Letters of Marque and Reprisal: A Quick History

Sir Francis Drake

Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power:

“To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”

“Letters of Marque and Reprisal” are the official way a pirate becomes a privateer, authorized to capture foreign vessels. The most famous privateer, of course, was, Sir Francis Drake:

Sir Francis Drake, vice admiral (c. 1540 – 28 January 1596[3]) was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. Drake carried out the second circumnavigation of the world in a single expedition, from 1577 to 1580, and was the first to complete the voyage as captain while leading the expedition throughout the entire circumnavigation. With his incursion into the Pacific Ocean, he inaugurated an era of privateering and piracy in the western coast of the Americas—an area that had previously been free of piracy.[4]

Specifically, he inaugurated the Age of Piracy in the Pacific by introducing non-Spanish ships into the ecosystem.

In 1243, King Henry III authorized the first privateers in English law, and the crown began issuing official Letters of Marque in 1295. These early letters authorized a kind of “private war,” allowing their recipients to avenge themselves against some foreign ship or ships of a foreign nation more generally for some previous harm. (Until 1620, an application for Letters of Marque had to include the shipowner’s estimate of losses they had previously suffered at the target’s hands.)

By the 16th century, the Letters had shifted from serving purely personal interests to allowing private shipowners to become a kind of auxillary navy, capturing the ships of enemy nations and profiting from the sale of their goods.

Business could be quite profitable for these “legal pirates”–for example, the tiny, Channel Island of Guernsey netted 900,000 Pounds worth of American and French ships during the American Revolution.

Letter of marque given to Captain Antoine Bollo, 27 February 1809

Like modern day mercenaries, enterprising pirates like Jean Lafitte who wished to practice their profession with less risk of being hanged by land-based authorities, shopped around from country to country for Letters of Marque. When one war ended and hostilities ended between two countries, privateers moved on to the next conflict, and offered their services to the new countries involved. After his employ by the Americans during the War of 1812, Lafitte offered his services to the Spanish against Mexican revolutionaries, giving himself cover to establish a smuggling station in Galveston, Texas (then part of Spain.) When he was driven from Galveston, he offered his services to the Cubans, and when they tired of him, he obtained Letters from Colombia.

At times, the Letters of Marque seem to have been used less against legitimate enemies of the state and more for pure gain:

The East India Company arranged for letters of marque for its East Indiamen such as the Lord Nelson, not so that they could carry cannons to fend off warships, privateers, and pirates on their voyages to India and China—that they could do without permission—but so that, should they have the opportunity to take a prize, they could do so without being guilty of piracy.

That said, Letters of Marque did obligate their holders to observe the rules of war toward the sailors (and vessels) they captured, rather than massacre them in the piratical way. Captured sailors and other passengers were supposed to be treated as prisoners of war and returned unharmed to land. Admiralty Courts could revoke the letters–and even fine privateers–if they did not. Similarly, privateers could not just abscond with captured goods, but had to turn them over to the Admiralty Courts, which would auction them off and then give the privateers part of the profits.

Likewise, if the navy of a foreign country captured a ship bearing Letters of Marque, they were supposed to not just execute the sailors but treat them like POWs. However, in many cases countries did not recognize the validity of other countries’ Letters, partly because they didn’t recognize those countries and partly because they were at war with them. During the Civil War, the Union charged a crew of Confederate privateers with piracy and threatened to hang them. The case was only resolved in the privateers’ favor when Confederate president Jefferson Davis threatened to retaliate by hanging Union POWs.

The infamous Captain Kidd in New York Harbor

The infamous Captain William Kidd, though he had an official Letter of Marque signed by King William III of England, was hanged as a pirate in 1701. Whether Kidd was actually a pirate or just a privateer who was unjustly accused is still a matter of debate.

Letters of Marque fell out of fashion after the end of the Crimean War in 1856, (though land-locked and navy-free Bolivia was still issuing them in 1879 to anyone willing to attack Chilean ships.) The US government hasn’t issued any Letters since 1815, but there was some confusion during WWII about whether the Goodyear Blimps were official privateers.

This was not as absurd as it sounds–the confusion arose because the blimps, with armed civilian crews, were flying anti-submarine patrols off the coast of California. But they had not been issued official Letters of Marque, and so were not privateers.

Ron Paul, a Constitutionally-interested guy, has tried to revive Letters of Marque to fight against “air pirates” like the 9-11 attackers. Similar to hiring Blackwater in Iraq, his proposal would have let the president issue Letters of Marque against specific terrorists and Somali pirates. But so far, his bills have not become laws and Letters of Marque have not returned.

Pirate Friday: The Legend of Jean Lafitte

Jean Lafitte

No knows exactly where Jean Lafitte was born–The Pirate’s Own Book claims St. Malo, a (formerly) notorious pirate’s haunt in Brittany, France. Wikipedia proposes the Basque region of France or the French colony of St. Domingue (now Haiti,) among others:

Lafitte claimed to have been born in Bordeaux, France, in 1780 from Sephardic Jewish parents whose Conversos grandmother and mother fled Spain for France in 1765, after his maternal grandfather was put to death by the Inquisition for “Judaizing”. He and his brother Pierre alternately claimed to have been born in Bayonne, while other documents of the time place his birthplace as St. Malo or Brest. … Other contemporary accounts claim that Lafitte was born in Orduna, Spain or in Westchester, New York.[2]

With few hard facts, Wikipedia skips Lafitte’s early life almost completely. TPOB, thankfully, provides a stirring (if possibly untrue) account:

…after a cruise during which [Lafitte] robbed the vessels of other nations, besides those of England, and thus committing piracy, he stopped at the Seychelles, and took in a load of slaves for the Mauritius; but being chased by an English frigate as far north as the equator, he found himself in a very awkward condition; not having provisions enough on board his ship to carry him back to the French Colony.

He therefore conceived the bold project of proceeding to the Bay of Bengal, in order to get provisions from on board some English ships. In his ship of two hundred tons, with only two guns and twenty-six men, he attacked and took an English armed schooner with a numerous crew. After putting nineteen of his own crew on board the schooner, he took the command of her and proceeded to cruise upon the coast of Bengal.

