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]


Entropy, Life, and Welfare (pt 1)


(This is Part 1. Part 2 and Part 3 are here.)

All living things are basically just homeostatic entropy reduction machines. The most basic cell, floating in the ocean, uses energy from sunlight to order its individual molecules, creating, repairing, and building copies of itself, which continue the cycle. As Jeremy England of MIT demonstrates:

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England … has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. …

This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. …

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.” In a September paper in the Journal of Chemical Physics, he reported the theoretical minimum amount of dissipation that can occur during the self-replication of RNA molecules and bacterial cells, and showed that it is very close to the actual amounts these systems dissipate when replicating.

usenergy2009Energy isn’t just important to plants, animals, and mitochondria. Everything from molecules to sand dunes, cities and even countries absorb and dissipate energy. And like living things, cities and countries use energy to grow, construct buildings, roads, water systems, and even sewers to dispose of waste. Just as finding food and not being eaten are an animal’s first priority, so are energy policy and not being conquered are vital to a nation’s well-being.

Hunter-gatherer societies are, in most environments, the most energy-efficient–hunter gatherers expend relatively little energy to obtain food and build almost no infrastructure, resulting in a fair amount of time left over for leisure activities like singing, dancing, and visiting with friends.

But as the number of people in a group increases, hunter-gathering cannot scale. Putting in more hours hunting or gathering can only increase the food supply so much before you simply run out.

energyvsorganizationHorticulture and animal herding require more energy inputs–hoeing the soil, planting, harvesting, building fences, managing large animals–but create enough food output to support more people per square mile than hunter-gathering.

Agriculture requires still more energy, and modern industrial agriculture more energy still, but support billions of people. Agricultural societies produced history’s first cities–civilizations–and (as far as I know) its first major collapses. Where the land is over-fished, over-farmed, or otherwise over-extracted, it stops producing and complex systems dependent on that production collapse.

Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C
Senenu, an Egyptian scribe, grinding grain by hand, ca. 1352-1336 B.C

I’ve made a graph to illustrate the relationship between energy input (work put into food production) and energy output (food, which of course translates into more people.) Note how changes in energy sources have driven our major “revolutions”–the first, not in the graph, was the taming and use of fire to cook our food, releasing more nutrients than mere chewing ever could. Switching from jaw power to fire power unlocked the calories necessary to fund the jump in brain size that differentiates humans from our primate cousins, chimps and gorillas.

That said, hunter gatherers (and horticulturalists) still rely primarily on their own power–foot power–to obtain their food.

Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism.
Scheme of the Roman Hierapolis sawmill, the earliest known machine to incorporate a crank and connecting rod mechanism. Note the use of falling water to perform the work, rather than human muscles.

The Agricultural Revolution harnessed the power of animals–mainly horses and oxen–to drag plows and grind grain. The Industrial Revolution created engines and machines that released the power of falling water, wind, steam, coal, and oil, replacing draft animals with grist mills, tractors, combines, and trains.

Modern industrial societies have achieved their amazing energy outputs–allowing us to put a man on the moon and light up highways at night–via a massive infusion of energy, principally fossil fuels, vital to the production of synthetic fertilizers:

Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia (NH3), which is sometimes injected into the ground directly. The ammonia is produced by the Haber-Bosch process.[5] In this energy-intensive process, natural gas (CH4) supplies the hydrogen, and the nitrogen (N2) is derived from the air. …

Deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) (Chilean saltpeter) are also found in the Atacama desert in Chile and was one of the original (1830) nitrogen-rich fertilizers used.[12] It is still mined for fertilizer.[13]

Actual mountain of corn
Actual mountain of corn, because industrial agriculture is just that awesome

Other fertilizers are made of stone, mined from the earth, shipped, and spread on fields, all courtesy of modern industrial equipment, run on gasoline.

Without the constant application of fertilizer, we wouldn’t have these amazing crop yields:

In 2014, average yield in the United States was 171 bushels per acre. (And the world record is an astonishing 503 bushels, set by a farmer in Valdosta, Ga.) Each bushel weighs 56 pounds and each pound of corn yields about 1,566 calories. That means corn averages roughly 15 million calories per acre. (Again, I’m talking about field corn, a.k.a. dent corn, which is dried before processing. Sweet corn and popcorn are different varieties, grown for much more limited uses, and have lower yields.)

per-capita-world-energy-by-sourceAs anyone who has grown corn will tell you, corn is a nutrient hog; all of those calories aren’t free. Corn must be heavily fertilized or the soil will run out and your farm will be worthless.

