Re: Eurozine’s How to Change Human History

Some of you have asked  for my opinions on Davids Graeber and Wengrow’s recently published an article, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened):

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

The article is long and difficult to excerpt, so I’m going to summarize:

The traditional tale of how our idyllic, peaceful, egalitarian, small-group hunter-gatherer past gave way to our warlike, sexist, racist, violent, large-city agrarian present gives people the impression that hierarchy and violence are inevitable parts of our economic system. However, the traditional tale is wrong–the past was actually a lot more complicated than you’ve been told. Therefore, there is no historical pattern and the real source of all bad things is actually the family.

The final conclusion is pulled out of nowhere:

Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

Since “inequality begins in the family” is supported nowhere in the text, we will ignore it.

  1. What about the “traditional narrative”? Did hunter-gathers live in small, peaceful, egalitarian, idyllic communities? Or are the Davids correct that this is a myth?

It’s a myth. Mostly.

While we have almost no information about people’s opinions on anything before the advent of writing, there’s no evidence from any hunter-gatherer society we have actually been able to observe that hunter-gathering leads naturally to egalitarianism or peacefulness.

For example, among the Inuit (Eskimo), hunter-gatherers of the arctic, polyandry (the marriage of one woman to multiple men) didn’t exist because they had particularly enlightened views about women and marriage, but because they had a habit of killing female babies. Too much female infanticide => not enough adult women to go around => men making do.

Why do some groups have high rates of female infanticide? Among other reasons, because in the Arctic, the men do the hunting (seal, fish, caribou, etc.) and the women gather… not a whole lot. (Note: I’m pretty sure the modern Inuit do not practice sex-selective infanticide.)

Polyandry can also be caused by polygamy and simple lack of resources–men who cannot afford to support a wife and raise their own children may content themselves with sharing a wife and contributing what they can to the raising of offspring who might be theirs.

I have yet to encounter in all of my reading any hunter-gatherer or “primitive” society that has anything like our notion of “gender equality” in which women participate equally in the hunting and men do 50% of the child-rearing and gathering, (though some Pygmies are reported to be excellent fathers.) There are simple physical limits here: first, hunter-gatherers don’t have baby formula and men don’t lactate, so the duties of caring for small children fall heavily on their mothers. Many hunter-gatherers don’t even have good weaning foods, and so nurse their children for years longer than most Westerners. Second, hunting tends to require great physical strength, both in killing the animals (stronger arms will get better and more accurate draws on bows and spears) and in hauling the kills back to the tribe (you try carrying a caribou.)

In many horticultural societies, women do a large share of the physical labor of building houses and producing food, but the men do not make up for this by tending the babies. A similar division of labor exists in modern, lower-class African American society, where the women provide for their families and raise the children and then men are largely absent. Modern Rwanda, which suffers a dearth of men due to war and mass genocide, also has a “highly equitable” division of labor; not exactly an egalitarian paradise.

Hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, and other folks living outside formal states, have very high rates of violence. The Yanomami/o, for example, (who combine horticulture and hunting/foraging) are famous for their extremely high rates of murder and constant warfare. The Aborigines of Australia, when first encountered by outsiders, also had very high rates of interpersonal violence and warfare.

Graph from the Wikipedia
See also my post, “No, Hunter Gatherers were not Peaceful Paragons of Gender Egalitarianism.”

The Jivaro are an Amazonian group similar to the Yanomamo; the Mae Enga, Dugum Dani, Huli, and Gebusi are horticulturalists/hunters from PNG; Murngin are Australian hunter-gatherers.

I know, I know, horticulturalists are not pure hunter-gatherers, even if they do a lot of hunting and gathering. As we’ll discuss below, the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture is complicated and these are groups that we might describe as “in between”. The real question isn’t whether they bury a few coconuts if they happen to sprout before getting eaten, but whether they have developed large-scale social organization, cities, and/or formal states.

The article protests against using data from any contemporary forager societies, because they are by definition not ancient hunter-gatherers and have been contaminated by contact with non-foraging neighbors (I propose that the Australian Aborigines, however, at first contact were pretty uncontaminated,) but then the article goes on to use data from contemporary forager societies to bolster its own points… so I feel perfectly entitled to do the same thing.

However, we do have some data on ancient violence, eg:

According to this article, 12-14% of skeletons from most (but not all) ancient, pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups show signs of violence. Here’s a case of a band of hunter-gatherers–including 6 small children–who were slaughtered by another band of hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago.

Warfare appears to have been part of the human experience as far back as we look–even chimps wage war against each other, as Jane Goodall documented in her work in the Gombe.

Then there’s the cannibalism. Fijians, for example, who practiced a mixed horticulture/hunter-gathering lifestyle (fishing is a form hunting that looks a lot like gathering,) were notorious cannibals when first encountered by outsiders. (Though they did have something resembling a state at the time.)

Neanderthals butchered each other; 14,700 years ago, hunter-gatherers were butchering and eating each other in Cheddar Gorge, England. (This is the same Cheddar Gorge as the famous Cheddar Man hails from, but CM is 5,000 years younger than these cannibals and probably no relation, as an intervening glacier had forced everyone out of the area for a while. CM also died a violent death, though.)

Or as reported by Real Anthropology:

Increasing amount of archaeological evidence, such as fortifications of territories and pits containing dead humans blown by axes, indicates that warfare originated from prehistoric times, long before the establishment of state societies. Recently, researchers studying the animal bones in Mesolithic layer of Coves de Santa Maira accidentally discovered thirty human bone remains of the pre-Neolithic hunter-gatherer with anthropic marks, indicating behaviors of human cannibalism.

The article would like to emphasize, however, that we don’t really know why these people engaged in cannibalism. Starvation? Funeral rituals? Dismemberment of an enemy they really hated? Like I said, it’s hard to know what people were really thinking without written records.

There was a while in anthropology/archaeology when people were arguing that the spread of pots didn’t necessarily involve the spread of people, as a new pottery style could just spread because people liked it and decided to adopt it; it turns out that sometimes the spread is indeed of pots, and sometimes it’s of people. Similarly, certain anthropologists took to describing hunter-gatherers as “harmless“, but this didn’t involve any actual analysis of violence rates among hunter-gatherers (yes, I’ve read the book.)

In sum: The narrative that our ancestors were peaceful egalitarians is, in most cases, probably nonsense.

  • 2. The Davids also argue that the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture was more complex than the “traditional narrative” claims.

This is also true. As we’ve already touched on above, there are many economic systems that fall somewhere in between exclusive hunter-gathering and pure agriculture. Nomadic hunters who followed and exploited herds of animals gradually began protecting them from other predators (like wolves) and guiding the animals to areas with food and shelter. The domestication of goats pre-dates the beginning of agriculture (and dogs pre-date goats;) the domestication of reindeer was much more recent, (I reviewed a book on reindeer economies here, here, here, and here.) Again, there is no absolute line between hunters like the Eskimo who annually exploit migrating wild caribou and Lapp (Sami) ranchers who occasionally round up their herds of “domestic” reindeer. The reindeer appreciate that we humans kill off their natural predators (ie wolves) and provide a source of valuable salts (ie urine.) The origin of domestic goats and sheep probably looked similar, though the domestication of cattle was probably a more conscious decision given the bovines’ size.

The hunting of fish also looks a lot more like gathering or even farming, as a single resource area (eg, a bend in the river or a comfortable ocean bay) may be regularly exploited via nets, traps, rakes, weirs, etc.

Horticulture is a form of low-intensity agriculture (literally, gardening.) Some horticulturalists get most of their food from their gardens; others plant a few sprouted coconuts and otherwise get most of their food by hunting and fishing. Horticulture doesn’t require much technology (no plows needed) and typically doesn’t produce that many calories.

It is likely that many “hunter gatherers” understood the principle of “seeds sprout and turn into plants” and strategically planted seeds or left them in places where they wanted plants to grow for centuries or millennia before they began actively tending the resulting plants.