He there fell in with the Pagoda, a vessel belonging to the English East India Company, armed with twenty-six twelve pounders and manned with one hundred and fifty men. Expecting that the enemy would take him for a pilot of the Ganges, he manoeuvred accordingly. The Pagoda manifested no suspicions, whereupon he suddenly darted with his brave followers upon her decks, overturned all who opposed them, and speedily took the ship.

After a very successful cruise he arrived safe at the Mauritius, and took the command of La Confiance of twenty-six guns and two hundred and fifty men, and sailed for the coast of British India.

Off the Sand Heads in October, 1807, Lafitte fell in with the Queen East Indiaman, with a crew of near four hundred men, and carrying forty guns; he conceived the bold project of getting possession of her. Never was there beheld a more unequal conflict; even the height of the vessel compared to the feeble privateer augmented the chances against Lafitte; but the difficulty and danger far from discouraging this intrepid sailor, acted as an additional spur to his brilliant valor. After electrifying his crew with a few words of hope and ardor, he manoeuvred and ran on board of the enemy. In this position he received a broadside when close too; but he expected this, and made his men lay flat upon the deck. After the first fire they all rose, and from the yards and tops, threw bombs and grenades into the forecastle of the Indiaman. This sudden and unforeseen attack caused a great havoc. In an instant, death and terror made them abandon a part of the vessel near the mizen-mast.

Lafitte, who observed every thing, seized the decisive moment, beat to arms, and forty of his crew prepared to board, with pistols in their hands and daggers held between their teeth. As soon as they got on deck, they rushed upon the affrighted crowd, who retreated to the steerage, and endeavored to defend themselves there. Lafitte thereupon ordered a second division to board, which he headed himself; the captain of the Indiaman was killed, and all were swept away in a moment. Lafitte caused a gun to be loaded with grape, which he pointed towards the place where the crowd was assembled, threatening to exterminate them. The English deeming resistance fruitless, surrendered, and Lafitte hastened to put a stop to the slaughter. This exploit, hitherto unparalleled, resounded through India, and the name of Lafitte became the terror of English commerce in these latitudes.

Wikipedia speculates far humbler origins: he grew up aboard ships owned by his father, a trader. They were living in or near St. Domingue when the Haitian revolution broke out, and fled to Louisiana.

At this point TPOB and Wikipedia are in agreement: Lafitte moved to Barataria, Louisiana, around the time of the Louisiana purchase. Here he found a much safer way to earn a living than charging ships: smuggling.

In 1807, the US government passed an embargo against trade with Britain and France:

The embargo was imposed in response to violations of the United States neutrality, in which American merchantmen and their cargo were seized as contraband of war by the belligerent European navies. The British Royal Navy, in particular, resorted to impressment, forcing thousands of American seamen into service on their warships. Britain and France, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars, rationalized the plunder of U.S. shipping as incidental to war and necessary for their survival. Americans saw the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair as a particularly egregious example of a British violation of American neutrality.

A pirate is an outlaw who plunders ships on the high seas, but a privateer, like Sir Francis Drake, is a man who has been given permission by his sovereign to rape and despoil the ships of other nations.

The embargo was particularly problematic for Louisiana, which was accustomed to trading with the other French colonies of the Caribbean, so Lafitte and his brother, Piere, established a smuggling port in Barataria. By 1810, business was booming, and since almost everyone in Louisiana benefited from the trade Lafitte and his men enabled, the local government turned a mostly blind eye to his activities.

Barataria Preserve, Louisiana

In 1812, Lafitte returned to piracy with the purchase of a schooner, and soon after captured a Spanish hermaphrodite brig, which Wikipedia assures me is a kind of boat.

Sale of the brig’s cargo–including 77 slaves–netted $18,000 in profits plus a new ship, which Lafitte re-christianed the Dorada. With the Dorada, Lafitte captured a third ship laden with over $9,000 in goods, but decided the ship itself was not particularly useful for piracy, and so turned it back over it to its captain. His habit of not massacring everyone onboard the ships he captured and sometimes returning them to their rightful owners earned Lafitte some measure of local good will.

Lafitte soon captured two more ships, La Diligent and the Petit Milan, which they outfitted with guns from their original schooner. Biographer William Davis writes that this was likely one of the largest and most versatile privately owned corsair fleets operating on the coast.

The Lafittes made good use of their ships in the smuggling business. According to Wikipedia:

For several months, the Lafittes would send the ships directly to New Orleans with a legal cargo and would take on outgoing provisions in the city. The crew would create a manifest that listed not the provisions that had been purchased, but smuggled items stored at Barataria. Uninterested in exports from New Orleans, customs agents rarely checked the accuracy of the manifests. The ship would sail to the mouth of Bayou Lafourche, load the contraband goods, and sail “legally” back to New Orleans, with goods listed on a certified manifest.[22]

With the outbreak of war in 1812, the US government issued Letters of Marque–official documents authorizing private citizens to become privateers–to several of Lafitte’s men.

Article 1, Section 8, line 11 of the US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.” (Letters of Marque are interesting in and of themselves, but would require too long a diversion to discuss fully right now.)

Lafitte’s men soon had Letters of Marque from several different countries–including ones Lafitte made up. Goods from captured British ships they turned in to the authorities in New Orleans, but goods from other ships they captured went through Barataria, depriving the government of tax revenue.

Since the stationary bandits weren’t strong enough to stop the mobile ones, the government resorted to suing Lafitte for tax evasion. There followed several skirmishes between Lafitte and the revenuers:

On November 10, 1812, the United States District Attorney John R. Grymes charged Lafitte with “violation of the revenue law”.[27] Three days later, 40 soldiers were sent to ambush the Baratarians; they captured Lafitte, his brother Pierre, and 25 unarmed smugglers on November 16, and confiscated several thousand dollars of contraband. Officials released the smugglers after they posted bond, and they disappeared, refusing to return for a trial.[27]

In October, a revenue officer prepared an ambush of a band of Lafitte’s smugglers. The smugglers wounded one of the officers and safely escaped with the contraband.[31] The following month, the governor offered a $500 reward for Lafitte’s capture. Within two days of his offer, handbills were posted all over New Orleans offering a similar award for the arrest of the governor. …

Given the success of his auctions at the Temple, in January 1814 Lafitte set up a similar auction at a site just outside New Orleans. Officials tried to break up this auction by force, and in the ensuing gunfight, one of the revenue officers was killed and two others were wounded.[33]

The government’s ability to apprehend Lafitte was hampered by the fact that Louisianans appreciated the lower prices they could get buying smuggled goods directly from Barataria rather than official import channels. They did, however, catch, convict, and imprison his brother, Pierre.

