Recent Exciting Developments: 130kya American Hominins?

There has been SO MUCH EXCITING NEWS out of paleoanthropology/genetics lately, it’s been a little tricky keeping up with it all. I’ve been holding off on commenting on some of the recent developments to give myself time to think them over, but here goes:

  1. Ancient hominins in the US?
  2. Homo naledi
  3. Homo flores
  4. Humans evolved in Europe?
  5. In two days, first H Sap was pushed back to 260,000 years,
  6. then to 300,000 years!
  7. Bell beaker paper

1. Back in May (2017,) Holen et al published an article discussing A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA, in Nature:

Here we describe the Cerutti Mastodon (CM) site, an archaeological site from the early late Pleistocene epoch, where in situ hammerstones and stone anvils occur in spatio-temporal association with fragmentary remains of a single mastodon (Mammut americanum). The CM site contains spiral-fractured bone and molar fragments, indicating that breakage occured while fresh. Several of these fragments also preserve evidence of percussion. The occurrence and distribution of bone, molar and stone refits suggest that breakage occurred at the site of burial. Five large cobbles (hammerstones and anvils) in the CM bone bed display use-wear and impact marks, and are hydraulically anomalous relative to the low-energy context of the enclosing sandy silt stratum. 230Th/U radiometric analysis of multiple bone specimens using diffusion–adsorption–decay dating models indicates a burial date of 130.7 ± 9.4 thousand years ago. These findings confirm the presence of an unidentified species of Homo at the CM site during the last interglacial period (MIS 5e; early late Pleistocene), indicating that humans with manual dexterity and the experiential knowledge to use hammerstones and anvils processed mastodon limb bones for marrow extraction and/or raw material for tool production.

Reconstruction of a Homo erectus woman, Smithsonian

Note that “Homo” here is probably not H. sapiens, but a related or ancestral species, like Denisovans or Homo erectus, because as far as we know, H. sapiens was still living in Africa at the time.

This is obviously a highly controversial claim. Heck, “earliest human presence in the Americas” was already controversial, with some folks firmly camped at 15,000 years ago and others camped around 40,000 yeas ago. 130,000 years ago wasn’t even on the table.

Unfortunately, the article is paywalled, so I can’t read the whole thing and answer simple questions like, “Did they test the thickness of mineral accumulation on the bones to see if the breaks/scratches are the same age as the bones themselves?” That is, minerals build up on the surfaces of old bones over time. If the breaks and scratches were made before the bones were buried, they’ll have the same amount of buildup as the rest of the bone surfaces. If the breaks are more recent–say, the result of a bulldozer accidentally backing over the bones–they won’t.

They did get an actual elephant skeleton and smacked it with rocks to see if it would break in the same ways as the mammoth skeleton. A truck rolling over a rib and a rock striking it at an angle are bound to produce different kinds and patterns of breakage (the truck is likely to do more crushing, the rock to leave percussive impacts.) I’d also like to know if they compared the overall butchering pattern to known stone-tool-butchered elephants or mammoths, although I don’t know how easy it would be to find one.

Oldowan tool, about 2 million years old

They also looked at the pattern of impacts and shapes of the “hammerstones.” A rock which has been modified by humans hitting it with another rock will typically have certain shapes and patterns on its surface that can tell you things like which angle the rock was struck from during crafting. I’ve found a few arrowheads, and they are pretty distinct from other rocks.

Here’s a picture of an Oldowan stone chopper, about 2 million years old, which is therefore far older than these potential 130,000 year old tools. Homo sapiens didn’t exist 2 million years ago; this pointy rock was probably wielded by species such as Australopithecus garhi, H. habilis, or H. ergaster. Note that one side of this chopper is rounded, intended for holding comfortably in your hand, while the other side has had several chunks of rock smacked off, resulting in convex surfaces. Often you can tel exactly where the stone tool was struck to remove a flake, based on the shape and angle of the surface and the pattern of concentric, circular lines radiating out from the impact spot.

Homo erectus, who lived after the Oldowan tool makers and had a fancier, more complicated lithic technology, did make it out of Africa and spread across southeast Asia, up into China. This is, as far as I know, the first case of a hominin species using tools to significantly expand its range, but we have no evidence of erectus ever expanding into places that get significantly cold in the winter, and boat-building is a pretty advanced skill. We don’t even think erectus made it to Madagascar, which makes it sailing to the Americans rather doubtful.

I dislike passing judgment on the paper without reading it, but my basic instinct is skepticism. While I think the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to be a longer, more complex, and interesting process than the 15,000 years camp, 130,000 years is just too interesting a claim to believe without further evidence (like the bones of said hominins.)

Still, I keep an open mind and await new findings.

(We’ll continue with part 2 next week.)

Anthropologyish Friday: Griffins and Tatars

Vase featuring a battle between a griffon and warrior in Scythian clothes, from the Louve

Hello and welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re featuring a short, speculative segment from Adolf Erman’s Travels In Siberia (vol. 2) on possible connections with Greek history and some customs of the Tatar people.

Some interesting observations on local caves:

“The metal utensils and the fire-places in these caves leave no doubt that they were inhabited in ancient times by itinerant metal finders, of whom similar traces are found farther south, also in the Ural, in the country of the Voguls ; and who at one time spread themselves over all parts of northern Asia with the same object, just as the famed Yenitian adventurers went through the German mountains.

“But it is manifest, also, that the Greek information respecting the gold-seeking Arimaspis, whom the ancients unanimously assigned to the northern branches of the Ural, referred in reality to some of these temporary dwellers in the western part of the country of the Samoyedes ; and well might they credit Aristeas of Proconesus, when he related that, on a journey in the northeast of Europe, he collected those accounts from the farthest of the hunting tribes which he had reached. The obscurest portion of his narrative, in which he tells us that the Arimaspis seeking metals in the extreme north of Europe, “drew forth the gold from under the Grifons,” will be found to be, at this moment, literally true in one sense, if we only bear in mind the zoologically erroneous language used by all the inhabitants of the Siberian tundras.”

EvX: According to Herodotus:

This Aristeas, possessed by Phoibos, visited the Issedones; beyond these (he said) live the one-eyed Arimaspoi, beyond whom are the Grypes that guard gold, and beyond these again the Hyperboreoi, whose territory reaches to the sea. Except for the Hyperboreoi, all these nations (and first the Arimaspoi) are always at war with their neighbors.[2]

Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis,) Yamalo-Nenetsky region, Siberia, Russia Museum of Toulouse

“By comparing numbers of the bones of antediluvian pachyderms, which are thrown up in such quantities on the shores of the polar sea, all these people have got so distinct a notion of a colossal bird, that the compressed and sword-shaped horns, for example, of the Rhinoceros … are never called, even among the Russian … merchants, by any other name than that of ” birds’ claws.” The indigenous tribes, however, and the Yukagirs in particular, go much farther, for they conceive that they find the head of this mysterious bird in the peculiarly vaulted cranium of the same rhinoceros; its quills in the leg bones of other pachyderms, of which they usually make their quivers; but as to the bird itself, they plainly state that their forefathers saw it and fought wondrous battles with it: just as the mountain Samoyedes preserve to this day the tradition, that the mammoth still haunts the sea-shore, dwelling in the recesses of the mountain and feeding on the dead.”


Siberian Tatars during a festival

“On the morning of the 27th we were again surprised at seeing, beyond these Russian villages, in the vicinity of Tobolsk, and close to the steep bank of the Irtuish, sooty and squalid yurts. We entered them, and immediately knew the occupants to be Tatars, as well from the shaven crowns of the men, as from the handsome brunette visages of both sexes. This was the place called Phildtefsk, which we saw at our departure, only in the evening and from a distance. The Ostyak mode of living cannot be confounded with that of these people, yet the yurts of both are shaped alike; but those of the Tatars have always the advantage in cleanliness, and, besides the chubal of beaten clay, there is also the well-set boiler: in the recesses, too, instead of skins there lies usually some woven fabric, sometimes cushions of Russian cloth, sometimes Bucharian carpets, and, with the poorest, at least coverlets of hairy felt. The men and women were now sitting, with their legs crossed under them, squeezed together round a tall vessel in which the brick tea was prepared; there was at the same time a strong odour of fat from the horse-flesh in the great pot.

“It is only on the wildest spots of the thickly wooded banks of the river that these descendants of the former rulers of the country are still to be seen…”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The Tatars are a Turkic people[1] living in Asia and Europe who were one of the five major tribal confederations (khanlig) in the Mongolian plateau in the 12th century CE. The name “Tatar” first appears in written form on the Kul Tigin monuments as (TaTaR). Historically, the term “Tatars” was applied to a variety of Turco-Mongol semi-nomadic empires who controlled the vast region known as Tartary. More recently, however, the term refers more narrowly to people who speak one of the Turkic[1] languages.

The Mongol Empire, established under Genghis Khan in 1206, subjugated the Tatars. Under the leadership of Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan (c. 1207–1255), the Mongols moved westwards, driving with them many of the Mongol tribes toward the plains of Russia. The “Tatar” clan still exists among the Mongols and Hazaras.

The largest group by far that the Russians have called “Tatars” are the Volga Tatars, native to the Volga region (Tatarstan and Bashkortostan), who for this reason are often also simply known as “Tatars”, with their language known as the Tatar language. As of 2002 they had an estimated population close to 6 million.

There are many branches of the Tatar family, including the Siberian Tatars:

Siberian Tatars (Siberian Tatar: Сыбырлар) refers to the indigenous Siberian population of the forests and steppes of South Siberia stretching from somewhat east of the Ural Mountains to the Yenisey river in Russia. The Siberian Tatars call themselves Yerle Qalyq, or “older inhabitants,” to distinguish themselves from more recent Volga Tatar immigrants to the region.[3]

The word “Tatar” or “Tadar” is also used as a self-designation by some closely related Siberian ethnic groups; namely the Chulym, Shor, Teleut and Khakas peoples.

According to the 2002 census, there are 500,000 Tatars in Siberia, but only 9,611 of them are indigenous Siberian Tatars. At least 400,000 are ethnic Volga Tatars, who settled in Siberia during periods of colonization.[4] The Volga Tatars are an ethnic group who are native to the Volga-Ural region.

Crimean Tatars dancing

Here are some Crimean Tatars. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, the Soviet Union sent a great many Crimean Tatars to Siberia:

In 1928–9, 35,000 to 40,000 Crimean Tatar kulaks were arrested and deported to Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. As in Ukraine, Tatar peasants opposed collectivization, and many of them perished in the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3. … Between 1917 and 1933 approximately 150,000 Crimean Tatars—half of their population—had been killed, imprisoned, deported to Soviet Asia, or forced to emigrate.