Many hunter-gatherer groups also practice active land management techniques. For example, a group of Melanesians in PNG that hunts crocodiles periodically burns the swamp in which the crocodiles live in order to prevent woody trees from taking over and making the swamp less swampy. By preserving the crocodiles’ habitat, they ensure there are plenty of crocodiles around for them to hunt. (I apologize for the lack of a link to a description of the group, but I saw it in a documentary about hunter-gatherers available on Netflix.)

Large-scale environment management probably also predates the adoption of formal agriculture by thousands of years.

Where the article goes wrong:

  1. Just because something is more complicated than the “simplified” version you commonly hear doesn’t mean, “There is no pattern, all is unknowable, nihilism now.”

Any simplified version of things is, by definition, simplified.

The idea that hunter-gatherers were uniquely peaceful and egalitarian is nonsense; if anything, the opposite may be true. Once you leave behind your preconceptions, you realize that the pattern isn’t “random noise” but but actually that all forms of violence and oppression appear to be decreasing over time. Economies where you can get ahead by murdering your neighbors and stealing their wives have been largely replaced by economies where murdering your neighbors lands you in prison and women go to college. There’s still noise in the data–times we humans kill a lot of each other–but that doesn’t mean there is no pattern.

  • 2. Most hunter-gatherers did, in fact, spend most of their time in small communities

The Davids make a big deal out of the fact that hunter-gatherers who exploit seasonally migrating herds sometimes gather in large groups in order to exploit those herds.  They cite, for example:

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Aside from the fact that they are here citing a modern people as an argument about prehistoric ones (!), the Pacific North West is one of the world’s lushest environments with an amazing natural abundance of huntable (fishable) food. If I had to pick somewhere to ride out the end of civilization, the PNW (and New Zealand) would be high on my list. The material abundance available in the PNW is available almost nowhere else in the world–and wasn’t available to anyone before the First Nations arrived in the area around 13,000 years ago. Our stone-age ancestors 100,000 years ago in Africa certainly weren’t exploiting salmon in British Columbia.

Hunter-gatherers who exploit migrating resources sometimes get all of their year’s food in only 3 or 4 massive hunts. These hunts certainly can involve lots of people, as whole clans will want to work together to round up, kill, and process thousands of animals within the space of a few days.

Even the most massive of these gatherings, however, did not compare in size and scope to our modern cities. A few hundred Inuit might gather for the short arctic summer before scattering back to their igloos; the Mongol capital of Ulan Bator was oft described as nearly deserted as the nomadic herdsmen had little reason to remain in the capital when court was not in session.

(Also, the Davids’ description of Inuit life is completely backwards from the actual anthropology I have read; I’m wondering if he accidentally mixed up the Yupik Eskimo who don’t go by the term “Inuit” with the Canadian Eskimo who do go by “Inuit;” I have not read about the Yupik, but if their lifestyles are different from the Inuit, this would explain the confusion.)

The Davids also cite the behavior of the 19th century Plains Indians, but this is waaay disconnected from any “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the Plains Indians had formerly been farmers before disease, guns, and horses, brought by the Spaniards, disrupted their lives. Without horses (or plows) the great plains and their bison herds were difficult to exploit, and people preferred to live in towns along local riverbanks, growing corn, squash, and beans.

We might generously call these towns “cities,” but none of them were the size of modern cities.

  • 3. Production of material wealth

Hunter-gathering, horticulture, fishing, and herding–even at their best–do not produce that much extra wealth. They are basically subsistence strategies; most people in these societies are directly engaged in food production and so can’t spend their time producing other goods. Nomads, of course, have the additional constraint that they can’t carry much with them under any circumstances.

A society can only have as much hierarchy as it can support. A nomadic tribe can have one person who tells everyone when to pack up and move to the next pasture, but it won’t produce enough food to support an entire class of young adults who do things other than produce food.

By contrast, in our modern, industrial society, less than 2% of people are farmers/ranchers. The other 98% of us are employed in food processing of some sort, careers not related to food at all, or unemployed.

This is why our society can produce parking lots that are bigger and more complex than the most impressive buildings ever constructed by hunter-gatherers.

The fact that, on a few occasions, hunter-gatherers managed to construct large buildings (and Stonehenge was not built by hunter-gatherers but by farmers; the impressive, large stones of Stonehenge were not part of the original layout but erected by a later wave of invaders who killed off 90% of Stonehenge’s original builders) does not mean the average hunter-gatherer lived in complex societies most of the time. They did not, because hunter-gathering could not support complex society, massive building projects, nor aristocracies most of the time.

It is only with the advent of agriculture that people started accumulating enough food that there were enough leftover for any sort of formal, long-term state to start taxing. True, this doesn’t necessarily mean that agriculture has to result in formal states with taxes; it just means that it’s very hard to get that without agriculture. (The one exception is if a nomadic herding society like the Mongols conquers an agricultural state and takes their taxes.)

In sum, yes, the “traditional story” is wrong–but not completely. History was more complicated, violent, and unequal, than portrayed, but the broad outlines of “smaller, simpler” hunter gatherer societies to “bigger, more complex” agricultural societies is basically correct. If anything, the lesson is that civilization has the potential to be a great force for good.


Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, by Caleb Everett, pt 3

Welcome back to our discussion of Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures, by Caleb Everett.

The Pirahã are a small tribe (about 420) of Amazonian hunter-gatherers whose language is nearly unique: it has no numbers, and you can whistle it. Everett spent much of his childhood among the Piraha because his parents were missionaries, which probably makes him one of the world’s foremost non-Piraha experts on the Piraha.

Occasionally as a child I would wake up in the jungle to the cacophony of people sharing their dreams with one another–impromptu monologues followed by spurts of intense feedback. The people in question, a fascinating (to me anyhow) group known as the Piraha, are known to wake up and speak to their immediate neighbors at all hours of the night. … the voices suggested the people in the village were relaxed and completely unconcerned with my own preoccupations. …

The Piraha village my family lived in was reachable via a one-week sinuous trip along a series of Amazonian tributaries, or alternatively by a one-or flight in a Cessna single-engine airplane.

Piraha culture is, to say the least, very different from ours. Everett cites studies of Piraha counting ability in support of his idea that our ability to count past 3 is a culturally acquired process–that is, we can only count because we grew up in a numeric society where people taught us numbers, and the Piraha can’t count because they grew up in an anumeric society that not only lacks numbers, but lacks various other abstractions necessary for helping make sense of numbers. Our innate, genetic numerical abilities, (the ability to count to three and distinguish between small and large amounts,) he insists, are the same.

You see, the Piraha really can’t count. Line up 3 spools of thread and ask them to make an identical line, and they can do it. Line up 4 spools of thread, and they start getting the wrong number of spools. Line up 10 spools of thread, and it’s obvious that they’re just guessing and you’re wasting your time. Put five nuts in a can, then take two out and ask how many nuts are left: you get a response on the order of “some.”*

And this is not for lack of trying. The Piraha know other people have these things called “numbers.” They once asked Everett’s parents, the missionaries, to teach them numbers so they wouldn’t get cheated in trade deals. The missionaries tried for 8 months to teach them to count to ten and add small sums like 1 + 1. It didn’t work and the Piraha gave up.

Despite these difficulties, Everett insists that the Piraha are not dumb. After all, they survive in a very complex and demanding environment. He grew up with them; many of the are his personal friends and he regards them as mentally normal people with the exact same genetic abilities as everyone else who just lack the culturally-acquired skill of counting.

After all, on a standard IQ scale, someone who cannot even count to 4 would be severely if not profoundly retarded, institutionalized and cared for by others. The Piraha obviously live independently, hunt, raise, and gather their own food, navigate through the rainforest, raise their own children, build houses, etc. They aren’t building aqueducts, but they are surviving perfectly well outside of an institution.

Everett neglects the possibility that the Piraha are otherwise normal people who are innately bad at math.

Normally, yes, different mental abilities correlate because they depend highly on things like “how fast is your brain overall” or “were you neglected as a child?” But people also vary in their mental abilities. I have a friend who is above average in reading and writing abilities, but is almost completely unable to do math. This is despite being raised in a completely numerate culture, going to school, etc.

This is a really obvious and life-impairing problem in a society like ours, where you have to use math to function; my friend has been marked since childhood as “not cognitively normal.” It would be a completely invisible non-problem in a society like the Piraha, who use no math at all; in Piraha society, my friend would be “a totally normal guy” (or at least close.)

