Oops, Looks like it was People, not Pots

There’s an exciting new study on Bronze Age genetics that you’ve probably already heard about but I’m gonna post about anyway because stuff like this is kind of like our core competency around here.

Summary: Scientist people sequenced genomes (did fancy lab things with genetics) on 101 dead Europeans/Asians from a few thousand years ago, to try to figure out who they were and where they came from.

One of the big anthro/archeology debates over the past 70 years or so has been whether the different layers of cultural artifacts (eg, pots) represent things being traded while people stay put, or people invading and bringing their new stuff with them.

To put it in a modern context, if you saw a picture of people from Papua New Guinea taken in 1900, wearing traditional tribal clothes, and then saw a picture taken a few decades later of people from Papua New Guinea wearing Levi’s and T-shirts, you might wonder if the people of PNG had gotten some new clothes, or if some people wearing Levi’s had gone to PNG.

The archaeological assumption pre-1940 or so was generally that different layers of cultural artifacts represented actually different groups of people, who had probably invaded and slaughtered the previous group of people. For a variety of reasons that you can probably figure out on your own, this view fell into disrepute around the mid 1940s, and so was replaced with the peaceful assumption that new cultural artifacts probably spread primarily through trade, not warfare. This is expressed through the phrase, “Pots, not people,” meaning that the pots were moving around, not the people.

So now we can sequence ancient genomes and shit, so we can actually take a look at the people in ancient burials and try to figure out if people in Layer of Pots A are related to people in Layer of Pots B, or if they are a totally different group of people. This is like squinting at the photographs of Papua New Guineans and trying to figure out if the people wearing the clothes look like they come from the same group, but with lab tools and science.

From an archaeology/anthropology perspective, this is big stuff people have been debating about for over a century.

Conclusions: The Yamnaya are the Indo-Europeans (or proto-Indo-Europeans.) They started out around the Ukraine, then about 4,000 years ago, they spread out (cause they had horses and wagons and chariots and such with wheels,) toward the west and east. In Europe they became the Corded Ware Culture. The Corded Ware may have headed toward the Urals and became some of the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians, but that’s still fuzzy.

The Yamnaya had high (relatively) rates of lactose tolerance, so they probably helped spread that gene/the gene helped spread them. Blond hair and blue eyes are not Yamnaya traits–those came from elsewhere. They probably had pale skins, but so did most of the people already in Europe, so they didn’t change that.

I had already figured the Yamnaya were the PIEs (along with a bunch of other people paying even vague attention to the field,) but apparently my rough mental estimate of the time frame was off. 4,000 years ago is not that long–we have quite abundant records of life 2,000 years ago, so imagine what sorts of records or rumors those Greeks and Romans had about life 2,000 years before themselves.

There is much that we once naively took as fact, then skeptically decided was myth, then decided was fact again, like the existence of Troy. (Of course, there is also much that has turned out to be actually false. Like Herodotus’s dog-sized ants.) Perhaps some more of what seems mere myth in the Greek and Roman accounts will turn out to have some basis in history.

On the eastern end of the geographic range they surveyed, the steppe-folks out there were later replaced with a more Asian population that looks more closely related to the Native Americans (possibly descended from a population ancestral to both them and the Native Americans.)

I don’t know yet just how violent the invasion was–the existing European population was not wiped out, a la the Dorset. The groups mixed; modern Europeans (and many Asians) are a mixture of many population waves. But we do know now that these were people, not just their pots.

5 thoughts on “Oops, Looks like it was People, not Pots

  1. […] This line of thought got started, (as far as I can tell) after WWII, when archaeologists and anthropologists began promoting the idea that war and violence were modern, Western aberrations, and that primitive peoples were all peaceful, nature-loving paragons of gender equality. Much of the accumulated evidence for prehistoric human migrations was dismissed under the slogan, “pots, not people,” an exhortation to interpret the sudden diffusion of new pots and other cultural artifacts as just evidence of trade, not the movement of people. But as I noted before, it’s looking a lot more like “People, not pots.” […]


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