Summary: Cultural Maoism

This is a summary timeline of last Friday’s post on the evolution of leftism in the late 60s.

1940-70: Millions of black people move from the mostly rural South to Northern cities in the Great Migration

In 1963, a Communist assassinated Kennedy, making LBJ president.

1964: LBJ’s Civil Rights Act passed

1965: LBJ’s Immigration Act passed

1966: Cultural Revolution began

The global Left, feeling disenchanted due to the USSR’s failure to achieve a utopia and repudiation of Stalinism, turns to China for inspiration. It abandons proletarian-driven communism in favor of student-driven communism.

1967: 159 race riots burn down American cities, protesting segregation and police brutality. Many cities never recover.

1968: World goes crazy. Maoists murder millions of people.

From the 60s to the 80s, schools are integrated, legal segregation is dismantled, and the police back off black communities. As a result, urban crime skyrockets:

h/t Steve Sailer

Whites flee the violence, contributing to a culture of rootless anomie, dispersed families, and lost wealth as property values plummet.

1969: Stonewall Riots; Nixon elected on “law and order” platform in response to leftist violence

1973: Harvard Crimson accuses Nixon of genocide for opposing the Khmer Rouge

1974: Nixon forced out of office by the media

1975: Cambodian Genocide begins: Khmer Rouge kills 1/3 of their country

The version of this story we usually hear:

Whites were mean and wouldn’t let blacks live in their cities. They forced blacks into ghettos, which were mysteriously full of crime and oppressed by the police. Everything in the ghetto fell apart and the students couldn’t learn anything. After MLK was murdered, integration began, prompting evil white flight. Today, the police are still oppressing black people.

The version you don’t hear:

The “Great Migration” started an urban crime wave that lasted for 3 decades, destroying inner cities and murdering thousands of people. Black rioters in the 60s and 70s burned down thousands of buildings, driving businesses out of black neighborhoods. Factory owners decided to relocate to China and import Mexicans to avoid hiring blacks, decimating the working class.

The version you hear:

Nixon was a bad man who authorized the Watergate Hotel break-in.

The version you don’t hear:

Nixon was fighting the Maoist Khmer Rogue. The media’s campaign to drive Nixon from office resulted in one of the worst genocides in human history.


Cathedral Round-Up #24: Cultural Maoism

I’ve long wondered why, exactly, everyone went crazy in 1968–not just in the US, but around the world.

The answer, I think, is Cultural Maoism. Wikipedia, on the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution:

On May 25, [1966] under the guidance of Cao Yi’ou—wife of Maoist henchman Kang ShengNie Yuanzi, a philosophy lecturer at Peking University, authored a big-character poster (dazibao) along with other leftists and posted it to a public bulletin. …[26] Nie insinuated that the university leadership, much like Peng Zhen, were trying to contain revolutionary fervour in a “sinister” attempt to oppose the party and advance revisionism.[26]

Mao promptly endorsed Nie’s dazibao as “the first Marxist big-character poster in China.” Nie’s call-to-arms, now sealed with Mao’s personal stamp of approval, had a lasting ripple effect across all educational institutions in China. Students everywhere began to revolt against their respective schools’ party establishment. Classes were promptly cancelled in Beijing primary and secondary schools, followed by a decision on June 13 to expand the class suspension nationwide.[27] By early June, throngs of young demonstrators lined the capital’s major thoroughfares holding giant portraits of Mao, beating drums, and shouting slogans against his perceived enemies.[27]

Execution of “counterrevolutionaries.” Harbin, China, April 5th, 1968

There are no hard numbers on how many people died during the Cultural Revolution. Some were executed. Others were tortured to death. Some committed suicide to stop the torture. Others were sent to the countryside, where they were worked to death. The most likely death tolls are estimated around 3 million people.

Epidemics of Insanity: Euripides, Mao, and Qutb:

…in the Western countries, the Maoism of China acquired an intellectual panache. The flower of French intellectual life—Sartre, Foucault, and many others—aligned themselves with the Maoist cause in the various ways that Richard Wolin has described in his book, The Wind From the East. The intellectuals, some of them, may even have derived from their Maoism, or to have attributed to it, a number of clever cultural insights, which made for an odd moment in the Maoist craze, a confluence of novelty and nonsense. …

The original Maoist movement in the United States was a tiny splinter of the Communist Party USA, which itself was none too big by the 1960s. The splinter group eventually called itself the Progressive Labor Party, or PL, and it inspired the creation of a couple of other tiny Maoist parties after a while. …

In France, the Maoists established a political base at the École Normale Supérieure, which is the elite college where Louis Althusser provided philosophical guidance … And, in the United States, the Progressive Labor Party established its own base in the student movement at Harvard. The supremely brilliant young philosopher Hilary Putnam was one of PL’s Harvard intellectuals. And from those origins, PL succeeded, in 1969, in taking over a genuinely mass and popular American organization, Students for a Democratic Society, originally a social democratic organization with roots going back to Jack London in 1905, and just then at its highpoint, with a national membership somewhere around 100,000 people. …

In the United States, the people who felt the allure [of Maoism] responded, however, mostly by constructing Americanized and slightly watered-down Maoisms of their own, distinct from PL. There was a version that melded the orthodox Maoist vision of a Chinese alternative universe with the hippie world of drugs and rock ’n’ roll. This was the version of one of the largest factions within Students for a Democratic Society, the “Revolutionary Youth Movement 1,” which was anti-PL, whose purpose was to create its own guerrilla mini-army, the Weather Underground, with a politics of countercultural Maoism. SDS’s “Revolutionary Youth Movement 2,” meanwhile, generated a more conventional Maoist faction in California, the Revolutionary Communist Party, which still survives. The paramilitary Black Panther Party offered another version, with its own fully-military-armed guerrilla subsplinter, the Black Liberation Army. And still other factions and armed factions arose in the same Mao-in-America style, sometimes expressing a North Korean variation on Maoism (quite strong in the Black Liberation Army), or with a touch of Cuban Guevarism. …

The gay-liberation movement, in the early phases of its eruption into public affairs in 1969, was visibly tinged with Maoist inspirations (even if, in the Maoist China that actually existed, homosexuality was monstrously punished).

When Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in China, left-wing students in Berlin were paying attention:

“When I came to Berlin, there were many Marxist-Leninist organizations. Many students were taking part in training sessions, reading Marx’s ‘Capital’ and texts about the workers’ movements etc. And China and the Cultural Revolution played an important role,” said Gottfried SchmittToday, he still has a copy of Mao’s bible in his bookcase. The other shelves are full of literature and art books. Mao sits besides Picasso and Giacometti. Schmitt’s “Red Book” is a well-maintained pocket-edition from 1968. The collection of quotations and texts by Chairman Mao Zedong was printed and published in the People’s Republic of China.

“Maoism and the Cultural Revolution were interesting because they were an attempt within the Communist Party of China to put into practice the model of perpetual disempowerment of the elites. The keyword was permanent revolution. Even in socialist societies, there is a tendency for established bureaucracies to develop and basically rehabilitate the old bourgeois structures. Mao saw that very clearly. In Berlin, we had the so called real socialism of the German Democratic Republic before our eyes. But it didn’t provide a model of society that was attractive to young angry and rebellious students.”

In 1967, 159 race riots burned through American cities. The Detroit Riot alone left 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings. (And since 1967, employment in Detroit has plummeted as businesses have fled the area for more hospitable climes. The city, once one of the richest in the world, is now one America’s poorest and most violent.)

In Avondale, Cincinnati:

… a thousand rioters smashed, looted and attacked cars, buildings and stores. A witness reported, “there’s not a window left on Reading Road or Burnett Avenue. The youths are doing it and adults are standing by and laughing.”…

By June 15, when the riot had been contained, one person was dead, 63 injured, 404 had been arrested, and the city had suffered $2 million in property damage.[9][10]

Avondale’s flourishing business district along Burnet Avenue was eradicated by the riots of 1967 and 1968.[4] Many of the damaged areas were left vacant for a decade.[9] The riots helped fuel beliefs that the city was too dangerous for families and helped accelerate “white flight” to the suburbs.[15] Between 1960 and 1970 the city of Cincinnati lost 10% of its population, compared to a loss of just 0.3% from 1950 to 1960. Cincinnati would continue to lose residents every decade afterwards. Many of the neighborhoods around Avondale experienced steep urban decline, including Avondale itself, which has never recovered from the riots.[15]

The Newark Riots of ’67 left 26 dead. In Milwaukee:

black residents, outraged by the slow pace in ending housing discrimination and police brutality, began to riot on the evening of July 30. The inciting incident was a fight between teenagers, which escalated into full-fledged rioting with the arrival of police. Within minutes, arson, looting, and sniping was ravaging the North Side of the city, primarily the 3rd Street Corridor. …

In 1980, twelve years after the passage of Milwaukee’s equal housing ordinance, the city ranked second nationally among the most racially segregated suburban areas.[6]:394 As of 2000, it was the most segregated city in the country according to data gathered by the US Census Bureau.[22]

Rinse and repeat, 159 times.

In 1968, things got crazier:

The protests of 1968 comprised a worldwide escalation of social conflicts, predominantly characterized by popular rebellions against military and bureaucratic elites, who responded with an escalation of political repression.

… In reaction to the Tet Offensive, protests also sparked a broad movement in opposition to the Vietnam War all over the United States and even into London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. Mass socialist movements grew not only in the United States but also in most European countries. The most spectacular manifestation of this were the May 1968 protests in France, in which students linked up with wildcat strikes of up to ten million workers, and for a few days the movement seemed capable of overthrowing the government. In many other capitalist countries, struggles against dictatorships, state repression, and colonization were also marked by protests in 1968, such as the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, and the escalation of guerrilla warfare against the military dictatorship in Brazil.

In the socialist countries there were also protests against lack of freedom of speech and violation of other civil rights by the Communist bureaucratic and military elites. In Central and Eastern Europe there were widespread protests that escalated, particularly in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, in Warsaw in Poland and in Yugoslavia. … The college students of 1968 embraced the New Left politics. Their socialist leanings and distrust of authority led to many of the 1968 conflicts. The dramatic events of the year showed both the popularity and limitations of New Left ideology, a radical leftist movement that was also deeply ambivalent about its relationship to communism during the middle and later years of the Cold War.

What was the New Left?

The New Left was a broad political movement mainly in the 1960s and 1970s consisting of educators, agitators and others in Western world who sought to implement a broad range of reforms on issues such as civil rights, gay rights, abortion, gender roles, and drugs,[2] in contrast to earlier leftist or Marxist movements that had taken a more vanguardist approach to social justice and focused mostly on labor unionization and questions of social class.[3][4] Sections of the New Left rejected involvement with the labor movement and Marxism’s historical theory of class struggle,[5] although others gravitated to variants of Marxism like Maoism.

The “vanguard” are proletariat, working-class revolutionaries–your traditional Marxists–concerned with labor union issues. The New Left is composed of university students and educators–“Cultural Marxists”–concerned with social issues like abortion, gay rights, race, and identity politics.

Herbert Marcuse, associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory, is celebrated as the “Father of the New Left”.[1]

The ideology developed at the Frankfurt School is also known as “Cultural Marxism,” though Wikipedia insists on referring to it as a “conspiracy theory.” There is much debate on this topic, though I am personally of the opinion that “Cultural Marxism” is as good a phrase as any to describe what Marxism became in the US as it ceased to focus on unions and began focusing on feminist, LGBT and racial issues.

Part of the underlying political developments of the 1960s was the USSR’s movement away from Stalinism, which made lots of people feel confused and disenchanted. Somehow worldwide revolution wasn’t happening, workers were still oppressed, the Soviet Union hadn’t become a paradise, etc. This prompted Mao to repudiate Khrushchev and spawn the Cultural Revolution to protect China against Khrushchev-esque “reactionaries,” a move that probably had less to do with ideological purity than ousting Mao’s enemies and returning him to power.

Outside of the Iron Curtain, Communists were split between those who were disenchanted by the USSR’s stagnation and those who were inspired by Mao’s revolutionary fervor.

As the campus orientation of the American New Left became clear in the mid to late 1960s, the student sections of the British New Left began taking action. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militancy.[23] The influence of protests against the Vietnam War and of the May 1968 events in France were also felt strongly throughout the British New Left. Some within the British New Left joined the International Socialists, which later became Socialist Workers Party while others became involved with groups such as the International Marxist Group.[24] The politics of the British New Left can be contrasted with Solidarity, which continued to focus primarily on industrial issues.[25]

Many New Left thinkers in the United States were influenced by the Vietnam War and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Some in the U.S. New Left argued that since the Soviet Union could no longer be considered the world center for proletarian revolution, new revolutionary Communist thinkers had to be substituted in its place, such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro.[44]

Battle of the Bogside, Northern Ireland.

The Troubles began in Northern Ireland more or less in 1968, with the establishment of the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1966,[57] a civil rights march in Derry on October 5th, 1968, and the ‘Battle of the Bogside‘ in August, 1969. The violence eventually took 3,500 lives.