Everett states, explicitly, that not only are the Piraha only constrained by culture, but other people’s abilities are also directly determined by their cultures:

What is probably more remarkable about the relevant studies, though, is that they suggest that climbing any rungs of the arithmetic ladder requires numbers. How high we climb the ladder is not the result of our own inherent intelligence, but a result of the language we speak and of the culture we are born into. (page 136)

This is an absurd claim. Even my own children, raised in identically numerate environments and possessing, on the global scale, nearly identical genetics, vary in math abilities. You are probably not identical in abilities to your relatives, childhood classmates, next door neighbors, spouse, or office mates. We observe variations in mathematical abilities within cultures, families, cities, towns, schools, and virtually any group you chose that isn’t selected for math abilities. We can’t all do calculus just because we happen to live in a culture with calculus textbooks.

In fact, there is an extensive literature (which Everett ignores) on the genetics of intelligence:

Various studies have found the heritability of IQ to be between 0.7 and 0.8 in adults and 0.45 in childhood in the United States.[6][18][19] It may seem reasonable to expect that genetic influences on traits like IQ should become less important as one gains experiences with age. However, that the opposite occurs is well documented. Heritability measures in infancy are as low as 0.2, around 0.4 in middle childhood, and as high as 0.8 in adulthood.[7] One proposed explanation is that people with different genes tend to seek out different environments that reinforce the effects of those genes.[6] The brain undergoes morphological changes in development which suggests that age-related physical changes could also contribute to this effect.[20]

A 1994 article in Behavior Genetics based on a study of Swedish monozygotic and dizygotic twins found the heritability of the sample to be as high as 0.80 in general cognitive ability; however, it also varies by trait, with 0.60 for verbal tests, 0.50 for spatial and speed-of-processing tests, and 0.40 for memory tests. In contrast, studies of other populations estimate an average heritability of 0.50 for general cognitive ability.[18]

In 2006, The New York Times Magazine listed about three quarters as a figure held by the majority of studies.[21]

Thanks to Jayman

In plain speak, this means that intelligence in healthy adults is about 70-80% genetic and the rest seems to be random chance (like whether you were dropped on your head as a child or had enough iodine). So far, no one has proven that things like whole language vs. phonics instruction or two parents vs. one in the household have any effect on IQ, though they might effect how happy you are.

(Childhood IQ is much more amenable to environmental changes like “good teachers,” but these effects wear off as soon as children aren’t being forced to go to school every day.)

A full discussion of the scientific literature is beyond our current scope, but if you aren’t convinced about the heritability of IQ–including math abilities–I urge you to go explore the literature yourself–you might want to start with some of Jayman’s relevant FAQs on the subject.

Everett uses experiments done with the Piraha to support his claim that mathematical ability is culturally dependent, but this is dependent on is claim that the Piraha are cognitively identical to the rest of us in innate mathematical ability. Given that normal people are not cognitively identical in innate mathematical abilities, and mathematical abilities vary, on average, between groups (this is why people buy “Singapore Math” books and not “Congolese Math,”) there is no particular reason to assume Piraha and non-Piraha are cognitively identical. Further, there’s no reason to assume that any two groups are cognitively identical.

Mathematics only really got started when people invented agriculture, as they needed to keep track of things like “How many goats do I have?” or “Have the peasants paid their taxes?” A world in which mathematical ability is useful will select for mathematical ability; a world where it is useless cannot select for it.

Everett may still be correct that you wouldn’t be able to count if you hadn’t been taught how, but the Piraha can’t prove that one way or another. He would first have to show that Piraha who are raised in numerate cultures (say, by adoption,) are just as good at calculus as people from Singapore or Japan, but he cites no adoption studies nor anything else to this end. (And adoption studies don’t even show that for the groups we have studied, like whites, blacks, or Asians.)

Let me offer a cognitive contrast:

The Piraha are an anumeric, illiterate culture. They have encountered both letters and numbers, but not adopted them.

The Cherokee were once illiterate: they had no written language. Around 1809, an illiterate Cherokee man, Sequoyah, observed whites reading and writing letters. In a flash of insight, Sequoyah understand the concept of “use a symbol to encode a sound” even without being taught to read English. He developed his own alphabet (really a syllabary) for writing Cherokee sounds and began teaching it to others. Within 5 years of the syllabary’s completion, a majority of the Cherokee were literate; they soon had their own publishing industry producing Cherokee-language books and newspapers.

The Cherokee, though illiterate, possessed the innate ability to be literate, if only exposed to the cultural idea of letters. Once exposed, literacy spread rapidly–instantly, in human cultural evolution terms.

By contrast, the Piraha, despite their desire to adopt numbers, have not been able to do so.

(Yet. With enough effort, the Piraha probably can learn to count–after all, there are trained parrots who can count to 8. It would be strange if they permanently underperformed parrots. But it’s a difficult journey.)

That all said, I would like to make an anthropological defense of anumeracy: numeracy, as in ascribing exact values to specific items, is more productive in some contexts than others.

Do you keep track of the exact values of things you give your spouse, children, or close friends? If you invite a neighbor over for a meal, do you mark down what it cost to feed them and then expect them to feed you the same amount in return? Do you count the exact value of gifts and give the same value in return?

In Kabloona, de Poncin discusses the quasi-communist nature of the Eskimo economic system. For the Eskimo, hunter-gatherers living in the world’s harshest environment, the unit of exchange isn’t the item, but survival. A man whom you keep alive by giving him fish today is a man who can keep you alive by giving you fish tomorrow. Declaring that you will only give a starving man five fish because he previously gave you five fish will do you no good at all if he starves from not enough fish and can no longer give you some of his fish when he has an excess. The fish have, in this context, no innate, immutable value–they are as valuable as the life they preserve. To think otherwise would kill them.

It’s only when people have goods to trade, regularly, with strangers, that they begin thinking of objects as having defined values that hold steady over different transactions. A chicken is more valuable if I am starving than if I am not, but it has an identical value whether I am trading it for nuts or cows.

So it is not surprising that most agricultural societies have more complicated number systems than most hunter-gatherer societies. As Everett explains:

Led by Patience Epps of the University of Texas, a team of linguists recently documented the complexity of the number systems in many of the world’s languages. In particular, the researchers were concerned with the languages’ upper numerical limit–the highest quantity with a specific name. …

We are fond of coining new names for numbers in English, but the largest commonly used number name is googol (googolplex I define as an operation,) though there are bigger one’s like Graham’s.

The linguistic team in question found the upper numerical limits in 193 languages of hunter-gatherer cultures in Australia, Amazonia, Africa, and North America. Additionally, they examined the upper limits of 204 languages spoken by agriculturalists and pastoralists in these regions. They discovered that the languages of hunter-gatherer groups generally have low upper limits. This is particularly true in Australia and Amazonia, the regions with so-called pure hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies.

In the case of the Australian languages, the study in question observed that more than 80 percent are limited numerically, with the highest quantity represetned in such cases being only 3 or 4. Only one Australian language, Gamilaraay, was found to have an upper limit above 10, an dits highest number is for 20. … The association [between hunter-gathering and limited numbers] is also robust in South America and Amazonia more specifically. The languages of hunter-gatherer cultures in this region generally have upper limits below ten. Only one surveyed language … Huaorani, has numbers for quantities greater than 20. Approximately two-thirds of the languages of such groups in the region have upper limits of five or less, while one-third have an upper limit of 10. Similarly, about two-thirds of African hunter-gatherer languages have upper limits of 10 or less.

There are a few exceptions–agricultural societies with very few numbers, and hunter-gatherers with relatively large numbers of numbers, but:

…there are no large agricultural states without elaborate number systems, now or in recorded history.

So how did the first people develop numbers? Of course we don’t know, but Everett suggests that at some point we began associating collections of things, like shells, with the cluster of fingers found on our hands. One finger, one shell; five fingers, five shells–easy correspondences. Once we mastered five, we skipped forward to 10 and 20 rather quickly.