(perhaps the same thing happened to the Volga Tatars, resulting in the Siberian Tatars being a minority among Tatars in Siberia. )

I believe this is the last we will hear of the Tatars, for after this the author spent some time in Russian towns further south before rounding lake Baikal and visiting a town in what is now Mongolia. That’s all for today, but we’ll continue with our adventure next Friday!



Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Samoyeds (Nenets) and Ostyak Religion

Welcome back to Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Volume 2.) Let’s jump right in:

“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.

The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.


“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.

Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.


“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …

“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …

In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.

“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …

“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:

The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.

In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.

On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.

The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.

“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.

“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”

EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)

“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.

But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.

To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.

The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …

I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …

“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …

“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …

“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.

“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …

“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!

Anthropology Preview: Maimachen and Brick-Tea Currency

[Note: This was originally written for last Wed., but got bumped back to make room for the post on ice packs and epilepsy.]

Last Friday we began a tour of Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Vol. 2). This entertaining work was written in 1828-9 (published in 1848,) and today’s preview features a town on the Russian/Manchu border, known as Troitsko Savask on the Russian side and Maimachen (literally, Buy-Sell-Town) on the Manchu, located in present-day Mongolia. The town itself is divided in half, with each side’s national required to back over the border at sundown.

As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability:

“The Russian escort consisted of no more than fifty Kosaks, without any artillery, only armed with firelocks, which they justly considered sufficient to overawe the Chinese troops in case of need, as the favourite and almost exclusive arms of the latter are only crossbows and darts. Some matchlocks were seen among them; but their powder is very far inferior to the Russian. …

“Three camels met us just as we passed the gate, which were much longer haired than the Chinese camels that we saw afterwards. They belonged to the Buraets of Selenginsk, who were now thronging the streets, on their way to a religious festival at Maimachen. Chinese traders, too, met us at every step. They wore long gowns of black silk, fitting close to the body ; their hats were of black felt, nearly in the shape of a crown, the part for the head forming a hemisphere, and having the brim turned up all round; a tassel of red silk falls down on each side from the top where there is a copper stud in the centre, on which a ball of some coloured stone, or other material, is fixed; this being the mode in whieh the several ranks are distinguished in China. …

Chinese merchants’ house in Miamachin (Buy-Sell-Town,) 1885

“They were all hurrying over the boundary line, for every Chinese is obliged to be in Maimachen before sunset. We followed the crowd that was pressing forward towards a narrow door in the front of a long wooden building. This admitted us into the inner quadrangle of a Russian warehouse… A corresponding door, at the opposite side of this court, opens just upon a wooden barricade, which constitutes the barrier of China. In this there is a wide portal, ornamented with pillars, and displaying the Russian eagle above it, along with the cipher of the reigning Emperor, Nicholas the First, by whom it was erected.

“The change upon passing through this gate seemed like a dream, or the effect of magic; a contrast so startling could hardly be experienced at any other spot upon the earth. The unvaried sober hues of the Russian side were succeeded all at once by an exhibition of gaudy finery, more fantastic and extravagant than was ever seen at any Christmas wake or parish village festival in Germany. The road-way of the streets consists of a bed of well-beaten clay, which is always neatly swept; while the walls of the same material, on either side, are relieved by windows of Chinese paper. These walls do not at first sight present the appearance of fronts of houses, as the roofs are flat and not seen from the street. Indeed, they are nearly altogether concealed by the gay-coloured paper lanterns and flags with inscriptions on them, which are hung out on both sides of the way. Cords, with similar scrolls and lanterns, are likewise stretched from roof to roof across the street. These dazzling decorations stand out in glaring contrast with the dull yellow of the ground and walls.

Chinese temple in Miamachin, 1885

“In the open crossings of the streets, which intersect each other at right angles, stood enormous chafing-dishes of cast-iron, like basins, upon a slender pedestal of four feet in height. The benches by which they were surrounded were occupied by tea-drinkers, who sat smoking from the little pipes which they carry at their girdles, while their kettles were boiling at the common fire. It is only the porters and camel drivers, and the petty dealers, that is, Mongols of the lowest class, who thus seek refreshment and chit-chat in the streets. Some of the poorer Russian Buraets occasionally resort there too; and both nations avail themselves of the niches or little chapels which are seen at the corners of the adjacent houses. These are dedicated to Buddha, and when the doors were open we could readily distinguish the images of the saints within. Metal dishes, like those observed by us in the tents at Selenginsk, were placed before these divinities, and filled with consecrated water; and between them were pastilles of vegetable extracts, and in the shape of slender yellow rods, which emitted no flame, but a bluish aromatic vapour; we saw reddish tapers, also, of tallow, which were occasionally lighted by some passer-by…

“Sunset was now announced from the tower by gongs, and by the faint report of gun-shots from some of the houses, so that we had no alternative but to leave the town. It is only during especial festivals that any exception is permitted to this regulation. The merchants and Mongols, of whom we made inquiries in the streets, could give us no farther information than was contained in the word pashol — go; pointing, with their characteristic gentleness, to the northern gate, which led us out of China. …

“An immediate and very important consequence of this treaty [with China] was, the permission to send from Russia to Pekin what is called a spiritual mission, and to change it regularly every ten years. In order to explain officially this important stipulation, the Russian government could allege nothing farther than a desire that the posterity of the prisoners taken in Albäsin should have the means of continuing in -the Christian faith, with the instruction of priests of the Greek church. At present, the posterity in question are hardly to be found, and still the Chinese government keeps its engagement faithfully, to the great benefit of European ethnographers and politicians, who owe to these missions the most authentic and extensive information.”

Brick-Tea Currency:

“I went early this morning to Eiakhta, and thence to Maimachen, to make some purchases there in the Chinese phusi or shops, in the view of becoming better acquainted with their contents and management. From M. Basin in Liakhta I learned, that, instead of current coin, brick-tea alone is used here for money. This article, to which I have frequently had occasion to allude, is a mixture of the spoiled leaves and stalks of the tea-plant, with the leaves of some wild plants and bullock’s blood, dried in the oven. In Irkutsk, where an imitation of it has been attempted, elm leaves, sloe leaves, and some others have been substituted with tolerable success for those of the wild plants of China.

Porters laden with “brick tea” in a 1908 photo by Ernest Henry “Chinese” Wilson, an explorer botanist who traveled extensively to the Far East between 1899 and 1918 to collect seed specimens, record findings in journals and create photographic records (some sixty Asian plant species bear his name)

“In the southern provinces of China there are a number of manufactories in which this article is prepared. It is divided
into pieces weighing from three to three and a half pounds each; and having always the same prismatical form, exactly like that of our bricks, (in Russian, kirpich.) Hence, they may be called in Germany brick-tea, with more propriety than tile-tea, as they are usually styled. The Manchoos themselves never make use of this production, but to the Mongolian nomades in China, to the Buraets and Ealn^uks collectively, to the Russian peasants south of the Baikal, and to most of the Siberian Tatars, it is become as indispensable as bread in Europe. About 300,000 lbs., that is, 4,000 bales or half horse-loads… of it are brought annually to Kiakhta. This is sufficient for the supply of 10,000 people, if it be assumed that they drink brick-tea twice a day the whole year round, as they do now during the winter. Every brick or kirpich contains sixty or seventy portions, because the infusion made with it is mixed also with rye-meal, mutton fat, and with kujir or busum, that is, salt from the lakes in the steppes. The rich people among the Russian Buraets and the Kalkhas Mongols lay by stores of this article, which serve them for money, although the weighed silver bars which are used in China reach the bazaar in Urga, also, in the course of trade. In dry situations the brick-tea will remain a long time undeteriorated; and, consequently, an accumulation of it in the steppe is often thought a better and safer treasure than great herds and flocks. In Maimachen and Kiakhta it is an article of no less importance. The Russians purchase an immense quantity of it from the Chinese; but, besides, the kirpich or brick of tea is the money unit and standard of value, in which the price of every other kind of exchangeable property is expressed.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

Due to the high value of tea in many parts of Asia, tea bricks were used as a form of currency throughout China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia. This is quite similar to the use of salt bricks as currency in parts of Africa. Tea bricks were in fact the preferred form of currency over metallic coins for the nomads of Mongolia and Siberia. The tea could not only be used as money and eaten as food in times of hunger but also brewed as allegedly beneficial medicine for treating coughs and colds. Until World War II, tea bricks were still used as a form of edible currency in Siberia.[1]

Tea bricks for Tibet were mainly produced in the area of Ya’an (formerly Yachou-fu) in Sichuan province. The bricks were produced in five different qualities and valued accordingly. The kind of brick which was most commonly used as currency in the late 19th and early 20th century was that of the third quality which the Tibetans called “brgyad pa” (“eighth”), because at one time it was worth eight Tibetan tangkas (standard silver coin of Tibet which weighs about 5.4 grams) in Lhasa. Bricks of this standard were also exported by Tibet to Bhutan and Ladakh.[11] …

All tea plant tissues accumulate fluorine to some extent. Tea bricks that are made from old tea leaves and stems can accumulate large amounts of this element, which can make them unsafe for consumption in large quantities or over prolonged periods. Use of such teas has led to fluorosis, a form of fluoride poisoning that affects the bones and teeth, in areas of high brick tea consumption such as Tibet.[12]

Tea Brick presented to Tzar Nicholas II, 1891

Back to Erman:

“The merchants of Kiakhta commence their dealings, therefore, by asking those of Maimachen how many bricks the commodities which they wish to purchase are valued at; …They then put upon the squirrel skins, which they bring to market in great quantities, a fixed price in tea bricks and their fractions; and their further traffic is carried on by written bills, always expressed in the same vegetable money. Russian officers, when they wish to make small purchases in the shops of the Chinese, buy of their fellow-countrymen in Kiakhta, for Russian money, the requisite capital in bricks. In this transaction, the exchange of the rooble into the tea-brick is managed by taking the value of each as compared with the squirrels skin …

“On my return to Kiakhta I paid a visit to M. Kotelnikov. On this, as on several other occasions, I perceived, the instant I entered the house, by a peculiar smell, that Chinese were in it. Persons who have been shifted from one part of the earth to another, suddenly enough … without any gradual transition, have spoken of the smell of a country, or a national odour; and I perfectly understand what they mean, since I have myself met with several examples of it, as, in the first place, on my arrival in Russia, and again here, on the frontier of China, where even a blind man would be aware that he bad left the precincts of Siberia and Russia. To the odour of
Maimachen, undoubtedly, the pastilles in the Mongolian chapel and the fumes of the Chinese powder contributed not a little; but in a much more essential manner the Chinese themselves, every one of whom diffuses around him an atmosphere which brings to mind the strong smell of the leek. …

“In the post-house of Monakhova we found four lamas or priests of the Buraets, who were come to bring us greetings,
and an invitation from their chief, the Khamba lama. … The lamas wore pointed hats of bright yellow stuff, and wide robes of scarlet cloth. To this showy and elegant clothing, they united fine figures, and a carriage so vigorous and active, that, in Europe, they would have been taken for warriors rather than for priests. The Russians here said, that there was hardly a Buraet family of which there was not one member at least in the priesthood.”