In 1814, a British warship arrived in Barataria, bearing an intriguing offer:

The British raised a white flag and launched a small dinghy with several officers. Lafitte and several of his men rowed to meet them halfway.[37]

Captain Nicholas Lockyer, the commander of the Sophie, had been ordered to contact the “Commandant at Barataria”. He was accompanied by a Royal Marine infantry Captain, John McWilliam,[38][39] who had been given a package to deliver to Lafitte. The Baratarians invited the British officers to row to their island. When they had disembarked and were surrounded by his men, Lafitte identified himself to them. Many of the smugglers wanted to lynch the British men, but Lafitte intervened and placed guards outside his home to ensure their protection.[37] McWilliam brought two letters in his packet for Lafitte: one, under the seal of King George III, offered Lafitte and his forces British citizenship and land grants in the British colonies in the Americas if they promised to assist in the naval fight against the United States and to return any recent property that had been taken from Spanish ships. (The British were allied with Spain against the French and the US.) If they refused the offer, the British Navy would destroy Barataria. The second item was a personal note to Lafitte from McWilliam’s superior, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Nicolls, urging him to accept the offer.[40]

TPOB claims that Lafitte turned down the offer due to patriotic sentiments, while Wikipedia gives a more self-interested motivation: he thought the Americans would win and did not wish to be on the side of the losers. Moreover, an American victory left him only the revenuers to contend with, while a British victory could bring his operations into conflict with the British navy–and he considered the revenuers easier opponents.

Lafitte therefore offered his services to the Americans in exchange for a pardon. His brother–perhaps coincidentally–mysteriously “escaped” from prison soon after.

Within days, however, the US navy attacked Barataria, capturing 8 ships, 20 canon, $500,000 worth of goods, and 80 men–but not Lafitte. Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne wrote to the Attorney General and General Andrew Jackson to request a pardon for Lafitte and his men, arguing that for generations, smugglers were “esteemed honest … [and] sympathy for these offenders is certainly more or less felt by many of the Louisianans,” and that Patterson’s capture of Lafitte’s ships, “had destroyed a potential first line of defense for Louisiana.”

Jackson responded testily, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?” But when Jackson arrived in New Orleans, he found the city woefully unprepared to defend against the invading British. It had only two ships, plus the eight captured from Lafitte–and not enough sailors to man them all. General Jackson had no choice: he pardoned the pirates. TPOB quotes Lafitte’s official pardon from President Madison:

It has therefore been seen, with great satisfaction, that the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana earnestly recommend those offenders to the benefit of a full pardon; And in compliance with that recommendation, as well as in consideration of all the other extraordinary circumstances in the case, I, James Madison, President of the United States of America, do issue this proclamation, hereby granting, publishing and declaring, a free and full pardon of all offences committed in violation of any act or acts of the Congress of the said United States, touching the revenue, trade and navigation thereof, or touching the intercourse and commerce of the United States with foreign nations, at any time before the eighth day of January, in the present year one thousand eight hundred and fifteen, by any person or persons whatsoever, being inhabitants of New Orleans and the adjacent country, or being inhabitants of the said island of Barrataria, and the places adjacent; Provided, that every person, claiming the benefit of this full pardon, in order to entitle himself thereto, shall produce a certificate in writing from the governor of the State of Louisiana, stating that such person has aided in the defence of New Orleans and the adjacent country, during the invasion thereof as aforesaid.

TPOB also provides a stirring description of the Battle of New Orleans:

The morning of the eighth of January, was ushered in with the discharge of rockets, the sound of cannon, and the cheers of the British soldiers advancing to the attack. … A storm of rockets preceded them, and an incessant fire opened from the battery, which commanded the advanced column. The musketry and rifles from the Kentuckians and Tennesseans, joined the fire of the artillery, and in a few moments was heard along the line a ceaseless, rolling fire, whose tremendous noise resembled the continued reverberation of thunder. One of these guns, a twenty-four pounder, placed upon the breastwork in the third embrasure from the river, drew, from the fatal skill and activity with which it was managed, even in the heat of battle, the admiration of both Americans and British; and became one of the points most dreaded by the advancing foe.

Here was stationed Lafitte and his lieutenant Dominique and a large band of his men, who during the continuance of the battle, fought with unparalleled bravery. The British already had been twice driven back in the utmost confusion, with the loss of their commander-in-chief, and two general officers.

Two other batteries were manned by the Barratarians, who served their pieces with the steadiness and precision of veteran gunners. In the first attack of the enemy, a column pushed forward between the levee and river; and so precipitate was their charge that the outposts were forced to retire, closely pressed by the enemy. Before the batteries could meet the charge, clearing the ditch, they gained the redoubt through the embrasures, leaping over the parapet, and overwhelming by their superior force the small party stationed there.

Lafitte, who was commanding in conjunction with his officers, at one of the guns, no sooner saw the bold movement of the enemy, than calling a few of his best men by his side, he sprung forward to the point of danger, and clearing the breastwork of the entrenchments, leaped, cutlass in hand, into the midst of the enemy, followed by a score of his men, who in many a hard fought battle upon his own deck, had been well tried.

Astonished at the intrepidity which could lead men to leave their entrenchments and meet them hand to hand, and pressed by the suddenness of the charge, which was made with the recklessness, skill and rapidity of practised boarders bounding upon the deck of an enemy’s vessel, they began to give way, while one after another, two British officers fell before the cutlass of the pirate, as they were bravely encouraging their men. All the energies of the British were now concentrated to scale the breastwork, which one daring officer had already mounted. While Lafitte and his followers, seconding a gallant band of volunteer riflemen, formed a phalanx which they in vain assayed to penetrate.

The British finding it impossible to take the city and the havoc in their ranks being dreadful, made a precipitate retreat, leaving the field covered with their dead and wounded.