Responsibility for Troubles-related deaths between 1969 and 2001

As far as Marxist-inspired violence goes, the US got off relatively easy. The Weather Underground set off a couple dozen bombs, but primarily targeted property, not people. (Approximately 1,500 bombs were set off by political activists in 1972 alone.)

The Black Panthers:

Curtis Austin states that by late 1968, Black Panther Party ideology had evolved to the point where they began to reject black nationalism and became more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”:

“[The Party] dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist–Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signaled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.[86]

I don’t know how many people were murdered (or attempted) by the Black Panthers, but a quick scan of their article gives the impression that they killed each other more often than they killed non-Panthers. The Black Liberation Army has been accused of committing 13 murders and hijacking an airplane.

The Zebra Murders of at least 15 (and potentially 73) people by black Muslims paralyzed San Francisco in the early 70s, but pale in comparison to Maoist guerrillas in Peru, where the Shining Path has killed over 37,000 people, or the Maoist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which killed an incredible 1/3 of their country.

Anonymous blogger Zaphod has collected every article published in The Harvard Crimson between 1973 and 1976 that mention the Khmer Rogue. These articles, representing the opinions of some of the finest Cathedral minds in the country, are horrifyingly supportive of one of history’s most murderous regimes:

Congress and the public have come to accept that the U.S. must stop interfering in Cambodia’s affairs, which will surely result in well-deserved victory of the revolutionary forces led by Prince Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge.


News of U.S. bombing in Cambodia drones on. U.S. support for political repression in Vietnam continues. …

The bombing, as some belated reporting from the area is starting to show, is directed against an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement, the Khmer Rouge, a force numbering in the hundreds of thousands which is attempting to topple the Lon Nol regime, Nixon’s two-year-old creation. …

For nearly a decade, The Crimson has called for an end to American involvement in Indochina. We repeat that call today. The war has brought more death and destruction to one area of the globe since Adolf Hitler’s armies devastated Europe in World War II. The United States should cease its bombing and all other overt and covert military operations in Indochina. The genocide must stop.


Reporting from Cambodia is scanty and shoddy, the outlines of the political dispute there are hazy, and the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, to which many Harvard students would be attracted, is still a shadowy and elusive force.

As a consequence, Watergate, which is close to home, has gripped students here as well as the rest of the nation while the more monstrous Nixon crimes go unnoticed.

Of course, once the US withdrew, the Khmer Rogue committed one of the worst genocides in history. The Crimson reflected:

What was happening in Vietnam and Cambodia meant a lot to us at The Crimson; for us it seemed to be the first good news from Indochina in years. Since late in the 60s we had editorially supported the Khmer Rouge and National Liberation Front in Vietnam, both nationalist groups affiliated with foreign Communist parties, and both of those characteristics–the independence and the socialist egalitarianism–appealed to us. …

At first The Crimson was against the war because it was a bad and wasteful thing for America to do; supporting the liberation movements, a step most of the anti-war movement didn’t take, was for us a logical next step.

I don’t know what we all expected the Khmer Rouge to do when it came to power. …

With Cambodia it’s an old dilemma–do we look at events in Indochina as Americans with liberal values or as the Indochinese must look at them? The Khmer Rouge can certainly no longer meet with our approval on our own terms, because they violate our feeling that anything worthy need not be accomplished through violence and cruelty. On their own terms they continue to be most of what we supported them for–staunch nationalists, socialists, remakers of their own society. It is a conflict that I am not ready to resolve. Although The Crimson has yet to commit itself, I continue to support the Khmer Rouge in its principles and goals but I have to admit that I deplore the way they are going about it.


To sum:

1940-70: Millions of black people move from the mostly rural South to Northern cities in the Great Migration

In 1963, a Communist assassinated Kennedy, making LBJ president.

1964: LBJ’s Civil Rights Act passed

1965: LBJ’s Immigration Act passed

1966: Cultural Revolution began

The global Left, feeling disenchanted due to the USSR’s failure to achieve a utopia and repudiation of Stalinism, turns to China for inspiration. It abandons proletarian-driven communism in favor of student-driven communism.

1967: 159 race riots burn down American cities, protesting segregation and police brutality. Many cities never recover.

1968: World goes crazy. Maoists murder millions of people.

Over the next few decades, schools are integrated, legal segregation is dismantled, and the police back off black communities. As a result, urban crime skyrockets:

h/t Steve Sailer

Whites flee the violence, contributing to a culture of rootless anomie, dispersed families, and lost wealth as property values plummet.

1969: Stonewall Riots; Nixon elected on “law and order” platform in response to leftist violence

1973: Harvard Crimson accuses Nixon of genocide for opposing the Khmer Rouge

1974: Nixon forced out of office by the media

1975: Cambodian Genocide begins: Khmer Rouge kills 1/3 of their country

The version of this story we usually hear:

Whites were mean and wouldn’t let blacks live in their cities. They forced blacks into ghettos, which were mysteriously full of crime and oppressed by the police. Everything in the ghetto fell apart and the students couldn’t learn anything. After MLK was murdered, integration began, prompting evil white flight. Today, the police are still oppressing black people.

The version you don’t hear:

The “Great Migration” started an urban crime wave that lasted for 3 decades, destroying inner cities and murdered thousands of people. Black rioters in the 60s and 70s burned down thousands of buildings, driving businesses out of black neighborhoods. Factory owners decided to relocate to China to import Mexicans to avoid hiring blacks, decimating the working class.

The version you hear:

Nixon was a bad man who authorized the Watergate Hotel break-in.

The version you don’t hear:

Nixon was fighting the Maoist Khmer Rogue. The media’s campaign to drive Nixon from office resulted in one of the worst genocides in human history.

I haven’t even touched Sayyid Qutb, yet.

What is Cultural Appropriation?

White person offended at the Japanese on behalf of Mexicans, who actually think Mario in a sombrero is awesome

“Cultural appropriation” means “This is mine! I hate you! Don’t touch my stuff!”

Cultural appropriation is one of those newspeak buzz-phrases that sound vaguely like real things, but upon any kind of inspection, completely fall apart. Wikipedia defines Cultural Appropriation as “the adoption or use of the elements of one culture by members of another culture.[1]”, but this is obviously incorrect. By this definition, Louis Armstrong committed cultural appropriation when he learned to play the white man’s trumpet. So is an immigrant who moves to the US and learns English.

Obviously this not what anyone means by cultural appropriation–this is just cultural diffusion, a completely natural, useful, and nearly unstoppable part of life.

A more nuanced definition is that cultural appropriation is “when someone from a more powerful group starts using an element of a less powerful group’s culture.” The idea is that this is somehow harmful to the people of the weaker culture, or at least highly distasteful.

To make an analogy: Let’s suppose you were a total nerd in school. The jocks called you names, locked you in your locker, and stole your lunch money. You were also a huge Heavy Metal fan, for which you were also mocked. The jocks even tried to get the Student Council to pass laws against playing heavy metal at the school dance.

And then one day, the biggest jock in the school shows up wearing a “Me-Tallica” shirt, and suddenly “Me-Tallica” becomes the big new thing among all of the popular kids. Demand skyrockets for tickets to heavy metal concerts, and now you can’t afford to go see your favorite band.

You are about to go apoplectic: “Mine!” you want to yell. “That’s my thing! And it’s pronounced Meh-tallica, you idiots!”

SJWs protest Japanese women sharing Japanese culture with non-Japanese. The sign reads “It wouldn’t be so bad w/out white institutions condoning erasure of the Japanese narrative + orientalism which in turn supports dewomaning + fetishizing AAPI + it is killing us”

How many cases of claimed cultural appropriation does this scenario actually fit? It requires meeting three criteria to count: a group must be widely discriminated against, its culture must be oppressed or denigrated, and then that same culture must be adopted by the oppressors. This is the minimal definition; a more difficult to prove definition requires some actual harm to the oppressed group.

Thing is, there is not a whole lot of official oppression going on in America these days. Segregation ended around the 60s. I’m not sure when the program of forced Native American assimilation via boarding schools ended, but it looks like conditions improved around 1930 and by 1970 the government was actively improving the schools. Japanese and German internment ended with World War II.

It is rather hard to prove oppression–much less cultural oppression–after the 70s. No one is trying to wipe out Native American languages or religious beliefs; there are no laws against rap music or dreadlocks. It’s even harder to prove oppression for recent arrivals whose ancestors didn’t live here during segregation, like most of our Asians and Hispanics (America was about 88% non-Hispanic white and 10% black prior to the 1965 Immigration Act.)

So instead, in cases like the anti-Kimono Wednesdays protest photo above–the claim is inverted:

It wouldn’t be so bad w/out white institutions condoning erasure of the Japanese narrative + orientalism which in turn supports dewomaning + fetishizing AAPI + it is killing us

SJWs objected to Japanese women sharing kimonos with non-Japanese women not because of a history of harm to Japanese people or culture, but because sharing of the kimonos itself is supposedly inspiring harm.

“Orientalism” is one of those words that you probably haven’t encounter unless you’ve had to read Edward Said’s book on the subject (I had to read it twice.) It’s a pretty meaningless concept to Americans, because unlike Monet, we never really went through an Oriental-fascination phase. For good or ill, we just aren’t very interested in learning about non-Americans.

The claim that orientalism is somehow killing Asian American women is strange–are there really serial killers who target Asian ladies specifically because they have a thing for Madame Butterfly?–but at least suggests a verifiable fact: are Asian women disproportionately murdered?

Of course, if you know anything about crime stats, you know that homicide victims tend to be male and most crime is intraracial, not interracial. For example, according to the FBI, of the 12,664 people murdered in 2011, 9,829 were men–about 78%. The FBI’s racial data is only broken down into White (5,825 victims,) Black (6,329,) Other (335), and Unknown (175)–there just aren’t enough Asian homicide victims to count them separately. For women specifically, the number of Other Race victims is only 110–or just a smidge under 1% of total homicides.

And even these numbers are over-estimating the plight of Asian Americans, as Other also includes non-Asians like Native Americans (whose homicide rates are probably much more concerning.)

Call me crazy, but I don’t think kimono-inspired homicides are a real concern.

Kylie Jenner Accused of Cultural Appropriation for Camo Bikini Ad

In practice, SJWs define cultural appropriation as “any time white people use an element from a non-white group’s culture”–or in the recent Kylie Jenner bikini case, “culture” can be expanded to “anything that a person from that other culture ever did, even if millions of other people from other cultures have also done that same thing.” (My best friend in highschool wore camo to prom. My dad wore camo to Vietnam.) And fashion trends come and go–even if Destiny’s Child created a camo bikini trend 16 yeas ago, the trend did not last. Someone else can come along and start a new camo bikini trend.

(Note how TeenVogue does not come to Kyle’s defense by pointing out that these accusations are fundamentally untrue. Anyone can make random, untrue accusations about famous people–schizophrenics do it all the time–but such accusations are not normally considered newsworthy.)

“Cultural appropriation” is such a poorly defined mish-mash of ideas precisely because it isn’t an idea. It’s just an emotion: This is mine, not yours. I hate you and you can’t have it. When white people use the phrase, it takes on a secondary meaning: I am a better white person than you.


Evolution is slow–until it’s fast: Genetic Load and the Future of Humanity

Source: Priceonomics

A species may live in relative equilibrium with its environment, hardly changing from generation to generation, for millions of years. Turtles, for example, have barely changed since the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

But if the environment changes–critically, if selective pressures change–then the species will change, too. This was most famously demonstrated with English moths, which changed color from white-and-black speckled to pure black when pollution darkened the trunks of the trees they lived on. To survive, these moths need to avoid being eaten by birds, so any moth that stands out against the tree trunks tends to get turned into an avian snack. Against light-colored trees, dark-colored moths stood out and were eaten. Against dark-colored trees, light-colored moths stand out.

This change did not require millions of years. Dark-colored moths were virtually unknown in 1810, but by 1895, 98% of the moths were black.

The time it takes for evolution to occur depends simply on A. The frequency of a trait in the population and B. How strongly you are selecting for (or against) it.

Let’s break this down a little bit. Within a species, there exists a great deal of genetic variation. Some of this variation happens because two parents with different genes get together and produce offspring with a combination of their genes. Some of this variation happens because of random errors–mutations–that occur during copying of the genetic code. Much of the “natural variation” we see today started as some kind of error that proved to be useful, or at least not harmful. For example, all humans originally had dark skin similar to modern Africans’, but random mutations in some of the folks who no longer lived in Africa gave them lighter skin, eventually producing “white” and “Asian” skin tones.

(These random mutations also happen in Africa, but there they are harmful and so don’t stick around.)

Natural selection can only act on the traits that are actually present in the population. If we tried to select for “ability to shoot x-ray lasers from our eyes,” we wouldn’t get very far, because no one actually has that mutation. By contrast, albinism is rare, but it definitely exists, and if for some reason we wanted to select for it, we certainly could. (The incidence of albinism among the Hopi Indians is high enough–1 in 200 Hopis vs. 1 in 20,000 Europeans generally and 1 in 30,000 Southern Europeans–for scientists to discuss whether the Hopi have been actively selecting for albinism. This still isn’t a lot of albinism, but since the American Southwest is not a good environment for pale skin, it’s something.)