EvX: The account which follows of his visit to a Mongolian Buddhist temple is fascinating but too long to recount here. You will just have to read the book if you want the rest of it.


Travels in Siberia, by Adolf Erman: Ostyaks (Khanty and Ket)

Georg Adolf Erman

Today we’re starting Adolf Erman’s Travels in Siberia, Volume 2, originally published as Reise um die Erde durch Nord-Asien und die beiden Oceane in den Jahren in 1848. The exact reasons and funding sources for Erman’s trip are doubtless covered in Volume 1 (I believe he was hired by the Norwegian government to take magnetic and other scientific observations across Siberia and possibly all the way around the Polar Circle,) but along the way he stayed with and wrote about the customs of the nomads of the far north, Ostyaks, Samoyeds, Yakuts, Tunguses, etc.; Russian and Cossak settlers; the Buryat, Manchu and Chinese denizens of Mongolia; and the odd exiled soldier from Napoleon’s army met along the way.

Along the way he recounts in copious detail the natural wonders of the land, the weather, (cold,) and observations on subjects like mammoth bones, Greek myths, the incidence of goiters, the proper way to ride a reindeer, the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, and the use of tea bricks as currency.

There’s no particular plot to Erman’s account, and I did find it a bit dull toward the middle, but the parts I disliked were easily skimmed in favor of the ones I enjoyed, and from those it has proven quite difficult to decide which I should excerpt and share. Since one of my commentators has requested an Anthropology Friday focusing on the Yakuts, I will do my best to cover them in some depth, but we will be leaving out almost entirely his trip to Mongolia simply because there isn’t time to cover everything. It was really quite interesting, though, so I recommend you read it anyway.

Note: I am working off a scan of a PDF, so occasionally words are rendered incorrectly; I have done my best to correct these errors, but if they occur in a proper name I might not notice. Likewise, many of the names of people and places may have changed since Erman’s time; for example, the Tunguzes are now known as the Tunguses. Temperatures in Erman’s account are given in degrees R, which I believe is the Reaumur Scale, which was still used in Russia until the early 20th century, but I’ll be converting his measurements into degrees F/C.  As usual, I will be using “” instead of block quotes for readability.

“December 3–The temperature of the air to-day, with a west wind and clear sky, was -26 degrees C/-15 degrees F. …

“From Ustsosvinsk, and still further down towards Obdorsk, we travelled constantly on the left half of the stream, or what is called the little Obi; for it is only on the western bank, which is invariably covered with wood, that the possessors of reindeer remain in winter. In summer a few of them go with the herds of deer further up the country, to the mossy mountain tracts, while the rest of the population betake themselves, for the sake of fishing, to the fixed yurts on the right bank of the great Obi. In these places dwell also the crews of Russian merchants from Tobolsk, partly with the view of earning money as boatmen, and partly for the purpose of fishing in places where, as they pretend, they have bought the right from the Ostyaks.”

EvX: I think the Obi is now the Ob river; Obdorsk is called Salekhard; the Ostyaks are divided into the Khanty and Ket peoples; and I can’t figure out where Ustsosvinsk was. At least Tobolsk is still Tobolsk. (This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.) So let’s just say he’s in Siberia, heading north, and it’s really cold.

Khanty family at River Ob in the village of Tegi

“About midnight we arrived at the winter yurts of Taginsk, which, like those of Sosvinsk, are situate in the middle of the wood. Here we were to get the first reindeer. Some of the men were sitting before the bright, sparkling fire, with the upper part of their bodies bare, that they might warm themselves thoroughly previous to their night’s rest ; the others got up, naked in like manner, from the berths where they had already lain down under reindeer skins. They instantly dressed themselves, and went out to catch the reindeer, of which it was said, that they had gone far off to-day, because, “on account of the thinness of the snow (beyond the surrounding wood,) moss was to be found.’* We staid in the yurts with the women, who hospitably spread fresh and clean reindeer skins for us to lie down. These yurts seemed constructed only for temporary occupation, for the outer walls were not built with logs or stems of trees, but only of strong planks, such as are generally employed for partitions. Yet these habitations were far more agreeable and more ornamented than any fisherman’s abode which I saw above Beresov. It is possible that the novelty of the fresh reindeer skins, which have a very pleasing smell, may have helped to strengthen this impression.”

Kyrgyz yurt

EvX: Throughout Erman’s account, he describes the abodes of the natives of the Russian north and east as yurts (aka gers.) According to Wikipedia:

A traditional yurt (from the Turkic languages) or ger (Mongolian) is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure comprises an angled assembly or latticework of pieces of wood or bamboo for walls, a door frame, ribs (poles, rafters), and a wheel (crown, compression ring) possibly steam-bent. The roof structure is often self-supporting, but large yurts may have interior posts supporting the crown. The top of the wall of self-supporting yurts is prevented from spreading by means of a tension band which opposes the force of the roof ribs. Modern yurts may be permanently built on a wooden platform; they may use modern materials such as steam-bent wooden framing or metal framing, canvas or tarpaulin, Plexiglas dome, wire rope, or radiant insulation. …

Yurts have been a distinctive feature of life in Central Asia for at least three thousand years. The first written description of a yurt used as a dwelling was recorded by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus. He described yurt-like tents as the dwelling place of the Scythians, a horse riding-nomadic nation who lived in the northern Black Sea and Central Asian region from around 600 BC to AD 300.[3]

Fun fact: Scythians also show up in the Bible, at Genesis 10 and again in Jeremiah 51, though their name has been here modified to Ashkenaz. Once the Scythians disappeared, geographers found themselves at a loss to locate the homeland of this mysterious group and so stuck it in the general vincintity of modern Germany, based on the name’s similarity to “Scandza,” itself probably related to Scandinavia. Since different Jewish groups became known by the name of the country or region they moved to (Yemeni Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Cochin Jews, etc.,) the Jews of Germany became the Ashkenazi Jews.

Anyway, I’d wager that yurts come in different degrees of portability and weather-resistance. Back to our narrative:

Khanty children with their reindeer, by Irina Kazanskaya

“An hour probably elapsed before the cry of the  drivers was heard at a distance through the wood. It was a  hollow-sounding hoo! hoo! proceeding from many voices and  growing louder as it approached. Soon after we could distinguish the peculiar clapping of the feet of the running herd.  Going now in front of the yurt, we saw the timid animals in full gallop, coming together from different quarters. When the drivers’ cry ceased, they stood quiet near the house, still seeking their food under the snow. The men then uncoiled a long cord of leather, and held it from hand to hand, about three feet above the ground, forming a circle round the herd, which they gradually contracted, until all the animals were at last clustered close together. Then a few men went inside the ring, and catching by the antlers the deer destined for the yoke, they tied them to the cord, until a considerable number had been thus selected. A few only had a log fastened to their necks, until the sledge was got ready. This mode of proceeding would have been utterly impossible, if the half-tamed animals did not evince an instinctive tendency to subjection. A well-aimed blow with antlers four feet long would certainly be fatal; but neither when they were first caught, nor afterwards when I examined their mouths, as is done with horses, and lifted up their fore-legs, did they offer the least resistance. Neither did any of them attempt to leap over the cord surrounding them, which would have been easy, but they rather fled from the men towards the middle of the ring. …

“About three o’clock in the morning we were again ready for travelling, and continuing till noon…”


“we went over eighty versts, from the huts of Taginsk to another hamlet occupied also by owners of reindeer, and called Kachegatsk. We went first through thick woods of well-grown trees, and in which the larch predominated, though the common and the Siberian pine (P. cembra) were also to be seen. … We then travelled continually on the ice of the western arm of the Obi, close to the thickly-wooded left bank. At times we halted on the river, to let the deer take breath after a hard run. On these occasions they immediately lay down before the sledge, tossed the snow with their snouts, and took it into their mouths to cool themselves.”

EvX: Here’s a short film on the Khanty people shot in the 1980s, with scenes of reindeer pulling sleds:

“The Ostyak men at the same time betook themselves eagerly to the enjoyment of snuff, which they always carry with them in the breastfold or pocket of the malitza, in a receptacle exactly like the European powder-horn. They shake the precious dust through the narrow opening of the horn, on the nail of the right thumb, and in so doing they conform precisely to the Chinese fashion. That their custom of taking snuff was derived from that quarter, is proved by the Mongolian word shär, which here, as well as among the tribes of Eastern Siberia, signifies tobacco. Smoking is little in vogue among the Ostyaks hitherto seen; yet there were shown to us in Beresov some tobacco-pipes, very prettily carved, of mammoth-bone, which are said to be used by the inhabitants of the coast: the Mongolian name Khdnsa, given to this article, also points out the Chinese origin of the custom.

“A substitute of home production, which the Ostyaks here sometimes mix with their snuff, was shown to us for the first
time in the yurts of Kachegatsk, which we had now reached. This was a brown fungous excrescence, about the size of the hand, which they take from the stem of the birch, and, drying it for a long time near the fire, reduce it to powder.”

EvX: It’s funny just how far some trade goods travel. I don’t know the exact distribution of tobacco production in the 1800s, but I do know it wasn’t grown anywhere near Siberia. Tobacco isn’t even food, like butter, nor does it enhance something people already consume, like tea, and yet here it was, ubiquitous among nomadic reindeer herders of the Russian polar north, perhaps brought from China via Mongolia. Continuing:

“It was curious to observe here, as well as in the dwellings subsequently entered, how cleverly larch-wood was made in many cases to serve the ends of European cloths; for, instead of our napkins, towels, and handkerchiefs, and in cleaning the cooking vessels, the Ostyak women used very thin, long shavings of this wood, which being tied together at one end, formed a soft wisp. The women of the house generally carried a wisp of this kind fastened to their girdles, and when more of them were wanted to clean out the eating trough that we might be treated to some fish, they were made in an instant by the men. …

Modern Khanty family in front of their chum, near lake Numto (source) Does anyone else want a map of the global distribution of tipis?