We currently have enough energy sources that the specific source–fossil fuels, hydroelectric, wind, solar, even animal–is not particularly important, at least for this discussion. Much more important is how society uses and distributes its resources. For, like all living things, a society that misuses its resources will collapse.

To be continued…Go on to Part 2 and Part 3.


Graph of energy input vs. output by economic type.

energyvsorganizationI have been looking for this graph for some time, failed, and finally re-created it from memory. So warning: this was re-created from memory. A really old memory.

Anyway, this graph shows the relationship between energy inputs (work) and energy output (typically food, but also shelter, children, luxury goods, etc.) for a given variety of human technology/economic organizational structure.

(Note that the graph is not to scale and only a conceptual representation of the idea.)

So for example, in a hunter gathering society, inputing more energy by hunting more often will reward people with more food, but only up to a point. As game becomes scarcer, hunters bring home less food, and eventually you eat all of the animals in the area and are actually getting less out of hunting than you’re putting into it.

Even at its maximum efficiency, a hunter-gatherer society simply can’t (in most environments) obtain much food and can’t support many people.

Growing food takes much more energy, but the results support far more people.

Modern industrial societies take a ton of energy to run, but also support billions of people, cities, etc.

Of course, even modern industrial societies still need to be careful about that right-hand side of the curve.

Why horticultural societies act like hunter-gatherers

Writing in a hurry to get the ideas down…

(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to
(L-R) Daniel C. Dennett, Napoleon Chagnon, David Haig, Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham, John Brockman, with thanks to

So I was reading this excellent interview the other day with Napoleon Chagon, (famous for his ethnography of the Yanomamo, a formerly isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest) and  Steven Pinker, (who wrote The Better Angels of our Nature and has generally been the guy pushing the notion that humans have become radically less violent over time,) Blood is Their Argument. Serious HBDers like Peter Frost have picked up this notion; one important idea is that humans have been self-domesticating, often by getting together in groups and executing the more violent among us.

Graph from the Wikipedia

Frost goes into a great deal of detail about his theory that European states, by executing murderers and other ne’er do wells, changed the genetic distribution of traits that code for violent behavior in European pops, leading to the relatively nice, non-violent people we see today. Chagnon, in his study of the Yanomamo, not only documented that thy are super-violent, but also that the Yanomamo who had killed the most people were also the ones who had the most offspring, providing evidence for the idea that evolutionary pressures could act on human populations, pushing them to be murderous (or not.)

Chagnon has suffered tremendous pushback from his “colleagues” in anthropology because there is a very vocal myth that pre-agricultural, pre-modern people were lovely innocents in a state of nature who never did bad things like murder or hate and that these were all just invented by evil white male cishetero colonizers, and that if we were only more like the virtuous mother goddess-worshiping innocent pagans, we could all be peaceful again.

The attacks on Chagnon have been shameful and, to be frank, horrible. There are powerful people trying to destroy a man and his life’s work because it conflicts with their narrative about human nature. Note also that Peter Frost has stopped writing because he is concerned about getting prosecuted by the Canadian government and James Watson, Nobel Prize winner, getting watsoned.

This is a myth I have been roundly trying to fight since about day one on this blog: No, hunter-gatherers were not peaceful paragons of gender equality.

Anyway, in the interview, Pinker noted that people often object to him that some of the tribes he documents are not hunter-gatherers, and he responds that limiting the inquiry solely to HGs doesn’t help matters and that the real division is between state and non-state. To quote a bit:

CHAGNON: … All I’ve been claiming in my writings is that the Yanomamö are not necessarily the modern day survivors of the Stone Age. They are, however, the best approximation that we have in the ethnographic world today of peoples living in a kind of environment—a kind of political system, okay, social system—that approximates as closely as you can find human beings today living in a condition—a state of nature, as it were—that is quite comparable to what must have happened during most of human history. And to that extent, we can learn a lot of things about politics, political attitudes, violence, agression, etc. from people like the Yanomamö. Unfortunately, there aren’t many people like the Yanomamö left, and that’s what awed and astonished me the first time I saw them.

