I just want to highlight this graph I came across yesterday while trying to research archaic introgression in the Igbo:


From Whole-genome sequence analysis of a Pan African set of samples reveals archaic gene flow from an extinct basal population of modern humans into sub-Saharan populations, by Lorente-Galdos et al.

There are three versions of this graph in the paper (check the supplemental materials for two of them), all showing about the same thing. It is supposed to be a graph of population size at different times in the past, and the most incredible thing is that for the past 100,000 years or so, the most numerically dominant populations in Africa were the Baka Pygmies, followed by various Bushmen (San) groups. The authors write:

To unravel the ancient demographic history of the African populations that are present in our data set, we used the Pairwise Sequentially Markovian Coalescent (PSMC) model that analyzes the dynamics of the effective population size over time [60]. We included at least one representative of each of the 15 African populations and two Eurasian samples in the analysis (Additional file 1: Figure S7.1) and considered both the classical mutation rate of 2.5 × 10−8 [61] and the 1.2 × 10−8 mutations per bp per generation reported in other analyses [6263]. The demographic trajectories of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist populations are very similar to each other; and only South African Bantu and Toubou individuals differ partly from the rest of sub-Saharan farmer samples; however, their considerable levels of admixture with other North African or hunter-gatherer populations (Fig. 2b) might explain this trend. Therefore, in order to ease visualization, we plotted a Yoruba individual (Yoruba_HGDP00936) and two Ju|‘hoansi individuals as representatives of the sub-Saharan agriculturalist and Khoisan populations, respectively (Fig. 3 and Additional file 1: Figure S7.2 considering a mutation rate of 1.2 × 10−8).

The authors note that the apparent large size of the pygmy groups could have been due to groups splitting and merging and thus getting more DNA variety than they would normally. It’s all very speculative. But still, the Baka Pygmies could have been the absolutely dominant group over central Africa for centuries.

What happened?



Because it is Ours: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

Yes, caring about your own stuff or your own culture’s stuff over another people’s stuff shows in-group bias. That was inherent back there in the words “your own.” It’s yours. Of course you care about it.

Only deities achieve perfect love. Even Jesus does not call on people to love strangers; he commands his followers to love each other and love their neighbors.

What does tamed mean?” [asked the Little Prince] …

“It means to create ties,”… the fox said. “For me, you’re only a little boy, like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you, and you have no need of me, either. For you I’m only a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me we’ll need each other. You’ll be the only boy in the world for me. I’ll be the only fox in the world for you.” …

And [the Prince] felt very unhappy. His flower had told him she was the only one of her kind in the whole universe. And here were five thousand of them, all alike, in just one garden! ….

And then he said to himself, I thought I was rich because I had one flower, and all I own is an ordinary rose… and he lay down and wept. …

Then [the fox] added, “Go look at the roses again. You’ll understand that yours is the only rose in all the world.”

The Little Prince went to look at the roses again. “You’re not at all like my rose. You’re nothing at all, yet,” he told them. “No one has tamed you and you haven’t tamed anyone. You’re the way my fox was. … But I’ve made him my friend, and now he’s the only fox in all the world.” …

“Of course, an ordinary passerby would think my rose looked just like you. But my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of you together, since she’s the one I watered. … Since she’s my rose.”

— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

3The inverse of loving what is yours is that you do not love what is not yours.

Part of the bittersweetness of the Little Prince is how closely it parallels the author’s own life, for not only did Saint-Exupery crash land in the Sahara, and not only was the rose based on his own wife, but he also fell from the sky and died when his plane was shot down over the Mediterranean during WWII.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart follows the life of Okonkwo, a (fictional) Nigerian Igbo man who lived in a small village in the 1890s. The story follows Okonkwo’s determination to rise from nothing, slough off the shame of his father’s laziness, cowardice, and debt, and make a name for himself. Through Okonkwo’s eyes, we see the culture of the Onitsha Igbo, a real people, prior to the arrival of the British.

Then Okonkwo murders his foster son because the village authorities decided he should be killed (to avenge the death of a woman from Okonkwo’s tribe) and, as the title says, things fall apart.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s an interesting work from a cultural, historical perspective.

We cannot justify Okonkwo’s culture, nor Okonkwo himself. I do not think Achebe means to. It was a culture that murdered innocent people, forced some to be permanent “outcasts,” and sanctioned the beating of women and children. Okonkwo beat his wives and children (and as mentioned, murdered his foster son to avoid looking “weak” or “cowardly” in front of the other villagers.)

And yet, we hear Achebe’s voice saying, it was theirs.

My mother is not perfect, yet she is mine. My people are not perfect, yet they are mine. My culture is not perfect, yet it is mine. Okonkwo was a beloved husband, friend, leader, and father. And people love what is theirs.

Of course, taking another perspective, we could also read the novel as “Sure, the British put a stop to many terrible things, but they were SMUG about it!”

I can’t put much stock in the position that otherwise moral people committed evil acts simply because of their culture, since culture itself comes from the people in it. “I was only following orders” stopped being an excuse during the Nuremberg Trials. We moderns are expected to question and resist our culture at every turn, and I am not inclined to extend to Oknkwo generosity that would not be extended to me.

Of course, the Igbo are not the only people to have done terrible things. We all have sinned. Yes, the French committed crimes in the course of colonialism. So did the British:

The British had difficulty conquering Igboland, which lacked central political organisation. In the name of liberating the Igbos from the Aro Confederacy, the British launched the Anglo-Aro War of 1901–1902. Despite conquering villages by burning houses and crops, continual political control over the Igbo remained elusive.[41][42] The British forces began annual pacification missions to convince the locals of British supremacy.[43] … 

After establishing political control of the country, the British implemented a system of taxation in order to force the indigenous Africans to shift from subsistence farming to wage labour. Sometimes forced labour was used directly for public works projects. These policies met with ongoing resistance[71][72]

Of course, the British also did their best to put an end to the international slave trade and stopped the Igbo practice of human sacrifice:

However, animals were used to remove evil from the land. At times during pestilence, palm fronds, an animal or a human being will be tied at the entrance of the town with hope that the disease will enter into these objects and spare the inhabitants. To be attacked by such animal is regarded as ill luck and these living sacrifices are not eaten by anyone. In the past, two living beings were buried along side chiefs as servants to serve him in the spirit world. Slaves were usually used for this.