“We were now but a moderate day’s journey, eighty-four miles, distant from the polar circle, and yet larch, pine, and birch still grew abundantly, and, indeed, they were nowise inferior in appearance to the trees of the same kind in the vicinity of Tobolsk. …

“there were here only two conical tents, wherein our new hosts had just established themselves in the middle of the forest. Portable nomadic dwellings of this kind are here called Chömui, (singular Chum.) Long poles, in an inclined position, were fastened together at the upper end, while their lower ends, about a foot asunder, stood on the ground so as to form a ring. This frame-work was covered with rein-deer skins, an opening being left only at the point of the cone, and at one place the poles stood more widely apart, so as to allow one, lifting the corner of the skin, to creep into the tent.”

“In the middle of the tent was a blazing fire. All the men were sitting on skins with the upper part of their bodies bare, and their backs against the hair of the tent-covering. A little boy of four years old had nothing on but drawers, and a little child lay in a canoe-shaped cradle made of reindeer skin. Two women of middle age were also sitting on the ground, with all their usual clothing, and they were wrapped up even below the shoulders with the veiling head-dress, which was here made of Russian woollen stuff. With great coyness they refused to show us their faces, and when I pulled up playfully the veil of one, she replaced it at once and cried out lustily; yet the men who were present and witnessed what was going on took so little notice of it, and seemed so indifferent, that it can hardly be supposed that jealousy of strangers has here given rise to the fashion of veiling.”

EvX: Note the reluctance of the women in the documentary above to have their faces filmed, though there might be practical reasons for this.


“By means of three cross sticks, tied in a horizontal direction to the tent-poles, the pot was hung over the fire to melt some snow that we might dress our fish, and it was singular to see the women still veiled during this operation, for they scarcely ever raised up the head-cloth, or opened it a little on the side towards their work. Here both men and women were large and well formed, with pleasing countenances and perfectly healthy appearance. * Eruption on the head and inflammation of the eyes had been seen less and less frequently since we left Beresov, that is to say, since we had advanced further into the country possessed by owners of reindeer; and here, where purely nomadic habits prevailed, there were not even the slightest traces of disease. It is not unlikely, then, that the Yerkhovian Ostyaks are the chief sufferers from the miasmata introduced unconsciously by the Russians. It was only among those of the natives who, by partially adopting Russian customs, spoiled the completeness of their domestic economy in respect to food and clothing, that the seeds of disease seemed to have fallen on a susceptible soil. …

Khanty Family, Ob River

“The chase of fur animals is during the winter the chief enjoyment of the reindeer Ostyaks taken collectively. They are engaged in it daily, and hence we observed that the men in the tents here, like some of our drivers, constantly wore an apparatus which is indispensable for their archery. This is a strong and bent plate of horn, worn under the usual clothing, and covering the inside of the lower arm, from the wrist up, for about two inches, being tied on with thongs. Without such a protection it would be impossible to endure the blow which the string gives the wrist. This productive chase, with the free wandering over an extensive tract, which seems absolutely necessary for those who would keep large herds of reindeer, had made our host of to-day an opulent man. In this place they kill foxes and squirrels; but in summer they go westwards, towards the mountains, which are rarely visited by Christians.

“There they feed their herds, and live upon them, at the same time collecting for trade as many skins and as much venison as possible beyond their own wants. They mix with Samoyedes and Yoguls on the common pastures, but in winter they visit their friends settled on the Obi, in order to procure a stock of dried fish. Whatever Russian goods they want, they obtain partly by means of the Samoyedes and Yoguls from the government of Archangel, partly they procure them themselves at Obdorsk, where the quantity of skins and furs which they collect during their long absence secure for them a preference in trade above the Ostyaks settled in the place.”

EvX: Let’s have a quick rundown of nomadic Russians:

The Ostyaks are now known as the Ket and the Khanty.

Today there are 12,000 Khanty-language speaking people in Russia. The language itself is a branch of the Uralic aka Finno-Ugric family, which also includes Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish (obviously,) Mansi, Mari, Mordvinic, Permic, Sami (Lapp), and Samoyedic.

The Ket languate, by contrast, is spoken by only 100-200 people and is the only living language in the Yeniseian family. Linguists have speculated a number of potential connections between Yeniseian and other language families, including Dene, (a language of the Americas including the Navajo,) Burushaski, and Sino-Tibetan. I favor the Dene-Yeniseian family because it would be the most interesting, but of course that doesn’t actually make it more likely.


December 6. — We waited in the tent till one o’clock in the morning for the reindeer. … From the tents of Keegat, we proceeded twenty-five versts, partly on the little Obi, partly on the left bank, and about five o’clocK in the morning we arrived at a group of wooden cabins, which they called Müshi.  Here, we were told, no one had been yet travelling this winter; the reindeer, therefore, had not been seen for a long time, and no one knew where they were. The cleverness which the Ostyaks evince in cases of this kind cannot be sufficiently admired. It was ten o’clock, however, before the shouting drivers were heard from a distance, on their return with the herds; but it is so much the more surprising, that going forth in the darkness of night they should still feel sure of finding them. …

“The day lasted three hours at Mäshi: the sun at noon attained an elevation of 1° 40* above the horizon, but was never visible, as the sky was clouded. We travelled from eleven in the forenoon till nine at night, on the ice of the little Obi, as far as the winter yurts of Shurushkar. About half-way we saw some fishing-baskets suspended from the ice, and found some Ostyak men, who were busy with them. They had travelled to this place with reindeer, and two narts with deer were standing on the ice, already laden with fish. …

“As usual, also, the people here seemed to be all members of the same family. I never found among the Ostyaks any trace of hired service, or of any connexion between labour and station.  …

“We now turned aside from the river, almost due east, and till nine at night travelled over a hilly country a distance of fifty versts. During the night I had recourse to the covered nart, but found that, though preferable in a snow-storm, it is not so agreeable, when the air is calm and at the temperature of —31 degrees C/-24 degrees F, as staying in the open air; for the moisture from the breath congealing formed a frosty mist much more distressing to the sensations than dry cold in the open air. And on the felt lining of the nart was deposited a thick rime, which being shaken off from time to time fell in flakes like snow.”

I’m getting tired, so let’s stop here and continue next week.

Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons, (4/4) the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo

Map of Algonquian Language Family distribution

Hey everyone, today we’re wrapping up our look at om Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s account of Native American cultures in Indian Warriors and their Weapons, with a look at the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo.

The Blackfeet live primarily in Canada and partly in northern America, and speak an Algonquin language–Algonquin languages are (were) otherwise dominant primarily in eastern Canada and the US. The Apache and Navajo are related peoples from the American southwest who speak an Athabaskan language. The rest of the Athabaskan speakers, oddly, live primarily in northern Canada and inland Alaska (Inuit/Eskimo/Aleut cultures live on the Alaskan coasts.)

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

According to Wikipedia:

Historically, the member peoples of the [Blackfeet] Confederacy were nomadic bison hunters and trout fishermen, who ranged across large areas of the northern Great Plains of Western North America, specifically the semi-arid shortgrass prairie ecological region. They followed the bison herds as they migrated between what are now the United States and Canada, as far north as the Bow River. In the first half of the 18th century, they acquired horses and firearms from white traders and their Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens. The Blackfoot used these to expand their territory at the expense of neighboring tribes. Now riding horses, the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes could also extend the range of their buffalo hunts.

The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains, since their primary food source was no longer abundant. Periods of starvation and deprivation followed, and the Blackfoot tribe was forced to adopt ranching and farming, settling in permanent reservations. In the 1870s, they signed treaties with both the United States and Canada, ceding most of their lands in exchange for annuities of food and medical aid, as well as help in learning to farm. Nevertheless, the Blackfoot have worked to maintain their traditional language and culture in the face of assimilationist policies of both the U.S. and Canada.

“Historically” as Wikipedia uses it here merely refers to “in the 17 and 1800s.” The Blackfeet’s linguistic cousins on the eastern coast of the US, such as Pocahontas of the Tsenacommacah or Squanto of the Patuxet, were settled, agriculturalist people who raised corn, squash, and beans. It seems likely that the Blackfeet were originally similarly agricultural, only moving out into the Great Plains and adopting their nomadic, buffalo-based lifestyle after European colonists introduced horses to the New World. Without horses, following the herds on foot would have been very difficult–though perhaps they managed it.

Alfred Jacob Miller, Hunting Buffalo

According to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“The traditional enemies of the Blackfeet were the Shoshoni, the Assiniboine, the Cree, and especially the Crow. Hostilities between these tribes were kept alive by continued raids upon each other, usually for revenge or to steal horses.

“The Blackfeet gave their highest tribal honor to the brave who captured an enemy’s horse, weapons, or ceremonial gear. … Parents asked him to perform the naming ceremony for their newborn baby boy. He was elected to perform special services at rituals and social affairs. These services added to the man’s wealth.”

EvX: I wonder if anyone has attempted to replicate Napoleon Chagnon’s quantitative work on reproductive success among the Yanomamo with other tribal societies. I’d love to know if warriors were similarly successful among the Blackfeet, for example. Back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“In the early 1800s the Missouri Fur Company started to construct a post at the mouth of the Bighorn River in Crow country. The Blackfeet thought these white people had allied themselves with the Crow. That alone was enough to set the Blackfeet on the war trail against them. … Time and time again the white men were killed, and their guns, their personal belongings were taking. The Indians traded the furs to the British posts.

“After a few of these raids, most of the trappers gave up and were ready to seek their furs in less dangerous parts of the country. For years thereafter, few white men dared enter the Blackfeet country.”

According to Wikipedia:

Up until around 1730, the Blackfoot traveled by foot and used dogs to carry and pull some of their goods. They had not seen horses in their previous lands, but were introduced to them on the Plains, as other tribes, such as the Shoshone, had already adopted their use.[17]

Horses revolutionised life on the Great Plains and soon came to be regarded as a measure of wealth. Warriors regularly raided other tribes for their best horses. Horses were generally used as universal standards of barter. … An individual’s wealth rose with the number of horses accumulated, but a man did not keep an abundance of them. The individual’s prestige and status was judged by the number of horses that he could give away. …

After having driven the hostile Shoshone and Arapaho from the Northwestern Plains, the Niitsitapi began in 1800 a long phase of keen competition in the fur trade with their former Cree allies, which often escalated militarily. … by mid-century an adequate supply of horses became a question of survival. Horse theft was at this stage not only a proof of courage, but often a desperate contribution to survival, for many ethnic groups competed for hunting in the grasslands.