General Jackson, in his correspondence with the secretary of war did not fail to notice the conduct of the “Corsairs of Barrataria,” who were, as we have already seen, employed in the artillery service.

With the war’s conclusion, Lafitte seems to have felt like he had garnered too much attention from official government officials and left Louisiana for Galveston, Texas, then part of the Spanish Empire. Spain at the time was embroiled in the Mexican Revolution, and Lafitte offered Spain his services as a spy, particularly against Louis-Michel Aury, a French privateer on the Mexican side. He ousted Aury and took over the island, establishing a second smuggling base. (Today, Galveston is close to the port of Houston, the fourth largest city in the country.)

Lafitte’s “pirate colony” grew quickly, to 100-200 people and a few women; during this time he married and had his only known legal child, who died around the age of 12. (Wikipedia also mentions a child with a mistress, though not what became of it.)

In 1818, the US government passed a new law restricting the import of slaves, but this law had a poorly-thought-out loophole: pirates could capture slave ships, turn the cargo over to customs officials, and the receive 50% of the profits from sale of the cargo. Smugglers, pirates, and the operators of slave ships soon worked out a way around the law: smugglers bought the slaves from the ships, brought them to Louisiana, and turned them in to the government, receiving half their sale value. A second smuggler then bought the slaves at auction and could legally re-sell them throughout the South.

In other words, banning importation without banning sales just encouraged people to work around the importation law. Interestingly, slavery and piracy became so closely connected that in 1820, the Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy was amended to also include the slave trade as a form of piracy.

Unfortunately for Lafitte, the tide was turning against him. A hurricane hit Galveston in 1818, destroying most of the colony’s houses. After the American Navy drove him from Galveston, he relocated to Cuba, but eventually angered the Cubans, too. They outlawed all forms of privateering, and Lafitte moved to Columbia. Here the government commissioned him as an official privateer, authorized to capture Spanish ships.

With increased official naval presences in the Gulf and Caribbean, Lafitte’s business became more dangerous and less profitable. His ships were captured and men arrested and executed. TPOB provides a description of the end of Barataria, after Lafitte’s departure:

About this time one Mitchell, who had formerly belonged to Lafitte’s gang, collected upwards of one hundred and fifty desperadoes and fortified himself on an island near Barrataria, with several pieces of cannon; and swore that he and all his comrades would perish within their trenches before they would surrender to any man. …

The United States cutter, Alabama, on her way to the station off the mouth of the Mississippi, captured a piratical schooner belonging to Lafitte … An expedition was now sent to dislodge Mitchell and his comrades from the island he had taken possession of; after coming to anchor, a summons was sent for him to surrender, which was answered by a brisk cannonade from his breastwork. The vessels were warped close in shore; and the boats manned and sent on shore whilst the vessels opened upon the pirates; the boat’s crews landed under a galling fire of grape shot and formed in the most undaunted manner; and although a severe loss was sustained they entered the breastwork at the point of the bayonet; after a desperate fight the pirates gave way, many were taken prisoners but Mitchell and the greatest part escaped to the cypress swamps where it was impossible to arrest them.

A large quantity of dry goods and specie together with other booty was taken. Twenty of the pirates were taken and brought to New Orleans, and tried before Judge Hall, of the Circuit Court of the United States, sixteen were brought in guilty; and after the Judge had finished pronouncing sentence of death upon the hardened wretches, several of them cried out in open court, Murder–by God.

Accounts of these transactions having reached Lafitte, he plainly perceived there was a determination to sweep all his cruisers from the sea; and a war of extermination appeared to be waged against him.

No one is sure exactly when or how Lafitte died. Wikipedia claims he was cruising for Spanish silver off the coast of Honduras when a Spanish ship counterattacked. Injured in the ensuing battle, Laftitte died on February 5th, 1823.

TPOB credits his death to the British:

In a fit of desperation [Lafitte] procured a large and fast sailing brigantine mounting sixteen guns and having selected a crew of one hundred and sixty men he started without any commission as a regular pirate determined to rob all nations and neither to give or receive quarter.

A British sloop of war which was cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, having heard that Lafitte himself was at sea, kept a sharp look out from the mast head; when one morning as an officer was sweeping the horizon with his glass he discovered a long dark looking vessel, low in the water, but having very tall masts, with sails white as the driven snow. As the sloop of war had the weather gage of the pirate and could outsail her before the wind, she set her studding sails and crowded every inch of canvass in chase; as soon as Lafitte ascertained the character of his opponent, he ordered the awnings to be furled and set his big square-sail and shot rapidly through the water; but as the breeze freshened the sloop of war came up rapidly with the pirate, who, finding no chance of escaping, determined to sell his life as dearly as possible; the guns were cast loose and the shot handed up; and a fire opened upon the ship which killed a number of men and carried away her foretopmast, but she reserved her fire until within cable’s distance of the pirate; when she fired a general discharge from her broadside, and a volley of small arms; the broadside was too much elevated to hit the low hull of the brigantine, but was not without effect; the foretopmast fell, the jaws of the main gaff were severed and a large proportion of the rigging came rattling down on deck; ten of the pirates were killed, but Lafitte remained unhurt.

The sloop of war entered her men over the starboard bow and a terrific contest with pistols and cutlasses ensued; Lafitte received two wounds at this time which disabled him, a grape shot broke the bone of his right leg and he received a cut in the abdomen, but his crew fought like tigers and the deck was ankle deep with blood and gore; the captain of the boarders received such a tremendous blow on the head from the butt end of a musket, as stretched him senseless on the deck near Lafitte, who raised his dagger to stab him to the heart. But the tide of his existence was ebbing like a torrent, his brain was giddy, his aim faltered and the point descended in the Captain’s right thigh; dragging away the blade with the last convulsive energy of a death struggle, he lacerated the wound. Again the reeking steel was upheld, and Lafitte placed his left hand near the Captain’s heart, to make his aim more sure; again the dizziness of dissolution spread over his sight, down came the dagger into the captain’s left thigh and Lafitte was a corpse.

The upper deck was cleared, and the boarders rushed below on the main deck to complete their conquest. Here the slaughter was dreadful, till the pirates called out for quarter, and the carnage ceased; all the pirates that surrendered were taken to Jamaica and tried before the Admiralty court where sixteen were condemned to die, six were subsequently pardoned and ten executed.