Everett proposes that some numeracy was a necessary prerequisite for agriculture, as agricultural people would need to keep track of things like seasons and equinoxes in order to know when to plant and harvest. I question this on the grounds that I myself don’t look at the calendar and say, “Oh look, it’s the equinox, I’d better plant my garden!” but instead look outside and say, “Oh, it’s getting warm and the grass is growing again, I’d better get busy.” The harvest is even more obvious: I harvest when the plants are ripe.

Of course, I live in a society with calendars, so I can’t claim that I don’t look at the calendar. I look at the calendar almost every day to make sure I have the date correct. So perhaps I am using my calendrical knowledge to plan my planting schedule without even realizing it because I am just so used to looking at the calendar.

“What man among you, if he has 100 sheep and has lost 1 of them, does not leave the 99 in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” Luke 15:3-5

Rather than develop numbers and then start planting barley and millet, I propose that humans first domesticated animals, like pigs and goats. At first people were content to have “a few,” “some,” or “many” animals, but soon they were inspired to keep better track of their flocks.

By the time we started planting millet and wheat (a couple thousand years later,) we were probably already pretty good at counting sheep.

Our fondness for tracking astronomical cycles, I suspect, began for less utilitarian reasons: they were there. The cycles of the sun, moon, and other planets were obvious and easy to track, and we wanted to figure out what they meant. We put a ton of work into tracking equinoxes and eclipses and the epicycles of Jupiter and Mars (before we figured out heliocentrism.) People ascribed all sorts of import to these cycles (“Communicator Mercury is retrograde in outspoken Sagittarius from December 3-22, mixing up messages and disrupting pre-holiday plans.”) that turned out to be completely wrong. Unless you’re a fisherman or sailor, the moon’s phases don’t make any difference in your life; the other planets’ cycles turned out to be completely useless unless you’re trying to send a space probe to visit them. Eclipses are interesting, but don’t have any real effects. For all of the effort we’ve put into astronomy, the most important results have been good calendars to keep track of dates and allow us to plan multiple years into the future.

Speaking of dates, let’s continue this discussion in a week–on the next Anthropology Friday.

*Footnote: Even though I don’t think the Piraha prove as much as Everett thinks they do, that doesn’t mean Everett is completely wrong. Maybe already having number words is (in the vast majority of cases) a necessary precondition for learning to count.

One potentially illuminating case Everett didn’t explore is how young children in numerate culture acquire numbers. Obviously they grow up in an environment with numbers, but below a certain age can’t really use them. Can children at these ages duplicate lines of objects or patterns? Or do they master that behavior only after learning to count?

Back in October I commented on Schiller and Peterson’s claim in Count on Math (a book of math curriculum ideas for toddlers and preschoolers) that young children must learn mathematical “foundation” concepts in a particular order, ie:

Developmental sequence is fundamental to children’s ability to build conceptual understanding. … The chapters in this book present math in a developmental sequence that provides children a natural transition from one concept to the next, preventing gaps in their understanding. …

When children are allowed to explore many objects, they begin to recognize similarities and differences of objects.

When children can determine similarities and differences, they can classify objects.

When children can classify objects, they can see similarities and difference well enough to recognize patterns.

When children can recognize, copy, extend and create patterns, they can arrange sets in a one-to-one relationship.

When children can match objects one to one, they can compare sets to determine which have more and which have less.

When children can compare sets, they can begin to look at the “manyness” of one set and develop number concepts.

This developmental sequence provides a conceptual framework that serves as a springboard to developing higher level math skills.

The Count on Math curriculum doesn’t even introduce the numbers 1-5 until week 39 for 4 year olds (3 year olds are never introduced to numbers) and numbers 6-10 aren’t introduced until week 37 for the 5 year olds!

Note that Schiller and Everett are arguing diametrical opposites–Everett says the ability to count to three and distinguish the “manyness” of sets is instinctual, present even in infants, but that the ability to copy patterns and match items one-to-one only comes after long acquaintance and practice with counting, specifically number words.

Schiller claims that children only develop the ability to distinguish manyness and count to three after learning to copy patterns and match items one-to-one.

As I said back in October, I think Count on Math’s claim is pure bollocks. If you miss the “comparing sets” day at preschool, you aren’t going to end up unable to multiply. The Piraha may not prove as much as Everett wants them to, but the neuroscience and animal studies he cites aren’t worthless. In general, I distrust anyone who claims that you must introduce this long a set of concepts in this strict an order just to develop a basic competency that the vast majority of people seem to acquire without difficulty.

Of course, Lynne Peterson is a real teacher with a real teacher’s certificate and a BA in … it doesn’t say, and Pam Schiller was Vice President of Professional Development for the Early childhood Division at McGraw Hill publishers and president of the Southern Early Childhood Association. She has a PhD in… it doesn’t say. Here’s some more on Dr. Schiller’s many awards. So maybe they know better than Everett, who’s just an anthropologist. But Everett has some actual evidence on his side.

But I’m a parent who has watched several children learn to count… and Schiller and Peterson are wrong.

Anthropology Friday: Numbers and the Making of Us, part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my review of Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures.

I was really excited about this book when I picked it up at the library. It has the word “numbers” on the cover and a subtitle that implies a story about human cultural and cognitive evolution.

Regrettably, what could have been a great books has turned out to be kind of annoying. There’s some fascinating information in here–for example, there’s a really interesting part on pages 249-252–but you have to get through pages 1-248 to get there. (Unfortunately, sometimes authors put their most interesting bits at the end so that people looking to make trouble have gotten bored and wandered off by then.)

I shall try to discuss/quote some of the book’s more interesting bits, and leave aside my differences with the author (who keeps reiterating his position that mathematical ability is entirely dependent on the culture you’re raised in.) Everett nonetheless has a fascinating perspective, having actually spent much of his childhood in a remote Amazonian village belonging to the Piraha, who have no real words for numbers. (His parents were missionaries.)

Which languages contain number words? Which don’t? Everett gives a broad survey:

“…we can reach a few broad conclusions about numbers in speech. First, they are common to nearly all of the world’s languages. … this discussion has shown that number words, across unrelated language, tend to exhibit striking parallels, since most languages employ a biologically based body-part model evident in their number bases.”

That is, many languages have words that translate essentially to “One, Two, Three, Four, Hand, … Two hands, (10)… Two Feet, (20),” etc., and reflect this in their higher counting systems, which can end up containing a mix of base five, 10, and 20. (The Romans, for example, used both base five and ten in their written system.)

“Third, the linguistic evidence suggests not only that this body-part model has motivated the innovation of numebers throughout the world, but also that this body-part basis of number words stretches back historically as far as the linguistic data can take us. It is evident in reconstruction of ancestral languages, including Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Proto-Niger-Congo, Proto-Autronesian, and Proto-Indo-European, the languages whose descendant tongues are best represented in the world today.”

Note, though, that linguistics does not actually give us a very long time horizon. Proto-Indo-European was spoken about 4-6,000 years ago. Proto-Sino-Tibetan is not as well studied yet as PIE, but also appears to be at most 6,000 years old. Proto-Niger-Congo is probably about 5-6,000 years old. Proto-Austronesian (which, despite its name, is not associated with Australia,) is about 5,000 years old.

These ranges are not a coincidence: languages change as they age, and once they have changed too much, they become impossible to classify into language families. Older languages, like Basque or Ainu, are often simply described as isolates, because we can’t link them to their relatives. Since humanity itself is 200,000-300,000 years old, comparative linguistics only opens a very short window into the past. Various groups–like the Amazonian tribes Everett studies–split off from other groups of humans thousands 0r hundreds of thousands of years before anyone started speaking Proto-Indo-European. Even agriculture, which began about 10,000-15,000 years ago, is older than these proto-languages (and agriculture seems to have prompted the real development of math.)

I also note these language families are the world’s biggest because they successfully conquered speakers of the world’s other languages. Spanish, Portuguese, and English are now widely spoken in the Americas instead of Cherokee, Mayan, and Nheengatu because Indo-European language speakers conquered the speakers of those languages.

The guy with the better numbers doesn’t always conquer the guy with the worse numbers–the Mongol conquest of China is an obvious counter. But in these cases, the superior number system sticks around, because no one wants to replace good numbers with bad ones.