You will have a much easier time selecting for traits that crop up more frequently in your population than traits that crop up rarely (or never).

Second, we have intensity–and variety–of selective pressure. What % of your population is getting removed by natural selection each year? If 50% of your moths get eaten by birds because they’re too light, you’ll get a much faster change than if only 10% of moths get eaten.

Selection doesn’t have to involve getting eaten, though. Perhaps some of your moths are moth Lotharios, seducing all of the moth ladies with their fuzzy antennae. Over time, the moth population will develop fuzzier antennae as these handsome males out-reproduce their less hirsute cousins.

No matter what kind of selection you have, nor what part of your curve it’s working on, all that ultimately matters is how many offspring each individual has. If white moths have more children than black moths, then you end up with more white moths. If black moths have more babies, then you get more black moths.


So what happens when you completely remove selective pressures from a population?

Back in 1968, ethologist John B. Calhoun set up an experiment popularly called “Mouse Utopia.” Four pairs of mice were given a large, comfortable habitat with no predators and plenty of food and water.

Predictably, the mouse population increased rapidly–once the mice were established in their new homes, their population doubled every 55 days. But after 211 days of explosive growth, reproduction began–mysteriously–to slow. For the next 245 days, the mouse population doubled only once every 145 days.

The birth rate continued to decline. As births and death reached parity, the mouse population stopped growing. Finally the last breeding female died, and the whole colony went extinct.


As I’ve mentioned before Israel is (AFAIK) the only developed country in the world with a TFR above replacement.

It has long been known that overcrowding leads to population stress and reduced reproduction, but overcrowding can only explain why the mouse population began to shrink–not why it died out. Surely by the time there were only a few breeding pairs left, things had become comfortable enough for the remaining mice to resume reproducing. Why did the population not stabilize at some comfortable level?

Professor Bruce Charlton suggests an alternative explanation: the removal of selective pressures on the mouse population resulted in increasing mutational load, until the entire population became too mutated to reproduce.

What is genetic load?

As I mentioned before, every time a cell replicates, a certain number of errors–mutations–occur. Occasionally these mutations are useful, but the vast majority of them are not. About 30-50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage (the percent of miscarriages people recognize is lower because embryos often miscarry before causing any overt signs of pregnancy,) and the majority of those miscarriages are caused by genetic errors.

Unfortunately, randomly changing part of your genetic code is more likely to give you no skin than skintanium armor.

But only the worst genetic problems that never see the light of day. Plenty of mutations merely reduce fitness without actually killing you. Down Syndrome, famously, is caused by an extra copy of chromosome 21.

While a few traits–such as sex or eye color–can be simply modeled as influenced by only one or two genes, many traits–such as height or IQ–appear to be influenced by hundreds or thousands of genes:

Differences in human height is 60–80% heritable, according to several twin studies[19] and has been considered polygenic since the Mendelian-biometrician debate a hundred years ago. A genome-wide association (GWA) study of more than 180,000 individuals has identified hundreds of genetic variants in at least 180 loci associated with adult human height.[20] The number of individuals has since been expanded to 253,288 individuals and the number of genetic variants identified is 697 in 423 genetic loci.[21]

Obviously most of these genes each plays only a small role in determining overall height (and this is of course holding environmental factors constant.) There are a few extreme conditions–gigantism and dwarfism–that are caused by single mutations, but the vast majority of height variation is caused by which particular mix of those 700 or so variants you happen to have.

The situation with IQ is similar:

Intelligence in the normal range is a polygenic trait, meaning it’s influenced by more than one gene.[3][4]

The general figure for the heritability of IQ, according to an authoritative American Psychological Association report, is 0.45 for children, and rises to around 0.75 for late teens and adults.[5][6] In simpler terms, IQ goes from being weakly correlated with genetics, for children, to being strongly correlated with genetics for late teens and adults. … Recent studies suggest that family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores;[8] however, poor prenatal environment, malnutrition and disease can have deleterious effects.[9][10]

And from a recent article published in Nature Genetics, Genome-wide association meta-analysis of 78,308 individuals identifies new loci and genes influencing human intelligence:

Despite intelligence having substantial heritability2 (0.54) and a confirmed polygenic nature, initial genetic studies were mostly underpowered3, 4, 5. Here we report a meta-analysis for intelligence of 78,308 individuals. We identify 336 associated SNPs (METAL P < 5 × 10−8) in 18 genomic loci, of which 15 are new. Around half of the SNPs are located inside a gene, implicating 22 genes, of which 11 are new findings. Gene-based analyses identified an additional 30 genes (MAGMA P < 2.73 × 10−6), of which all but one had not been implicated previously. We show that the identified genes are predominantly expressed in brain tissue, and pathway analysis indicates the involvement of genes regulating cell development (MAGMA competitive P = 3.5 × 10−6). Despite the well-known difference in twin-based heritability2 for intelligence in childhood (0.45) and adulthood (0.80), we show substantial genetic correlation (rg = 0.89, LD score regression P = 5.4 × 10−29). These findings provide new insight into the genetic architecture of intelligence.

The greater number of genes influence a trait, the harder they are to identify without extremely large studies, because any small group of people might not even have the same set of relevant genes.

High IQ correlates positively with a number of life outcomes, like health and longevity, while low IQ correlates with negative outcomes like disease, mental illness, and early death. Obviously this is in part because dumb people are more likely to make dumb choices which lead to death or disease, but IQ also correlates with choice-free matters like height and your ability to quickly press a button. Our brains are not some mysterious entities floating in a void, but physical parts of our bodies, and anything that affects our overall health and physical functioning is likely to also have an effect on our brains.

Like height, most of the genetic variation in IQ is the combined result of many genes. We’ve definitely found some mutations that result in abnormally low IQ, but so far we have yet (AFAIK) to find any genes that produce the IQ gigantism. In other words, low (genetic) IQ is caused by genetic load–Small Yet Important Genetic Differences Between Highly Intelligent People and General Population:

The study focused, for the first time, on rare, functional SNPs – rare because previous research had only considered common SNPs and functional because these are SNPs that are likely to cause differences in the creation of proteins.

The researchers did not find any individual protein-altering SNPs that met strict criteria for differences between the high-intelligence group and the control group. However, for SNPs that showed some difference between the groups, the rare allele was less frequently observed in the high intelligence group. This observation is consistent with research indicating that rare functional alleles are more often detrimental than beneficial to intelligence.

Maternal mortality rates over time, UK data

Greg Cochran has some interesting Thoughts on Genetic Load. (Currently, the most interesting candidate genes for potentially increasing IQ also have terrible side effects, like autism, Tay Sachs and Torsion Dystonia. The idea is that–perhaps–if you have only a few genes related to the condition, you get an IQ boost, but if you have too many, you get screwed.) Of course, even conventional high-IQ has a cost: increased maternal mortality (larger heads).

Wikipedia defines genetic load as:

the difference between the fitness of an average genotype in a population and the fitness of some reference genotype, which may be either the best present in a population, or may be the theoretically optimal genotype. … Deleterious mutation load is the main contributing factor to genetic load overall.[5] Most mutations are deleterious, and occur at a high rate.

There’s math, if you want it.

Normally, genetic mutations are removed from the population at a rate determined by how bad they are. Really bad mutations kill you instantly, and so are never born. Slightly less bad mutations might survive, but never reproduce. Mutations that are only a little bit deleterious might have no obvious effect, but result in having slightly fewer children than your neighbors. Over many generations, this mutation will eventually disappear.

(Some mutations are more complicated–sickle cell, for example, is protective against malaria if you have only one copy of the mutation, but gives you sickle cell anemia if you have two.)

Jakubany is a town in the Carpathian Mountains

Throughout history, infant mortality was our single biggest killer. For example, here is some data from Jakubany, a town in the Carpathian Mountains:

We can see that, prior to the 1900s, the town’s infant mortality rate stayed consistently above 20%, and often peaked near 80%.

The graph’s creator states:

When I first ran a calculation of the infant mortality rate, I could not believe certain of the intermediate results. I recompiled all of the data and recalculated … with the same astounding result – 50.4% of the children born in Jakubany between the years 1772 and 1890 would diebefore reaching ten years of age! …one out of every two! Further, over the same 118 year period, of the 13306 children who were born, 2958 died (~22 %) before reaching the age of one.

Historical infant mortality rates can be difficult to calculate in part because they were so high, people didn’t always bother to record infant deaths. And since infants are small and their bones delicate, their burials are not as easy to find as adults’. Nevertheless, Wikipedia estimates that Paleolithic man had an average life expectancy of 33 years:

Based on the data from recent hunter-gatherer populations, it is estimated that at 15, life expectancy was an additional 39 years (total 54), with a 0.60 probability of reaching 15.[12]

Priceonomics: Why life expectancy is misleading

In other words, a 40% chance of dying in childhood. (Not exactly the same as infant mortality, but close.)

Wikipedia gives similarly dismal stats for life expectancy in the Neolithic (20-33), Bronze and Iron ages (26), Classical Greece(28 or 25), Classical Rome (20-30), Pre-Columbian Southwest US (25-30), Medieval Islamic Caliphate (35), Late Medieval English Peerage (30), early modern England (33-40), and the whole world in 1900 (31).

Over at ThoughtCo: Surviving Infancy in the Middle Ages, the author reports estimates for between 30 and 50% infant mortality rates. I recall a study on Anasazi nutrition which I sadly can’t locate right now, which found 100% malnutrition rates among adults (based on enamel hypoplasias,) and 50% infant mortality.

As Priceonomics notes, the main driver of increasing global life expectancy–48 years in 1950 and 71.5 years in 2014 (according to Wikipedia)–has been a massive decrease in infant mortality. The average life expectancy of an American newborn back in 1900 was only 47 and a half years, whereas a 60 year old could expect to live to be 75. In 1998, the average infant could expect to live to about 75, and the average 60 year old could expect to live to about 80.

Back in his post on Mousetopia, Charlton writes:

Michael A Woodley suggests that what was going on [in the Mouse experiment] was much more likely to be mutation accumulation; with deleterious (but non-fatal) genes incrementally accumulating with each generation and generating a wide range of increasingly maladaptive behavioural pathologies; this process rapidly overwhelming and destroying the population before any beneficial mutations could emerge to ‘save; the colony from extinction. …

The reason why mouse utopia might produce so rapid and extreme a mutation accumulation is that wild mice naturally suffer very high mortality rates from predation. …

Thus mutation selection balance is in operation among wild mice, with very high mortality rates continually weeding-out the high rate of spontaneously-occurring new mutations (especially among males) – with typically only a small and relatively mutation-free proportion of the (large numbers of) offspring surviving to reproduce; and a minority of the most active and healthy (mutation free) males siring the bulk of each generation.

However, in Mouse Utopia, there is no predation and all the other causes of mortality (eg. Starvation, violence from other mice) are reduced to a minimum – so the frequent mutations just accumulate, generation upon generation – randomly producing all sorts of pathological (maladaptive) behaviours.

Historically speaking, another selective factor operated on humans: while about 67% of women reproduced, only 33% of men did. By contrast, according to Psychology Today, a majority of today’s men have or will have children.

Today, almost everyone in the developed world has plenty of food, a comfortable home, and doesn’t have to worry about dying of bubonic plague. We live in humantopia, where the biggest factor influencing how many kids you have is how many you want to have.


Back in 1930, infant mortality rates were highest among the children of unskilled manual laborers, and lowest among the children of professionals (IIRC, this is Brittish data.) Today, infant mortality is almost non-existent, but voluntary childlessness has now inverted this phenomena:

Yes, the percent of childless women appears to have declined since 1994, but the overall pattern of who is having children still holds. Further, while only 8% of women with post graduate degrees have 4 or more children, 26% of those who never graduated from highschool have 4+ kids. Meanwhile, the age of first-time moms has continued to climb.

In other words, the strongest remover of genetic load–infant mortality–has all but disappeared; populations with higher load (lower IQ) are having more children than populations with lower load; and everyone is having children later, which also increases genetic load.

Take a moment to consider the high-infant mortality situation: an average couple has a dozen children. Four of them, by random good luck, inherit a good combination of the couple’s genes and turn out healthy and smart. Four, by random bad luck, get a less lucky combination of genes and turn out not particularly healthy or smart. And four, by very bad luck, get some unpleasant mutations that render them quite unhealthy and rather dull.

Infant mortality claims half their children, taking the least healthy. They are left with 4 bright children and 2 moderately intelligent children. The three brightest children succeed at life, marry well, and end up with several healthy, surviving children of their own, while the moderately intelligent do okay and end up with a couple of children.

On average, society’s overall health and IQ should hold steady or even increase over time, depending on how strong the selective pressures actually are.

Or consider a consanguineous couple with a high risk of genetic birth defects: perhaps a full 80% of their children die, but 20% turn out healthy and survive.