It was many years before news of Lafitte’s death at sea was widely accepted. Like Elvis, a great many rumors sprang up averring that he was still alive, including a persistent claim that he had rescued Napoleon from exile and the two were living in secrecy in Louisiana. Eventually it became clear, though, from the lack of real news of Lafitte, that however he had died, he was surely and truly dead.

Not quite Forgotten Treasures: Part 2, Cahokia

Illustration of Cahokia Mounds, Illinois

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monk’s Mound, Cahokia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructed piece from Etowah Indian Mounds, Georgia

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

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

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

Woodhenge, Cahokia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely people.

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

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

Artsist’s conception of Watson Brake

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

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

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

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

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

Forgotten Treasures pt 1: The Indian city of Etzanoa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

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

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

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

From Indian Warriors:

historical range of Ojibwe-language speakng peoples

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

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

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

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Ojibwe chiefs photographed in the 19th century.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued…


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

I recently received a question from Quas Lacrimas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haak et all’s full dataset










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

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

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

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

The Wikipedia page on Sino-Tibetan notes:

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

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

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

oh look, it’s our friends the Ainu

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

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

According to Wikipedia:

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


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

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

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

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

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

On the subject of Han genetics, Wikipedia states:

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

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

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

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

On the Qiang:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk Genetics (Polish and German)

source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

Continuing with our discussion of German/Polish history/languages/genetics, let’s look at what some actual geneticists have to say.

(If you’re joining us for the first time, the previous two posts summarize to: due to being next door to each other and having been invaded/settled over the millennia by groups which didn’t really care about modern political borders, Polish and German DNA are quite similar. More recent events, however, like Germany invading Poland and trying to kill all of the Poles and ethnic Germans subsequently fleeing/being expelled from Poland at the end of the war have created conditions necessary for genetic differentiation in the two populations.)

So I’ve been looking up whatever papers I can find on the subject.

In Contemporary paternal genetic landscape of Polish and German populations: from early medieval Slavic expansion to post-World War II resettlements, Rebala et al write:

The male genetic landscape of the European continent has been shown to be clinal and influenced primarily by geography rather than by language.1 One of the most outstanding phenomena in the Y-chromosomal diversity in Europe concerns the population of Poland, which reveals geographic homogeneity of Y-chromosomal lineages in spite of a relatively large geographic area seized by the Polish state.2 Moreover, a sharp genetic border has been identified between paternal lineages of neighbouring Poland and Germany, which strictly follows a political border between the two countries.3 Massive human resettlements during and shortly after the World War II (WWII), involving millions of Poles and Germans, have been proposed as an explanation for the observed phenomena.2, 3 Thus, it was possible that the local Polish populations formed after the early Slavic migrations displayed genetic heterogeneity before the war owing to genetic drift and/or gene flow with neighbouring populations. It has been also suggested that the revealed homogeneity of Polish paternal lineages existed already before the war owing to a common genetic substrate inherited from the ancestral Slavic population after the Slavs’ early medieval expansion in Europe.2 …

We used high-resolution typing of Y-chromosomal binary and microsatellite markers first to test for male genetic structure in the Polish population before massive human resettlements in the mid-20th century, and second to verify if the observed present-day genetic differentiation between the Polish and German paternal lineages is a direct consequence of the WWII or it has rather resulted from a genetic barrier between peoples with distinct linguistic backgrounds. The study further focuses on providing an answer to the origin of the expansion of the Slavic language in early medieval Europe. For the purpose of our investigation, we have sampled three pre-WWII Polish regional populations, three modern German populations (including the Slavic-speaking Sorbs) and a modern population of Slovakia. …

AMOVA in the studied populations revealed statistically significant support for two linguistically defined groups of populations in both haplogroup and haplotype distributions (Table 2). It also detected statistically significant genetic differentiation for both haplogroups and haplotypes in three Polish pre-WWII regional populations (Table 2). The AMOVA revealed small but statistically significant genetic differentiation between the Polish pre-war and modern populations (Table 2). When both groups of populations were tested for genetic structure separately, only the modern Polish regional samples showed genetic homogeneity (Table 2). Regional differentiation of 10-STR haplotypes in the pre-WWII populations was retained even if the most linguistically distinct Kashubian speakers were excluded from the analysis (RST=0.00899, P=0.01505; data not shown). Comparison of Y chromosomes associated with etymologically Slavic and German surnames (with frequencies provided in Table 1) did not reveal genetic differentiation within any of the three Polish regional populations for all three (FST, ΦST and RST) genetic distances. Moreover, the German surname-related Y chromosomes were comparably distant from Bavaria and Mecklenburg as the ones associated with the Slavic surnames (Supplementary Figure S2). MDS of pairwise genetic distances showed a clear-cut differentiation between German and Slavic samples (Figure 2). In addition, the MDS analysis revealed the pre-WWII populations from northern, central and southern Poland to be moderately scattered in the plot, on the contrary to modern Polish regional samples, which formed a very tight, homogeneous cluster (Figure 3).

Nicolaus Copernicus, Polish astronomer famous for developing heliocentric model of the solar system

This all seems very reasonable. Modern Poland is probably more homogenous than pre-war Poland in part because modern Poles have cars and trains and can marry people from other parts of Poland much more easily than pre-war Poles could, and possibly because the war itself reduced Polish genetic diversity and displaced much of the population.

Genetic discontinuity along the Polish-German border also makes sense, as national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries all make intermarriage more difficult.

