The” unbearable “whiteness” of “science”

Filed under: Anthroplogy,anthropology,Cultural Anthropology — Razib Khan @ 1:59 am

Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift:

Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan.

The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.

During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”

Aspiring to Know like a white man

If you don’t know about the controversy surrounding Chagnon and the Yanomamo, see Wikipedia. This sort of flare up, as implied by the article, has less to do with the removal of the word “science” than the general tension within anthropology which has simmered and boiled over decades. As someone with a natural science background I naturally have a subjective perspective here, in that I hear from biological anthropologists all the time about weird confusions and bizarre experiences which they’re subject to from cultural anthropologists who emphatically deny that they are scientists. At one point in college I considered adding an anthropology major, obviously focused on the biological field. I went into the anthropology advising office to explore this possibility, and I definitely got the impression the advisor was not happy when I explained my interest in evolution and biological questions. Later an acquaintance who was a biological anthropology major intimated to me that the science and non-science oriented anthropologists did not get along, and the advisor was a non-science type who was rumored to discourage people who were more science-oriented. All that seemed weird enough to me that I never did major in anthropology.

The article I linked to above is reporting on a controversy which already came and went. See these posts:

- No Science, Please. We’re Anthropologists

- Whither Anthropology as a Science?

- The place of science in anthropology

The above posts do veer into the ad hominem territory and express a lot of petulance. But I think I know where it comes from. How would you feel as a chemist if professional meetings were dominated by alchemists? If you were a neurologist specializing in traumatic brain injuries who had to go to conferences where they mostly talked about Qi? I’ve personally listened to enough  cultural anthropologists who seem to be channeling aliens for whom Michel Foucalt is God as they issue forth a river of impenetrable jargon that I have sympathy for the frustration.

Alex Galoub naturally has a different perspective. I have had friendly internet encounters with one of the other principals of the blog, Kerim Friedman, and in 2004 I was curious as to when they were going to add a biological anthropologist to round out Savage Minds. At the time he said they were looking into it, but reviewing their author list 6 years on it doesn’t look like they ever found anyone. Why? I think it has less to do with discrimination than the simple fact that they don’t know any biological anthropologists well enough to invite them to the blog. In any case, the blog is a conventional one focused on cultural anthropology, so it’s probably best to keep things “in house,” so to speak.

Here’s a response from an “anthro” “blogger” who “is” definitely “on t”he ’side’ which “de-privileges” “science”:

This email illustrates that some anthropologists are taking these changes seriously, however, I’m not sure that the email argues their case very effectively. To be sure, there are innumerable aspects of American anthropology that utilize science: much of archaeology, forensic and biological anthropology, for example, all lean heavily on distinctly science-based methodologies. Further, as a new instructor in the discipline, I can provide evidence of the lengths to which the discipline goes to frame “anthropology as science” in most introductory text books. There is good reason to maintain representation by “science”, primarily because of the lofty reputation that it holds not only in academia, but culturally in the US and globally.

These facts alone, however, do not explain the entire picture, and I am leaning toward a quiet applause for the distancing of the discipline from “science” – especially as a cultural anthropologist. This is not to say that we should ignore the rigorous methodologies that we utilized, but instead, to include others not traditionally represented. When we examine the term “science”, we uncover a distinctly Western framework for explaining the world around us. “Science” has become privileged globally, and for many, represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

Historically not included under the rubric of “science”, however, are the thousands of distinct indigenous knowledge systems that exist around the world. Indigenous knowledge is only recently being understood and accepted by those in the West (and in anthropology) as the equally complex (and equally valid) indigenous counterpart to Western science. For the AAA, maintaining the use of the term “science” in their mission statement serves to maintain the colonizing, privileging, superior positionality of anthropology that continues to plague the discipline.

The “science-free” mission statement allows for the inclusion of a number of perspectives and approaches that have been and remain marginalized, not only in anthropology, but in much of their social and economic existence. In short, the old mission statement privileged “science” over and above the knowledge systems of the very people we have been studying and working with for generations. It is well past the time for this to change. Do anthropologists still use science? Of course, and science may well offer the most appropriate methodology for many. Still, we must also recognize that there are other means to knowing, exploring, and explaining.

I assume you’re back now that you’ve cleaned up after vomiting? This is fundamentally Another Way of “Knowing.” There’s really not much that can be said here. If the author above really believes what they’re saying, of course the analogy between cultural anthropologists and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine won’t be seen as a slam at all in its impact. But I want to open the conversation up and assert that there’s more than just a division between biological (and archaeology) and cultural anthropology. There are Others Ways of Knowing in cultural anthropology. Alex in his post alluded derisively to Marvin Harris. Harris was a ‘cultural materialist.’ Many of the neo-functionalist arguments you hear today seem to go back to Harris. I don’t agree with a lot of what Harris says, in fact, I think he’s wrong a lot of the time, but I know what he was trying to say. Honestly I can’t really say that with a lot of the cultural anthropological DiScouRsE.

Too often when I argue with the sort of cultural anthropologist who is strongly influenced by what we would broadly (and sometimes inaccurately) term ‘post-modernist,’ and buys strongly into the thesis that we look through the glass so darkly that objectivity is well nigh impossible, one is invariably pummeled by a gale-force blast of obscurantism. But there is a curious tendency at work: obscurity, complexity, and subtly, are on stark display when they wish to deny a positive assertion you make, but such nuance recedes when they make clear statements as to what is just, right, and true. In the end I feel that I’m wasting my time with a bizarro-world lawyer. People who work for amnesty international at least are clear in what they’re trying to do, and what they believe. That I can respect.

GodfreyKneller-IsaacNewton-1689But there are other ways to study cultural anthropology. My own preference is for the small but feisty sect which uses the ‘naturalistic’ approach. Dan Sperber outlines his framework in Explaining Culture, but personally I find D. Jason Slone’s exposition by parody of conventional cultural anthropology ‘discourse’ in the first half of Theological Incorrectness the most entertaining introduction I’ve ever encountered. The Cognition & Culture weblog expresses the general outlook of the naturalistic school, which is promiscuously interdisciplinary, but chaste enough in jargon that even a civilian like me can make do!

Last summer Greg Downey blew a gasket when I stated “I have as much respect for most American cultural anthropology as I do for Talmudic scholarship.” I was honestly a little surprised that my Orthodox Jewish readers didn’t object in the comments to the comparison! But in general I still stand by that sentiment. The broader influence of the silliest manifestations of extreme epistemological relativism seems to have waned after the Sokal affair and the publication of Higher Superstition. But it clearly persists in some pockets. Scientific anthropologists throw fits because they know that they’re being locked in an asylum where in the inmates are in charge, and frankly no one cares anymore.

Note: I am currently taking a break in the middle of War in Human Civilization to read First Farmers: the origins of agricultural societies, and am struck by the fact that archaeologists were swayed by fashion so often. And yet despite this weakness in this field, archaeologists by and large at least speak in concrete, if often boring, ways. So that you know what they’re saying, wrong or right.

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