In general, though, better tech–which requires numbers–tends to conquer worse tech.

Which means that even though our most successful language families all have number words that appear to be about 4-6,000 years old, we shouldn’t assume this was the norm for most people throughout most of history. Current human numeracy may be a very recent phenomenon.

“The invention of number is attainable by the human mind but is attained through our fingers. Linguistic data, both historical and current, suggest that numbers in disparate cultures have arisen independently, on an indeterminate range of occasions, through the realization that hands can be used to name quantities like 5 and 10. … Words, our ultimate implements for abstract symbolization, can thankfully be enlisted to denote quantities. But they are usually enlisted only after people establish a more concrete embodied correspondence between their finger sand quantities.”

Some more on numbers in different languages:

“Rare number bases have been observed, for instance, in the quaternary (base-4) systems of Lainana languages of California, or in the senary (base-6) systems that are found in southern New Guinea. …

Several languages in Melanesia and Polynesia have or once had number system that vary in accordance with the type of object being counted. In the case of Old High Fijian, for instance, the word for 100 was Bola when people were counting canoes, but Kora when they were counting coconuts. …

some languages in northwest Amazonia base their numbers on kinship relationships. This is true of Daw and Hup two related language in the region. Speakers of the former languages use fingers complemented with words when counting from 4 to 10. The fingers signify the quantity of items being counted, but words are used to denote whether the quantity is odd or even. If the quantity is even, speakers say it “has a brother,” if it is odd they state it “has no brother.”

What about languages with no or very few words for numbers?

In one recent survey of limited number system, it was found that more than a dozen languages lack bases altogether, and several do not have words for exact quantities beyond 2 and, in some cases, beyond 1. Of course, such cases represent a miniscule fraction of the world’s languages, the bulk of which have number bases reflecting the body-part model. Furthermore, most of the extreme cases in question are restricted geographically to Amazonia. …

All of the extremely restricted languages, I believe, are used by people who are hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists, eg, the Munduruku. Hunter gatherers typically don’t have a lot of goods to keep track of or trade, fields to measure or taxes to pay, and so don’t need to use a lot of numbers. (Note, however, that the Inuit/Eskimo have a perfectly normal base-20 counting system. Their particularly harsh environment appears to have inspired both technological and cultural adaptations.) But why are Amazonian languages even less numeric than those of other hunter-gatherers from similar environments, like central African?

Famously, most of the languages of Australia have somewhat limited number system, and some linguists previously claimed that most Australian language slack precise terms for quantities beyond 2…. [however] many languages on that continent actually have native means of describing various quantities in precise ways, and their number words for small quantities can sometimes be combined to represent larger quantities via the additive and even multiplicative usage of bases. …

Of the nearly 200 Australian languages considered in the survey, all have words to denote 1 and 2. In about three-quarters of the languages, however, the highest number is 3 or 4. Still, may of the languages use a word for “two” as a base for other numbers. Several of the languages use a word for “five” as a base, an eight of the languages top out at a word for “ten.”

Everett then digresses into what initially seems like a tangent about grammatical number, but luckily I enjoy comparative linguistics.

In an incredibly comprehensive survey of 1,066 languages, linguist Matthew Dryer recently found that 98 of them are like Karitiana and lack a grammatical means of marking nouns of being plural. So it is not particularly rare to find languages in which numbers do not show plurality. … about 90% of them, have a grammatical means through which speakers can convey whether they are talking about one or more than one thing.

Mandarin is a major language that has limited expression of plurals. According to Wikipedia:

The grammar of Standard Chinese shares many features with other varieties of Chinese. The language almost entirely lacks inflection, so that words typically have only one grammatical form. Categories such as number (singular or plural) and verb tense are frequently not expressed by any grammatical means, although there are several particles that serve to express verbal aspect, and to some extent mood.

Some languages, such as modern Arabic and Proto-Indo-European also have a “dual” category distinct from singular or plural; an extremely small set of languages have a trial category.

Many languages also change their verbs depending on how many nouns are involved; in English we say “He runs; they run;” languages like Latin or Spanish have far more extensive systems.

In sum: the vast majority of languages distinguish between 1 and more than one; a few distinguish between one, two, and many, and a very few distinguish between one, two, three, and many.

From the endnotes:

… some controversial claims of quadral markers, used in restricted contexts, have been made for the Austronesian languages Tangga, Marshallese, and Sursurunga. .. As Corbett notes in his comprehensive survey, the forms are probably best considered quadral markers. In fact, his impressive survey did not uncover any cases of quadral marking in the world’s languages.

Everett tends to bury his point; his intention in this chapter is to marshal support for the idea that humans have an “innate number sense” that allows them to pretty much instantly realize if they are looking at 1, 2, or 3 objects, but does not allow for instant recognition of larger numbers, like 4. He posits a second, much vaguer number sense that lets us distinguish between “big” and “small” amounts of things, eg, 10 looks smaller than 100, even if you can’t count.

He does cite actual neuroscience on this point–he’s not just making it up. Even newborn humans appear to be able to distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 of something, but not larger numbers. They also seem to distinguish between some and a bunch of something. Anumeric peoples, like the Piraha, also appear to only distinguish between 1, 2, and 3 items with good accuracy, though they can tell “a little” “some” and “a lot” apart. Everett also cites data from animal studies that find, similarly, that animals can distinguish 1, 2, and 3, as well as “a little” and “a lot”. (I had been hoping for a discussion of cephalopod intelligence, but unfortunately, no.)

How then, Everett asks, do we wed our specific number sense (1, 2, and 3) with our general number sense (“some” vs “a lot”) to produce ideas like 6, 7, and a googol? He proposes that we have no innate idea of 6, nor ability to count to 10. Rather, we can count because we were taught to (just as some highly trained parrots and chimps can.) It is only the presence of number words in our languages that allows us to count past 3–after all, anumeric people cannot.

But I feel like Everett is railroading us to a particular conclusion. For example, he sites neurology studies that found one part of the brain does math–the intraparietal suclus (IPS)–but only one part? Surely there’s more than one part of the brain involved in math.

About 5 seconds of Googling got me “Neural Basis of Mathematical Cognition,” which states that:

The IPS turns out to be part of the extensive network of brain areas that support human arithmetic (Figure 1). Like all networks it is distributed, and it is clear that numerical cognition engages perceptual, motor, spatial and mnemonic functions, but the hub areas are the parietal lobes …

(By contrast, I’ve spent over half an hour searching and failing to figure out how high octopuses can count.)

Moreover, I question the idea that the specific and general number senses are actually separate. Rather, I suspect there is only one sense, but it is essentially logarithmic. For example, hearing is logarithmic (or perhaps exponential,) which is why decibels are also logarithmic. Vision is also logarithmic:

The eye senses brightness approximately logarithmically over a moderate range (but more like a power law over a wider range), and stellar magnitude is measured on a logarithmic scale.[14] This magnitude scale was invented by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus in about 150 B.C. He ranked the stars he could see in terms of their brightness, with 1 representing the brightest down to 6 representing the faintest, though now the scale has been extended beyond these limits; an increase in 5 magnitudes corresponds to a decrease in brightness by a factor of 100.[14] Modern researchers have attempted to incorporate such perceptual effects into mathematical models of vision.[15][16]

So many experiments have revealed logarithmic responses to stimuli that someone has formulated a mathematical “law” on the matter:

Fechner’s law states that the subjective sensation is proportional to the logarithm of the stimulus intensity. According to this law, human perceptions of sight and sound work as follows: Perceived loudness/brightness is proportional to logarithm of the actual intensity measured with an accurate nonhuman instrument.[3]

p = k ln ⁡ S S 0 {\displaystyle p=k\ln {\frac {S}{S_{0}}}\,\!}

The relationship between stimulus and perception is logarithmic. This logarithmic relationship means that if a stimulus varies as a geometric progression (i.e., multiplied by a fixed factor), the corresponding perception is altered in an arithmetic progression (i.e., in additive constant amounts). For example, if a stimulus is tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 1), the corresponding perception may be two times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1). If the stimulus is again tripled in strength (i.e., 3 x 3 x 3), the corresponding perception will be three times as strong as its original value (i.e., 1 + 1 + 1). Hence, for multiplications in stimulus strength, the strength of perception only adds. The mathematical derivations of the torques on a simple beam balance produce a description that is strictly compatible with Weber’s law.[6][7]

In any logarithmic scale, small quantities–like 1, 2, and 3–are easy to distinguish, while medium quantities–like 101, 102, and 103–get lumped together as “approximately the same.”