The Discussion portion of this paper is very interesting; I shall quote briefly:

Kayser et al3 revealed significant genetic differentiation between paternal lineages of neighbouring Poland and Germany, which follows a present-day political border and was attributed to massive population movements during and shortly after the WWII. … it remained unknown whether Y-chromosomal diversity in ethnically/linguistically defined Slavic and German populations, which used to be exposed to intensive interethnic contacts and cohabit ethnically mixed territories, was clinal or discontinuous already before the war. In contrast to the regions of Kaszuby and Kociewie, which were politically subordinated to German states for more than three centuries and before the massive human resettlements in the mid-20th century occupied a narrow strip of land between German-speaking territories, the Kurpie region practically never experienced longer periods of German political influence and direct neighbourhood with the German populations. Lusatia was conquered by Germans in the 10th century and since then was a part of German states for most of its history; the modern Lusatians (Sorbs) inhabit a Slavic-speaking island in southeastern Germany. In spite of the fact that these four regions differed significantly in exposure to gene flow with the German population, our results revealed their similar genetic differentiation from Bavaria and Mecklenburg. Moreover, admixture estimates showed hardly detectable German paternal ancestry in Slavs neighbouring German populations for centuries, that is, the Sorbs and Kashubes. However, it should be noted that our regional population samples comprised only individuals of Polish and Sorbian ethnicity and did not involve a pre-WWII German minority of Kaszuby and Kociewie, which owing to forced resettlements in the mid-20th century ceased to exist, and also did not involve Germans constituting since the 19th century a majority ethnic group of Lusatia. Thus, our results concern ethnically/linguistically rather than geographically defined populations and clearly contrast the broad-scale pattern of Y-chromosomal diversity in Europe, which was shown to be strongly driven by geographic proximity rather than by language.1 …

Two main factors are believed to be responsible for the Slavic language extinction in vast territories to the east of the Elbe and Saale rivers: colonisation of the region by the German-speaking settlers, known in historical sources as Ostsiedlung, and assimilation of the local Slavic populations, but contribution of both factors to the formation of a modern eastern German population used to remain highly speculative.8 Previous studies on Y-chromosomal diversity in Germany by Roewer et al17 and Kayser et al3 revealed east–west regional differentiation within the country with eastern German populations clustering between western German and Slavic populations but clearly separated from the latter, which suggested only minor Slavic paternal contribution to the modern eastern Germans. Our ancestry estimates for the Mecklenburg region (Supplementary Table S3) and for the pooled eastern German populations, assessed as being well below 50%, definitely confirm the German colonisation with replacement of autochthonous populations as the main reason for extinction of local Slavic vernaculars. The presented results suggest that early medieval Slavic westward migrations and late medieval and subsequent German eastward migrations, which outnumbered and largely replaced previous populations, as well as very limited male genetic admixture to the neighbouring Slavs (Supplementary Table S4), were likely responsible for the pre-WWII genetic differentiation between Slavic- and German-speaking populations. Woźniak et al18 compared several Slavic populations and did not detect such a sharp genetic boundary in case of Czech and Slovak males with genetically intermediate position between other Slavic and German populations, which was explained by early medieval interactions between Slavic and Germanic tribes on the southern side of the Carpathians. Anyway, paternal lineages from our Slovak population sample were genetically much closer to their Slavic than German counterparts. …

Note that they are discussing paternal ancestry. This does not rule out the possibility of significant Slavic maternal ancestry. Finally:

Our coalescence-based divergence time estimates for the two isolated western Slavic populations almost perfectly match historical and archaeological data on the Slavs’ expansion in Europe in the 5th–6th centuries.4 Several hundred years of demographic expansion before the divergence, as detected by the BATWING, support hypothesis that the early medieval Slavic expansion in Europe was a demographic event rather than solely a linguistic spread of the Slavic language.

Marian Rejewski, Polish mathematician and cryptologist who reconstructed the Nazi German military Enigma cipher machine sight-unseen in 1932

I left out a lot of interesting material, so I recommend reading the complete discussion if you want to know more about Polish/German genetics.

But what about the maternal contribution? Luckily for us, Malyarchuk et al have written Mitochondrial DNA analysis in Poles and Russians:

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence variation was examined in Poles (from the Pomerania-Kujawy region; n = 436) and Russians (from three different regions of the European part of Russia; n = 201)… The classification of mitochondrial haplotypes revealed the presence of all major European haplogroups, which were characterized by similar patterns of distribution in Poles and Russians. An analysis of the distribution of the control region haplotypes did not reveal any specific combinations of unique mtDNA haplotypes and their subclusters that clearly distinguish both Poles and Russians from the neighbouring European populations. The only exception is a novel subcluster U4a within subhaplogroup U4, defined by a diagnostic mutation at nucleotide position 310 in HVS II. This subcluster was found in common predominantly between Poles and Russians (at a frequency of 2.3% and 2.0%, respectively) and may therefore have a central-eastern European origin. …

The analysis of mtDNA haplotype distribution has shown that both Slavonic populations share them mainly with Germans and Finns. The following numbers of the rare shared haplotypes and subclusters were found between populations analyzed: 10% between Poles and Germans, 7.4% between Poles and Russians, and 4.5% between Russians and Germans. A novel subcluster U4-310, defined by mutation at nucleotide position 310 in HVS II, was found predominantly in common between Poles and Russians (at frequency of 2%). Given the relatively high frequency and diversity of this marker among Poles and its low frequency in the neighbouring German and Finnish populations, we suggest a central European origin of U4-310, following by subsequent dispersal of this mtDNA subgroup in eastern European populations during the Slavonic migrations in early Middle Ages.

In other words, for the most part, Poles, Russians, Germans, and even Finns(!) (who do not speak an Indo-European language and are usually genetic outliers in Europe,) all share their maternal DNA.

Migrants, immigrants, and invaders tend disproportionately to be male (just look at any army) while women tend to stay behind. Invading armies might wipe each other out, but the women of a region are typically spared, seen as booty similar to cattle to be distributed among the invaders rather than killed. Female populations therefore tend to be sticky, in a genetic sense, persisting long after all of the men in an area were killed and replaced. The dominant Y-chromosome haplogroup in the area (R1a) hails from the Indo-European invasion (except in Finland, obviously,) but the mtDNA likely predates that expansion.

These data allow us to suggest that Europeans, despite their linguistic differences, originated in the common genetic substratum which predates the formation of the most modern European populations. It seems that considerable genetic similarity between European populations, which has been revealed by mtDNA variation studies, was further accelerated by a process of gene redistribution between populations due to the multiple migrations occurring in Europe during the past milenia…

It is interesting, though, that recent German invasions of Poland left very little in the way of a genetic contribution. I’d wager that WWII was quite a genetic disaster for everyone involved.

If you want more information, Khazaria has a nice list of studies plus short summaries on Polish DNA.