Today, by contrast, your average couple has two children. One of them is lucky, healthy, and smart. The other is unlucky, unhealthy, and dumb. Both survive. The lucky kid goes to college, majors in underwater intersectionist basket-weaving, and has one kid at age 40. That kid has Down Syndrome and never reproduces. The unlucky kid can’t keep a job, has chronic health problems, and 3 children by three different partners.

Your consanguineous couple migrates from war-torn Somalia to Minnesota. They still have 12 kids, but three of them are autistic with IQs below the official retardation threshold. “We never had this back in Somalia,” they cry. “We don’t even have a word for it.”

People normally think of dysgenics as merely “the dumb outbreed the smart,” but genetic load applies to everyone–men and women, smart and dull, black and white, young and especially old–because we all make random transcription errors when copying our DNA.

I could offer a list of signs of increasing genetic load, but there’s no way to avoid cherry-picking trends I already know are happening, like falling sperm counts or rising (diagnosed) autism rates, so I’ll skip that. You may substitute your own list of “obvious signs society is falling apart at the genes” if you so desire.

Nevertheless, the transition from 30% (or greater) infant mortality to almost 0% is amazing, both on a technical level and because it heralds an unprecedented era in human evolution. The selective pressures on today’s people are massively different from those our ancestors faced, simply because our ancestors’ biggest filter was infant mortality. Unless infant mortality acted completely at random–taking the genetically loaded and unloaded alike–or on factors completely irrelevant to load, the elimination of infant mortality must continuously increase the genetic load in the human population. Over time, if that load is not selected out–say, through more people being too unhealthy to reproduce–then we will end up with an increasing population of physically sick, maladjusted, mentally ill, and low-IQ people.

(Remember, all mental traits are heritable–so genetic load influences everything, not just controversial ones like IQ.)

If all of the above is correct, then I see only 4 ways out:

  1. Do nothing: Genetic load increases until the population is non-functional and collapses, resulting in a return of Malthusian conditions, invasion by stronger neighbors, or extinction.
  2. Sterilization or other weeding out of high-load people, coupled with higher fertility by low-load people
  3. Abortion of high load fetuses
  4. Genetic engineering

#1 sounds unpleasant, and #2 would result in masses of unhappy people. We don’t have the technology for #4, yet. I don’t think the technology is quite there for #2, either, but it’s much closer–we can certainly test for many of the deleterious mutations that we do know of.

Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Tungus People

Puyi, final Manchu emperor of China

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday, featuring our final excerpts from Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (vol. 2.) According to Wikipedia‘s undeservedly short article:

Georg Adolf Erman (12 May 1806 – 12 July 1877) was a German physicist. … He studied natural science at the universities of Berlin and Königsberg, spent from 1828 to 1830 in a journey round the world, an account of which he published in Reise um die Erde durch Nordasien und die beiden Ozeane (1833-1848). The magnetic observations he made during his travels were utilized by Carl Friedrich Gauss in his theory of terrestrial magnetism. He was appointed professor of physics at Berlin in 1839, and died there in 1877. From 1841 to 1865 he edited the Archiv für wissenschaftliche Kunde von Russland, and in 1874 he published, with H. J. R. Petersen, Die Grundlagen der Gauss’schen Theorie und die Erscheinungen des Erdmagnetismus im Jahre 1829.

Today our author is traveling among the Tungus people of north-east Asia. The most famous Tungusic people are the Manchus, who ruled over the Qing Dynasty of China from 1644 to 1912. The rest of the Tungusic-language speaking people were nomadic reindeer herders. According to Wikipedia:

Some linguists estimate the divergence of the Tungusic languages from a common ancestor spoken somewhere in Manchuria around 500 BC to 500 AD.(Janhunen 2012, Pevnov 2012)[3] Other theories favor a homeland closer to Lake Baikal. (Menges 1968, Khelimskii 1985)[4] While the general form of the protolanguage is clear from the similarities in the daughter languages, there is no consensus on detailed reconstructions. As of 2012, scholars are still trying to establish a shared vocabulary to do such a reconstruction.[3] …

Currently, Manchu proper is a dying language spoken by a dozen or so elderly people in Qiqihar province, China. However, the closely related Xibe language spoken in Xinjiang, which historically was treated as a divergent dialect of Jurchen-Manchu, maintains the literary tradition of the script, and has around 30,000 speakers. As the only language in the Tungustic family with a long written tradition, Jurchen-Manchu is a very important language for the reconstruction of Proto-Tungusic.

Tungus (Evenki) on reindeer crossing river, Nayachan, Siberia, 1901

Erman tries to ride a deer:

“[The reindeer] were feeding in the neighbourhood of the yurt, and their owner allowed me here to try to ride one of them. Of this experiment it is enough to state, that I was unable, without assistance, to mount on the back of a very patient animal, and then I fell, even at the first step, from the saddle down on the frozen snow. …

“The Tunguzes, in the country round the Lena, however, are under no necessity of procuring food from the Russians; for they eat besides, not only the flesh of the reindeer, but of all the other animals which they kill for the fur trade. I was told, also, that they come to this place mounted on reindeer, a single piece of voilok serving them for a saddle; and also that they hunt with gunpowder and rifles, which they procure for furs in summer, from the merchants going down the Lena. …

“The Russians at this place gave me to understand, that, for permission to hunt, they pay a tribute to the Shulengin or petty chief of the Tunguzes, whose district they visit: for the Tunguzes, as they added by way of explanation, are men of sense and enlightenment ; they stand firmly on their rights, and accost Russian hunters in their forests, with ” Who has invited you here?”

EvX: Our author also notes that the locals enjoy playing cards and chess:

“The Tunguzes, in the circle of Koluimsk, are passionately fond of chess. They carve the chessmen very elaborately out of mammoth’s teeth. These northern nomades probably received their acquaintance with this game, and taste for others, from Ohim at a very early period …

Yukaghir children (there are about 1,600 Yukaghir left in the world.)

“For supper I treated the whole company to black biscuit, which
was devoured as the greatest dainty, along with the usual soup
made of smoked rein-deer’s blood, with dried, sliced flesh of quadrupeds and fish. … I then turned the conversation to the account given me in Krasnoyarsk, of a peculiar Tunguzian custom, namely, that of concluding the dance, in which both sexes join, by stripping off the clothes. There can be no doubt that this statement is, in the main, true, for Ffedor, who had previously had intercourse with the Tunguzes of this quarter, but had never any communication with the Russians of Krasnoyarsk, confirmed to me, fully, what I had heard when I first asked him alone about it. My direct inquiries on this subject from the men here, were seized upon as if they suggested a well-known subject of joking; and the old woman heard me, with that awkward-looking merriment which is produced among us by a pleasant anecdote bordering on indecency.”

Actual Rape Culture:

“And here I must mention the remarkable difference which I soon observed, not only in the external appearance, but in behaviour, also, between the two unmarried girls in the yurt. The younger, and still unaffianced girl, was much fairer and slenderer than Daria, evidently because, in the course of their wanderings, she had not yet taken part in the drudgery of the nomadic housewife. … But that which chiefly distinguished her, was an extraordinary shyness or timidity, which I frequently afterwards witnessed in other Tunguzian young women, and sometimes in Kamchatka. If I happened by accident, and without thinking of it, to meet her alone before the yurt, she would scream, and run away in the greatest fright.

“I learned, subsequently, from Russians, of whom made inquiries, that this behaviour is founded on an ancient and general custom of the Tunguzes and Eamchadales. According to their view, a matrimonial engagement is not definitively arranged and concluded until the suitor has got the better of his beloved by force, and has torn her clothes. The maiden, however, must defend her liberty to the utmost, and consequently she dreads, as we had occasion to observe in Garnastakh and elsewhere, attacks of this kind, even where they are not previously threatened. I never saw an instance of such timidity in the interior of the yurts or tents; and it would appear, therefore, as if a law which is held to be one of the most important in the code of the Mongols and Buraets, prevailed also among the Tunguzes. This law allows offensive assaults on women to be avenged by shedding of blood, yet only in case they have been made inside the tent; on the other hand, the assaulted woman bears the whole blame if she ventures indiscreetly to leave her natural place, the sacred and protecting hearth. …

Women of the Even (Tungus) people

“The girls went out at day-break to fetch ice, and then they began to wash and adorn themselves with unusual care, as if it were worth while to be beautiful only in the open air and bright weather. They put on the new head-dress, having, plaited their tresses afresh, and their jet black hair hung somewhat less than usual over the forehead. The ladder to ‘the flat roof of the yurt was also much employed. The old women Sat there from morning till noon, and hummed their songs in the sunshine, as they did yesterday at the fire. …

“I understand thoroughly the curse of the Tunguzes, “Mayest thou be house-tied like the Russians,” and, also, their practical belief that “a dwelling grows rotten,” when people stay too long in one place. They are a lively and light-hearted people, and however the graces of outward appearance may gratify their cheerful humour, still they are not disposed to sacrifice their freedom or convenience for the sake of them. Frequent journeys seem to them, therefore, to be the most natural, and only applicable means of keeping their property in good order. …

“The reindeer were driven before the yurt early in the morning, and, as a good moss-field had been found for them at no great distance, this part of the business was very quickly despatched to-day. The women rendered especial assistance on the occasion, for they went along with the men into the wood, where they cautiously enclosed the herd on one side, and then suddenly, and with a yelling cry, ran after them. The deer immediately fled, always close together, and continued running s0 long as the cry lasted. To catch the deer singly, the people
had recourse to a long strap, as I had already seen practised among the Ostyaks. …

The riding furniture of the Tunguzes is far more simple, for it consists of nothing but a flat cushion, stuffed about two inches thick which is placed like the pack-saddle forwards on the reindeer’s shoulders. In front where the rider sits it is considerably wider than the animal’s back and projects beyond it, therefore, on both sides. … This saddle is fastened by only a single girth, which is not placed over the middle of the saddle… but on the back part of it, and is fastened underneath, just behind the reindeer’s fore-legs. They then gave me a staff about five feet long, and bid me mount by means of it a full-grown male reindeer, the back of which was not less than four feet high… I tried at first to mount by what appeared to be the simplest way, that is, by swinging myself up as …upon
a horse without stirrups; but the Tunguzes were immediately in a fright and cried out, dolefully, “You are breaking our reindeer’s back.” And this apprehension was well founded, for as soon as the animal’s spine is touched, but a few inches behind the saddle, it bends its knees, and sinks as if under an insupportable load; but it is impossible to mount by leaning on the deer’s shoulder, which is alone capable of bearing a weight, because the lateral jerk, which is unavoidable, is sure to displace the saddle.

Evenk (Tungus) people riding reindeer (source)

“There is no mode, therefore, of mounting the reindeer, but that which the Tunguzes have adopted; and however inconvenient this seamed to us at first, the practice of a few days made us sufficiently expert. The rider, holding the bridle, stands at the right side of the animal, and not on the left, as with us, his face turned forwards; he then raises his left foot to the saddle, which he never touches with his hands, and springing with the right leg, and aided also by the pole, which he holds in his right hand, he mounts into his seat. The women and girls are as expert in this jumping as the men, and I recollect to have seen but once a Tunguzian woman receiving assistance as she mounted. …

“We fell from the saddle six times, at least, in the first quarter of an hour, but improved rapidly as soon as we discovered that the rider must not attempt to attach himself to the body of the reindeer. He must, on the contrary, sit, or rather poise himself, in such a manner that his body may continually, and with facility, as required, lend itself to a swinging motion. …

“In the tent at Ancha, there was living at present, among others, the wife of a Tunguzian prince, with her son, a child about eight years of age. She was above the middle size, very slender, and beautifully formed, and, without regard to her rank, took part in all the housewife’s labours. She was at present making boots of the skin of the slaughtered reindeer. The young chief, on the other hand, was treated with particular attention by all. the men of the party. They introduced him immediately to my notice, and some time elapsed before I learned that his mother, also, was in the tent. He wore, like several of the men here, the state costume of the Tunguzes, which is covered with a number of metal ornaments, attached, some of them to the girdle which braces the clothes round the hips, and some by means of thin chains to a crescent-shaped plate, fixed on the breast for that purpose. I remarked among these appendages, besides the fire-steel and numerous pieces intended merely to rattle, little
tweezers, also, with which the Tunguzes are in the habit of plucking out the hairs of the scanty beard which grows on the upper lip. The caps, and many parts of their leathern dress, were adorned with silver plates, which had been beaten and cut out of coins. These must have descended by inheritance through many generations, for the introduction of silver money from Russia into Siberia has been long forbidden, perhaps because it was found that, owing to the love of the indigenous races for these ornaments, the coin was withdrawn from circulation. Between the pieces of silver were beads of different colours sewed on the leather. …

“The family of the kapitan of Ehoinya is one of the richest among the Tunguzes of the Aldan. They possess numerous herds of reindeer, which find good pasture here at all times of the year; there is also plenty of wild reindeer and other game in the forest round about. It is owing, perhaps, to this favourable situation, that the Tunguzes at this place seem more inclined to a settled and sedentary life than the rest of their countrymen, for I was questioned here, for the first time, respecting my home. I was also asked to give an account of my own yurt,
and to state how far it was from theirs.”