PINKER: When I’ve cited figures on violence from a variety of hunter-gatherer, hunter-horticulturalist, and tribal peoples, I often get the criticism, “Well, these aren’t all hunter-gatherers.” My response is, “Well, that’s irrelevant.” For the purpose  of testing a specific hypothesis,  say, whether government reduces violence, it doesn’t matter whether they’re literally hunter-gatherers. What matters is the value of the independent variable you’re testing, for example, Is government present, or is government absent? My attitude is that the value of studying these peoples is that there are many features of our present environment that we can’t subtract other than by looking at such people. Whether or not they survive only by hunting and gathering is irrelevant to the effect of that variable.

CHAGNON:  I’ve had this argument with Marvin Harris and people like that. You’re not exactly what you eat, though in some cases you might be.

The important thing that I’ve discovered about the Yanomamö is the answer to the question of a lot of highly educated people in our society who say, “Oh, it would be so wonderful if we could just go back to an earlier time when life was so much simpler, and pleasant, and neighbors cooperated…” And what I found is the further back in time you go, the more that unpleasant things are ubiquitous in your environment. Violence is just around the corner, and wishing for a return to the noble savage past is possibly one of the biggest errors that one might make philosophically. I don’t think life in the state of nature was nearly as pleasant as a lot of people would like it to be.

I also sometimes get this same objection, but the Yanomamo are so much closer to “the state of nature” than ourselves that it is really quite silly. Obviously there is not a sharp difference between societies where merely raising a few yams or bananas will automatically make you peaceful.

Anyway, so I was reading Buckley’s account of life among the Aborigines and thinking to myself, How do you get states to start forming so that criminals can be punished and revenge spirals halted? and of course thinking about Gobekli Tepi and organized religion and accounts of missionary work among the Samoans, where the missionaries and local pagan witch doctors got into conflict because the missionaries were trying to stop the violence cycles with their pleas that god doesn’t approve of murder, and the local witch doctors were trying to keep them going because they benefited from them.

And it occurred to me that an important distinction here, that I think may be helping drive state formation, is between agricultural and horticultural societies.

Okay, what is agricultural and what is horticultural?

Horticulture is gardening, often of foods like squash, yams, and potatoes. Gardens are not too intense and can be grown by women. Horticultural societies are often dependent on female labor for growing food, because you don’t need men for it.

Agriculture is full-scale farming, generally of cereal crops like rice, wheat, and corn. Agricultural work is intense, difficult, and requires men. In agricultural societies, men plow fields and women tend gardens.

Obviously there exist a wide variety of hunter gatherer, horticultural, and agricultural societies throughout the world. As Richerson et al note in Principles of Human Ecology (ch. 4):


The range of variation in political institutions is large under horticultural subsistence. Note in Steward and Faron’s (1959) maps and tables that there is a pretty close cor-relation between ecology, population density, and political and social complexity. We looked briefly at the Gebusi in the last Chapter, who are as simple politically as the simplest hunting and gathering groups (Knauft, 1985). They lack any sort of formalized political
roles. Kin relations and personal ties are all that order Gebusi society. The weak headman is also found among the simpler horticultural societies, such as those of the Amazon Basin, while full-fledged imperial states are found in the most advanced societies, such as the Inca Empire of Peru. More typically, horticultural societies are either organized around “Big- men” or Tribal Chiefs.

In the simpler horticultural societies, differences compared to hunters and gatherers are, to repeat, modest. Kinship remains the most important means of organizing social interactions, and plays almost the same role as described for these societies.

We tend to think of agricultural and horticultural systems as essentially equivalent because they both involve the technology of growing food instead of hunting it, but they are often structurally quite different. In a horticultural society, women are busy and men are not; the men have plenty of leisure time to spend hunting or raiding other villages and killing people in them. One of these raids might result in a few men dying, but may also result in a few women captured, who can be brought back to the village and then employed in further food production. To get more children (evolution’s “goal,” as it were,) a horticultural tribe sacrifiices so me of its men to get more women who’ll make food and babies, and ends up polygynous.

By contrast, the men in an agricultural tribe are BUSY much of the time, plowing and hoeing and harvesting and so on, and so have far less time for war. The death of men in an agricultural society means one less farmer to bring in crops and so hunger for his wife and children. Bringing more women into an agricultural society is not particularly useful, especially at the expense of male lives, as these women cannot support themselves by producing their own food. (The upper class is an exception, who by taxing other men can support a harem for themselves.) For agriculturalists, war quickly becomes famine.