Let’s Look at Poland

Let’s Look at Poland

The original

So far in this investigation of Polish/German genetics, we’ve focused almost entirely on the German side of the picture, so today I’d like to pause and learn a bit about Poland.

I have a certain fondness for Poland, born of Polish-American friends and Polandball comics.

Humans have been living in [the area that is now-called] Poland for longer than H. sapiens has been around. (H. erectus and neanderthalis lived there, first.)

We’re not sure exactly what language(s) were spoken by the various tribes in [what is now] Poland, [henceforth refererd to as “Poland” for simplicity’s sake,] during the Bronze Age and before, simply because they left no written records and had very little contact with the literate peoples of Greece and Rome, who could have written about them.

Recreation of the Biskupin fort, Lusatian Culture, Poland

As we’ve discussed before, the idea that everyone outside of Classical Greece and Rome lived in rude barbarism is probably a bit wrong; pre-literate, bronze-age Europe had long-distance trade, pleasant villages, art, and luxury goods.

One of the more prominent goods produced local area was amber, gathered on the shores of the Baltic and traded to places like Greece, Rome, and Spain in exchange for copper and tin (necessary for making bronze.)

We’re still not sure exactly when and how the Indo-European languages spread to Europe, but the Corded Ware Culture, culturally and genetically Indo-European, appeared in Poland (and elsewhere) around 3,000 BC. It was later replaced by various other cultures like the Lusatians, who probably also spoke Indo-European languages.

The Slavic languages appear to have started differentiating around 2,800 BC in modern Ukraine and proceeded to spread out from there. The modern Slavic languages are divided into East (Russian, Belarussian, Ukrainina,) West (Polish, Czech, Slovak,) and South (Slovene, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Bosnian, Bulgarian, etc.)

According to Wikipedia:

Western historians refer to the period of migrations that separated Antiquity from the Middle Ages in Europe as the Great Migrations or as the Migrations Period. …

The first phase, from 300 to 500, saw the movement of Germanic, Sarmatian and Hunnic tribes and ended with the settlement of these peoples in the areas of the former Western Roman Empire. …

The second phase, between 500 and 900, saw Slavic, Turkic and other tribes on the move, re-settling in Eastern Europe and gradually making it predominantly Slavic.

Back row: A. Piccard, E. Henriot, P. Ehrenfest, E. Herzen, Th. de Donder, E. Schrödinger, J.E. Verschaffelt, W. Pauli, W. Heisenberg, R.H. Fowler, L. Brillouin;
Middle Row: P. Debye, M. Knudsen, W.L. Bragg, H.A. Kramers, P.A.M. Dirac, A.H. Compton, L. de Broglie, M. Born, N. Bohr;
Front Row: I. Langmuir, M. Planck, M. Skłodowska-Curie, H.A. Lorentz, A. Einstein, P. Langevin, Ch.-E. Guye, C.T.R. Wilson, O.W. Richardson

In other words–and I wager this is probably a pretty controversial claim–archaeologists think there may have been Germanic-speaking tribes in Poland prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, and Slavic-speaking tribes moved into the area.

Poland itself is named for the Polans, a Slavic tribe that inhabited the area in the 700s.

In 1867, double-Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie was born in Warsaw. (The Curie family has collectively won 5 Nobels, though one of these was a Peace Prize, meaning the Curie family alone has won more Nobel prizes than the majority of countries in the world.)

Modern Poland is a lovely country stocked with the survivors of some of the 20th century’s worst atrocities:

Under the two occupations, Polish citizens suffered enormous human and material losses. It is estimated that about 5.7 million Polish citizens died as a result of the German occupation and about 150,000 Polish citizens died as a result of the Soviet occupation. Ethnic Poles were subjected to both the Nazi and Soviet persecution. The Jews were singled out by the Germans for a quick and total annihilation and about 90% of Polish Jews.(close to three million people) were murdered. …

About 16 of Polish citizens lost their lives in the war,[44][45] most of the civilians targeted by various deliberate actions. The German plan involved not only the annexation of Polish territory, but also a total destruction of Polish culture and the Polish nation (Generalplan Ost).

The long-term Nazi plan, as I understand it, was to kill all the Slavs.

After WWII, about 12 million ethnic Germans fled or were kicked out of eastern Europe (no real surprise). As for Poland:

A 2005 study by the Polish Academy of Sciences estimated that during the final months of the war, 4 to 5 million German civilians fled with the retreating German forces, and in mid-1945, 4.5 to 4.6 million Germans remained in the territories under Polish control. By 1950, 3,155,000 had been transported to Germany, 1,043,550 were naturalized as Polish citizens and 170,000 Germans still remained in Poland.[123]:455–60,466

This is depressing material, but obviously relevant to our original question of Polish-German genetic similarity, as such flight/expulsions are likely to drive the existing populations apart. But we’ll look closer at the genetics in the next post.

On Germanic and Polish DNA

Distribution of Y-chromosomal haplogroup I1a in Europe.

Commentator Unknown123 asks what we can tell about the differences between German and Polish DNA. Obviously German is here referring to one of the Germanic peoples who occupy the modern nation of Germany and speak a Germanic language. But as noted before, just because people speak a common language doesn’t necessarily mean they have a common genetic origin. Germans and English both speak Germanic languages , but Germans could easily share more DNA with their Slavic-language speaking neighbors in Poland than with the English.

According to Wikipedia, the modern Germanic peoples include Afrikaners, Austrians, Danes, Dutch, English, Flemish, Frisians, Germans, Icelanders, Lowland Scots, Norwegians, and Swedes.[225][226]

And here is a map that is very suggestive of Viking raiders:

(It’s also not a bad map of the distribution of Germanic peoples in 750 BC.)