Of course, this still doesn’t answer the question of how people develop the ability to count past 3, but this is getting long, so we’ll continue our discussion next week.

Two Exciting Papers on African Genetics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paths of the great Bantu Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Sitting Bull, Lakota Sioux, ca 1831 – 1890

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

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

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

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

Air burial of a Sioux chieftain

On Massacre Canyon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scalp dance of the Minitarres

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

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

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

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

Chief Mato-tope of the Sioux in his headdress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sioux horse racing

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

To be continued…

Anthropology Friday: Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s Indian Series: Winter Camping

Robert Hofsinde Gray-Wolf

My apologies for the recent lack of a formal Anthropology Friday–I just haven’t found much worth sharing lately. Luckily my bad luck reversed with the discovery of Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s series of books about Native American culture.

According to the University of Southern Mississippi’s de Grummond Children’s Literature Project:

Robert Hofsinde was born in Denmark in 1902 and came to the United States twenty years later… On a painting trip in the north woods of Minnesota, Hofsinde came upon a young Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian boy who had fallen into a pit trap and severely broken his leg. Hofsinde rescued the boy, set his leg, and carried him back to his village on a sled. In gratitude, the boy’s family adopted Hofsinde and gave him the name Gray-Wolf.

Time spent with the Ojibwa Indians changed the direction of Hofsinde’s career. He began to sketch the Indians and became so interested in their culture that for three years he stayed with the Ojibwa people. Over the next decade Hofsinde visited and studied Indian villages throughout the West and Southwest, painting and writing magazine articles about Indian culture. In the 1940s he and his wife Geraldine (whose Indian name was Morning-Star) began performing an Indian lore program for school children around the nation.

In the mid-1940s Hofsinde took his drawings to Morrow Junior Books, hoping to become a book illustrator. An editor suggested he write a book to supplement his own illustrations. The result was the well-received The Indian’s Secret World (1955). Hofsinde followed up with Indian Sign Language, and eventually wrote and illustrated thirteen more books over the next twenty year… Hofsinde died in 1973.

I doubt Hofsinde ever thought of himself as an anthropologist, but this is obviously no strike against him. The 40s and 50s were the golden age of American interest in everything Indian, and Hofsinde’s books are a pleasant example of the genre. I only regret that I only purchased a few of the books from the set in the shop, and now the rest are gone.

These are children’s books, but still informative. Today we’ll be looking at his Indian Fishing and Camping. Amazon provides a useful summary:

Only in our wilderness areas can we still see the country as the Indian saw it. Most of us find romance in this idea, but few of us know how to carry it out. In this book Robert Hofsinde tells us how we can fish and camp as the Indians did and how we can make the gear that they used. The Indians learned to make their fishing equipment from the natural materials they found around them. They obtained cordage from roots, fibers, and the inner bark of trees. Mr. Hofsinde shows how the Pacific Coast Indians fashioned their fish traps out of this cordage and describes the many ways other Indian groups put it to use. He also includes a chapter on Eskimo ice fishing, clear directions for making such equipment as hooks, spears, and spinners, and instructions for cleaning and cooking one’s catch. Exact, lovely illustrations by the author increase the usefulness of this book. It will add to the pleasure and safety of the modern camper and to the knowledge of anyone interested in Indian lore.

As usual, I will be using “” instead of blockquotes for the parts quoted from Hofsinde.

Winter Fishing:

“In the treeless arctic the winters are long and the summers are so short that even the hardiest berries often fail to ripen fully. The rivers and inlets, even large portions of the sea, are frozen over during nine months of the year. Even so, fishing provided much of the Eskimo’s food. He caught trout, whitefish, and salmon through holes cut in the ice and through the natural cracks that formed int he ice close to shore. Such fishing called for a great deal of skill and patience. When the fish ran in plenty, it did not take a man long to catch more than he needed. On day when the fish had taken to deeper waters, the fisherman often tried one hole after another and, at the end of the day, arrived home with only one or two small fish, or even with none at all.”

EvX: I am reminded here of the descriptions in Ingold’s Hunters, Pastoralists, and Ranchers of the variability of reindeer hunting economies–some years the hunters can kill a whole herd of migrating deer and so in one day provide for their needs for for many months, and some years the hunters miss the herd by a few miles, resulting in famine.

“Fishing through the ice also had its elements of danger, especially when it was done far from shore. A sudden change of wind or a sudden rise in temperature might cause large ice floes to break away. If this happened while a fisherman was intent upon his work, it was not uncommon for him to drift out into open water, and no one ever saw him again. …

“To protect himself from [the icy winds] at his fishing hole, the Eskimo at times put up a shelter. Such a shelter was usually nothing more than a large animal hide hung over a tripod made from driftwood. In addition to sheltering him a little, it also gave him a dark interior, which helped him to see deeper into the water. …

Netsilik man fishing with spear in hand

“Sheltered or not, the ice fisherman still has a two-handed job. He must hold his line and lure in one hand and the spear in his other. At the moment the fish comes to the lure, he must strike fast and spear it. This is the thrill of the game.

“The Eskimo used an entirely different type of fishing gear from that of other Indians. …

“The Eskimo usually made his fishing rod from a piece of driftwood fourteen inches long. Whittled into a flat shape, it had a deep notch cut into each end. At one end the fishing line was fastened. When not in use, the line was wound around the rod lengthwise, with the notches holding it in place.

“The fishline was made of whale bone. This type of bone did not come from the skeleton of the whale, but from the flexible, comb-like baleen strip, which is the food strainer found in the mouth of the toothless blue whale and the right whale. The baleen was split into very fine strands, which never kinked. When ice formed on the wet line, a quick shake snapped it off.

“On the free end of the line the Eskimo tied a small jigger, or lure, crafted from a piece of bone or ivory. These pieces usually represented very small fish or, most often, shrimp. …

“The scoop net was very important. With it the Eskimo fisherman scooped loose pieces of ice out of his fishing hole. It was also used to keep the hole open, for in the cold air new ice formed rapidly over the open water. The net, too, was made from baleen strips. The hoop from which the net hung was formed from a sliver of moose antler that had been boiled in water until pliable and then bent into shape. …

“In the winter these scoops were carried everywhere by the villagers, and although they had been designed for one purpose originally, the Eskimo boys invented a new use for them. They became quite expert at picking up a scoopful of snow and throwing it with a great deal of force and accuracy at any a chosen target.

“An equally useful article was the spear… When a fish was attracted to the lure dangling just below the water line, the Eskimo struck down quickly with the poised spear. This quick thrust impaled the fish on the center prong. …

“The Eskimos ice fished with a single baited copper hook or with a four-pronged ivory jigger. These were the earliest, pre-European fishhooks, and they were made without barbs from copper found on the surface of the ground or in veins in the earth. An Eskimo bent up a thin piece of copper to form a hook, which was a little at the bottom than at the top. …

“A barbless hook was necessary in the arctic. In that cold climate a fish froze slid almost the instant it was brought out of the water. When an Eskimo caught a fish on his barbless hook, he could dislodge it with a deft jerk without removing his mittens, so his hands remained perfectly dry.

Here’s a good illustration of the two-handed line-reeling technique

“The Eskimo also never touched his wet fishline, even when he pulled it in. Holding the short fishing rod in one hand and his ice scoop in the other, he lifted part of the line with the scoop, the next part with the rod. He alternated between the scoop and the rod, cisscrossing, until he had wound up the entire line and had pulled the fish out of the hole onto the ice.

“One fish the Eskimos caught in warmer weather was the salmon. During the summer, when the salmon migration was on and they passed through the shallow arctic streams to spawn, the Eskimo fishermen blocked their way with large boulders. As the fish darted about in an effort to reach open water, they walked among them and speared them by the hundreds.”