You can appreciate the good in a culture–and people–without accepting their evil.

Have you finished the book, yet? What do you think of it?

If you haven’t started yet, don’t worry–we’ll continue this conversation in a week.


Book Club: The 10,000 Year Explosion pt. 6: Expansion


Welcome back to the Book Club. Today we’re discussing chapter 6 of Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: Expansions

The general assumption is that the winning advantage is cultural–that is to say, learned. Weapons, tactics, political organization, methods of agriculture: all is learned. The expansion of modern humans is the exception to the rule–most observers suspect that biological difference were the root cause of their advantage. … 

the assumption that more recent expansions are all driven by cultural factors is based on the notion that modern humans everywhere have essentially the same abilities. that’s a logical consequence of human evolutionary stasis” If humans have not undergone a significant amount of biological change since the expansion out of Africa, then people everywhere would have essentially the same potentials, and no group would have a biological advantage over its neighbors. But as we never tire of pointing out, there has been significant biological change during that period.

I remember a paper I wrote years ago (long before this blog) on South Korea’s meteoric economic rise. In those days you had to actually go to the library to do research, not just futz around on Wikipedia. My memory says the stacks were dimly lit, though that is probably just some romanticizing. 

I poured through volumes on 5 year economic plans, trying to figure out why South Korea’s were more successful than other nations’. Nothing stood out to me. Why this plan and not this plan? Did 5 or 10 years matter? 

I don’t remember what I eventually concluded, but it was probably something along the lines of “South Korea made good plans that worked.” 

People around these parts often criticize Jared Diamond for invoking environmental explanations while ignoring or directly counter-signaling their evolutionary implications, but Diamond was basically the first author I read who said anything that even remotely began to explain why some countries succeeded and others failed. 

Environment matters. Resources matter. Some peoples have long histories of civilization, others don’t. Korea has a decently long history. 

Diamond was one of many authors who broke me out of the habit of only looking at explicit things done by explicitly recognized governments, and at wider patterns of culture, history, and environment. It was while reading Peter Frost’s blog that I first encountered the phrase “gene-culture co-evolution,” which supplies the missing link. 

IQ by country

South Korea does well because 1. It’s not communist and 2. South Koreans are some of the smartest people in the world. 

I knew #1, but I could have saved myself a lot of time in the stacks if someone had just told me #2 instead of acting like SK’s economic success was a big mystery. 

The fact that every country was relatively poor before industrialization, and South Korea was particularly poor after a couple decades of warfare back and forth across the peninsula, obscures the nation’s historically high development. 

For example, the South Korean Examination system, Gwageo, was instituted in 788 (though it apparently didn’t become important until 958). Korea has had agriculture and literacy for a long time, with accompanying political and social organization. This probably has more to do with South Korea having a relatively easy time adopting the modern industrial economy than anything in particular in the governments’ plans. 

Cochran has an interesting post on his blog on Jared Diamond and Domestication: 

In fact, in my mind the real question is not why various peoples didn’t domesticate animals that we know were domesticable, but rather how anyone ever managed to domesticate the aurochs. At least twice. Imagine a longhorn on roids: they were big and aggressive, favorites in the Roman arena. … 

The idea is that at least some individual aurochs were not as hostile and fearful of humans as they ought to have been, because they were being manipulated by some parasite. … This would have made domestication a hell of a lot easier. …

The beef tape worm may not have made it through Beringia.  More generally, there were probably no parasites in the Americas that had some large mammal as intermediate host and Amerindians as the traditional definite host. 

They never mentioned parasites in gov class. 

Back to the book–I thought this was pretty interesting:

One sign of this reduced disease pressure is the unusual distribution of HLA alleles among Amerindians. the HLA system … is a group of genes that encode proteins expressed on the outer surfaces of cells. the immune system uses them to distinguish the self from non-self… their most important role is in infections disease. … 

HLA genes are among the most variable of all genes. … Because these genes are so variable, any two humans (other than identical twins) are almost certain to have a different set of them. … Natural selection therefore favors diversification of the HLA genes, and some alleles, though rare, have been persevered for a long time. In fact, some are 30 million years old, considerably older than Homo sapiens. …

But Amerindians didn’t have that diversity. Many tribes have a single HLA allele with a frequency of over 50 percent. … A careful analysis of global HLA diversity confirms continuing diversifying selection on HLA in most human populations but finds no evidence of any selection at all favoring diversity in HLA among Amerindians.

The results, of course, went very badly for the Indians–and allowed minuscule groups of Spaniards to conquer entire empires. 

The threat of European (and Asian and African) diseases wiping out native peoples continues, especially for “uncontacted” tribes. As the authors note, the Surui of Brazil numbered 800 when contacted in 1980, but only 200 in 1986, after tuberculosis had killed most of them. 

…in 1827, smallpox spared only 125 out of 1,600 Mandan Indians in what later became North Dakota.

The past is horrific. 

I find the history ancient exploration rather fascinating. Here is the frieze in Persepolis with the okapi and three Pygmies, from about 500 BC.

The authors quote Joao de Barros, a 16th century Portuguese historian: 

But it seems that for our sins, or for some inscrutable judgment of God, in all the entrances of this great Ethiopia we navigate along… He has placed a striking angel with a flaming sword of deadly fevers, who prevents us from penetrating into the interior to the springs of this garden, whence proceed these rivers of gold that flow to the sea in so many parts of our conquest.

Barros had a way with words. 

It wasn’t until quinine became widely available that Europeans had any meaningful success at conquering Africa–and even still, despite massive technological advantages, Europeans haven’t held the continent, nor have they made any significant, long-term demographic impact. 

Source: National Geographic

The book then segues into a discussion of the Indo-European expansion, which the authors suggest might have been due to the evolution of a lactase persistence gene. 

(Even though we usually refer to people as “lactose intolerance” and don’t regularly refer to people as “lactose tolerant,” it’s really tolerance that’s the oddity–most of the world’s population can’t digest lactose after childhood.

Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose.)

Since the book was published, the Indo-European expansion has been traced genetically to the Yamnaya (not to be confused with the Yanomamo) people, located originally in the steppes north of the Caucasus mountains. (The Yamnaya and Kurgan cultures were, I believe, the same.) 