Camping in the Snow:

“We halted to-day, again, on the deep snow in an opening of the wood, so that we had the clouds for a roof. It snowed without intermission in the evening and during the night, yet every one felt satisfied and cheerful, owing to the clever management of the Tunguzes. The moment they alight at a halting-place they unload the reindeer, and lay the saddles and luggage together in good order; the bridles, too, are collected, and hung up on the bough of a tree. In a few minutes the hungry herd disappears in the forest, and a feeling of loneliness then takes possession of the traveller! The men who went out with the axe now drag two large stems of larch to the encampment. The small twigs are cut off, and gathered on the snow (which is cleared away roughly from the fire-place alone) to serve for straw. They then cut from the inside of the thick trunk, some resinous and dry chips, and soon light them with their tinder and sulphur. … The kettle is filled with snow, and hung from a strong branch, which, fixed in the ground on the windward side, leans obliquely over the fire. All this is done in a few minutes, for the Tunguzes proceed in exactly the same order every evening, and their habitual activity seems to
be increased on these occasions, and to be guided effectively by some involuntary impulse. …

“Our drivers then made seats and sleeping-places with the collected twigs and the reindeer saddles, and for me, with the Tuphyak, or Tatar curious, which each of us carried rolled up under his luggage. We then set ourselves close to the fire, and took no further notice of the falling snow, for the warm current of air melted it, or carried the flakes away. Thus we took our supper in the best possible humour, and amused ourselves with watching the flames, the gleam of which fell sometimes on gigantic logs, sometimes on dazzling heaps of snow. The Tunguzes showed themselves here, as elsewhere, extremely agreeable by their wit and sprightliness. Unlike the other Siberian races, they are always inclined to laugh, and, on every topic, seize readily the point of view that suits their humour. To-day, they admitted fully the advantages of the art of writing, as I read to them from my journal some Tunguzian words which I had learned on previous occasions.

“But they were particularly taken with a playful turn which accident gave to this occupation; for, as we read the word khodya^, which signifies to dance, it came into my head to connect it with a subject, making with it either a literal or figurative sense. It was remarkable how quickly and keenly the Tunguzes entered into my views. The first who divined my meaning explained it to the others with loud applause. They then amused themselves with giving different turns to the expression, and repeated with comic solemnity, and as if they were the words of a song, the phrases, “The Tunguzes dance, the reindeer dance, the stars, the snow, the fire, the fox, the squirrel, &c., dance!”

“After so auspicious an introduction, I took care to mention the ballad which we had learned in our encampment at Tungor, and it was to be seen immediately that this was known, and was a favourite here also. As I read it over, my hearers repeated each verse with joyful amazement, and it was not till I had finished that one of them said to the Eosak, in Yakutian, that a part of it required some change, and he furnished, at once, the necessary corrections. …

“Unfortunately, I was unable to get a literal translation of this ballad, for our attendant, after explabing the last line, added, “The rest cannot be translated into Yakutian;” which may possibly have been true enough, considering his imperfect acquaintance with this language. I obtained, however, in reply to numerous questions, the following information respecting its origin and general purport. It is now in the mouths of all the women,
but was sung, in the first instance, by a Tunguzian maid, who had fallen in love with a Koniora Kapitän, that is, an officer or clerk in the counting-house of the American Trading Company. He had, at first, responded to her attachment, but afterwards refused to take her with him, and both these circumstances are stated in the song. Probably the Russian who has thus acquired so unexpected and undeserved a celebrity, was the master of a
ship, and the girl one of the coast Tunguzes, for it is said in the song, ” Let me look once more at the compass.” The deserted damsel afterwards lived in the town, as my companions related, and married a gypsy who was banished from Russia to Okhotsk. To my question respecting the time when all this happened, one cried out, ” Very long ago,” while others maintained that the poetess might perhaps still be found in Okhotsk.* …

I ventured, here, to ask some questions respecting the religious opinions of the Tunguzes, but learned little more than that they have always, and, as well as the Russians, believed in it God, whom they name Hanki. Moreover, they have always “prayed in their own manner,” and they denote their prayers by the same term, nungdleriy which they apply to the Russian rite of making the sign of the cross. They were far more communicative, and better pleased, when I asked them to show me the Tunguzian dance, and for this treat I had been taught by my
former attendants to look forward to the yurt of the Yudoma. We went before the door, to a clear spot between the poplars. Then eight men took one another’s hands, made a ring, and kept moving in it, sometimes from left to right, sometimes in the opposite direction. They went, at first, by steps, then jumping, and at last squatting on their heels, and ejaculated, at the same time, very rapidly, and as if out of breath, the following dissyllables, which begin, collectively, with an aspiration: —Khodya, Hurya, Hknga, Honka, Hundi …

“The women’s dance was then exhibited to us by the two ladies of the yurt, and some men, who assumed the place of women; but they took care to inform us that this was never done when the dance was regularly performed. They formed, in like manner, a ring, but so that each laid her hands on the shoulders of her neighbour; they hung down their heads at the same time, and endeavoured to hide them completely in the middle of the ring. They then moved in the same manner as the men, only always by steps, and called out the word nurgen, alternately, with an inarticulate, extremely singular cry, resembling the squeaking of mice, or of a young pig.


“I have not yet mentioned that here, with the Tunguzes of the Aldan mountains, as among the Kamchadales also, the paper money of the Russians is either unknown or quite valueless, instead of it, they demand, in payment of all the services which they rendered us with their, reindeer, sukhari (or biscuit bread,) and butter; and I had only to fear that the diminution of my stock of provisions might oblige me to be very economical in the use of this new kind of coin. …

“They are the last in the direction of Okhotsk who possess an entire herd of reindeer, and, therefore, we needed their assistance to enable us to continue the journey. I remarked on this occasion, as I had previously done in Ketanda, that the fishing Tunguzes, in consequence of the bartering trade, which the nature and position of their summer abodes lead them to engage in, and of their more frequent intercourse with the Russians, are more quick-witted, and, at the same time, less generous than their fellow-countrymen in the mountains. They take more pains, too, than the latter to learn Russian words, and I was able to make myself understood to some of them without an interpreter. …

Chukchi family by Louis Choris (1816)

“The men here, asked, also, much more urgently and eagerly after a number of European productions. … Then they demanded snuff, which, like the Russian Siberians, they call proskki, or dust; and they particularly wished to get hold of my brass pocket compass, which they supposed to be a snuff-box. They could not comprehend how, with such a quantity of things, I should yet be without any of the articles which the Russian merchants bring with them in summer. They asked for needles, for powder and lead, for tobacco, or for a looking-glass, at least. They begged hardest, however, for flints, and this they did even after (yielding to the all-powerful temptation,) they had unscrewed and appropriated, as I subsequently discovered, the three flints which were in my firearms. Although I was obliged to deny all their prayers, and to allege my poverty, we still continued the best friends, and the sprightly humour of the Tunguzes still shone more brilliantly than ever.”

EvX: Well, that’s the end of our adventure across Siberia. I’m thinking of reading something set somewhere warmer next; any recommendations?

Not quite Forgotten Treasures: Part 2, Cahokia

Illustration of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.

The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.

The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:

Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact.[5] Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …

Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert,[13] and whelk shells.

Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.[14]Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade.[15]

Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”.[16] an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area.[17] Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak,[citation needed] with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.[18]

Monk’s Mound, Cahokia

Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:

To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.”[4]

Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha).[24] It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth.[14] The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.[24]

Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.

Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).

A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.

Reconstructed piece from Etowah Indian Mounds, Georgia

The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.

The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:

a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts.[1] Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE.[2] Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.

Woodhenge, Cahokia

If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.

Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:

A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….

A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform.[6] Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.[11]

In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting.[4][6][8] The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit.[11] Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …

Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made.[4] This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones.[6] The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.”[4] The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting .[6] Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.[4]

Lovely people.

Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:

Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents.[14] Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem.[15] After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …[14]

Artsist’s conception of Watson Brake

Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:

  1. Earthen pyramids or mounds
  2. The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
  3. Shell-tempered pottery
  4. Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
  5. Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
  6. A particular style of art and artifacts, reflecting Mississippian religious beliefs and lifestyles

Though Cahokia itself was abandoned around 1300 AD, Early European explorers such as Hernando de Soto encountered other Mississippian peoples and made records of them:

De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.

But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.

Forgotten Treasures pt 1: The Indian city of Etzanoa

“Early Native Americans created mounds along ridges in some parts of Kansas. This one, located in Rice County, shows a 160-foot serpent with a ball in its mouth.” Source: The Wichita Eagle

In 1601, conquistador Conquistador Juan de Onate set off from the Spanish colony of Nuevo Mexico in search of Quivira, the “City of Gold.” It seems wherever the Spanish went, they were always promised a city of gold, just over the next hill–a city that never materialized. The golden pueblos turned out to be adobe walls shining in the sun. Coronado trekked nearly a thousand miles into the Great Plains in search of a city where golden cups hung from the trees, before finding the small, thatched huts and cornfields of the Wichita people.

Onate had more success than Coronado–he found the Etzanoa, a city of some 12,000 to 20,000 people, located at the confluence of two rivers. He decided his expedition–which by then contained only 70 soldiers–was sorely outnumbered and decided to head home.

Europeans would not return to the area until 1724, when Etienne Bourgmont led an expedition from the French colony of Fort Orleans. Bourgmont found a city–but no Wichita. They had been driven out by the Apache, cousins of the Navajo who, upon receiving horses from the Spaniards, had become fierce raiders of the Plains. And even they were driven out, in turn, by an even fiercer tribe: the Comanche.

The French had little interest in the area, and by the time American settlers arrived, the city of Etzanoa had long-since disappeared, its entire existence reduced to obscure debate among historians and archaeologists.

Now it has been found, in Arkansas City, Kansas, (there’s a confusingly named town,) at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut Rivers:

Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University, has found evidence of a massive town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers. What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school kid, of a half-inch iron cannon ball.

He even found a still-functional water shrine, depicting communication with the spirit world, carved into a limestone boulder in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard. …

[The people of Etzanoa] and their Wichita cousins in Quivira, in Rice County, built a trade network with ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. They strapped 50-pound packages of dried meat and hides to themselves and their pack dogs, and walked 550 miles to the Pueblos. They’d then walk back, bringing home cotton fabric, obsidian and turquoise.

They had no horses. The women and children likely helped hunt bison, Blakeslee said, forming lines and waving hide blankets while driving bison toward warriors carrying bows and arrows. “Think of the courage that took,” Blakeslee said.

They cultivated beans, maize (corn), pumpkin and squash. They slaughtered bison meat and hides on an industrial scale. The men likely scouted, walking miles a day, shadowing herds.”

According to Wikipedia:

The ancestors of the Wichita have lived in the eastern Great Plains from the Red River north to Nebraska for at least 2,000 years.[3] Early Wichita people were hunters and gatherers who gradually adopted agriculture. Farming villages began to appear about 900 CE on terraces above the Washita and South Canadian Rivers in Oklahoma. These 10th century communities cultivated maize, beans, squash, marsh elder (Iva annua), and tobacco. They also hunted deer, rabbits, turkey, and, increasingly, bison, and caught fish and collected mussels in the rivers. These villagers lived in rectangular, thatched-roof houses.[4] Archaeologists describe the Washita River Phase from 1250 to 1450, when local populations grew and villages of up to 20 houses were spaced every two or so miles along the rivers.[4] These farmers may have had contact with the Panhandle culture villages in the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, Farming villages along the Canadian River. The Panhandle villagers showed signs of adopting cultural characteristics of the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande Valley.[5]

Structures called “council circles” were excavated in prehistoric Wichita sites. Archaeological excavations have suggested they consist of a central patio surrounded by four semi-subterranean structures. The function of the council circles is unclear. Archaeologist Waldo Wedel suggested in 1967 that they may be ceremonial structures, possibly associated with solstice observations.[6] Recent analysis suggests that many non-local artifacts occur exclusively or primarily within council circles, implying the structures were occupied by political or religious leaders of Great Bend aspect peoples.[7] Other archaeologists leave open the possibility that the council circle earthen works served a defensive role.[8]

Numerous archaeological sites in central Kansas near the Great Bend of the Arkansas River share common traits and are collectively known as the “Great Bend aspect.” Radiocarbon dates from these sites range from 1450 to 1700 CE. Great Bend aspect sites are generally accepted as ancestral to the Wichita peoples described by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and other early European explorers. The discovery of limited quantities of European artifacts, such as chain mail and iron axe heads at several Great Bend sites, suggests contact with early Spanish explorers.[9]

The centuries have not been kind to the Wichita. Decimated by war and disease, they now number only about 2,500 people:

The Wichita had a large population in the time of Coronado and Oñate. One scholar estimates their numbers at 200,000.[27] Certainly they numbered in the tens of thousands. They appeared to be much reduced by the time of the first French contacts with them in 1719, probably due in large part to epidemics of infectious disease to which they had no immunity. In 1790, it was estimated there were about 3,200 total Wichita. By 1868, the population was recorded as being 572 total Wichita. By the time of the census of 1937, there were only 100 Wichita officially left.