The Cree and Assiniboine continued horse raiding against the Gros Ventre … They had to withstand attacks of enemies with guns. In retaliation for Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) supplying their enemies with weapons, the Gros Ventre attacked and burned in 1793 South Branch House of the HBC on the South Saskatchewan River near the present village of St. Louis, Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile, further south:

“Long ago the Apache and Navaho tribes of the Southwest were once people. Between the years 1200 and 1400, these Indians came down from the far north of Canada and Alaska, following a route along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The tribes lived in small family camps instead of permanent villages, and their personal belongings were meager. A little over 400 yeas ago the Navajo separated from their Apache brothers. …

“The Apache were raiders. They raided for food, clothing, horses, guns, and slaves. To them raiding was a business, and a dangerous business, but the Apache raider was a past master at commando tactics, and he did not take risks. … He tried not to kill those he raided. In Apache wars it was considered far better to take the enemy as slaves, and threby enlarge the tribe.”

EvX: It appears that the constant warfare had such a debilitating effect on tribal numbers that many tribes ended up relying on captives to keep their own numbers steady–though we must keep in mind that these tribes had also suffered unimaginable losses due to Western diseases. I have seen estimates that as much as 90% of the Indian population had already died before whites arrived in significant numbers in America, simply because their diseases spread much faster than they did.

Here is Wikipedia’s account of early Navajo history:

The Navajos are speakers of a Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan language … It is closely related to the Apache language, as the Navajos and Apaches are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside.[4] Speakers of various other Athabaskan languages located in Canada may still comprehend the Navajo language despite the geographic and linguistic deviation of the languages.[5]

Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajos and Apaches entered the Southwest around 1400 CE.[7][8] The Navajo oral tradition is said to retain references of this migration.[citation needed]

Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajos were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop-farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. When the Spanish arrived, the Navajos began herding sheep and goats* as a main source of trade and food, with meat becoming an essential component of the Navajo diet. Sheep also became a form of currency and status symbols among the Navajos based on the overall quantity of herds a family maintained.[9][10] In addition, the practice of spinning and weaving wool into blankets and clothing became common and eventually developed into a form of highly valued artistic expression.

*Note that sheep and goats are not native to the Americas.

Geronimo, chief of the Apache

I find this progression of economic systems fascinating. Here we have three groups–first a group of Athabaskan hunter-gatherers decided, for unknown reasons, to leave their frigid, far northern homeland and migrate to the baking heat of the American Southwest. (Perhaps they were driven out of their original homes by the arrival of the Inuit/Eskimo?) Here they encountered already established Pueblo peoples, who IIRC are related to the Aztecs of Mexico, an advanced civilization. The Pueblo people built cities and raised crops, a lifestyle the Athabaskan newcomers started adopting, or at least trading with.

Then the Spaniards arrived, with their domesticated animals. One group of Athabaskans, the Navajo, decided to adopt sheep and goats, becoming pastoralist/agriculturalists. Another group, the Apache, decided to adopt the horse and fully realize their hunter-gatherer potential.

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“Although the Apache method of attack was devious, it was not cowardly. Cochise, with less than two hundred warriors, held off the United States army for more than ten years. He was a great leader and did not risk the life of any of his warriors in attacks on wagon trains or supply trains. He did not even attack small caravan patrols outright; instead he literally wore them down.

“A typical attack followed this pattern: from high on the rocks and cliffs an Apache band followed a group of white travelers, showing themselves from time to time, then silently vanishing again. Ahead and behind them the travelers saw smoke rising from signal fire, never knowing what i might mean. With the Apaches trailing them night and day, the nerves of the white men became frayed. They had little time for rest and even less for sleep. Water holes were few and far between, and when they finally reached one, it was usually occupied by hostile Apache. … When at long last nerves had been strained to the breaking point… it was time to expect a raid. …

“The Apache were excellent horsemen, and small groups of them were able to raid and terrorize large areas. These raids, thefts, and captures lasted for two hundred years. Only after the Americans arrived around 1850 was any attempt made to stop them, and this effort took forty years.

“When the Apache first migrated into the Southwest, one weapon they possessed was the arctic-type bow. It was of Asiatic origin, and far superior to any bow then made in their new homeland. …

“The sign of the cross existed in much of the Apache symbolism, but it held no Christian meaning for them. It represented the four cardinal points and the four winds. Thus a warrior painted a cross on the foot of his moccasins before he went into strange country, in hopes that it would keep him from becoming lost. …

“As early as 1538 a Spanish priest wrote about the Navaho and called them Apache del Navahu. …

“Even Navaho women went to war, and thereby gained high positions within the tribe. War usually meant a raid on one of the peaceful Pueblo tribes or on a Mexican village. …

“Raids on other tribes were conducted primarily to capture slaves. … Unlike the Apache, they did not torture their captives, though at times they did take scalps.”

EvX: This brings us to the end of this series; I hope you have enjoyed it, not just for the glances back at the history of the peoples of America (and Canada,) but also for a look at the sort of books children in the 50s were reading.


Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons (3/4) the Sioux

Chief Sitting Bull, Lakota Sioux, ca 1831 – 1890

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’ll be looking at the Sioux Indians, from Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series about Native American culture with selections from Indian Warriors and their Weapons. According to Wikipedia, there are about 170,000 Sioux alive today, primarily the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota. (I’m going to hazard a guess that Da, La, and Na are prefixes that refer to directions or locations.)

Hofsinde Gray-Wolf begins the section on the Sioux with an entertaining (but too long to recount here) story about a Sioux scout who spots some Pawnee hunting on Sioux land. A band of Sioux warriors pursues and surprises the Pawnee, getting the upper hand on them. Wikipedia notes:

Author and historian Mark van de Logt wrote: “Although military historians tend to reserve the concept of “total war” for conflicts between modern industrial nations, the term nevertheless most closely approaches the state of affairs between the Pawnees and the Sioux and Cheyennes. Both sides directed their actions not solely against warrior-combatants but against the people as a whole. Noncombatants were legitimate targets. … It is within this context that the military service of the Pawnee Scouts must be viewed.”[16]

The battle of Massacre Canyon on August 5, 1873, was the last major battle between the Pawnee and the Sioux.[17]

Air burial of a Sioux chieftain

On Massacre Canyon:

The Massacre Canyon Battle took place on August 5, 1873, in Hitchcock County, Nebraska. It was one of the last battles between the Pawnee and the Sioux (or Lakota) and the last large-scale battle between Native American tribes in the area of the present-day United States of America.[2] The battle occurred when a combined Oglala/Brulé Sioux war party of over 1000 warriors attacked a party of Pawnee on their summer buffalo hunt. More than 60 Pawnees died, mostly women and children. Along with the assault on Pawnee chief Blue Coat’s village in 1843, this battle range among “the bloodiest attacks by the Sioux” in Pawnee history.[3] …

John Williamson (23), was assigned as the Pawnee trail-agent at the Genoa Agency, the Pawnee reservation, and accompanied the Pawnee on their hunt. He wrote his recollections of the battle decades after the incident.[24]

“On the fourth day of August we reached the north bank of the Republican River and went into camp. At 9 o’clock that evening, three white men came into camp and reported to me that a large band of Sioux warriors were camped 25 miles [40 km] northwest, waiting for an opportunity to attack the Pawnees for several days, anticipating that we would move up the river where buffaloes were feeding. Previous to this, white men visited us and warned us to be on our guard against Sioux attacks, and I was a trifle skeptical as to the truth of the story told by our white visitors. But one of the men, a young man about my age at the time, appeared to be so sincere in his efforts to impress upon me that the warning should be heeded, that I took him to Sky Chief who was in command that day, for a conference. Sky Chief said the men were liars; that they wanted to scare the Pawnees away from the hunting grounds so that white men could kill buffaloes for hides. He told me I was squaw and a coward. I took exception to his remarks, and retorted: ‘I will go as far as you dare go. Don’t forget that.’

Chief Bone Necklace an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (1899)

“The following morning August 5, we broke camp and started north, up the divide between the Republican and the Frenchman Rivers. Soon after leaving camp, Sky Chief rode up to me and extending his hand said, ‘Shake, brother.’ He recalled our little unpleasantness the night previous and said he did not believe there was cause for alarm, and was so impressed with the belief that he had not taken the precaution to throw out scouts in the direction the Sioux were reported to be. A few minutes later a buffalo scout signaled that buffaloes had been sighted in the distance, and Sky Chief rode off to engage in the hunt. I never saw him again. He had killed a buffalo and was skinning it when the advance guard of the Sioux shot and wounded him. The Chief attempted to reach his horse, but before he was able to mount, several of the enemy surrounded him. He died fighting. A Pawnee, who was skinning a buffalo a short distance away, but managed to escape, told me how Sky Chief died.” …

The whites rode up the canyon in the afternoon. “The first body we came upon was that of a woman”, remembered Platt.[32] Army doctor David Franklin Powell described the march up the battleground, “We advanced from the mouth of the ravine to its head and found fifty-nine dead Pawnees …”.[33] A number of the killed women lay naked. “Although the Pawnees made a stand and fought through the day, over a hundred were wounded, killed, or raped and mutilated”.[34]

(So much for “Primitive people were peaceful and never made war.”)

The last week of August, Williamson was back in Massacre Canyon. He covered the dead with dirt broken down from the banks.[43] …

This incident, in particular, caused the government nationwide to intensify “its efforts to keep the Indians confined to their reservation” in an endeavor to curtail intertribal warfare.[49] On local level, Major General George Crook “dispatched a small force” to protect the Pawnee Agency. The presence of troops did not stop the Sioux Raids.[50]

It would take half a century, before the Pawnee and the Sioux smoked the pipe of peace during the Massacre Canyon Pow Wow in 1925.[51]

Note that there were also wars between whites and Sioux, EG the Dakota War.

Scalp dance of the Minitarres

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“On their return to the Sioux encampment the men rode around the village. They had lost only warrior and only one other was wounded, so there was great jubilation. …

“In the evening a victory dance was held. The victory dance was also called a scalp dance because during it the warriors displayed the scalps they had taken. Afterwards the scalps were burned. … Those men who had earned coups in the battle had prepared their coup feathers before the dance. Two of the warriors wore and eagle feather standing upright behind their head. To the tip of the feather they had tied a tuft of horsehair, dyed brilliant red. Those coup feathers were of the highest order and showed that the wearers had, without any weapons in their hands, ridden in among the enemy. … they had dared to ride close enough to strike warriors with their bare hands. … One warrior hand a notch cut into the edge of his feather, and by this sign everyone knew that he had cut an enemy throat. …

“When he had won thirty coup feathers, a Sioux had earned the right to wear a full war bonnet.”