Wikipedia states:

It is suggested by geneticists that the movements of Germanic peoples has had a strong influence upon the modern distribution of the male lineage represented by the Y-DNA haplogroup I1, which is believed to have originated with one man, who lived approximately 4,000 to 6,000 years somewhere in Northern Europe, possibly modern Denmark … There is evidence of this man’s descendants settling in all of the areas that Germanic tribes are recorded as having subsequently invaded or migrated to.[220][v] However, it is quite possible that Haplogroup I1 is pre-Germanic, that is I1 may have originated with individuals who adopted the proto-Germanic culture, at an early stage of its development or were co-founders of that culture. Should that earliest Proto-Germanic speaking ancestor be found, his Y-DNA would most likely be an admixture of the aforementioned I1, but would also contain R1a1a, R1b-P312 and R1b-U106, a genetic combination of the haplogroups found among current Germanic speaking peoples.[221] …

Haplogroup I1 accounts for approximately 40% of Icelandic males, 40%–50% of Swedish males, 40% of Norwegian males, and 40% of Danish Human Y-chromosome DNA haplogroups. Haplogroup I1 peaks in certain areas of Northern Germany and Eastern England at more than 30%. Haplogroup R1b and haplogroup R1a collectively account for more than 40% of males in Sweden; over 50% in Norway, 60% in Iceland, 60–70% in Germany, and between 50%–70% of the males in England and the Netherlands depending on region.[222]

Note, though, that this map has some amusing results; clearly it’s a more Nordic distribution than specifically German, with “Celtic” Ireland just as Nordic as much of England and Germany.

Wikipedia also states:

According to a study published in 2010, I-M253 originated between 3,170 and 5,000 years ago, in Chalcolithic Europe.[1] A new study in 2015 estimated the origin as between 3,470 and 5,070 years ago or between 3,180 and 3,760 years ago, using two different techniques.[2] It is suggested that it initially dispersed from the area that is now Denmark.[8]

A 2014 study in Hungary uncovered remains of nine individuals from the Linear Pottery culture, one of whom was found to have carried the M253 SNP which defines Haplogroup I1. This culture is thought to have been present between 6,500 and 7,500 years ago.[12]


In 2002 a paper was published by Michael E. Weale and colleagues showing genetic evidence for population differences between the English and Welsh populations, including a markedly higher level of Y-DNA haplogroup I in England than in Wales. They saw this as convincing evidence of Anglo-Saxon mass invasion of eastern Great Britain from northern Germany and Denmark during the Migration Period.[13] The authors assumed that populations with large proportions of haplogroup I originated from northern Germany or southern Scandinavia, particularly Denmark, and that their ancestors had migrated across the North Sea with Anglo-Saxon migrations and DanishVikings. The main claim by the researchers was:

“That an Anglo-Saxon immigration event affecting 50–100% of the Central English male gene pool at that time is required. We note, however, that our data do not allow us to distinguish an event that simply added to the indigenous Central English male gene pool from one where indigenous males were displaced elsewhere or one where indigenous males were reduced in number … This study shows that the Welsh border was more of a genetic barrier to Anglo-Saxon Y chromosome gene flow than the North Sea … These results indicate that a political boundary can be more important than a geophysical one in population genetic structuring.”

In 2003 a paper was published by Christian Capelli and colleagues which supported, but modified, the conclusions of Weale and colleagues.[14] This paper, which sampled Great Britain and Ireland on a grid, found a smaller difference between Welsh and English samples, with a gradual decrease in Haplogroup I frequency moving westwards in southern Great Britain. The results suggested to the authors that Norwegian Vikings invaders had heavily influenced the northern area of the British Isles, but that both English and mainland Scottish samples all have German/Danish influence.

But the original question was about Germany and Poland, not England and Wales, so we are wandering a bit off-track.

source: Big Think: Genetic map of EuropeLuckily for me, Wikipedia helpfully has a table of European Population Genetic Substructure based on SNPs[48][59]. We’ll be extracting the most useful parts.

A score of “1” on this graph means that the two populations in question are identical–fully inter-mixing. The closer to 1 two groups score, the more similar they are. The further from one they score, (the bigger the number,) the more different they are.

Why isn't it in English? Oh, well. We'll manage.
Here is a potentially relevant map of the neolithic cultures of Europe

For example, the most closely related peoples on the graph are Austrians and their neighbors in southern Germany and Hungary (despite Hungarians speaking a non-Indo-European language brought in by recent steppe invaders.) Both groups scored 1.04 relative to Austrians, and a 1.08 relative to each other.

Northern and southern Germans also received a 1.08–so southern Germans are about as closely related to northern Germans as they are to Hungarians, and are more closely related to Austrians than to northern Germans.

This might reflect the pre-Roman empire population in which (as we discussed in the previous post) the Celtic cultures of Hallstatt and La Tene dominated a stretch of central Europe between Austria and Switzerland, with significant expansion both east and west, whilst the proto-Germanic peoples occupied northern Germany and later spread southward.

The least closely related peoples on the graph are (unsurprisingly) the Sami (Lapp) town of Kuusamo in northeastern Finland and Spain, at 4.21. (Finns are always kind of outliers in Europe, and Spaniards are kind of outliers in their own, different way, being the part of mainland Europe furthest from the Indo-European expansion starting point and so having received fewer invaders.

So what does the table say about Germans and their neighbors?

source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

Northern Germany:
South Germany 1.08
Austria 1.10
Hungary 1.11
Sweden 1.12
Czech Repub 1.15
Poland 1.18
France 1.25
Bulgaria 1.32
Switzerland 1.36

Southern Germany:
Austria 1.04
North Germany 1.08
Hungary 1.08
France 1.12
Czech Repub 1.16
Switzerland 1.17
Bulgaria 1.19
Latvia 1.20
Sweden 1.21
Poland 1.23


Czech Repub 1.09
Hungary: 1.14
Estonia 1.17
North Germany 1.18
Russia 1.18
Austria 1.19
Lithuania 1.20
South Germany 1.23
Latvia: 1.26
Bulgaria 1.29
Sweden 1.30
Switzerland 1.46

Obviously I didn’t include all of the data in the original table; all of the other sampled European groups, such as Italians, Spaniards, and Finns are genetically further away from north and south Germany and Poland than the listed groups.

So northern Germany and Poland are quite closely related–even closer than northern Germans are to the French (whose country is named after a Germanic tribe, the Franks, who conquered it during the Barbarian Migrations at the Fall of the Roman Empire,) or the Swiss, many of whom speak German. By contrast, southern Germany is more closely related to France and Switzerland than to Poland, but still more closely related to the Poles than Italians or Spaniards.

To be continued…