Today, there are 2,501 enrolled Wichitas, 1,884 of whom live in the state of Oklahoma. Enrollment in the tribe requires a minimum blood quantum of 1/32.[1]

For nearly 400 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, most–if not most–of the territory in the Americas was still occupied primarily by Indians. There’s a lot of history there, much of it yet to be discovered.

There’s been a lot of controversy and animosity over the years between archaeologists and Native American tribes, but I hope for everyone’s sakes that the lost city of Etzanoa can become a monument to both.

Anthropology Friday: Yakuts part 2

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia by Adolf Erman. Today we’re continuing with Erman’s observations of the Yakut people of northeast Russia.

Note: While we Americans tend to think of all of Russia east of Moscow as “Siberia,” apparently Siberia is also specific province in Russia as well as a general geographic region. The Yakuts live in a province known as Yakutia or Sakha, which is still in “Siberia the really cold part of the world” but directly to the east of “The Siberian Federal District of Russia.” I don’t know if this is a distinction people actually care about.

Back to Erman:

Church in Yakutsk

“April 8 to 22. — On the plain, north of the Lena, a churchyard marked the commencement of the town [Yakutsk]…The streets succeeding are the most singular that I have ever seen in Siberia, for between structures of European aspect stand the winter yurts of the northern nomades, with their walls of cow-dung, earthen roofs, doors covered with hairy hides, and windows of ice; and among these yurts again, are the frames of the conical summer tents. The bright snow only is spread uniformly over all this, and after a little time there is perceived one pervading design among the heterogeneous elements. The Russian houses are placed forwards to the street, often at considerable distances asunder, but connected in that case by boarded fences, which surround their yards. These extend back to a good distance from the street, and it is in them that the yurts of the Yakuts are seen intermingled with modern buildings, like remains of the original vegetation allowed to stand in cultivated grounds. …

“I was here assured on all sides that frozen earth is found near the surface at every season of the year, and that the same condition of the ground continues to the greatest depth hitherto reached. There was now before my eyes an experiment on a large scale, and quite conclusive, in confirmation of this statement. [An account follows of an attempted well dug into the permafrost]”

EvX: So the Yakut people live in the province of Yakutia whose capital is Yakutsk. According to Wikipedia:

“Its average winter temperature is −34 °C (−30 °F), which makes Yakutsk the coldest city of its size or greater in the world.[12]  … Yakutsk is the biggest city built on continuous permafrost, and most houses there are built on concrete piles. …

summers are warm (though rather short), with daily maximum temperatures occasionally exceeding +30 °C (86 °F),[7] making the seasonal temperature differences for the region the greatest in the world. The lowest temperature recorded in Yakutsk was −64.4 °C (−83.9 °F) on 5 February 1891 and the highest temperatures +38.4 °C (101.1 °F) on 17 July 2011 and +38.3 °C (100.9 °F) on 15 July 1943. The hottest month in records going back to 1834 has been July 1894 with a mean of +23.2 °C (73.8 °F)[14] and the coldest January 1900 which averaged −51.2 °C (−60.2 °F).[15]

Yakutsk is responsible for a fifth of the world’s production of diamonds,[7]

Modern Yakut people

“the Yakuts settled in the town are of essential importance to the general welfare. They receive from the merchants, on whose ground they erect their yurts and summer tents, flour, bread, and several other articles of Russian produce, and pay in return either by a certain stipulated service, or else they bind themselves to a kind of vassalage for a longer time. They are the merchants’ herdsmen and grooms, and are particularly expert in many little arts connected with the (here all-important) business of travelling. To effect the carriage of goods, or forward mercantile despatches, contracts are always made with some of the Yakuts of the town. These furnish the requisite number of horses and oxen from their own droves and herds, or with the help of their countrymen whom they meet on the way. They then go forth as carriers and servants; sometimes along with the traders who load the caravans, sometimes beforehand and alone, to the place of its destination. Russians are never sent from Yakutsk to the east or north. In the neighbourhood of the town, all loads are borne by Yakutian oxen, for greater distances by Yakutian horses; in certain quarters and seasons, reindeer also are employed to hear loads, and dogs to draw the nart.”


Distribution of Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages in the 17th century (hatching,) and today (solid).

“The Yukagirs and Chukchi bring also to these markets the skins of the, wild reindeer, which they kill in summer. Great herds of these shy animals break forth every year, about the breeding time, out of the forests in the south, and migrate, with unrestrainable haste, in a straight line to the naked plains near the sea. …

“Many of the Chückchi, at the fair of Nijnei Eoluimsk, relate that they, with others of their tribe, have crossed from East Cape to America, by the Gvösdev rocks in Behring’s Straits, and have brought back furs with them from thence. They tell the names of many places on the shores of the other continent, and their intercourse with the Americans is the more credible, as the language of the Chückchi at East Cape is found to be connected with that of the Aleutes at Eadjak. The merchants of Yakutsk believe such expeditions across the Northern Sea to be quite easy, and customary, for they themselves personally undertake, or cause to be executed, every year numerous journeys of the same kind, and of much greater extent than a trip across Behring’s Straits.”

EvX: The Chukchi people live way out on the far tip of Russia and the Kamchatka Peninsula.  an According to Wikipedia:

In prehistoric times, the Chukchi engaged in nomadic hunter gatherer modes of existence. In current times, there continue to be some elements of subsistence hunting, including that of polar bears,[7] marine mammals and reindeer. Beginning in the 1920s, the Soviets organized the economic activities of both coastal and inland Chukchi and eventually established 28 collectively run, state-owned enterprises in Chukotka. All of these were based on reindeer herding, with the addition of sea mammal hunting and walrus ivory carving in the coastal areas. Chukchi were educated in Soviet schools and today are almost 100% literate and fluent in the Russian language. Only a portion of them today work directly in reindeer herding or sea mammal hunting, and continue to live a nomadic lifestyle in yaranga tents.[8]

Their language belongs to a very small family with few remaining speakers that is obviously speculated to be related to nearby Aleut and Eskimo (Inuit) languages, but nothing has been proven conclusively. There are several other speculated language groups, of which the strangest (and thus most interesting) is Indo-European:

In a 2015 paper, Gerhard Jäger reported “intriguing” and “controversial” findings regarding Chukotko-Kamchatkan. Using a variant of mass lexical comparison, augmented by computational linguistic techniques, such as large-scale statistical analysis, to investigate “deep genetic relations between languages”, Jäger found evidence that Chukotko-Kamchatkan and the Indo-European languages had statistically-significant similarities with each other. On the whole, the similarities between the two families were greater than either shared with any other language family. This was the case even though Jäger factored in the possibility of language contact. The results were unaffected by the removal of similarities in phonology that were likely random coincidences – such as a “surprisingly high number” of resemblances in vocabulary between Chukotko-Kamchatkan and two Goidelic languages (namely Scottish Gaelic and Manx): according to Jäger, the confidence value of a notional “Indo-European/Chukotko-Kamchatkan clade”, when these “rogue taxa” were removed, fell only slightly, from 0.969 to a still statistically-significant 0.964.[5]

I’m not in the position to judge the validity of this. Back to Erman:

“It cannot escape notice that, as we go nearer to the coast, the deposits of wood below the earth, and also the deposit of bones which accompanies the wood, increase in extent and frequency. Here, beneath the soil of Yakutsk, the trunks of birch trees lie scattered only singly; but, on the other hand, they form such great and well-stored strata, under the tundras between the Yana and the Indigirka, that the Yukagirs there never think of using any other fuel than fossil wood. They obtain it on the shores of lakes, which are continually throwing up trunks of trees from the bottom. In the same proportion the search for ivory grows continually more certain and productive, from the banks of the lakes in the interior to the hills along the coast of the Icy Sea. …

“The main object of the expedition was to make a new assessment of the yasak or fur tribute for the several families and tribes of the indigenous population; and we were told that they were instructed by the government to deal with the people in the mildest possible manner. Yet they had been able to increase the yasak every where throughout the tracts occupied by the Yakuts and Tunguzes along the Upper Lena, as the number of inhabitants had increased there considerably during the last fifty years. It is said that the same result is obtained for all Siberia taken together, and that exceptions are to be found only in localities where endemic diseases prevail, as in the case of the Verkhovian Ostyaks.

“I heard on this occasion of a particular kind of numerical notation, invented during the present intercourse with the aboriginal tribes, and in which the new assessments were expressed and enjoined to the several communities, and the old accounts settled. It consisted of only six different figures, which represented furs to the value of 5 and 10 kopeks, and of 1, 10, 100, and 1000 roobles respectively. When the amount of the assessment was agreed on, it was written in these runes on paper, and then cut on wooden staves as permanent memorials, as the Ostyaks and Votyaks are accustomed to do in their private transactions. To the inhabitants of remote and secluded yurts this was obviously an event of great importance, and worthy to form an epoch in their history. The Yakuts celebrated it in extemporaneous songs, of which a Russian interpreter preserved this fragment: “The commission erected its throne with us for the good of all; receive it well, ye other tribes, that ye also may be dealt with wisely,” …

“No less peculiar is the food of these people; they all prefer horse flesh to beef, but are so careful of their cattle that none but the richest slaughter any regularly, the rest only on festivals and special occasions. At wedding feasts all the guests are treated with beef, and the bride serves up to her future lord a boiled horse’s head, garnished with a kind of sausage made of horse flesh. Far more important to the majority of the Yakuts is the milk of their cows and mares. In summer they have the greatest abundance of it, and then they use it unmixed in making many dishes. For winter they keep a stock of milk in vessels of birch bark, and with a certain quantity of it, thinned with water, and some vegetable substances, they make their daily porridge. It is only in the neighbourhood of the Russians that they can procure flour for this purpose; in the remoter yurts, the under bark of the fir and larch supplies the ordinary material of bread. This is pounded in a mortar, made, like the walls of the yurts themselves, of cow-dung laid on basket work, and frozen hard.

“In June and July, when the mares foal, the Yakuts show themselves as skilful as the Bashkirs, Buraets, and other Siberian tribes, in the art of setting mare’s milk into the vinous fermentation. They then celebrate a religious thanksgiving and festival, at which the men empty off, at a single draught, immense wooden goblets of these intoxicating drinks. The women are, on these occasions, obliged to content themselves with the intoxication of tobacco fumes. There are some, also, who distil the sour milk, as is done by the Buraets, in an iron kettle; which, in order to collect the vapours driven off, is covered with a board, and provided with a wooden tube passing under water. The Yakutian name, aruiguiy designates both this national spirit and Russian brandy.”

EvX: The only problem with a diet based largely on mare’s milk is that Siberians aren’t particularly lactose tolerant, and mare’s milk has 40% more lactose than cow’s milk. (Ancient Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro recommended using mare’s milk as a laxative.) The obvious solution is fermentation, which removes the offending sugars and makes the milk mildly alcoholic. The resulting beverage is called kumis, and popular throughout the nomadic Asian world.

The website Discover Tuva: Traditional Cuisine provides an interesting description of kumis’s distillation into a stronger liquor:

Araka (araga) is a milk vodka. One of the national drinks which is worth trying at least once in lifetime. To make araka a hooch still is used – a unique invention of Tuvan mind, so called shuuruun: it is a poplar stem with removed pith, fixed with stones right in a vessel, on the top – a jar with cold water which condensates alcohol, tube cracks are wrapped around with felt. During boiling the drink called “shimi aragazy” comes out of the shuuruun by a special gutter. There is not a lot of alcohol there – about 20%. To get stronger vodka it is distilled second time until 70-80 degrees. Such vodka is called “dan” (“dawn”).

Back to Erman:

“Although the Yakuts are considerably inferior in civilization to the Buddhistic Buraets, yet they possess, in many respects, extraordinary cleverness and knowledge. They have the appearance, rather, of a people who have grown wild, than of a thoroughly and originally rude race. Their skilful management of the deer-skin, and their expertness in ornamental sewing, are conspicuous in every article of their clothing, and in many details of Yakutian house-keeping, to be mentioned hereafter. …  Some productions of Yakutian industry are purchased by the Russians, and sent into Europe, particularly floor-cloths of white and coloured felts, which are cut into narrow pieces, and then tastefully and symmetrically sewed together, like mosaic. It is a still weightier circumstance that these people have been able, from the earliest times, to procure themselves certain metals, and have known how to work them. …

“The Yakutian steel is easily distinguished from the Russian, by its being somewhat flexible; and yet blades made of it will cut copper and pewter as easily as the best European blades. The wooden handle of the knife is always ornamented, after the original fashion, with tin work; from which it is evident that they procured the materials from Nerchinsk, before the Russians knew any thing of the metals in that quarter. They cut figures in the wood, and cast the tin into the hollow; a large knob of the metal left at the top of the knife-handle, is then shaped with the chisel. The sheaths of these Yakutian daggers are made of birch bark, and covered with black leather, on which, again, are metal mountings, with straight-lined patterns engraved on them. …

“Their yellow complexion, the sharp lines of their faces, which express indolent and amiable gentleness rather than vigour and passion, their pitch-black hair, also, which the men wear cut close, all reminded me of the Tatars of Western Siberia. The Yakutian women look much more lively and cheerful than the men; they are often very beautifully formed, have regular features and sparkling black eyes…

“The teachers in the schools in Yakutsk, informed me that in their Yakutian scholars was to be remarked a singular aptitude for mechanical arts; but that, on the other hand, it was vain to think of teaching them arithmetic, or any such logical acquirements. Other Russians, who were as well acquainted with the language of the Yakuts as with their own, told me that the songs of those people often contain very remarkable passages of a character which we should call romantic. Thus, they assume that ”the trees of the forest hold discourse with one another; and other inanimate things with men.” These poetic fantasies pass away, for the most part, just as they arise, for whether on a journey, or in cheerful humour at home, every one sings the new impressions made on him at the moment, by the objects around him. They have for that purpose a kind of song consisting of only two notes; these are repeated frequently in such a way that the higher note follows the lower till towards the end of each part or verse, when their order is reversed. The whole air sounds so melancholy, that I often thought that I heard some one in the town wailing aloud, when, in fact, it was only the extemporaneous song of tbe Yakuts. It is not unlikely that my occupations have lived for the moment in Yakutian verses.