This may be, then, the long-term beginning of the process by which agricultural societies begin to pacify their people, start developing a state that manages conflicts, etc.

There is no hard line where “pre-modern” ends and “modern” begins. It is all a process of transition from one to the next.

Fragaria x Ananassa and Hybrid Vigor

103_Fragaria_vesca_LIn honor of strawberry season, I decided to investigate the history of this humble yet delicious fruit.

Since wild strawberries (frangaria) have invaded my garden, I thought I might live near the strawberry domestication ground zero, but it turns out that wild strawberries are incredibly common–their range includes much (perhaps all) of North and South America, Hawaii, Europe, and Asia, including the Himalayas and Japan. (It does not appear that they are native to Australia or Africa, but I might have just missed some.)

F. daltoniana, Himalayan strawberry
F. daltoniana, Himalayan strawberry

Wild strawberries, if you’ve never spotted one, are much smaller and more modest than their commercially-available cousins. The French began trying to domesticate wild strawberries by planting them in their gardens back in the 1300s–Charles V’s (1364 to 1380) royal garden had 1,200 strawberry plants. The plants seem to have increased in popularity over the next couple of centuries, but never became very significant–perhaps because the garden strawberries kept crossing with their wild cousins, preventing significant domestication.

StrawberryWatercolorIn the 1600s, F. virginiana–the Virginia strawberry–spread across Europe after its introduction from eastern North America. (Virginia, I assume.) In 1712, a French spy, Amédée-François Frézier, brought back a third wild strawberry, this one from Chile. Amusingly, the name “Frezier” actually comes from the French for “strawberry”:

A story relates the surname is derived from the fact that Julius de Berry, a citizen of Anvers (i.e. [{Antwerp]]), was knighted by Charles the Simple in 916 for a timely gift of ripe strawberries.[2] The Emperor gave the Fraise family (the surname was corrupted as “Frazer”) three “fraises” or stalked strawberries for their coat of arms.

At any rate, in 1766, the French discovered that crossing F. virginiana and F. chiloensis resulted in a plant with large, tasty berries: the ancestor of our modern domesticated strawberry.

Strawberries and roses are close cousins within the Rosaceae family; blackberries and raspberries, from the Rubus genus of the Rosaceae, are their somewhat more distant cousins.

Does the Bronze Age Herald a Major Transformation in Human Dispersal Patterns?

Humans–Homo Sapiens or Anatomically Modern Humans–have been around for about 200,000 years. We have only recently–for the past few thousand years or so–begun making a serious effort at recording human history and figuring out what happened before our own times.

Most of what we know about major migrations and changes among human populations come from three major sources: written records, archaeology, and genetics.

Written records are (usually) the easiest to work with. We know when the Spaniards discovered Cuba because we have written records of the event, for example. Unfortunately, written records go back only a few thousand years–covering a teeny portion of human history–and can be highly unreliable. After all, we thought the entire world was only 6 thousand years old for a while because a book that seemed to say so.

Archaeology lets us peer much further back than written records, but with much less detail. We don’t know a lot, for example, about the folks who made Aurignacian tools–what they called themselves, what sort of rituals they had, what they hoped or dreamed of. Without those details, it’s hard to care much about one culture or another. After a while, pots blend into pots, stone tools into stone tools.

Can you tell which one is Aurignacian, and which is Gravettian?

Gravettian tool Aurignacian tool Mousterian tool

(Oh, I threw in a Mousterian tool, as well. Those were made by Neanderthals, not H. sapiens.)

I can’t, either.

It is difficult to tell whether a change in artifacts between one layer and the next reflects a change in people or a change in technology. The proliferation of steel artifacts in the archaeological record in Mexico circa 1500 reflects an influx of new people, but the proliferation of television sets in the future-archaeological record of my area merely reflects a technological development. Finding a lot of mass graves in an area is, of course, a tip-off that invasion and replacement happened, but invasions aren’t always accompanied by easily identified mass-internments.

This is where genetics comes in. If we can find some skeletons and sequence their DNA, and then find some later or earlier skeletons in the same area and sequence their DNA, then we can get a pretty good idea of whether or not the later people are descended from the earlier people. This probably doesn’t always work (if the people in question are under some kind of selective pressure–which we all are–then their descendants might look genetically different from their ancestors simply due to evolution rather than replacement,) but it is a pretty darn good tool.