An interesting linguistic note: 

Uralic languages (the language family containing Finnish and Hungarian) appear to have had extensive contact with early Indo-European, and they may share a common ancestry. 

I hope these linguistic mysteries continue to be decoded. 

The authors claim that the Indo-Europeans didn’t make a huge genetic impact on Europe, practicing primarily elite dominance–but on the other hand, A Handful of Bronze-Age Men Could Have Fathered 2/3s of Europeans:

In a new study, we have added a piece to the puzzle: the Y chromosomes of the majority of European men can be traced back to just three individuals living between 3,500 and 7,300 years ago. How their lineages came to dominate Europe makes for interesting speculation. One possibility could be that their DNA rode across Europe on a wave of new culture brought by nomadic people from the Steppe known as the Yamnaya.

That’s all for now; see you next week.

Anthropology Friday: Our Moslem Sisters pt. 3

Hausa woman, circa 1900

I desired to read a good ethnography of Middle Eastern life in the 1800s, but not happening upon one, I settled for Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, edited by Annie Van Sommer and Samuel M. Zwemer. (Published in 1907.)

Sommer, Zwemer, and the book’s other contributing authors were Christian (Calvinist) missionaries, and as such, we should keep in mind that much of the book is an explicit appeal for more funding–but they are also people who were on the ground and actually lived there, spoke the language, and befriended the locals, so their observations are not without merit.

Today’s excerpts begin with “Soudan,” which I do not think is the modern nation of “Sudan,’ but the French colony of Soudan, today Mali.

Fulani woman


“The form of Islam seen in the large centres of population in the Hausa States is that of a virile, aggressive force, in no sense effete or corrupted by the surrounding paganism. It has had no rival systems such as Hinduism or Buddhism to compete with, and until now has not come into conflict with Christianity. The distinctive characteristics of the African have, however, tended to increase in it sensualism and a laxity of morals, and this has stamped, to a large extent, the attitude toward women and the character of women as developed under its system….

“It is now generally acknowledged that these people—Fulanis—originally came from Asia, or at least are Semitic.

“They are the rulers of all this great empire, and have for a hundred years exercised a tyrannical rule over the Hausas and the pagan peoples whom they had succeeded in enslaving before British rule in turn overcame them. The Fulani women are many of them olive-colored; some are beautiful and all have the small features, thin lips, straight nose, and long straight hair associated with the Asiatic. The Fulani rulers, following the Eastern fashion, have large harems and keep their women very secluded.

“The late Emir of Zaria was terribly severe to all his people, and cruel to a degree with any of his wives who transgressed in any way or were suspected of unfaithfulness. In one instance in which a female slave had assisted one of his wives to escape, both being detected, the wife was immediately decapitated and the slave given the head in an open calabash and ordered by the Emir to fan the flies off it until next night!

“I have been admitted into the home of one such family, the home of one of the highest born of all the Fulani chiefs, saw two of the wives and bowed to them, but the two little girls of seven and eight years came to call on me. On the whole I was struck with the cheerful appearance of the wife and the sweetness of the two little girls, but the husband was a particularly nice man, I should think a kind husband, and I know a kind father. …

“The ease with which all Hausa women, but specially those of the middle and lower classes, can obtain divorce for almost any reason; also the frequency with which they can obtain redress for cruelty from their husbands in the native courts, gives them power and a position in the community not to be despised. A man, for instance, in order to get a girl of sixteen years in marriage will pay her parents a sum of perhaps ten or twelve pounds.

“If at any future time she desires to leave him and marry another man, she can do so by swearing before the native courts that they have quarrelled and that she no longer wishes to live with him. But if that is all she merely gets a paper of divorce and either herself or her next husband has to refund to the aggrieved former husband the sum originally paid for her. If, however, she can prove violence or injury from her husband she has not to pay him anything, but may even in some cases get damages.

“A girl is usually given the option of refusing the man whom her parents have arranged for her to marry. This is not often done, but I have known of some cases in which the girl has availed herself of the privilege, and stated that she prefers some one else, in which case the engagement is broken and the new marriage arranged at once with the man of her choice. …

“The existence of a large class of pagan slave girls, who have been caught and brought from their own homes and carried into the Hausa country to become members of the harem of some of the Hausas, also complicates and intensifies the evil; for this mixture only tends to lower the standards and make the facilities for sin tenfold easier….

“The knowledge that a wife may leave at will, that less labor can be got out of a cruelly-treated slave wife, and that little girls can leave home and find a place elsewhere, all have tended to make women’s lives freer, and to some extent less hard in the Central Soudan than in North Africa.”


“The same men who themselves indulge in the grossest form of immorality become very angry and cruel if there is a breath of scandal against their women. In Bahrein, a young pearl-diver heard a rumor that his sister was not a pure woman; he returned immediately from the divings and stabbed her in a most diabolical way without even inquiring as to the truth of the matter. She died in great agony from her injuries, and the brother was acquitted by a Moslem judge …

“It is a common thing for us to be asked to prescribe poison for a rival wife who has been added to the household and for the time being is the favorite. Through jealousy some of these supplanted wives plunge into a life of sin. I do not know anything more pathetic than to have to listen to a poor soul pleading for a love-philter or potion to bring back the so-called love of a perfidious husband. Women, whether rich or poor, naturally prefer to be the only wife. … Some divorced women return to the house of their parents, while the homeless ones are most miserable and find escape from misery only in death. …

“A man may have a new wife every few months if he so desires, and in some parts of Arabia this is a common state of affairs among the rich chiefs. The result of all this looseness of morals is indescribable. Unnatural vice abounds, and so do contagious diseases which are the inheritance of poor little children.

“There is a very large per cent. of infant mortality partly on this account, and partly on account of gross ignorance in the treatment of the diseases of childhood. …


“Lady Ann Blunt, who has travelled among the Bedouins, says, ‘In more than one sheikh’s tent it is the women’s half of it in which the politics of the tribe are settled.'”


“Called one day to see a Somali woman I missed the whip usually seen in a Somali’s house, and jokingly asked how her husband managed to keep her in order without a whip. She, taking her husband and me by the hand, said, “You are my father and this is my husband. Love unites us, and where love is there is no need for whips.”