“The men inhabiting the yurts near our residence, used to come every night to the yard, to observe the use made of the transit instrument, [an astronomical measuring device] … They were of opinion that I was reckoning the stars, and wrote down each of them in the account; that, in fact, a star had been lost in St. Petersburg, and I had been sent to try whether it could be found again in any part of the earth. This story spread through the town, in the first instance, so generally, that even Russians asked me whether it was well founded; it then made its way over the country, even as far as the Tunguzes.”


“In the neighbourhood of the Russians, the original good nature of the Yakuts has been adulterated with a great deal of vanity, and some covetousness. Crimes, though still rare among them, are no longer quite unheard of. When I was staying in the town, a man was murdered in the street, while returning to a yurt in the neighbourhood. Another Yakut came forward to say that he had found the dead body, but the day after he confessed that he was the murderer, and that his sole object was to get the dead man’s money. …

Yakut summer house

“There, in a cleared spot of the wood, stand four winter yurts; close by are some paddocks fenced in, to keep the cattle together in summer, and a frame of a tent, which is likewise used only in the warm season. It is formed of a number of poles, about twenty feet
long, which are united at the top into a roomy cone. … Here the people were, in fact, repairing a roof of this kind. It was made of quadrangular pieces of bright yellow and perfectly flexible bark, which was not merely joined together, but was very handsomely worked along the seam with horsehair thread.

“From Talbuiyakhtatsk, we again went on through a hilly
country, covered with a thick forest of larch. … In hollows of this kind, lie the yurts of Tegulinsk and of Chasnigyisk, the former of
which we reached about seven in the evening, and the latter at midnight. Here, too, the winter habitations have ice windows, the log walls are caulked, as it were, with cow-dung, and flanked with walls of earth to the height of the windows. The flat roof is covered over with earth, and on the east side prolonged with boards over the door. …

“The winter cow-house is under the same roof with the yurt. It is always larger than this, but has much thinner walls. The life led in these yurts is very comfortable, although a stranger in them would suppose, from the smell, that he was in a cowhouse. There is at all times a blazing fire in the hearth, which is made of beaten earth, and upright logs of larch wood throw out, with a peculiar crackling, showers of sparks to the roof. There were always some calves in the yurt, tied to the posts near the fire, while the cows cast a contented look through the open cow-house door, at the back of the fire-place. There, too, are the sleeping-places of the people, which, in the poorer yurts, are made only by a continuation of the straw from the cowhouse. During the evening, all the inmates of the yurt, men and women, sit round the fire on low stools, and smoke, with their little pipes, a mixture of wood shavings and tobacco. …

“In the woods between these places, I remarked for the first time, a singular custom of the nomadic Yakuts. At different points on the road the trees were to be seen hung thick with horse-hair, and my driver assured me that every horseman who passed by was sure to add more or less to this strange store. … Our Yakut attendant said further, in reply to our inquiries—and, indeed, all his answers in similar matters were much to the same effect — that it was done in compliance with ancient custom, and that he knew no other reason for it. Yet the religious bearing of this custom appears at once from its name, which signifies a propitiation for the JAeshi or Spirit of the
Woods, as the Eosaks explain it. …

“One of the elder [Yakut] children, which was running about with the others, was afflicted with a remarkable and formidable-looking eruption. The left side of its body exhibited a wound about an inch wide, which had extended, herpetically, from the head perpendicularly down to the middle of the body. On the parts affected, the upper skin seemed totally destroyed, and instead of it there was only to be seen the blood-red flesh. The parents, when I asked them about this malady, seemed to lode upon it as a usual and ordinary matter; and in truth I subsequently saw many cases of it among the Yakuts, but chiefly in children.”

EvX: I’m glad I live in the age of modern medicine.  Our author also makes an account of goiters, which afflicted the Russians in the area around Lake Baikal rather severely:


“In the villages of Rijnaya and Turutskaya, (sixty and ninety- four versts, respectively from Sokninsk,) goitres were still more frequent than hitherto. I saw them today on several men also; in the valley higher up, the disease seemed to be confined almost exclusively to women. The sufferers here had also a bluish complexion, with projecting eyes, and a staring, imbecile look. In Turutsk I asked an exile, who was the only healthy-looking inhabitant of the place, how he had protected himself from goitre; and received for answer, that adults arriving from Europe were never attacked by the disease; that “the goitre was born with the children of the natives, and grew up with the man.” …

“When we find in the valley of the Lena, from Petrovsk to Dnbrova, goitres so far advanced that cretinism, in conformity with Fodera’s experience, must speedily ensue, — though inter-marriage with ‘newly-arrived convicts, or with the Tunguzes, may help to check the development of the disease… ”

That’s all for today; see you next Friday.


Who Built Stonehenge? Bell Beakers and Neolithic Burials

Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge from the Atlas van Loon

Stonehenge remains one of the world’s enduring mysteries. Who carved these enormous stones, moved them hundreds of miles, and erected them upon Salisbury plain–and why?

Archaeologists estimate that the first major construction began at Stonehenge around 3,100 BC, when workers dug a large, circular ditch around the site and piled up the resulting dirt in a round bank. But the interesting part of this phase of construction is the third circle inside the first two, consisting of 56 graves, atop which bluestones may have once stood. The bones of deer and oxen were also placed in the surrounding ditch.

Were these sacrifices, or was Stonehenge originally just a cemetery, perhaps for the community’s most important members?

The second stage in Stonehenge’s development, from about 3,000 BC to 2,600 BC, involved the building of wooden structures and further burials. Interestingly, Neolithic grooved ware pottery is associated with this stage.

Grooved ware pottery appears to have been developed way off in the remote, cold, wind-swept Orkney Islands at the tip of Scotland. I’ve written about the Orkneys before, because they also have significant Neolithic sites, including–most relevant to our conversation–the Ring of Brodgar:

The Ring of Brodgar… is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites.[1] … These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain.[2] Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle,[3] but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may have been present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.[4]

The idea that anyone built anything major way off in the Orkneys, which definitely did not support the kind of comfortable, sedentary population that the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus, is remarkable enough. That they built something comparable to Stonehenge and Avebury is incredible, and that a pottery style which appears to have begun in Orkney spread to Britain and Ireland almost defies belief. Surely Orkney lacked the population to man the kind of migrations necessary to impose their pots on others, but perhaps Orkney was some kind of Neolithic cultural leader, perhaps a sacred place people journeyed to from across the seas–or perhaps the people of Orkney traded their pots for products not found locally, their style became popular, and folks in different areas began making their own versions.

But Avebury, Stonehenge, and Brogdar weren’t the only Stone Circles:

The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages.[2] It has been estimated that around 4,000 of these monuments were originally constructed in this part of north-western Europe during this period,[2] although only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.[3]

Around 2,600 BC, Stonehenge entered its 3rd building phase, involving the erection of some 80 large stones in two concentric circles (“Q” and “R”) near the center of the enclosure. These 2-ton stones were transported 150 miles from a quarry in the Preseli Hills, (modern-day Pembrokeshire in Wales.) According to Wikipedia:

This phase tentatively began as early as 2600 BC, although recent radiocarbon dates from samples retrieved from one of the sockets in 2008 during excavations by Darvill and Wainwright suggest a date of around 2400 to 2300 BC. The final report is yet to be published, but some interesting results follow from the partial excavation of Q Hole 13 where ‘associations with Beaker pottery’ were noted.[1]

The Q and R Holes not only represent the foundation cuts for the first central stone construction, but they also were to include several additional stone settings on the northeast. This modified group face the midsummer sunrise with a possible reciprocal stone aligned on the midwinter sunset. This is the first evidence for any unambiguous alignment at Stonehenge (the solstice axis). … the dates suggested from the 2008 excavation (above) implies the Q & R arrays were perhaps no earlier than 2,400 BC, presenting a challenge to the recently accepted Late Neolithic date for the construction of the iconic sarsen monument. …

Now this is really interesting. The original proliferation of these circles is associated with the neolithic Groved Ware Pottery people. They tended to build chambered tombs and to dig large circular ditches and banks accompanied by human burials. They may have marked these graves with large stones.

Reconstruction of a Beaker burial, (National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid)

Then a new kind of pottery shows up, the Beakers. The Bell Beaker pottery arrived in Britain around 2,500 BC, and around that time a new, significant phase in the construction of these sites begins. Large numbers of extremely heavy stones were brought in and the original north-eastern entrance was widened so that it matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Additionally, a road appears to have been built Stonehenge and the River Avon between 2600 and 1700 BCE, perhaps a delivery route for supplies that had been floated down the river. The road is partially aligned with the summer solstice, and ends at another stone circle.

So where the Grooved Ware People perhaps had some kind of cult of the dead, or at least put a lot of effort into constructing fancy burial monuments for their dead, the Bell Beaker people appear to have been really interested in solar alignments.

According to BellBeakerBlogger, even Bell Beaker burials reflect this solar interest:

All burials exhibit similarities that are central to Beaker culture or Beaker-ized people. They are usually flexed, individual burials within a plot, cemetery or larger complex. Men and women face the rising Sun, which along with other information, indicates a religious belief with emphasis on a solar deity.

The sequence of events that occurred at Stonehenge also appears to have happened at Avebury:

The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument, but is the result of various projects that were undertaken at different times during late prehistory.[19]Aubrey Burl suggests dates of 3000 BC for the central cove, 2900 BC for the inner stone circle, 2600 BC for the outer circle and henge, and around 2400 BC for the avenues.[1]

Avebury was one of a group of monumental sites that were established in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments comprise the henge and associated long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types are not exclusive to the Avebury area. For example, Stonehenge features the same kinds of monuments, and in Dorset there is a henge on the edge of Dorchester and a causewayed enclosure at nearby Maiden Castle.[20]

Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson noted that the addition of the stones to the henge occurred at a similar date to the construction of Silbury Hill and the major building projects at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. For this reason, he speculated that there may have been a “religious revival” at the time, which led to huge amounts of resources being expended on the construction of ceremonial monuments.[21]

Religious revival, or triumphant victory celebration?

Work continued at Stonehenge over the next two hundred years, from about 2,600 BC through 2,400 BC, during which the monument’s enormous, central stones were erected. These rocks weigh between 25 and 50 tons each. This was an enormous undertaking that must have required hundreds of people just to move each stone and lift it into place.

Bell beaker pots

“Pots, not people,” is one of archaeology’s most famous maxims, an exhortion to regard a change in material artifacts–say, new pots–as simply a result of local cultural change, trade, or diffusion, rather than the arrival of an entirely new people. The Pots not People reading of the transition from Neolithic Grooved Ware to Copper Age Bell Beakers is simply that people invented new pots (and the technology to work metals.)

In the case of the Corded Ware people, this turned out to be wrong–the Corded Ware People turned out to be the Yamnaya, AKA the Indo-Europeans, who boiled out of the Ukrainian steppe around 4,000 BC, and by 500 BC had conquered almost all of Europe, Iran, Turkey, India, etc. They contributed significantly to the modern European gene pool, especially in eastern Europe.