As I discussed back in “Oops, Looks Like it was People, not Pots,” archaeologists have fiercely debated over the decades whether the replacement of Narva Pots with Corded Ware Pots circa 3750 ago represented a population replacement or just a change in pot-making preferences:

Corded Ware Pots      Narva Pot

Corded Ware on the left, Narva on the right.

Luckily for us, genetics has now figured out that the Corded Ware people are actually the Yamnaya, aka the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and that they expanded out of the Eurasian Steppe about 4,000 years ago, replacing much of the native population as they went.

So it’s starting to look like there were quite a few conquering events of this sort.

From, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
From, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans
from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans

In general, if you see a lot of mtDNA and only a little Y-DNA, that means there were a lot of women around and only a few men. And that generally means those men just killed all of the other men and raped their wives and children.

Which appears to have happened on a massive scale throughout much of the world around 10,000-4,000 years ago.

Just off the top of my head, recent large-scale migrations and at least partial replacements include the arrival of Indians in Australia around 4,230 years ago; replacement of the Thule people by the Inuit (aka Dorset aka Eskimo) around 1,000 ago; successive waves of steppe peoples like the Turks and Mongols invading their neighbors; the Great Bantu Migration that began about 3,500 years ago; the spread of Polynesians through areas formerly controlled by Melanesians starting around 3,000 BC; displacement of the Ainu by the Japanese over the past couple thousand years; etc.

The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic
Replacement of the Thule by the Dorset, from The genetic prehistory of the New World Arctic
Paths of the great Bantu Migration
Paths of the great Bantu Migration
Map is in French. Negative numbers are years BC; positive numbers are years CE.
Map is in French. Negative numbers are years BC; positive numbers are years CE.

And of course, we know of many more recent migrations, like the one kicked off by Columbus.

So it looks like people have moved around a lot over the past 10,000 years.

Terms like “bronze age” are a little problematic because people adopted different technologies at different times. So the “bronze age” began around 5,300 years ago in the Middle East, 4,000 years ago in Ireland, and skipped the Inuit entirely (they basically went straight from stone and bone tools to guns.)

Agriculture emerged in the Middle East circa 11,500 years ago; followed by the wheel, 8,500 years ago; carts, 6,500 years ago; and domesticated horses about 6,000 years ago. These technologies made the world ripe for warfare–riders on horseback or in chariots were great at conquering, and agricultural settlements, with their large population centers and piles of food, were great for conquering.

Our conventional views of prehistory are tainted, I suspect, by a mis-perception of time. This is probably basically a quirk of perception–since we remember yesterday better than the day before yesterday, and that day better than last week, and last week better than last year, we tend to think of more recent time periods as longer than they really are, and older time periods as relatively shorter. Children are most prone to this; ask a child to make a numberline showing events like “Last week, my last birthday, the year I was born, and the year mommy was born,” and you’ll tend to get a very distorted number line. Grown ups are much better at this task (we can count the time-distance between these events,) but we’re not perfect.

We show this same tendency when thinking about human history. Our written documents barely go back past 3,000 years, and as far as most people are concerned, this is the beginning of “history”. Nevermind that humans have been around for 200,000 years–that’s 197,000 years of human history that we tend to condense down to: humans evolved, left Africa, and invented agriculture–then came us. We tend to mentally assign approximately equal chunks of time to each phase, which leads to things like people thinking that the Basques–who speak a language isolate–are an ancient, archaic people who hail directly from the first humans, or Neanderthals, or somesuch. Neanderthals disappeared around 40,000 years, and the Indo-European language expansion probably cut the Basques off from their fellow-language speakers about 3,000 years ago. Of course, the Basques could have been cut off since the Neanderthal age, but that’s a jump of 37,000 years (or more) on very little evidence. Likewise, we tend to assume that people just spread out from their original African homeland, got to where they were going, sat down, and never moved again. With the exception of Columbus and his European co-ethnics, everyone is sort of assumed to have gotten where they are now about 100,000-40,000 years ago. (Or the equivalent time period for people who think humanity is much younger or older than it is.)

But the emerging picture is one of conquering–lots of conquering, at least in the time periods we’ve been able to get details on. But go back more than 10,000 years or so, and the records start petering out. We’ve got no writing, far fewer artifacts, and even the DNA breaks down. The technology we’ve developed for extracting and sequencing ancient DNA is amazing, but I suspect we’ll have a devil of a time trying to find any well-preserved 40,000 year old DNA in the rainforest.