“I was so pleased with her speech that I offered her husband, who was out of work, a subordinate place in our dispensary. Yet less than a month later I heard that he had divorced his wife and turned her out of doors….

“The following case will, I think, illustrate the usual attitude of the Arabs in the Yemen towards womankind:

“A man whose wife had been in labor two days came asking for medicine to make her well. My reply was that it was necessary to see the woman before I could give such a drug as he wished. “Well,” said he, “she will die before I allow you or any other man to see her,” and two days after I heard of her death.”


“In Beirut, among the better classes girls are not married as young as they used to be, though occasionally you hear of instances, as in the case of a woman who had eight daughters and married two of them, twins, at the age of eight. She gained nothing by this cruel act as they were soon divorced and sent home.

“One reason for child-marriages among Mohammedans in Syria is the conscription which demands for the army every young man of eighteen. The one who cannot afford to escape conscription by paid substitutes or money may be exempt if he has a wife dependent upon him. When he is sixteen or seventeen his family send off to some distant town for a young girl who is a destitute orphan, and this child is married to the youth,—she may be ten years old, or nine, or even eight, and cases are known where a girl of seven has been married to a boy of sixteen. …

“Sad stories are told of those who are put out to service, especially when they go to Turkish families. It is not very common, fortunately, for there is always the fear that the men in the family, regarding them as lawful prey, will ill-treat them. Girls disgraced in this way have a terrible fate.

“A friend came to us one day, weeping because of a dreadful thing which had just come to her knowledge, too late, alas! for any help to be given. The daughter of a neighbor, a poor man, had been sent out to service, and the worst befell her. She was sent home in disgrace,—her father was obliged to receive her, but he would not recognize her or have anything to do with her till one day he ordered her to go out into the garden and dig in a spot he indicated. Each day he came to see what she had accomplished, till at last there was a hole deep enough for her to stand in, her full height. Her father then called his brothers, they brought lime, poured it over her, and then buried the child alive in the hole she herself had dug. She was only twelve years old! …

“I must not omit to say that in the smaller Mohammedan settlements where there is much intermarrying in families, there is almost no divorce, for even if a man wishes it, he must be very courageous to brave the united wrath of the whole circle of female relatives or of his enraged uncle or cousin, who resents bitterly having his daughter sent back to her home. …

Druze woman wearing a tantour, 1870s, Lebanon

“Among the Druzes, divorce is even more common than it is among the true Mohammedans, and the state of morals is very low. The Druzes are an interesting, even fascinating people. They live on the Lebanons and inland on the Druze mountains of the Hauran, and are a warlike independent race, of fine physique, and most polished, courteous manners. Some of their women are very beautiful and their peculiar costumes are most becoming and picturesque. … As was said before, they are classed with the Mohammedans although they have their own prophet, Hakim, and they take pride in having their own secret religion, which is little more than a brotherhood for political purposes.”

EvX: The book makes no mention of the Yazidis, but these days they post on Twitter about how matters stand between them and their neighbors, the Islamic State:

I was pregnant and taken as sex slave with my five years daughter by SuNn! Neighbors. After ISIS killed my husband and almost all members of our family I decided to suicide, I took poison but didn’t die, I lost my unborn baby. I was sold many times.


Totemism and Exogamy, pt. 3/3: Mundas, Khonds, and Herero

Welcome to our final installment of James Frazer’s Totemism and Exogamy, published in 1910. Here are some hopefully interesting excerpts (as usual, quotes are in “” instead of blocks):


Birsa Munda, 1875–1900, “Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe.”

“Another large Dravidian tribe of Chota Nagpur who retain totemism and exogamy are the Mundas. Physically they are among the finest of the aboriginal tribes of the plateau. The men are about five feet six in height, their bodies lithe and muscular, their skin of the darkest brown or almost black, their features coarse, with broad flat noses, low foreheads, and thick lips. Thus from the physical point of view the Mundas are pure Dravidians. Yet curiously  enough they speak a language which differs radically from the true Dravidian. … This interesting family of language is now known to be akin to the Mon-Khmer languages of Further India as well as to the Nicobarese and the dialects of certain wild tribes of Malacca. It is perhaps the language which has been longest spoken in India, and may well have been universally diffused over the whole of that country as well as Malacca before the tide of invasion swept it away from vast areas and left it outstanding only in a few places like islands or solitary towers rising from an ocean of alien tongues. …

“Another well-known Dravidian tribe of Bengal among whom totemism combined with exogamy has been discovered are the Khonds, Kondhs, or Kandhs, who inhabit a hilly tract called Kandhmals in Boad, one of the tributary states of Orissa in the extreme south of Bengal. …Their country is wild and mountainous, consisting of a labyrinth of ranges covered with dense forests of sal trees. They are a shy and timid folk, who love their wild mountain gorges and the stillness of jungle life, but eschew contact with the low-landers and flee to the most inaccessible recesses of their rugged highlands at the least alarm. They subsist by hunting and a primitive sort of agriculture, clearing patches of land for cultivation in the forest during the cold weather and firing it in the heat of summer. The seed is sown among the ashes of the burnt forest when the first rains have damped it. After the second year these rude tillers of the soil abandon the land and make a fresh clearing in the woods.

“The cruel human sacrifices which they used to offer to the Earth Goddess in order to ensure the fertility of their fields have earned for the Khonds an unenviable notoriety among the hill tribes of India. These sacrifices were at last put down by the efforts of British officers.”

The text says no more on the subject, but Wikipedia recounts:

Traditionally the Kondh religious beliefs were syncretic combining totemism, animism, Ancestor worship, shamanism and nature worship.The Kondhs gave highest importance to the Earth goddess, who is held to be the creator and sustainer of the world. Earlier Human Sacrifices called “Meriah” were offered by the Kondh to propitiate the Earth Goddess. In the Kondh society, a breach of accepted religious conduct by any member of their society invited the wrath of spirits in the form of lack of rain fall, soaking of streams, destruction of forest produce, and other natural calamities. Hence, the customary laws, norms, taboos, and values were greatly adhered to and enforced with high to heavy punishments, depending upon the seriousness of the crimes committed. The practise of traditional religion has almost become extinct today.