Arout 3,000 BC, the Bell Beaker culture, named for its distinctively bell-shaped pots, began appearing in Western Europe. The pots didn’t spread smoothly across the continent, but were concentrated along Atlantic and Mediterranean river valleys:

Radiocarbon dating seems to support that the earliest “Maritime” Bell Beaker design style is encountered in Iberia, specifically in the vibrant copper-using communities of the Tagus estuary in Portugal around 2800-2700 BC and spread from there to many parts of western Europe.[2][12]

The initial moves from the Tagus estuary were maritime. A southern move led to the Mediterranean where ‘enclaves’ were established in south-western Spain and southern France around the Golfe du Lion and into the Po valley in Italy, probably via ancient western Alpine trade routes used to distribute jadeite axes. A northern move incorporated the southern coast of Armorica. The enclave established in southern Brittany was linked closely to the riverine and landward route, via the Loire, and across the Gâtinais valley to the Seine valley, and thence to the lower Rhine. This was a long-established route reflected in early stone axe distributions and it was via this network that Maritime Bell Beakers first reached the Lower Rhine in about 2600 BC.[2][19]

Another pulse had brought Bell Beaker to Csepel Island in Hungary by about 2500 BC. … From the Carpathian Basin Bell Beaker spread down the Rhine and eastwards into what is now Germany and Poland. By this time the Rhine was on the western edge of the vast Corded Ware zone. … A review in 2014 revealed that single burial, communal burial and reuse of Neolithic burial sites are found throughout the Bell Beaker zone.[23]

… The earliest copper production in Ireland, identified at Ross Island in the period 2400-2200 BC, was associated with early Beaker pottery.[2][27] …The same technologies were used in the Tagus region and in the west and south of France.[2][28] The evidence is sufficient to support the suggestion that the initial spread of Maritime Bell Beakers along the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using sea routes that had long been in operation, was directly associated with the quest for copper and other rare raw materials.[2]

spread of bell beaker pottery

The Bell Beakers reached Britain around 2,500 BC.

Unfortunately, the Bell Beaker people didn’t leave any written records, so we don’t know what language they spoke. Were they Indo-Europeans? Moroccans? Did they conquer river valleys across Western Europe, or just tried exchange their pots for local goods along long-established trade routs?

And are they responsible for the menhirs found across western Europe?:

A menhir … is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found solely as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably, but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. … they are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are about 50,000 megaliths in these areas,[2] while there are 1,200 menhirs in northwest France alone.[3] Standing stones are usually difficult to date, but pottery, and/or pottery shards found underneath some in Atlantic Europe connects them with the Beaker people. They were constructed during many different periods across pre-history as part of a larger megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.

Almost nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. There is not even any trace of these people’s language; however we do know that they buried their dead and had the skills to grow cereal, farm and make pottery, stone tools and jewelry. Identifying their uses remains speculative. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age — later third millennium BC, ca. 2800 – 1800 BC. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.[6]

(Sound familiar?)

Of the Beaker Culture of Ireland, Wikipedia states, in classic archaeologist style:

The ‘bronze halberd’ (not to be confused with the medieval halberd) was a weapon in use in Ireland from around 2400-2000 BC[71] They are essentially broad blades that were mounted horizontally on a meter long handle, giving greater reach and impact than any known contemporary weapon (O’Flaherty 2007). They were subsequently widely adopted in other parts of Europe (Schuhmacher 2002), possibly showing a change in the technology of warfare.

Just a change in technology, definitely not evidence of people getting conquered.

On May 9, 2017, The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe was published on BioRxiv, finally providing some of the answers to our many questions:

We present new genome-wide ancient DNA data from 170 Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age Europeans, including 100 Beaker-associated individuals. In contrast to the Corded Ware Complex, which has previously been identified as arriving in central Europe following migration from the east, we observe limited genetic affinity between Iberian and central European Beaker Complex-associated individuals, and thus exclude migration as a significant mechanism of spread between these two regions.

In other words, the initial spread of Bell Beakers from Iberia to central Europe was primarily cultural–the people involved are not closely related.

However, human migration did have an important role in the further dissemination of the Beaker Complex, which we document most clearly in Britain using data from 80 newly reported individuals dating to 3900-1200 BCE. British Neolithic farmers were genetically similar to contemporary populations in continental Europe and in particular to Neolithic Iberians, suggesting that a portion of the farmer ancestry in Britain came from the Mediterranean rather than the Danubian route of farming expansion.

Stone-age Britons were genetically similar to stone-age Iberians.

Beginning with the Beaker period, and continuing through the Bronze Age, all British individuals harboured high proportions of Steppe ancestry and were genetically closely related to Beaker-associated individuals from the Lower Rhine area. We use these observations to show that the 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, continuing the process that brought Steppe ancestry into central and northern Europe 400 years earlier.

In other words: Bell Beaker pots s originally diffused culturally to the Rhine, where they were adopted by people with Indo-European steppe ancestry. These steppe people then conquered Britain, killing 90% of the stone-age inhabitants.

The victors appear to have gone on a building spree, repurposing neolithic monuments and dedicating them to their own deities, much as the Christian Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque following the Islamic conquest of Constantinople.

On a probably related note:

Durrington Walls is the site of a large Neolithic settlement and later henge enclosure located in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. It lies 2 miles (3.2 km) north-east of Stonehenge in the parish of Durrington, just north of Amesbury.

Between 2004 and 2006, excavations on the site by a team led by the University of Sheffield revealed seven houses. It has been suggested that the settlement may have originally had up to 1000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, if the entire enclosed area was used. The period of settlement was probably short, between 15 and 45 years starting sometime between 2525 and 2470 BC.[3]

It may have been the largest village in northern Europe for a brief period.[4][5][6] At 500 metres (1,600 ft) in diameter, the henge is the largest in Britain and recent evidence suggests that it was a complementary monument to Stonehenge.[7]

Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance at Durrington Walls. Why this sudden concentration of Neolithic pottery around the time of the Beaker invasion and rebuilding of Stonehenge? Were they captives brought to the area to work on the henge? Or a fortified refuge holding out against the invaders?

By the Iron Age, circa 1,600 BC, Stonehenge had largely fallen out of use, or at least new construction had halted. This was long before the arrival of the Celts in Britain, around 500 BC, so whether the Druids ever made use of Stonehenge as a sacred site or not, they certainly didn’t build it.


Additional sources:

Nature: Ancient-genome study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain

Sarkboros: Bell Beakers and the North African Late Neolithic, on potential Bell Beaker origins in Morocco

Razib Khan: The coming of the Milesians: abstract of “The Bell Beaker Paper”

Recent Discoveries in Human Evolution: H. Sapiens 300,000 years old?

Welcome back to our discussion of recent exciting advances in our knowledge of human evolution:

  • Ancient hominins in the US?
  • Homo naledi
  • Homo flores
  • Humans evolved in Europe?
  • In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  • then to 300,000 years!
  • Bell beaker paper

As we’ve been discussing for the past couple of weeks, the exact dividing line between “human” and “non-human” isn’t always hard and fast. The very first Homo species, such as Homo habilis, undoubtedly had more in common with its immediate Australopithecine ancestors than with today’s modern humans, 3 million years later, but that doesn’t mean these dividing lines are meaningless. Homo sapiens and Homo neandethalensis, while considered different species, interbred and produced fertile offspring (most non-Africans have 3-5% Neanderthal DNA as a result of these pairings;) by contrast, humans and chimps cannot produce fertile offspring, because humans and chimps have a different number of chromosomes. The genetic distance between the two groups is just too far.

Oldowan tool

The grouping of ancient individuals into Homo or not-Homo, Erectus or Habilis, Sapiens or not, is partly based on physical morphology–what they looked like, how they moved–and partly based on culture, such as the ability to make tools or control fire. While australopithecines made some stone tools (and chimps can make tools out of twigs to retrieve tasty termites from nests,) Homo habilis (“handy man”) was the first to master the art and produce large numbers of more sophisticated tools for different purposes, such as this Oldowan chopper.

But we also group species based on moral or political beliefs–scientists generally believe it would be immoral to say that different modern human groups belong to different species, and so the date when Homo ergaster transforms into Homo sapiens is dependent on the date when the most divergent human groups alive today split apart–no one wants to come up with a finding that will get trumpeted in media as “Scientists Prove Pygmies aren’t Human!” (Pygmies already have enough problems, what with their immediate neighbors actually thinking they aren’t human and using their organs for magic rituals.)

(Of course they would still be Human even if they part of an ancient lineage.)

But if an ecologically-minded space alien arrived on earth back in 1490 and was charged with documenting terrestrial species, it might easily decide–based on morphology, culture, and physical distribution–that there were several different Homo “species” which all deserve to be preserved.

But we are not space aliens, and we have the concerns of our own day.

So when a paper was published last year on archaic admixture in Pygmies and the Pygmy/Bushmen/everyone else split, West Hunter noted the authors used a fast–but discredited–estimate of mutation rate to avoid the claim that Pygmies split off 300,000 years ago, 100,000 years before the emergence of Homo sapiens:

There are a couple of recent papers on introgression from some quite divergent archaic population into Pygmies ( this also looks to be the case with Bushmen). Among other things, one of those papers discussed the time of the split between African farmers (Bantu) and Pygmies, as determined from whole-genome analysis and the mutation rate. They preferred to use the once-fashionable rate of 2.5 x 10-8 per-site per-generation (based on nothing), instead of the new pedigree-based estimate of about 1.2 x 10-8 (based on sequencing parents and child: new stuff in the kid is mutation). The old fast rate indicates that the split between Neanderthals and modern humans is much more recent than the age of early Neanderthal-looking skeletons, while the new slow rate fits the fossil record – so what’s to like about the fast rate? Thing is, using the slow rate, the split time between Pygmies and Bantu is ~300k years ago – long before any archaeological sign of behavioral modernity (however you define it) and well before the first known fossils of AMH (although that shouldn’t bother anyone, considering the raggedness of the fossil record).

This was a good catch. (Here is the relevant Dienekes article, plus Model-based analyses of whole-genome data reveal a complex evolutionary history involving archaic introgression in Central African Pygmies, and Whole-genome sequence analyses of Western Central African Pygmy hunter-gatherers reveal a complex demographic history and identify candidate genes under positive natural selection.) If the slow mutation rate matches the fossil record better than the fast, why use the fast–except if the fast gives you inconvenient results?

But now we have another finding, based on the Bushmen, which also pushes the Bushmen/everyone else split back further than 200,000 years–from BioRxiv, “Ancient genomes from southern Africa pushes modern human divergence beyond 260,000 years ago“:

Southern Africa is consistently placed as one of the potential regions for the evolution of Homo sapiens. To examine the region’s human prehistory prior to the arrival of migrants from East and West Africa or Eurasia in the last 1,700 years, we generated and analyzed genome sequence data from seven ancient individuals from KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Three Stone Age hunter-gatherers date to ~2,000 years ago, and we show that they were related to current-day southern San groups such as the Karretjie People. Four Iron Age farmers (300-500 years old) have genetic signatures similar to present day Bantu-speakers. The genome sequence (13x coverage) of a juvenile boy from Ballito Bay, who lived ~2,000 years ago, demonstrates that southern African Stone Age hunter-gatherers were not impacted by recent admixture; however, we estimate that all modern-day Khoekhoe and San groups have been influenced by 9-22% genetic admixture from East African/Eurasian pastoralist groups arriving >1,000 years ago, including the Ju|’hoansi San, previously thought to have very low levels of admixture. Using traditional and new approaches, we estimate the population divergence time between the Ballito Bay boy and other groups to beyond 260,000 years ago.

260,000 years! Looks like West Hunter was correct, and we should be looking at the earlier Pygmy divergence date, too.

Two days later, a paper from the opposite end of Africa appeared in Nature which–potentially–pushes H sapiens’s emergence to 300,000 years ago, “New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens“:

Fossil evidence points to an African origin of Homo sapiens from a group called either H. heidelbergensis or H. rhodesiensis. However, the exact place and time of emergence of H. sapiens remain obscure … In particular, it is unclear whether the present day ‘modern’ morphology rapidly emerged approximately 200 thousand years ago (ka) among earlier representatives of H. sapiens1 or evolved gradually over the last 400 thousand years2. Here we report newly discovered human fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and interpret the affinities of the hominins from this site with other archaic and recent human groups. We identified a mosaic of features including facial, mandibular and dental morphology that aligns the Jebel Irhoud material with early or recent anatomically modern humans and more primitive neurocranial and endocranial morphology. In combination with an age of 315 ± 34 thousand years (as determined by thermoluminescence dating)3, this evidence makes Jebel Irhoud the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the H. sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established.

Comparison of the skulls of a Jebel Irhoud human (left) and a modern human (right) (NHM London)

Hublin–one of the study’s coauthors–notes that between 330,000 and 300,000 years ago, the Sahara was green and animals could range freely across it.

While the Moroccan fossils do look like modern H sapiens, they also still look a lot like pre-sapiens, and the matter is still up for debate. Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer suggests that we should consider all of our ancestors after the Neanderthals split off to be Homo sapiens, which would make our species 500,000 years old. Others would undoubtedly prefer to use a more recent date, arguing that the physical and cultural differences between 500,000 year old humans and today’s people are too large to consider them one species.

According to the Atlantic:

[The Jebel Irhoud] people had very similar faces to today’s humans, albeit with slightly more prominent brows. But the backs of their heads were very different. Our skulls are rounded globes, but theirs were lower on the top and longer at the back. If you saw them face on, they could pass for a modern human. But they turned around, you’d be looking at a skull that’s closer to extinct hominids like Homo erectus. “Today, you wouldn’t be able to find anyone with a braincase that shape,” says Gunz.

Their brains, though already as large as ours, must also have been shaped differently. It seems that the size of the human brain had already been finalized 300,000 years ago, but its structure—and perhaps its abilities—were fine-tuned over the subsequent millennia of evolution.

No matter how we split it, these are exciting days in the field!