On the more general subject of camping:

“The Indians were camping long before the Europeans came to America. Some of them had permanent villages. Others, such a the Plains Indians, moved their camps as they followed the buffalo The woodland Indians made their camps throughout the forest, as they gathered berries and maple sap or went fishing. These early camps were not like the vacation camps we know today, but were places where work had to be done constantly. Canoes needed patching, a new paddle was required, buckskin clothing had to be mended, and other seemingly endless tasks had to be performed.

Voyageurs at Dawn, by Frances Anne Hopkins, 1871

“Camping was still hard work when Lewis and Clark and the men of their expedition explored the West from 1804 to 1806. Night after night, wherever the end of of the day found them, they set up camp, checked over their equipment, cooked their rations, and slept–often in a pouring rain. Shelters and sleeping bags were unknown. They had no portable stoves or lanterns. In fact, each man’s gear was held to a minimum.

“The Canadian voyageurs also camped at night along their watery highways. We can be sure that they slept well, for according to some of their old journals, their day started at 2:30 in the morning and ended at 8:00 in the evening, with only a rest now and again for ‘a pipe.'”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The voyageurs were French Canadians who engaged in the transporting of furs by canoe during the fur trade years. Voyageur is a French word, meaning “traveler”. The emblematic meaning of the term applies to places (New France, including the Pays d’en Haut and the Pays des Illinois) and times (primarily in the 18th and early 19th centuries) where transportation of materials was mainly over long distances. This major and challenging task of the fur trading business was done by canoe and largely by French Canadians. The term in its fur trade context also applied, at a lesser extent, to other fur trading activities.[1] Being a voyageur also included being a part of a licensed, organized effort, one of the distinctions that set them apart from the coureurs des bois. …

The voyageurs were regarded as legendary, especially in French Canada.[5] They were heroes celebrated in folklore and music. For reasons of promised celebrity status and wealth, this position was very coveted. James H. Baker was once told by an unnamed retired voyageur:

“I could carry, paddle, walk and sing with any man I ever saw. I have been twenty-four years a canoe man, and forty-one years in service; no portage was ever too long for me, fifty songs could I sing. I have saved the lives of ten voyageurs, have had twelve wives and six running dogs. I spent all of my money in pleasure. Were I young again, I would spend my life the same way over. There is no life so happy as a voyageur’s life! [6][7]”

Despite the fame surrounding the voyageur, their life was one of toil and not nearly as glorious as folk tales make it out to be. For example, they had to be able to carry two 90-pound (41 kg) bundles of fur over portage. Some carried up to four or five, and there is a report of a voyageur carrying seven for half of a mile.[8] Hernias were common and frequently caused death.[7] Most voyageurs would start working when they were twenty two and they would continue working until they were in their sixties. They never made enough money to consider an early retirement from what was a physically grueling lifestyle.[9] …

Music was a part of everyday life for the voyageur. Voyageurs sang songs while paddling and working, as well as during other activities and festivities. Many who travelled with the voyageurs recorded their impressions from hearing the voyageurs sing, and that singing was a significant part of their routine. But few wrote down the words or the music. As a result, records of voyageur songs tend to be skewed towards those that were also popular elsewhere in Canada.[7] Examples of Voyageur songs include “À la claire fontaine” (a favorite), “Alouette“, “En roulant ma boule“, “J’ai trop grand peur des loups“, and “Frit à l’huile“. Another such song is titled “C’est l’aviron qui nous mène”. It goes as follows:

M’en revenant de la joli’Rochelle, J’ai rencontré trois jolies demoiselles, C’est l’aviron qui nous mèn’, qui nous mont’

C’est l’aviron qui nous monte en haut.[31]

To this day, school children learn this song as part of French Canadian culture. These songs served a dual purpose for the voyageurs. Not only would they be entertaining during long voyages but their rhythm would help synchronize their paddling.[32] One fur trader, Edward Ermatinger, had the forethought to record some of these songs. This is how eleven voyageurs songs came to be known today. Ermatinger travelled for the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1818 to 1828 as a clerk and learned these songs firsthand. These came to light only in 1943 when the Ermatinger family archives provided them to the Public Archives of Canada so that they may be copied.[33] …

La Chasse-galerie by Henri Julien

La Chasse-galerie, also known as “The Bewitched Canoe” or “The Flying Canoe,” is a popular French-Canadian tale of voyageurs who make a deal with the devil in order to visit their sweethearts during the night, who are located a long distance away. It is a variant of the Wild Hunt. Its most famous version was written by Honoré Beaugrand (1848–1906). It was published in The Century Magazine in August 1892. More recently, the Quebec brewery Unibroue has incorporated a version of the legend into the name and artwork of its highly respected strong ale, Maudite (“Damned”).[34]

EvX: It annoys me when people claim that back in the fifties, books/media about Indians were just a mish-mash of stereotypes without respect for the differences of individual tribes. They talk about fifties books/media as though it were all terrible and insulting, with no regard for the quality works nor the value of popular interest in Indian cultures. Today the whole idea of reading about and being interested in Indians is deprecated. I think this attitude does more harm than good, because people are much more likely to protect and care about people they’re interested in than people they hardly ever hear about.


The Modern Ainu, pt 2

Welcome back, everyone. Yesterday we were discussing Ainu genetics. Today we’re still discussing Ainu genetics, but this time we’re discussing mtDNA instead of Y DNA.

Modern Ainu (political protest) in 1992

Based on analysis of one sample of 51 modern Ainus, their mtDNA lineages have been reported to consist mainly of haplogroup Yhaplogroup Dhaplogroup M7a … and haplogroup G1[49][52][53] Other mtDNA haplogroups detected in this sample include A (2/51), M7b2 (2/51), N9b (1/51), B4f (1/51), F1b (1/51), and M9a (1/51). Most of the remaining individuals in this sample have been classified definitively only as belonging to macro-haplogroup M.[52] According to Sato et al. (2009), who have studied the mtDNA of the same sample of modern Ainus (n=51), the major haplogroups of the Ainu are N9 (14/51 = 27.5%, including 10/51 Y and 4/51 N9(xY)), D (12/51 = 23.5%, including 8/51 D(xD5) and 4/51 D5), M7 (10/51 = 19.6%), and G (10/51 = 19.6%, including 8/51 G1 and 2/51 G2); the minor haplogroups are A (2/51), B (1/51), F (1/51), and M(xM7, M8, CZ, D, G) (1/51).[54]

Note that Y (confusingly named) is a sub-haplogroup of N9. It’s commonly found in groups around the Sea of Okhotsk, (including the Ainu,) and in Indonesia, similar to the distribution of Sundadont teeth. Haplogroup D is found in Native Americans (highest frequency among the Aleuts,); Siberians, Ainu, east Asians, Japanese, etc. M7 is kind of generically east-Asian, with high frequency in Japan. In other words, Ainu maternal DNA is fairly similar to that of Japan at large + nearby Siberians.

So how closely related are the Ainu to rest of the Japanese?

Given the archaeology of the area and what we now know of the genetics, it looks like the Ainu were descended primarily from two main groups:

  1. Jomon, (the ancient people of Japan,)
  2. Nearby Siberians, (eg, the Nivkhs.)

Over the past hundred years or so, though, the Ainu have purposefully intermarried with the non-Ainu Japanese, who are themselves descended from a mix of:

  1. Jomon
  2. Yayoi, who invaded around 300 BC, conquering the Jomon.

We’d expect therefore for the Ainu and Japanese to share a fair amount of their mtDNA (the Yayoi probably absorbed Jomon women into their groups;) but not much Y DNA. According to Wikipedia:

Studies published in 2004 and 2007 show the combined frequency of M7a and N9b were observed in Jomons and which are believed by some to be Jomon maternal contribution at 28% in Okinawans (7/50 M7a1, 6/50 M7a(xM7a1), 1/50 N9b), 17.6% in Ainus (8/51 M7a(xM7a1), 1/51 N9b), and from 10% (97/1312 M7a(xM7a1), 1/1312 M7a1, 28/1312 N9b) to 17% (15/100 M7a1, 2/100 M7a(xM7a1)) in mainstream Japanese.[55][56]

A recent reevaluation of cranial traits suggests that the Ainu resemble the Okhotsk more than they do the Jōmon.[57] This agrees with the reference to the Ainu being a merger of Okhotsk and Satsumon referenced above.

map of gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present

Now certainly, if we can use DNA testing to tell that someone is “half Spaniard, a quarter Finnish, and a quarter Czech, with 3% Neanderthal DNA,” then we can use DNA testing to tell what %s of someone’s ancestry are Japanese, Ainu, Jomon, Yayoi, Siberian, etc.–it’s just a matter of getting enough relevant samples. The only major issue I could see getting in the way is if there actually is no such thing as a genetically “pure” Ainu, but rather a bunch of small Ainu groups with varying levels of admixture from all of the other groups. For example, there is no such thing as “Turkic” genetics–all “Turkic” groups speak Turkic languages, take great pride in being Turkic, and presumably have cultural connections, but genetically they are quite diverse. The situation is similar with Jewish groups. 2000 years ago, most Jews were genetically “Jewish,” but today, the vast majority of Jews are at least 50% non-ancient Hebrew by DNA.