Meriah sacrifice post

Castes and Tribes of Southern India, (1909) assembled by K. Rangachari, recounts:

In another report, Colonel Campbell describes how the miserable victim is dragged along the fields, surrounded by a crowd of half intoxicated Khonds, who, shouting and screaming, rush upon him, and with their knives cut the flesh piecemeal from the bones, avoiding the head and bowels, till the living skeleton, dying from loss of blood, is relieved from torture, when its remains are burnt, and the ashes mixed with the new grain to preserve it from insects. Yet again, he describes a sacrifice which was peculiar to the Khonds of Jeypore. It is, he writes, always succeeded by the sacrifice of three human beings, two to the sun to the east and west of the village, and one in the centre, with the usual barbarities of the Meriah. A stout wooden post about six feet long is firmly fixed in the ground, at the foot of it a narrow grave is dug, and to the top of the post the victim is firmly fastened by the long hair of his head. Four assistants hold his out-stretched arms and legs, the body being suspended horizontally over the grave, with the face towards the earth. The officiating Junna or priest, standing on the right side, repeats the following invocation, at intervals hacking with his sacrificial knife the back part of the shrieking victims neck. O ! mighty Manicksoro, this is your festal day. To the Khonds the offering is Meriah, to kings Junna. On account of this sacrifice, you have given to kings kingdoms, guns and swords. The sacrifice we now offer you must eat, and we pray that our battle-axes may be converted into swords, our bows and arrows into gunpowder and balls ; and, if we have any quarrels with other tribes, give us the victory.

Let’s return to Frazer:

“While totemism combined with exogamy is widely spread among the aboriginal tribes of India, it is remarkable that no single indubitable case of it has been recorded, so far as I know, in all the rest of the vast continent of Asia. In the preceding chapters we have traced this curious system of society and superstition from Australia through the islands of Torres Straits, New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, and India. On the eastern frontier of India totemism stops abruptly, and in our totemic survey of the world we shall not meet with any clear evidence of it again till we pass to Africa or America. If we leave India out of account, Asia, like Europe, is practically a blank in a totemic map of the world.”

EvX: Too bad there’s no MAP. A map would have been useful.

Herero woman


“When we pass from Asia to Africa the evidence for the existence of totemism and exogamy again becomes comparatively copious ; for the system is found in vogue among Bantu tribes both of Southern and of Central Africa as well as among some of the pure negroes of the West Coast. We begin with the Herero, Ovaherero, or Damaras as they used to be called, who inhabit German South-West Africa.

“The Herero are a tall finely-built race of nomadic herdsmen belonging to the Bantu stock, who seem to have migrated into their present country from the north and east some hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago. The desert character of the country and its seclusion from the world long combined to preserve the primitive manners of the inhabitants. A scanty and precarious rainfall compels them to shift their dwellings from place to place in order to find pasture for their cattle ; and an arid, absolutely rainless coast of dreary sandhills affords no allurement to the passing mariner to land on the inhospitable shore. … But when the first rains, accompanied by thunderstorms of tremendous violence, have fallen, the whole scene changes as by magic. The wastes are converted into meadows of living green, gay with a profusion of beautiful flowers and fragrant with a wealth of aromatic grasses and herbs … Now is the time when the cattle roam at large on the limitless prairies, and beasts of all kinds descend from their summer haunts in the mountains, bringing life and animation where the silence and solitude of death had reigned before. …

“In their native state the Herero are a purely pastoral people, though round about the mission stations some of them have learned to till the ground. They possess, or used to possess, immense herds of cattle and flocks of sheep and goats. These are the pride and joy of their hearts, almost their idols. Their riches are measured by their cattle ; he who has none is of no account in the tribe. Men of the highest standing count it an honour to tend the kine ; the sons of the most powerful chiefs are obliged to lead for a time the life of simple herdsmen. They subsist chiefly on the milk of their herds, which they commonly drink sour. From a motive of superstition they never wash the milk vessels, believing firmly that if they did so the cows would yield no
more milk. Of the flesh they make but little use, for they seldom kill any of their cattle, and never a cow, a calf, or a lamb. Even oxen and wethers are only slaughtered on solemn and festal occasions, such as visits, burials, and the like. Such slaughter is a great event in a village, and young and old flock from far and near to partake of the meat.

“Their huts are of a round beehive shape, about ten feet in diameter. …

“A special interest attaches to the Herero because they are the first people we have met with in our survey who undoubtedly combine totemism with a purely pastoral life ; hitherto the totemic tribes whom we have encountered have been for the most part either hunters or husbandmen…”

EvX: The text claims that the Herero do not wash the vessels they use for holding and storing milk, but if I recall correctly, they actually use urine to this effect, due to their area being quite dry. (Frazer may not have considered urine a cleaning agent, or may have simply been ignorant on this matter.)

North Africa in Genetics and History

detailed map of African and Middle Eastern ethnicities in Haaks et al’s dataset

North Africa is an often misunderstood region in human genetics. Since it is in Africa, people often assume that it contains the same variety of people referenced in terms like “African Americans,” “black Africans,” or even just “Africans.” In reality, the African content contains members of all three of the great human clades–Sub-Saharan Africans in the south, Polynesians (Asian clade) in Madagascar, and Caucasians in the north.

The North African Middle Stone Age and its place in recent human evolution provides an overview of the first 275,000 years of humanity’s history in the region(300,000-25,000 years ago, more or less), including the development of symbolic culture and early human dispersal. Unfortunately the paper is paywalled.

Throughout most of human history, the Sahara–not the Mediterranean or Red seas–has been the biggest local impediment to human migration–thus North Africans are much closer, genetically, to their neighbors in Europe and the Middle East than their neighbors across the desert (and before the domestication of the camel, about 3,000 years ago, the Sahara was even harder to cross.)

But from time to time, global weather patterns change and the Sahara becomes a garden: the Green Sahara. The last time we had a Green Sahara was about 9-7,000 years ago; during this time, people lived, hunted, fished, herded and perhaps farmed throughout areas that are today nearly uninhabited wastes.