So what did the human story look like between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago? Have humans been conquering and re-conquering each other from the beginning? Is it ethnic group after ethnic group, all the way down? Or did lower population density in the pre-agricultural era make it easier to spread out and avoid one’s neighbors than to bother fighting with them? Certainly armies would have spread much less slowly before the domestication of the horse and invention of the chariot. (Not to mention that they require quite a bit of food, which is a tough sort of thing to get in large, easily-transportable form if you’re a hunter-gatherer.)

Certainly prehistoric peoples slaughtered (or slaughter) each other with great frequency–we can tell that:


It doesn’t take a lot of technology to go put a spear into your neighbor’s chest. Even bands of chimps go smash other bands of chimps to bits with rocks.

We also have genetic evidence emerging from further back, ie, An Older Layer of Eurasian Admixture in Africa. As Dienekes summarises:

The authors propose that a genetic component found in Horn of Africa populations back-migrated to Africa from Eurasia ~23 thousand years ago. … For a time, there was a taboo against imagining back-migration into Africa; in a sense this was reasonable on parsimony grounds: Africans have most autosomal genetic diversity and the basal clades of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes; a model with Out-of-Africa is simpler than one with both Out-of and Into-Africa. However, we now know that pretty much all Africans have Eurasian ancestry, ranging from at least traces in theYoruba and Pygmies (to account for the Neandertal admixture) to intermediate values in East Africans, to quite  a lot in North Africans.

Eurasian admixture in Africa seems to be general, variable, and to have occurred at different time scales. It’s still the best hypothesis that modern humans originated in Africa initially and migrated into Eurasia. However, it is no longer clear that Africa was always the pump and never the destination of human migrations.

Whether this was “conquering” or just wandering remains to be discovered.

As for me, my money’s on horses and agriculture making warfare and dispersal faster and more efficient, not fundamentally changing our human proclivities toward our neighbors.

Adulterations in the Feed

It’s no secret that sperm counts have been dropping like rocks over the past 70 years or so (though the trend may have recently leveled out.)

” Sperm counts in the 1940s were typically well above 100m sperm cells per millilitre, but Professor Skakkebaek found they have dropped to an average of about 60m per ml. Other studies found that between 15 and 20 per cent of young men now find themselves with sperm counts of less than 20m per ml, which is technically defined as abnormal.” — from The Independent, “Out for the count: Why levels of sperm in men are falling

While environmental effects (like smoking,) have effects on sperm counts in adults, these appear to be basically small or short-lasting. The biggest, longest-lasting effects on sperm counts appears to be the unterine environment where the future-low-sperm-count-male’s testicles were developing. Improper fetal testicle development => low sperm count for life. Eg,

“A man who smokes typically reduces his sperm count by a modest 15 per cent or so, which is probably reversible if he quits. However, a man whose mother smoked during pregnancy has a fairly dramatic decrease in sperm counts of up to 40 per cent – which also tends to be irreversible.”

What elsecould make a uterine environment hostile to testicular development?

How about too much estrogen?

I’ve posted before about Diethylstilbestrol, (or DES,)  is a synthetic nonsteroidal estrogen. Between 1940 and 1971, DES was given in large quantities to pregnant women to prevent miscarriages. Unfortunately, it turns out that pumping babies full of unnaturally high levels of estrogen might be bad for them–DES was discontinued as a medication for pregnant women because it gave their daughters cancer, (an actual epigenetic effect) and the sons appear to have high rates of transgender, transexual and intersex conditions.

Quoting the Wikipedia:

“In the 1970s and early 1980s, studies published on prenatally DES-exposed males investigated increased risk of testicular cancer, infertility and urogenital abnormalities in development, such as cryptorchidism and hypospadias.[38][39]

“… The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) has documented that prenatal DES exposure in males is positively linked to a condition known as hypogonadism (low testosterone levels) that may require treatment with testosterone replacement therapy.[43]

“… Research on DES sons has explored the long-standing question of whether prenatal exposure to DES in males may include sexual and gender-related behavioral effects and also intersex conditions. Dr. Scott Kerlin, a major DES researcher and founder of the DES Sons International Research Network in 1999, has documented for the past 16 years a high prevalence of individuals with confirmed prenatal DES exposure who self-identify as male-to-female transsexual, transgender, or have intersex conditions, and many individuals who report a history of experiencing difficulties with gender dysphoria.[45][46][47][48]

“… Various neurological changes occur after prenatal exposure of embryonic males to DES and other estrogenic endocrine disrupters. Animals that exhibited these structural neurological changes were also shown to demonstrate various gender-related behavioral changes (so-called “feminization of males”). Several published studies in the medical literature on psychoneuroendocrinology have examined the hypothesis that prenatal exposure to estrogens (including DES) may cause significant developmental impact on sexual differentiation of the brain, and on subsequent behavioral and gender identity development in exposed males and females.”