Chief Mato-tope of the Sioux in his headdress

EvX: One of the men in the band is considered a coward, and publicly shamed:

“Suddenly three older women stepped out of the dark outer circle. Each had been widowed when her husband had been killed in battle. Each had been left crying when her son had followed his father to the land beyond. … the middle woman carried a full war bonnet before her. …they turned their steps directly toward the great boaster, the toucher of dead enemies, and to him they presented the bonnet. …

“Would the coward run out of the circle? If he did, he would be banned forever from the tribe and become an outcast. If he accepted the bonnet, he wold have to go on the war trail at once, not returning until he could bring back proof that he was a man and a warrior. …

“Very slowly, he reached for the bonnet, took it, and with bowed head left the circle.

“There was one other way in which a bonnet could be given as a challenge. from time to time, for various reason, two families within the tribe feud. Each family always tried to get the better of the other, especially in public. These feuds could last a long time before they came to a climax. On a night when the tribe had gathered for a dance, a member of one of the feuding families might step forward and present a bonnet to the young son of the other lodge.

“The challenge was a brutal one, for it offered no escape. The youth had to join the next war party that was formed. …

“War societies, which were somewhat like men’s club, existed among the various tribes. The members were warriors of proven merit, and they were usually grouped by age. Often the members of a war society carried shields bearing the same designs, and on the war trail they gave the same war cry. …

Pehriska-Ruhpa of the Dog Society of the Hidatsa tribe of Native Americans

“Among the Plains Indians the best bow makers were the Sioux and the Crow. …

“A lance bent at the top like a shepherd’s crook and wrapped in otter fur was the insignia of the Dog Soldiers, the Sioux tribal police. This society, made up of the bravest men of the village, ran the buffalo hunts, making sure no one started toward the herd until the proper signal was given. The members kept an eye on the sometimes hotheaded young men, to prevent hem from sneaking out of camp on horse-raiding expeditions. They kept order during ceremonies and, in general, acted to enforce the tribal laws.

“In battle the Dog Soldiers held the foremost position. …

“When the tied of battle turned against them, these great warriors dismounted and jabbed the sharp point of their lance through the trailing sash [that they wore.] Anchored to the ground by it, a Dog Soldier stood and fought to the end. Only a man of his own tribe could free him, and one who freed himself would be forever disgraced and dishonored. …

Sioux horse racing

EvX: Among Indians, the Sioux and tribes similar to them seem closest to our stereotypical idea of the “Wild West Indian.”

To be continued…

Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons: Iroquois Confederacy (2/4)

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we’re continuing with Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series about Native American culture with selections from Indian Warriors and their Weapons. We’ll specifically be reading about the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations (nee Five Nations.)

As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for Hofsinde’s portions.

“The confederacy of the Iroquois, called the Five Nations, was formed, in part, to keep peace among the member tribes. … Around 1722 the Tuscarora from the Carolinas joined the Longhouse, after having been driven out of their own land by the white men. As the Tuscarora were of Iroquois linguistic stock, they were readily admitted by the original members, and the name of the league was changed to the Six Nations.

Map of the New York tribes before European arrival, Iroquois in pink, Algonquin in orange (a great many also lived in Canada.)

“The Iroquois lived in northern New York. As warriors, they were so fierce that by the end of the seventeenth century they controlled the land and many of the tribes, from the Ottawa River in Ohio south to the Cumberland River in Tennessee, and westward from Maine to Lake Michigan. They made friends with the early Dutch, from whom they obtained firearms, and with these new weapons of war they became even bolder. Iroquois moccasins left imprints as far west as the Black hills of South Dakota. The warriors fought the Catawbas in South Carolina, and they invaded the villages of the Creeks in Florida. …

“Most Indians usually formed small war parties under a leader, but the Iroquois often mustered large armies. In 1654, for example, a party of 1800 Iroquois attacked a village of the Erie, a Pennsylvania tribe of Iroquois blood, which had between 3000 and 4000 warriors. So fiercely did the New York Iroquois fight that even against such odds they were victorious. At another time in their bloody history, a party of Mohawk and Seneca Indians numbering close to 1000 invaded the Huron north of Toronto, Canada. In two days of fighting they burned two Huron towns, took untold captives, and returned home with much loot.

“Captive, including men, women, and children, were always taken on such raids. The captive men replaced Iroquois husbands or sons lost in battle. The children were adopted into families, and the captive women often married into the tribe. Those not so fortunate became slaves… Captives served to keep the tribe large and strong.”

EvX: The Wikipedia page on the Iroquois Confederacy is pretty interesting. In the debate over etymology section, this historical bit stood out:

Peter Bakker has proposed a Basque origin for “Iroquois”. Basque fishermen and whalers are known to have frequented the waters of the Northeast in the 1500s, so much so that a Basque-based pidgin developed for communication with the Algonquian tribes of the region. Bakker claims that it is unlikely that “-quois” derives from a root specifically used to refer to the Iroquois, citing as evidence that several other Indian tribes of the region were known to the French by names terminating in the same element, e.g. “Armouchiquois”, “Charioquois”, “Excomminquois”, and “Souriquois”. He proposes instead that the word derives from hilokoa (via the intermediate form irokoa), from the Basque roots hil “to kill”, ko (the locative genitive suffix), and a (the definite article suffix). In favor of an original form beginning with /h/, Bakker cites alternate spellings such as “hyroquois” sometimes found in documents from the period, and the fact that in the Southern dialect of Basque the word hil is pronounced il. He also argues that the /l/ was rendered as /r/ since the former is not attested in the phonemic inventory of any language in the region (including Maliseet, which developed an /l/ later). Thus the word according to Bakker is translatable as “the killer people,” and is similar to other terms used by Eastern Algonquian tribes to refer to the Iroquois which translate as “murderers”.[12][13]

*Adds this to her list of speculations about Basque and Portuguese fishing routes*

With the formation of the League, the impact of internal conflicts was minimized, the council of fifty thereafter ruled on disputes,[36] displacing raiding traditions and most of the impulsive actions by hotheaded warriors onto surrounding peoples. This allowed the Iroquois to increase in numbers while pushing down rival nations’ numbers.[36] The political cohesion of the Iroquois rapidly became one of the strongest forces in 17th- and 18th-century northeastern North America; though only occasionally used as representations of all five tribes until about 1678,[36] when negotiations between the governments of Pennsylvania and New York seemed to awake the power.[36] Thereafter, the editors of American Heritage write the Iroquois became very adroit at playing the French off against the British,[36] as individual tribes had played the Swedes, Dutch, and English.[36]


Anyway, since the Iroquois Confederacy predates the arrival of written records in the area, it’s not clear exactly when it formed. Some people claim 1142 AD; others claim around 1450. I’m sure these claims are fraught with personal/political ideologies and biases, but someone has to be correct.

The Iroquois are a mix of horticulturalists, farmers, fishers, gatherers and hunters, though their main diet traditionally has come from farming. The main crops they cultivated are corn, beans and squash, which were called the three sisters (De-oh-há-ko) and are considered special gifts from the Creator. These crops are grown strategically. The cornstalks grow, the bean plants climb the stalks, and the squash grow beneath, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil moist under the shade of their broad leaves. In this combination, the soil remained fertile for several decades. The food was stored during the winter, and it lasted for two to three years. When the soil in one area eventually lost its fertility, the Haudenosaunee moved their village.

Gathering is the traditional job of the women and children. Wild roots, greens, berries and nuts were gathered in the summer. During spring, sap is tapped from the maple trees and boiled into maple syrup, and herbs are gathered for medicine. The Iroquois hunted mostly deer but also other game such as wild turkey and migratory birds. Muskrat and beaver were hunted during the winter. Fishing was also a significant source of food because the Iroquois had villages mostly in the St.Lawrence area. They fished salmon, trout, bass, perch and whitefish until the St. Lawrence became too polluted by industry. In the spring the Iroquois netted, and in the winter fishing holes were made in the ice.[112] Allium tricoccum is also a part of traditional Iroquois cuisine.[113]

Apparently the Cherokee are also an Iroquoian-speaking people (not all Iroquoian-language-speaking peoples were part of the Confederacy.) I’ll be writing more about the Cherokee later, but I find this rather significant–the Cherokee are notable for having developed their own writing system after simply observing Europeans reading letters, and soon had their own printing presses, newspapers, books, etc. The Iroquois had a stable, long-term political organization based on mutual agreement rather than conquest. The Cherokee sent aid to the Irish during the Great Potato Famine; the Iroquois declared war on Germany in 1917 and again in 1942.

When Europeans first arrived in North America, the Haudenosaunee were based in what is now the northeastern United States, primarily in what is referred to today as Central New York west of the Hudson River and through the Finger Lakes region, and upstate New York along the St. Lawrence River area downstream to today’s Montreal.[26]

French, Dutch and British colonists in both Canada and the Thirteen Colonies recognized a need to gain favor with the Iroquois people, who occupied a significant portion of lands west of colonial settlements. In addition, these peoples established lucrative fur trading with the Iroquois, which was favorable to both sides. The colonists also sought to establish positive relations to secure their borders.

For nearly 200 years the Iroquois were a powerful factor in North American colonial policy-making decisions. Alignment with Iroquois offered political and strategic advantages to the colonies but the Iroquois preserved considerable independence. Some of their people settled in mission villages along the St. Lawrence River, becoming more closely tied to the French. While they participated in French raids on Dutch and later English settlements, where some Mohawk and other Iroquois settled, in general the Iroquois resisted attacking their own peoples.

The Iroquois remained a politically unique, undivided, large Native American polity up until the American Revolution. The League kept its treaty promises to the British Crown. But when the British were defeated, they ceded the Iroquois territory without consultation; many Iroquois had to abandon their lands in the Mohawk Valley and elsewhere and relocate in the northern lands retained by the British. …

The explorer Robert La Salle in the 17th century identified the Mosopelea as among the Ohio Valley peoples defeated by the Iroquois[47] in the early 1670s, whereas the Erie and peoples of the upper Allegheny valley were known to have fallen earlier during the Beaver Wars, while by 1676 the Susquehannock[e] were known to be broken as a power between three years of epidemic disease, war with the Iroquois, and frontier battles as settlers took advantage of the weakened tribe.[36]

According to one theory of early Iroquois history, after becoming united in the League, the Iroquois invaded the Ohio River Valley in the territories that would become the eastern Ohio Country down as far as present-day Kentucky to seek additional hunting grounds. They displaced about 1200 Siouan-speaking tribepeople of the Ohio River valley, such as the Quapaw (Akansea), Ofo (Mosopelea), and Tutelo and other closely related tribes out of the region. These tribes migrated to regions around the Mississippi River and the piedmont regions of the east coast.[48] …

Beginning in 1609, the League engaged in a decades-long series of wars, the so-called Beaver Wars, against the French, their Huron allies, and other neighboring tribes, including the Petun, Erie, and Susquehannock. Trying to control access to game for the lucrative fur trade, they put great pressure on the Algonquian peoples of the Atlantic coast (the Lenape or Delaware), the Anishinaabe peoples of the boreal Canadian Shield region, and not infrequently fought the English colonies as well. During the Beaver Wars, they were said to have defeated and assimilated the Huron (1649), Petun (1650), the Neutral Nation (1651),[53][54]Erie Tribe (1657), and Susquehannock (1680).[55] The traditional view is that these wars were a way to control the lucrative fur trade in order to access European goods on which they had become dependent.[56][page needed][57][page needed]

Recent scholarship has elaborated on this view, arguing that the Beaver Wars were an escalation of the “Mourning Wars”, which were an integral part of early Iroquoian culture.[58] This view suggests that the Iroquois launched large-scale attacks against neighboring tribes in order to avenge or replace the massive number of deaths resulting from battles or smallpox epidemics.