The Peopling of the last Green Sahara revealed by high-coverage resequencing of trans-Saharan patrilineages sheds light on how the Green (and subsequently brown) Sahara affected the spread (and separation) of African groups into northern and sub-Saharan:

In order to investigate the role of the last Green Sahara in the peopling of Africa, we deep-sequence the whole non-repetitive portion of the Y chromosome in 104 males selected as representative of haplogroups which are currently found to the north and to the south of the Sahara. … We find that the coalescence age of the trans-Saharan haplogroups dates back to the last Green Sahara, while most northern African or sub-Saharan clades expanded locally in the subsequent arid phase. …

Our findings suggest that the Green Sahara promoted human movements and demographic expansions, possibly linked to the adoption of pastoralism. Comparing our results with previously reported genome-wide data, we also find evidence for a sex-biased sub-Saharan contribution to northern Africans, suggesting that historical events such as the trans-Saharan slave trade mainly contributed to the mtDNA and autosomal gene pool, whereas the northern African paternal gene pool was mainly shaped by more ancient events.

In other words, modern North Africans have some maternal (female) Sub-Saharan DNA that arrived recently via the Islamic slave trade, but most of their Sub-Saharan Y-DNA (male) is much older, hailing from the last time the Sahara was easy to cross.

Note that not much DNA is shared across the Sahara:

After the African humid period, the climatic conditions became rapidly hyper-arid and the Green Sahara was replaced by the desert, which acted as a strong geographic barrier against human movements between northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

A consequence of this is that there is a strong differentiation in the Y chromosome haplogroup composition between the northern and sub-Saharan regions of the African continent. In the northern area, the predominant Y lineages are J-M267 and E-M81, with the former being linked to the Neolithic expansion in the Near East and the latter reaching frequencies as high as 80 % in some north-western populations as a consequence of a very recent local demographic expansion [810]. On the contrary, sub-Saharan Africa is characterised by a completely different genetic landscape, with lineages within E-M2 and haplogroup B comprising most of the Y chromosomes. In most regions of sub-Saharan Africa, the observed haplogroup distribution has been linked to the recent (~ 3 kya) demic diffusion of Bantu agriculturalists, which brought E-M2 sub-clades from central Africa to the East and to the South [1117]. On the contrary, the sub-Saharan distribution of B-M150 seems to have more ancient origins, since its internal lineages are present in both Bantu farmers and non-Bantu hunter-gatherers and coalesce long before the Bantu expansion [1820].

In spite of their genetic differentiation, however, northern and sub-Saharan Africa share at least four patrilineages at different frequencies, namely A3-M13, E-M2, E-M78 and R-V88.

A recent article in Nature, “Whole Y-chromosome sequences reveal an extremely recent origin of the most common North African paternal lineage E-M183 (M81),” tells some of North Africa’s fascinating story:

Here, by using whole Y chromosome sequences, we intend to shed some light on the historical and demographic processes that modelled the genetic landscape of North Africa. Previous studies suggested that the strategic location of North Africa, separated from Europe by the Mediterranean Sea, from the rest of the African continent by the Sahara Desert and limited to the East by the Arabian Peninsula, has shaped the genetic complexity of current North Africans15,16,17. Early modern humans arrived in North Africa 190–140 kya (thousand years ago)18, and several cultures settled in the area before the Holocene. In fact, a previous study by Henn et al.19 identified a gradient of likely autochthonous North African ancestry, probably derived from an ancient “back-to-Africa” gene flow prior to the Holocene (12 kya). In historic times, North Africa has been populated successively by different groups, including Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals and Byzantines. The most important human settlement in North Africa was conducted by the Arabs by the end of the 7th century. Recent studies have demonstrated the complexity of human migrations in the area, resulting from an amalgam of ancestral components in North African groups15,20.

According to the article, E-M81 is dominant in Northwest Africa and absent almost everywhere else in the world.

The authors tested various men across north Africa in order to draw up a phylogenic tree of the branching of E-M183:

The distribution of each subhaplogroup within E-M183 can be observed in Table 1 and Fig. 2. Indeed, different populations present different subhaplogroup compositions. For example, whereas in Morocco almost all subhaplogorups are present, Western Sahara shows a very homogeneous pattern with only E-SM001 and E-Z5009 being represented. A similar picture to that of Western Sahara is shown by the Reguibates from Algeria, which contrast sharply with the Algerians from Oran, which showed a high diversity of haplogroups. It is also worth to notice that a slightly different pattern could be appreciated in coastal populations when compared with more inland territories (Western Sahara, Algerian Reguibates).

Overall, the authors found that the haplotypes were “strikingly similar” to each other and showed little geographic structure besides the coastal/inland differences:

As proposed by Larmuseau et al.25, the scenario that better explains Y-STR haplotype similarity within a particular haplogroup is a recent and rapid radiation of subhaplogroups. Although the dating of this lineage has been controversial, with dates proposed ranging from Paleolithic to Neolithic and to more recent times17,22,28, our results suggested that the origin of E-M183 is much more recent than was previously thought. … In addition to the recent radiation suggested by the high haplotype resemblance, the pattern showed by E-M183 imply that subhaplogroups originated within a relatively short time period, in a burst similar to those happening in many Y-chromosome haplogroups23.

In other words, someone went a-conquering.

Alternatively, given the high frequency of E-M183 in the Maghreb, a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa could be envisaged, which would fit the clear pattern of longitudinal isolation by distance reported in genome-wide studies15,20. Moreover, the presence of autochthonous North African E-M81 lineages in the indigenous population of the Canary Islands, strongly points to North Africa as the most probable origin of the Guanche ancestors29. This, together with the fact that the oldest indigenous inviduals have been dated 2210 ± 60 ya, supports a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa. Within this scenario, it is also worth to mention that the paternal lineage of an early Neolithic Moroccan individual appeared to be distantly related to the typically North African E-M81 haplogroup30, suggesting again a NW African origin of E-M183. A local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa > 2200 ya is supported by our TMRCA estimates, which can be taken as 2,000–3,000, depending on the data, methods, and mutation rates used.

However, the authors also note that they can’t rule out a Middle Eastern origin for the haplogroup since their study simply doesn’t include genomes from Middle Eastern individuals. They rule out a spread during the Neolithic expansion (too early) but not the Islamic expansion (“an extensive, male-biased Near Eastern admixture event is registered ~1300 ya, coincidental with the Arab expansion20.”) Alternatively, they suggest E-M183 might have expanded near the end of the third Punic War. Sure, Carthage (in Tunisia) was defeated by the Romans, but the era was otherwise one of great North African wealth and prosperity.