Here is an excerpt from a paper, published in, I think, the early 40s.


Since the image quality is low, I’ve done my best to type it up for you:

“Experimental Intersexuality: The Effects of Combined Estrogens and Androgens on the Emryonic Sexual Development of the Rat

“RR. Greene, M. W. Rurrill and A. C. Ivy

“Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, Illinois

“In previous publications the authors have reported and described in detail the effects of large doses of sex hormones on the embryonic sexual development of the rat. Androgens, when administered to the pregnant female, cause a masculinization of the female embryos (Greene, Burrill and Ivy, ’38, ’39 a). The female type of differentiation of most sexual structures is inhibited and a male type of differentiation of those structures is stimulated. Administered estrogens cause a femininization of the male embryos (Greene, Burrill and Ivy, ’38, ’40) in that they inhibit the masculine type of differentiation of some sexual structures and, instead, cause a female type of differentiation.

“…The experimental demonstration that estrogens do have a profound effect…”

What are external sources of estrogens in modern life?

Birth control pills. I know FTM trans folks birth control pills for the hormones in them. (They are often cheaper and easier to get than hormones specifically prescribed for trans folks, especially if you have a female friend.)

Can those hormones stick around in a mother’s body even after she discontinues taking the pills?

Fat and estrogen appear to be correlated:

“Other conditions that cause low estrogen levels in younger women include excessive exercise, eating disorders and too little body fat.” (source)

“Excess estrogen in the body causes weight gain around the abdomen and upper thighs. … Weight gain caused by estrogen starts a vicious cycle. Excessive body fat produces the aromatase enzyme that synthesizes estrogen, thus creating more estrogen in the body, which then promotes additional weight gain, and so on, says Hofmekler.” (source)

“Researchers have found a correlation between estrogen and weight, particularly during menopause, when estrogen levels drop, but weight tends to rise. But since fat cells can produce estrogen, the issue facing researchers is how to target the estrogen receptors that will boost energy and manage hunger and not contribute to menopause-related weight gain.” (source)

“For postmenopausal women, estrogen levels increase with increasing BMI, presumably because conversion of androgens to estrogen in adipose tissue is a primary source of estrogen…” (source)

Since Americans have been getting fatter over the past century, I’d expect estrogen levels to be up, but I’ve found no studies on the subject so far. (Also, the Wikipedia claims there’s no evidence that birth control pills make people fat.)

However, I have found quite a bit of evidence that giving synthetic estrogen to animals makes them fatter:

Picture 4

(Stilbosol is another name for DES, as you may note in the ad’s upper right hand corner.)

Since the picture quality is bad, I’ll try to type it up for you:


“Ralph has been feeding cattle in New York state for 20 years. He runs 300 head a year through his feed lot, buying mountain (?) calves at 400 pounds and finishing them to about 1,000 pounds.  …

“”I lean very heavily on college tests and they’re in favor of Stilbosol. The first time we tried it, back in 1955, I noticed a very definite improvement in appetite.

“”Stilbosol is a ‘must’ in our feeding operations. It has added to our profit. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be using it.””


“We bring our cattle into the lots around 600 pounds. Feed for about 150 days. … We feed to all weights (950 to 1150 pounds) and take a little chance from time to time and feed t heavier weights,” Dan stated.

“We get about 2.75 lbs. daily gain. And I figure Stilbosol accounts for (unreadable) to 1/2 lb. of that daily gain. …

“Does Stilbosol make us money? There’s no doubt about it! Stilbosol has revolutionized the cattle business. I guess it’s the only good break through in the last ten years.”


“”I tested Stilbosol. Took a bunch of 315 Montana yearlings and split them up. One group was actually lighter than the other. The only change I made in their rations was the addition of Stilbosol. The lighter group received Stilbosol. I figured that the lot fed Stilbosol gained over 1 1/2 lb. per day more than the lot which had no Stilbosol.