According to Wikipedia, “Total population for the five nations has been estimated at 20,000 before 1634. After 1635 the population dropped to around 6,800, chiefly due to the epidemic of smallpox introduced by contact with European settlers.[109]”

By the time of the American Revolution, their small numbers compared to the settlers combined with the loss of their alliance with Britain spelled the end of Confederacy as a significant strategic force in the area. Today, though, their population has increased to 125,000 people, 45k in Canada and 80k in the US.


Although the Iroquois are sometimes mentioned as examples of groups who practiced cannibalism, the evidence is mixed as to whether such a practice could be said to be widespread among the Six Nations, and to whether it was a notable cultural feature. Some anthropologists have found evidence of ritual torture and cannibalism at Iroquois sites, for example, among the Onondaga in the sixteenth century.[133][134] However, other scholars, most notably anthropologist William Arens in his controversial book, The Man-Eating Myth, have challenged the evidence, suggesting the human bones found at sites point to funerary practices, asserting that if cannibalism was practiced among the Iroquois, it was not widespread.[135] Modern anthropologists seem to accept the probability that cannibalism did exist among the Iroquois,[136] with Thomas Abler describing the evidence from the Jesuit Relations and archaeology as making a “case for cannibalism in early historic times…so strong that it cannot be doubted.”.[137] Scholars are also urged to remember the context for a practice that now shocks the modern Western society. Sanday reminds us that the ferocity of the Iroquois’ rituals “cannot be separated from the severity of conditions … where death from hunger, disease, and warfare became a way of life”.[138]

The missionaries Johannes Megapolensis and François-Joseph Bressani, and the fur trader Pierre-Esprit Radisson present first-hand accounts of cannibalism among the Mohawk. A common theme is ritualistic roasting and eating the heart of a captive who has been tortured and killed.[110] “To eat your enemy is to perform an extreme form of physical dominance.”[139]


Anthropology Friday Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Warriors and their Weapons (1/4) Ojibwe

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

Hello everyone, today we’re continuing with Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture. Today we are reading Indian Warriors and their Weapons.

I am sure every anthropologist has a cultural first love; for me, it was Indians. (Yes, I know, Indians have many cultures.) Such childish love, of course, must eventually encounter adult realities: Indians no longer live like their romanticized ancestors, just as whites no longer live like characters out of a Little House on the Prairie novel. But it is still good to remember what once was and how people once lived. There has been a great deal of forgetting, lately, and I don’t think that is a good thing at all.

(As usual, I’ll be using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.)

From Indian Warriors:

historical range of Ojibwe-language speakng peoples

“The Indians known today as the Ojibwa, or Chippewa, originally called themselves Anishinabe. …

“The Ojibwa lived in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and they were the largest tribe in that region. Others were the Fox, Sioux, and the Cheyenne Indians, and the Iroquois invaded the territory from time to time, too. Each of these tribes wanted the best hunting and fishing areas, as well as possession of streams where wild rice grew, and they were willing to fight for these rights They also went on the war trail to get revenge or to gain personal honor …

“After the Ojibwa obtained firearms from the French around 1664, they drove the Cheyenne and the Sioux west across the Mississippi River. They drove the Fox to the south. A battle is recorded in which twenty-seven Ojibwa fought off more than one hundred Sioux.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The first historical mention of the Ojibwe occurs in the French Jesuit Relation of 1640, a report by the missionary priests to their superiors in France. Through their friendship with the French traders (coureurs des bois and voyageurs), the Ojibwe gained guns, began to use European goods, and began to dominate their traditional enemies, the Lakota and Fox to their west and south. They drove the Sioux from the Upper Mississippi region to the area of the present-day Dakotas, and forced the Fox down from northern Wisconsin. The latter allied with the Sauk for protection.

By the end of the 18th century, the Ojibwe controlled nearly all of present-day Michigan, northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River area. They also controlled the entire northern shores of lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side and extending westward to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. In the latter area, the French Canadians called them Ojibwe or Saulteaux.

The Ojibwe (Chippewa) were part of a long-term alliance with the Anishinaabe Ottawa and Potawatomi peoples, called the Council of Three Fires. They fought against the Iroquois Confederacy, based mainly to the southeast of the Great Lakes in present-day New York, and the Sioux to the west. The Ojibwe expanded eastward, taking over the lands along the eastern shores of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

“In spring and summer the foliage of trees and bushes helped to shield the warriors as they approached their enemies, so these seasons were the usual ones for making war. An Ojibwa small war party was usually made up of volunteers, who gathered under a good leader…

“The Ojibwa early allied themselves with the French. First they supplied them with furs, and later they fought with them against the English. An Ojibwa could get a good flintlock gun at a French trading post for two beaver pelts. The English, however, were not as generous with their allies, the Iroquois and the Sioux.

“Personal bravery was not lacking among the Ojibwa. In one case, which is recorded, a small group of hunters were attacked by a large number of Sioux. Telling his companions to flee, one of the Ojibwa took a stand behind a fallen tree, and there he held back the Sioux as he sent arrow after arrow in their direction… His friends managed to escape, but at last one of the Sioux warriors’ arrows found its mark, killing the Ojibwa. When the escaping Ojibwa returned to their own village they raised a war party, as was customary, and they avenged the death of the lone Ojibwa soon after. …

Hereby it is manifest that, during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man. — Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 13, 1651

Five Ojibwe chiefs photographed in the 19th century.

EvX: 1651 is a long time ago, but note that Europeans had first encountered Native Americans just over 150 years before–plenty of time for accounts of native lifestyles to be widely read in Europe.

“During the spring and summer the Ojibwa held their dances as well as making war…

“At these dances the Ojibwa appeared in their finest costumes. In early days they painted designs on their garments. Later they embroidered them with moose hair, and finally they decorated them with the imported trade beads. By the early 1800s costumes were made of black and dark-blue velvet and broadcloth. On the dark background flower-and-leaf designs, made with beads of light and dark green light blue, shades of red and pink, white, and lavender, and yellow, looked striking and colorful.”

EvX: Before we leave the Ojibwa, here’s a bit more from Wikipedia:

The Ojibwe, Ojibwa, or Chippewa are an Anishinaabeg group of indigenous peoples in North America. … In Canada, they are the second-largest First Nations population, surpassed only by the Cree. In the United States, they have the fourth-largest population among Native American tribes, surpassed only by the Navajo, Cherokee, and Lakota-Dakota-Nakota peoples. …

The majority of the Ojibwe people live in Canada. There are 77,940 mainline Ojibwe; 76,760 Saulteaux and 8,770 Mississaugas, organized in 125 bands, and living from western Quebec to eastern British Columbia. As of 2010, Ojibwe in the US census population is 170,742.[1]

Ojibwe are known for their birch barkcanoes, birch bark scrolls, mining and trade in copper, and cultivation of wild rice. Their Midewiwin Society is well respected as the keeper of detailed and complex scrolls of events, oral history, songs, maps, memories, stories, geometry, and mathematics.[2]

The Ojibwe people set the agenda with European-Canadian leaders by signing detailed treaties before they allowed many European settlers into their western areas. In 1745, they adopted guns from the British to defeat the Dakota people in the Lake Superior area, pushing them to the south and west. …

They developed a form of pictorial writing, used in religious rites of the Midewiwin and recorded on birch bark scrolls and possibly on rock. The many complex pictures on the sacred scrolls communicate much historical, geometrical, and mathematical knowledge. The use of petroforms, petroglyphs, and pictographs was common throughout the Ojibwe traditional territories. Petroforms and medicine wheels were a way to teach the important concepts of four directions and astronomical observations about the seasons, and to use as a memorizing tool for certain stories and beliefs.

example of an Ojibwa / Ojibwe Indian birch bark scroll piece or Wiigwaasabak with drawings

It would be nice if Wikipedia added some dates or sources for this paragraph, but the page on Midewiwin notes:

Early accounts of the Mide from books written in the 1800s describe a group of elders that protected the birch bark scrolls in hidden locations. They recopied the scrolls if any were badly damaged, and they preserved them underground. … The historical areas of the Ojibwe were recorded, and stretched from the east coast all the way to the prairies by way of lake and river routes. Some of the first maps of rivers and lakes were made by the Ojibwe and written on birch bark.

The Teachings of the Midewiwin were scratched on birch bark scrolls and were shown to the young men upon entrance into the society. Although these were crude pictographs representing the ceremonies, they show us that the Ojibwa were advanced in the development of picture ‘writing.’ Some of them were painted on bark. One large birch bark roll was ‘known to have been used in the Midewiwin at Mille Lacs for five generations and perhaps many generations before’,[6] and two others, found in a seemingly deliberate hiding place in the Head-of-the-Lakes region of Ontario,[7] were carbon-dated to about 1560 CE +/-70.[8]

Back in the main Wikipedia article on the Ojibwe, it is claimed:

Often, treaties known as “Peace and Friendship Treaties” were made to establish community bonds between the Ojibwe and the European settlers. These established the groundwork for cooperative resource-sharing between the Ojibwe and the settlers. The United States and Canada viewed later treaties offering land cessions as offering territorial advantages. The Ojibwe did not understand the land cession terms in the same way because of the cultural differences in understanding the uses of land. The governments of the US and Canada considered land a commodity of value that could be freely bought, owned and sold.