Interesting papers! My hat’s off to the authors. I hope you enjoyed them and get a chance to RTWT.

Two Exciting Papers on African Genetics

I loved that movie
Nǃxau ǂToma, (aka Gcao Tekene Coma,) Bushman star of “The Gods Must be Crazy,” roughly 1944-2003

An interesting article on Clues to Africa’s Mysterious Past appeared recently in the NY Times:

It was only two years ago that researchers found the first ancient human genome in Africa: a skeleton in a cave in Ethiopia yielded DNA that turned out to be 4,500 years old.

On Thursday, an international team of scientists reported that they had recovered far older genes from bone fragments in Malawi dating back 8,100 years. The researchers also retrieved DNA from 15 other ancient people in eastern and southern Africa, and compared the genes to those of living Africans.

Let’s skip to the article, Reconstructing Prehistoric African Population Structure by Skoglund et al:

We assembled genome-wide data from 16 prehistoric Africans. We show that the anciently divergent lineage that comprises the primary ancestry of the southern African San had a wider distribution in the past, contributing approximately two-thirds of the ancestry of Malawi hunter-gatherers ∼8,100–2,500 years ago and approximately one-third of the ancestry of Tanzanian hunter-gatherers ∼1,400 years ago.

Paths of the great Bantu Migration

The San are also known as the Bushmen, a famous group of recent hunter-gatherers from southern Africa.

We document how the spread of farmers from western Africa involved complete replacement of local hunter-gatherers in some regions…

This is most likely the Great Bantu Migration, which I wrote about in Into Africa: the Great Bantu Migration.

…and we track the spread of herders by showing that the population of a ∼3,100-year-old pastoralist from Tanzania contributed ancestry to people from northeastern to southern Africa, including a ∼1,200-year-old southern African pastoralist…

Whereas the two individuals buried in ∼2,000 BP hunter-gatherer contexts in South Africa share ancestry with southern African Khoe-San populations in the PCA, 11 of the 12 ancient individuals who lived in eastern and south-central Africa between ∼8,100 and ∼400 BP form a gradient of relatedness to the eastern African Hadza on the one hand and southern African Khoe-San on the other (Figure 1A).

The Hadza are a hunter-gatherer group from Tanzania who are not obviously related to any other people. Their language has traditionally been classed alongside the languages of the KhoiSan/Bushmen people because they all contain clicks, but the languages otherwise have very little in common and Hadza appears to be a language isolate, like Basque.

The genetic cline correlates to geography, running along a north-south axis with ancient individuals from Ethiopia (∼4,500 BP), Kenya (∼400 BP), Tanzania (both ∼1,400 BP), and Malawi (∼8,100–2,500 BP), showing increasing affinity to southern Africans (both ancient individuals and present-day Khoe-San). The seven individuals from Malawi show no clear heterogeneity, indicating a long-standing and distinctive population in ancient Malawi that persisted for at least ∼5,000 years (the minimum span of our radiocarbon dates) but which no longer exists today. …

We find that ancestry closely related to the ancient southern Africans was present much farther north and east in the past than is apparent today. This ancient southern African ancestry comprises up to 91% of the ancestry of Khoe-San groups today (Table S5), and also 31% ± 3% of the ancestry of Tanzania_Zanzibar_1400BP, 60% ± 6% of the ancestry of Malawi_Fingira_6100BP, and 65% ± 3% of the ancestry of Malawi_Fingira_2500BP (Figure 2A). …

Both unsupervised clustering (Figure 1B) and formal ancestry estimation (Figure 2B) suggest that individuals from the Hadza group in Tanzania can be modeled as deriving all their ancestry from a lineage related deeply to ancient eastern Africans such as the Ethiopia_4500BP individual …

So what’s up with the Tanzanian expansion mentioned in the summary?

Western-Eurasian-related ancestry is pervasive in eastern Africa today … and the timing of this admixture has been estimated to be ∼3,000 BP on average… We found that the ∼3,100 BP individual… associated with a Savanna Pastoral Neolithic archeological tradition, could be modeled as having 38% ± 1% of her ancestry related to the nearly 10,000-year-old pre-pottery farmers of the Levant These results could be explained by migration into Africa from descendants of pre-pottery Levantine farmers or alternatively by a scenario in which both pre-pottery Levantine farmers and Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP descend from a common ancestral population that lived thousands of years earlier in Africa or the Near East. We fit the remaining approximately two-thirds of Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP as most closely related to the Ethiopia_4500BP…

…present-day Cushitic speakers such as the Somali cannot be fit simply as having Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP ancestry. The best fitting model for the Somali includes Tanzania_Luxmanda_3100BP ancestry, Dinka-related ancestry, and 16% ± 3% Iranian-Neolithic-related ancestry (p = 0.015). This suggests that ancestry related to the Iranian Neolithic appeared in eastern Africa after earlier gene flow related to Levant Neolithic populations, a scenario that is made more plausible by the genetic evidence of admixture of Iranian-Neolithic-related ancestry throughout the Levant by the time of the Bronze Age …and in ancient Egypt by the Iron Age …

There is then a discussion of possible models of ancient African population splits (were the Bushmen the first? How long have they been isolated?) I suspect the more ancient African DNA we uncover, the more complicated the tree will become, just as in Europe and Asia we’ve discovered Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture.

They also compared genomes to look for genetic adaptations and found evidence for selection for taste receptors and “response to radiation” in the Bushmen, which the authors note “could be due to exposure to sunlight associated with the life of the ‡Khomani and Ju|’hoan North people in the Kalahari Basin, which has become a refuge for hunter-gatherer populations in the last millenia due to encroachment by pastoralist and agriculturalist groups.”

(The Bushmen are lighter than Bantus, with a more golden or tan skin tone.)

They also found evidence of selection for short stature among the Pygmies (which isn’t really surprising to anyone, unless you thought they had acquired their heights by admixture with another very short group of people.)

Overall, this is a great paper and I encourage you to RTWT, especially the pictures/graphs.