“”With all the competition, a man can’t afford to pas up anything that will lower his cost of grain. Stilbosol is one of them.””


“We were trying to find the cheapest, most efficient ration. One group of calves received a ration containing Stilbosol. Another received a similar ration without Stilbosol. The group receiving Stilbosol had a feed conversion of (I can’t tell the number, but it’s clearly a single digit followed by .4). The group receiving no Stilbosol had a feed conversion of 10.35. The Stilbosol group gained 2.49 pounds per day. The group that did not receive Stilbosol gained 2.13 pounds per day.

“With Stilbosol, we figure our cost of grain to be substantially lower than similar rations without Stilbosol.) “

Four farmers wouldn’t lie to us, would they?

Interestingly, eating large quantities of beef while pregnant was one of the things that The Independent article (linked at the top) noted was correlated with low sperm counts years down the road in the all-grown-up-fetuses.

Of course, people who eat more beef may just weigh more, or have some other factors besides adulterations in the cattle feed.

DES was also put in chicken feed, for the exact same reasons as cattle feed, until it came out that DES causes cancer in humans. It was discontinued as a feed additive in the late 70s.

These days, I don’t know what–if anything–they’re using to finish cattle, but we may note that the vast majority of cattle are still finished in feedlots where they get much fatter than they would naturally. (That is, by wandering around eating grass like they normally do.) Feedlot cattle are, to put it bluntly, unnaturally fat.

Now I’m going to do a little math. The Independent article was published in 2010, and states that the article on falling sperm rates was published 19 years prior, or in 1991. The study therefore compared men in the 1940s to men in the 1980s and 1990. Men in the 1940s were fetuses before the age of feedlots, birth control pills, DES, or DES-fed cattle and chicken. Young(ish) men in 1990, by contrast, were born between 1950 and 1970–all within the era of feedlots, BCPs, DES, and DES-fed cattle and chicken.

If it is true that sperm counts have stabilized since the 90s, that is a point potentially in favor of my theory, since after the 70s, DES was basically gone.

This is all me speculating out loud, of course.




The Genghis Khans of Europe

They say that about 1 in 200 people alive today is descended from Genghis Khan (or one of his brothers, if he had any.) Obviously most of the Great Khan’s descendants are in Asia; what about the rest of the world?

from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans
from A Handful of Bronze Age Men Could have fathered two-thirds of Europeans

From the article:

“Tracking [Y chromosome] mutations allows scientists to create a family tree of fathers and sons going back through time. … Two-thirds of modern European men are found on just three branches (called I1, R1a and R1b). Our results show that these branches each trace their paternal ancestry to a surprisingly recent individual (shown as red dots in Figure 1). By counting the number of mutations that have accumulated within each branch over the generations, we estimate that these three men lived at different times between 3,500 and 7,300 years ago.”

Female genetics–mitochondrial DNA–show no such feature. “… when looking at this maternal tree, there is no similar explosion. This indicates that whatever factors were responsible for this pattern were specific to men.”

This seems reasonably strong evidence that we aren’t just looking at something that could be explained away as founder/bottleneck effect, because I would expect such an effect to act equally on males and females. However, I don’t know if anyone has adequately addressed the question of patrilocality.

On a potentially related note, another study came up with this graph of Y chromosome diversity over time

From,  A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture
A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture


Now if you ask me, these look like they’re describing the same phenomenon, but the dates are supposedly different.

A couple of thoughts:

1. I really really wish they’d made the Y Chromosome graph bigger and spread it out more so I can actually see what’s going on. According to the article summarizing the paper, the Siberian population did not suffer a decrease in Y chromosome diversity at this time, but I can’t tell it from looking at the graph.

2. Wow, look at the African Y chromosome diversity drop and then never fully recover. The Near East Y-diversity (the orange part) shoots up much higher than it was initially after the drop, as does the European. If the suspicion that farming was the cause of the drop is correct, then it looks like African Y chromosomes never quite recovered–consistent with the theory that African horticulture has traditionally been easy enough for women to do, leading to polygyny, leading to a few males dominating most of the women and the other males being excluded, etc. See, eg, West African Marriage and Child-Rearing Norms vs. African American Norms. (I’ve got another post on the subject, but it’s not going up for a few more weeks.)

3. What’s been happening to mtDNA diversity in the past few thousand years?


So was it agriculture? Or were did agriculture just make people sitting ducks for horse-born invaders? Or perhaps both?