The Ojibwe believed it was a fully shared resource, along with air, water and sunlight—despite having an understanding of “territory”. At the time of the treaty councils, they could not conceive of separate land sales or exclusive ownership of land. Consequently, today, in both Canada and the US, legal arguments in treaty-rights and treaty interpretations often bring to light the differences in cultural understanding of treaty terms to come to legal understanding of the treaty obligations.[11]

You hear this notion that “Indians had no concept of land ownership” quite often. But if so, why bother to go to war against the Dakotas, and push them out of their lands? If I maybe a bit cynical, perhaps it’s a matter of “I understand this concept perfectly well when it is beneficial, and am suddenly unable to understand it when it is not.”

To be continued…


The People Who Went Down the Rivers: Origin of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

I recently received a question from Quas Lacrimas:

“What (if anything) do you make of the fact that Proto-Tibetan and Proto-Sinitic were sister languages, but Tibetans and Han are so genetically disparate?”

My first response was that, assuming the question itself was correct, then one group must have conquered the other group, imparting its language but not its DNA.

On further reflection, though, I decided it’d be best to check whether the question’s initial premises were correct.

Sino-Tibetan, it turns out, is a legit language family:

The Sino-Tibetan languages, in a few sources also known as Tibeto-Burman or Trans-Himalayan, are a family of more than 400 languages spoken in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The family is second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of the number of native speakers. The Sino-Tibetan languages with the most native speakers are the varieties of Chinese (1.3 billion speakers), Burmese (33 million) and the Tibetic languages (8 million). Many Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by small communities in remote mountain areas and as such are poorly documented.

Map of the Sino-Tibetan language family
Red: Chinese; Yellow: Tibetan; Brown: Karen; Green: Lolo-Burmese; Orange: Other

But the claim that Tibetans and Chinese people are genetically disparate looks more questionable. While the Wikipedia page on Sino-Tibetan claims that, “There is no ethnic unity among the many peoples who speak Sino-Tibetan languages,” in the next two sentences it also claims that, “The most numerous are the Han Chinese, numbering 1.4+ billion(in China alone). The Hui (10 million) also speak Chinese but are officially classified as ethnically distinct by the Chinese government.”

But the Chinese government claiming that a group is an official ethnic group doesn’t make it a genetic group. “Hui” just means Muslim, and Muslims of any genetic background can get lumped into the group. I actually read some articles about the Hui ages ago, and as far as I recall, the category didn’t really exist in any official way prior to the modern PRC declaring that it did for census purposes. Today (or recently) there are some special perks for being an ethnic minority in China, like exceptions to the one-child policy, which lead more people to embrace their “Hui” identity and start thinking about themselves in this pan-Chinese-Muslim way rather than in terms of their local ethnic group, but none of this is genetics.

So right away I am suspicious that this claim is more “these groups see themselves as different” than “they are genetically different.” And I totally agree that Tibetan people and Chinese people are culturally distinct and probably see themselves as different groups.

For genetics, let’s turn back to Haak et al’s representation of global genetics:

Haak et all’s full dataset










Just in case you’re new around here, the part dominated by bright blue is sub-Saharan Africans, the yellow is Asians, and the orange is Caucasians. I’ve made a map to make it easier to visualize the distribution of these groups:

Asian, Australian, and Melanesian ethic groups (including Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese) from Haak et al’s dataset

This dataset doesn’t have a Tibetan group, but it does have the Nepalese Kusunda, Mongolic Tu (a Mongolic-language speaking people in China), and the Burmese Lahu. So it’s a start.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the groups in the Sino-Tibetan language family do not look all that genetically distinct, at least not on a global scale. They’re more similar than Middle Easterners and Europeans, despite the fact that Anatolian farmers invaded Europe several thousand years ago.

The Wikipedia page on Sino-Tibetan notes:

J. A. Matisoff proposed that the urheimat of the Sino-Tibetan languages was around the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Mekong. This view is in accordance with the hypothesis that bubonic plague, cholera, and other diseases made the easternmost foothills of the Himalayas between China and India difficult for people outside to migrate in but relatively easily for the indigenous people, who had been adapted to the environment, to migrate out.[68]

The Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong rivers, as you might have already realized if you took a good look at the map at the beginning of the post, all begin in Tibet.

Since Tibet was recently conquered by China, I was initially thinking that perhaps an ancient Chinese group had imposed their language on the Tibetans some time in the remote past, but Tibetans heading downstream and possibly conquering the people below makes a lot more sense.

oh look, it’s our friends the Ainu

According to About World Languages, Proto-Sino-Tibetan may have split into its Tibeto- and Sinitic- branches about 4,000 BC. This is about the same time Proto-Indo-European started splitting up, so we have some idea of what a language family looks like when it’s that old; much older, and the languages start becoming so distinct that reconstruction becomes more difficult.

But if we look at the available genetic data a little more closely, we see that there are some major differences between Tibetans and their Sinitic neighbors–most notably, many Tibetan men belong to Y-Chromosome haplogroup D, while most Han Chinese men belong to haplogroup O with a smattering of Haplogroup C, which may have arrived via the Mongols.

According to Wikipedia:

The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is found among nearly all the populations of Central Asia and Northeast Asia south of the Russian border, although generally at a low frequency of 2% or less. A dramatic spike in the frequency of D-M174 occurs as one approaches the Tibetan Plateau. D-M174 is also found at high frequencies among Japanese people, but it fades into low frequencies in Korea and China proper between Japan and Tibet.


It is found today at high frequency among populations in Tibet, the Japanese archipelago, and the Andaman Islands, though curiously not in India. The Ainu of Japan are notable for possessing almost exclusively Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes, although Haplogroup C-M217 chromosomes also have been found in 15% (3/20) of sampled Ainu males. Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes are also found at low to moderate frequencies among populations of Central Asia and northern East Asia as well as the Han and Miao–Yao peoples of China and among several minority populations of Sichuan and Yunnan that speak Tibeto-Burman languages and reside in close proximity to the Tibetans.[5]

Unlike haplogroup C-M217, Haplogroup D-M174 is not found in the New World…

Haplogroup D-M174 is also remarkable for its rather extreme geographic differentiation, with a distinct subset of Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes being found exclusively in each of the populations that contains a large percentage of individuals whose Y-chromosomes belong to Haplogroup D-M174: Haplogroup D-M15 among the Tibetans (as well as among the mainland East Asian populations that display very low frequencies of Haplogroup D-M174 Y-chromosomes), Haplogroup D-M55 among the various populations of the Japanese Archipelago, Haplogroup D-P99 among the inhabitants of Tibet, Tajikistan and other parts of mountainous southern Central Asia, and paragroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades (probably another monophyletic branch of Haplogroup D) among the Andaman Islanders. Another type (or types) of paragroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades is found at a very low frequency among the Turkic and Mongolic populations of Central Asia, amounting to no more than 1% in total. This apparently ancient diversification of Haplogroup D-M174 suggests that it may perhaps be better characterized as a “super-haplogroup” or “macro-haplogroup.” In one study, the frequency of Haplogroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades found among Thais was 10%.

Haplogroup D’s sister clade, Haplogroup E, (both D and E are descended from Haplogroup DE), is found almost exclusively in Africa.

Haplogroup D is therefore very ancient, estimated at 50-60,000 years old. Haplogroup O, by contrast, is only about 30,000 years old.

On the subject of Han genetics, Wikipedia states:

Y-chromosome haplogroup O3 is a common DNA marker in Han Chinese, as it appeared in China in prehistoric times. It is found in more than 50% of Chinese males, and ranging up to over 80% in certain regional subgroups of the Han ethnicity.[100] However, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Han Chinese increases in diversity as one looks from northern to southern China, which suggests that male migrants from northern China married with women from local peoples after arriving in modern-day Guangdong, Fujian, and other regions of southern China.[101][102] … Another study puts Han Chinese into two groups: northern and southern Han Chinese, and it finds that the genetic characteristics of present-day northern Han Chinese was already formed as early as three-thousand years ago in the Central Plain area.[109]

(Note that 3,000 years ago is potentially a thousand years after the first expansion of Proto-Sino-Tibetan.)

The estimated contribution of northern Hans to southern Hans is substantial in both paternal and maternal lineages and a geographic cline exists for mtDNA. As a result, the northern Hans are the primary contributors to the gene pool of the southern Hans. However, it is noteworthy that the expansion process was dominated by males, as is shown by a greater contribution to the Y-chromosome than the mtDNA from northern Hans to southern Hans. These genetic observations are in line with historical records of continuous and large migratory waves of northern China inhabitants escaping warfare and famine, to southern China.

Interestingly, the page on Tibetans notes, ” It is thought that most of the Tibeto-Burman-speakers in Southwest China, including the Tibetans, are direct descendants from the ancient Qiang.[6]

On the Qiang:

The term “Qiang” appears in the Classic of Poetry in reference to Tang of Shang (trad. 1675–1646 BC).[14] They seem to have lived in a diagonal band from northern Shaanxi to northern Henan, somewhat to the south of the later Beidi. They were enemy of the Shang dynasty, who mounted expeditions against them, capturing slaves and victims for human sacrifice. The Qiang prisoners were skilled in making oracle bones.[15]

This ancient tribe is said to be the progenitor of both the modern Qiang and the Tibetan people.[16] There are still many ethnological and linguistic links between the Qiang and the Tibetans.[16] The Qiang tribe expanded eastward and joined the Han people in the course of historical development, while the other branch that traveled southwards, crosses over the Hengduan Mountains, and entered the Yungui Plateau; some went even farther, to Burma, forming numerous ethnic groups of the Tibetan-Burmese language family.[17] Even today, from linguistic similarities, their relative relationship can be seen.

So here’s what I think happened (keeping in mind that I am in no way an expert on these subjects):

  1. About 8,000 years ago: neolithic people lived in Asia. (People of some sort have been living in Asia since Homo erectus, after all.) The ancestors of today’s Sino-Tibetans lived atop the Tibetan plateau.
  2. About 6,000 years ago: the Tibetans headed downstream, following the course of local rivers. In the process, the probably conquered and absorbed many of the local tribes they encountered.
  3. About 4,000 years ago: the Han and Qiang are ethnically and linguistically distinct, though the Qiang are still fairly similar to the Tibetans.
  4. The rest of Chinese history: Invasion from the north. Not only did the Mongols invade and kill somewhere between 20 and 60 million Chinese people in the 13th century, but there were also multiple of invasions/migrations by people who were trying to get away from the Mongols.

Note that while the original proto-Sino-Tibetan invasion likely spread Tibetan Y-Chromosomes throughout southern China, the later Mongol and other Chinese invasions likely wiped out a large percent of those same chromosomes, as invaders both tend to be men and to kill men; women are more likely to survive invasions.

Most recently, of course, the People’s Republic of China conquered Tibet in 1951.

I’m sure there’s a lot I’m missing that would be obvious to an expert.