Now, if that’s not enough African DNA for you, we also have Loci Associated with Skin Pigmentation Identified in African Populations, by Crawford et al:

Examining ethnically diverse African genomes, we identify variants in or near SLC24A5, MFSD12, DDB1, TMEM138, OCA2 and HERC2 that are significantly associated with skin pigmentation. Genetic evidence indicates that the light pigmentation variant at SLC24A5 was introduced into East Africa by gene flow from non-Africans. At all other loci, variants associated with dark pigmentation in Africans are identical by descent in southern Asian and Australo-Melanesian populations. Functional analyses indicate that MFSD12 encodes a lysosomal protein that affects melanogenesis in zebrafish and mice, and that mutations in melanocyte-specific regulatory regions near DDB1/TMEM138 correlate with expression of UV response genes under selection in Eurasians.

I’ve had an essay on the evolution of African skin tones sitting in my draft folder for ages because this research hadn’t been done. There’s plenty of research on European and Asian skin tones (skin appears to have significantly lightened around 10,000 years ago in Europeans,) but much less on Africans. Luckily for me, this paper fixes that.

Looks like SLC24A5 is related to that Levantine/Iranian back-migration into Africa documented in the first paper.

Musical Mystery

Singer Tom Jones, famous recipient of ladies’ panties

There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.

The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.

I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?

There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.

Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?

Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.

Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?

Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.

While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.

Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:

source: A Voyage to Senegal: The Isle of Goreé, and the River Gambia by  Michel Adanson, Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences


source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Aardvark-Catholic. Vol. 1

Elvis’s pelvis, considered too sexy for TV

Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.

One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.

If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”

Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky, from War and Peace by Tolstoy

Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.

It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?


Locations of the African Ethnic Groups in Haak et al’s dataset


This is the small version, which does not show all the groups. The larger version, with all the groups, is below.

Continuing my quest to produce a handy guide to the many obscure ethnic groups found in Haak et al’s dataset, here are all of the African groups I could fit on a map. Since many of these groups are extremely small and live near each other, it was impossible to fit them into their exact locations, but I hope my approximations are sufficient.

Here’s the more detailed map:


Note that there’s a ton more genetic data in the actual study; this is just a reference map. Also, “Bedouins” have an extremely broad range, from Morocco to Oman,  but I think these are the locations where these two samples were taken. Please ask if anything is unclear.

Notes on Timbuktu

Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu
Medieval trade routes through the Sahara and Timbuktu

“Much has been written on the Fondo Ka’ti, the huge collection of old manuscripts in Arabic now preserved in a library in Timbuktu with considerable aid from the government of Andalucia. The collection’s founder seems to have been a ‘Goth’ (al-Quti) from Grenada, who left Spain circa 1468 AD.”

Timbuktu is an ancient, famous town in modern-day Mali. Today it is a tiny, super-dry, and far from the beaten track, but in previous centuries it was an important crossroads for cross-Sahara trade, famed for its gold, scholars, and university.

(I am, finally, trying to read through some of the many ancient PDFs cluttering up my desktop. Today’s is The Meanings of Timbuktu, though I must admit that at nearly 400 pages, I’m mostly skimming and reading the conclusions of chapters. Note: many of the contributors to this book cannot write and I can’t recommend it unless you are A. dying to know more about Timbuktu and B. willing to wade through Marxist academic bullshit.)

Centuries ago, the area was much wetter–about 8.5 thousand years ago, there were some major lakes nearby, perhaps because the climate was different or the river had taken a course through some low-lying areas. Even just a few centuries ago the area was wetter than it is today (the river has shifted, making Timbuktu much less important than it used to be. Archaeological surveys show a bunch of old, abandoned settlements (including possibly cities) in nearby areas that are now uninhabited desert, but Mali doesn’t exactly have money for archaeology. (And the security situation isn’t great, either.)

In other words, there appears to have been a massive reduction in the number of people in the area and the scale of organization in the past 500-1,000 years, with possibly greatly shifting population levels over the millenia.

Today, people in Timbuktu write with erasable ink (eg, charcoal,) on wooden slates, much like people using chalk on slate or carving into beeswax and then smoothing the beeswax. The art of paper-making typically spread alongside the spread of Islam (for the production of Qurans and the like,) but paper-making never took off in Timbuktu, even during eras when suitable materials were more abundant.

The lack of paper-making makes me think the book is over-rating Timbuktu’s role as an historical mecca for sub-Saharan scholars. It may have been relatively important, compared to the rest of the area, but probably small on the global scale.

Nonetheless, there are about 20,000 old books/scrolls in Timbuktu’s archives, most probably in need of preservation. Another survey mentioned in the book estimates 100,000+ books/scrolls in the area. (Mali doesn’t have a lot of money to devote to preserving fragile old manuscripts.) Most of these are probably religious documents (eg, Qurans, hadiths, legal opinions on the application of Islamic law, etc.) but some are philosophy, poetry, history, etc.

Due to age and degradation, the book I am reading deals primarily with more recent, less fragile texts.

Around 1750, a genre of historical writing emerged and then disappeared.

Muslim preference for hand-written Qu’rans appears to have retarded the development of printing in Islamic areas (at least around Timbuktu.) Source cited on page 151 claims first printed book arrived in Mauritania in 1861, though printed books were probably imported before then.

Note the importance of printed Bibles in the development of European literacy. Even today, so many Bibles are printed that cheap copies are practically disposable.

Estimate of a quarter to half a million books owned in northern Nigeria in 1900, most of them religious texts, many (religious) school texts.

There clearly were boom periods [in books]–first the sixteenth and then the nineteenth centuries–with different books coming to hand … but I think overall the book trade did not ‘work’ in West Africa. For example, in 1900 there were few if any ‘modern’ books either available to buy or in circulation in Kano… There was no waaf-financed library buying books systematically, no bookseller importing contentious texts for an avid reading public. … Did the shortage of local books lead to a pre-colonial ‘brain drain’?

The author concludes that the local scholars were highly dependent on private collections (as are modern scholars in the area.) These private collections were hidden during the colonial period (their owners were concerned about colonialist authorities stealing their books,) leading to a mis-perception that they did not exist. Since the end of colonialism, folks have been trying to gather up and properly preserve the manuscripts, but being buried and otherwise hidden for years has not been kind to them.

Timbuktu conjures a string of fond memories of my own youth. For the sake of the people of Mali, I hope Timbuktu (or any other city, perhaps one situated closer to the Niger’s modern course,) rises once again to its former glory.

Kalamazoo, Timbuktu, Katmandu, Machu Picchu…