From Ingold


But of course, genetics doesn’t tell you much about the lives of modern Ainu.

Many people theorize recent connections between all of the peoples along the north Pacific rim, from Japan to Oregon, and northward across Canada, based on similar abstract, geometric art styles; lifestyles; and documented contacts. The eternally-controversial Kennewick man (a 9,000 year old skeleton discovered in Washington State,) was initially described by some anthropologists as resembling an Ainu man. Mister Kennewick has since been proven to be related to modern Native Americans–Native Americans may simply have looked different 9,000 years ago.

I look forward to more research on connections between circum-polar and circum-Pacific peoples.

For further reading and interesting photos, I recommend The Ainu and their Culture by Dubreuil.

By Request: The Modern Ainu pt 1

Old photograph of an Ainu man

Most of the information easily available on the internet speaks of the Ainu in the past tense: The Ainu were hunter-gatherers; the Ainu worshiped; the Ainu were conquered. The photographic situation is similar: an image search for “Ainu” brings up a few dozen century-old photos and not much else.

But the modern Ainu, of course, do not live in the past–they live in today, primarily in the very modern city of Sapporo. The modern Ainu are not hunter-gatherers (although the entire nation of Japan remains highly dependent on fishing for its nutrition;) they are doctors and shop-keepers, office workers and artists. They go to school, keep up with modern fashions, play video games, and ride the shinkansen just like everyone else in Japan.

Wikipedia (and everyone else) estimates that about 25,000 Ainu live today in Japan, with the caveat that since the Ainu don’t always bother to mention their ancestry, there could be a couple hundred thousand who just haven’t been counted.

Due to years of inter-marrying, the vast majority of today’s Ainu are at least part Japanese. One reference I recall estimated that about 300 pure-blooded Ainu remained in 1950; another estimated that 200 remain today.

There are also some Ainu living in Russia; according to Wikipedia, about 100 Russians tried to identify as Ainu in the 2010 census, and nearly a thousand people with some degree of Ainu ancestry live in the area.

Alas for my purposes as a writer, these few remaining folks appear to be living their lives out in anthropological anonymity, rather than posting selfies tagged #RealAinu all over the internet.

The one thing everyone likes to argue about in threads about the Ainu is whether or not they look like white people.

It’s kind of dumb to fight about, since obviously Ainu look like Ainu.

Okay, okay. Don’t start a flame war. According to Wikipedia:

Cavalli-Sforza places the Ainu in his “Northeast and East Asian” genetic cluster.[42] …

Turner found remains of Jōmon people of Japan to belong to Sundadont pattern similar with the Southern Mongoloid living populations of Taiwanese aborigines, Filipinos, Indonesians, Thais, Borneans, Laotians, and Malaysians. …

Genetic testing has shown them to belong mainly to Y-haplogroup D-M55.[49] Y-DNA haplogroup D2 is found frequently throughout the Japanese Archipelago including Okinawa. The only places outside Japan in which Y-haplogroup D is common are Tibet in China and the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.[50]

Your Y-haplogroup traces your paternal ancestry, because men (and only men) inherit their Y-chromosomes from their fathers. Your M or Mt-DNA, (short for mitochondrial DNA,) hails exclusively from your mother (and both men and women have Mt-DNA, because we all have mitochondria.)

Often when one group of people conquers another group of people, their descendants end up with Y-DNA from the conquerors and MtDNA from the conquered, but there are other ways people come together, like folks intermarrying with their neighbors.

(Presumably this study was done with relatively pure-blooded Ainu.)

The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is quite suggestive: Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders. These are three (historically) highly isolated groups–one of the world’s few remaining basically uncontacted peoples, the Sentinelese, (they’ll put a spear in you if you land on their island) live in the Andaman Islands. The Tibetans, as I’ve mentioned, have inherited DNA from the Denisovans–cousins of the Neanderthals who interbred with their ancestors–that lets them breathe more easily at high altitudes than anyone else on Earth, making it rather hard for non-Tibetans move there, much less conquer and occupy it [Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nepalese or other folks who also live up in the Himalayas also have the adaptation; this isn’t meant to be a discussion of modern political borders.] And the Ainu basically live on the far edge of Asian at the southern edge of Siberia–northern Japan is the snowiest populated place in the world.

“Sinodont” and “sundadont” actually refer to two different tooth shapes.

East Asian genetic tree, showing Ainu, Japanese, Koreans, etc

Tibetans and Andaman Islanders are definitely Asians–they clade with other Asians in the Greater Asian Clade–but they don’t look much alike. You wouldn’t mistake them for Caucasians, though.

Haplogroup D-M174 is believed to have evolved about 50-60-thousand years ago, presumably in Asia. This was shortly after the Out-of-Africa event, which occurred about 70,000 (or possibly 100,000 years ago [there might have been more than one OOA.]) D-M174 is so old that its “parent” haplogroup is DE, which is found in Africa and Asia.

By contrast, the mutation to the EDAR-gene which gives Han Chinese (the Asian ethnic group Americans are most familiar with) and Japanese their characteristic hair, skin, tooth shape, build, etc., (EDAR is pretty incredible in that way) only occurred 30,000 years ago–that is, the Ainu split off from other Asians 20-30 thousand years before what we think of as “the Asian look” had even evolved.

For that matter, Caucasian themselves only appear to have split off from Asians around 40,000 years ago–10,000 years before EDAR mutated, but 10-20,000 years after D-M174 arose.

Or to put it another way:

About 70,000 years ago, an intrepid band of explorers left Africa. Presumably, these people looked African, but I don’t know exactly which Africans these ancient people looked like–perhaps they didn’t really look like any modern group; perhaps they looked a lot like most Sub-Saharan Africans; perhaps they looked like the Bushmen, noted for their tawny skin tones and more “Asian” look than other Sub-Saharans. I don’t know yet.

About 60,000 years ago, the band split, and one group spread far across Asia. Their modern descendants are the Ainu, Tibetans, and Andaman Islanders.

The other group presumably hung out in central Eurasia, until about 40,000 years ago, when it definitively split. One group went west and became the Caucasians; the other became the Han.

Around 30,000 years, the distinctive EDAR mutation that gives east-Asians their “typical” appearance evolved.

Around 10,000 years ago, more or less, Europeans began getting lighter, and “whiteness” as we know it evolved.

Oki Kano, Ainu Musician

So… could the Ainu retain some traits or have never obtained some traits–like epicanthic folds at the corners of their eyes–which make them look more like their ancestral group, to which the ancestors of both Asians and Caucasians belonged? Sure. Could they have just evolved traits to deal with the extremely cold, near-Siberian environment they lived in that happened to resemble traits that evolved in European populations dealing with a similarly cold environment? Sure.

But are they Caucasians? Not even remotely.

And in my opinion, they don’t look Caucasian, at least not when their faces aren’t covered with big, bushy beards. (The modern Ainu tend to shave.) Take, for example, Oki Kano, an Ainu musician. Nothing about his appearance says, “Mysterious tribe of lost Caucasians.”

Back to Wikipedia:

In a study by Tajima et al. (2004), two out of a sample of sixteen (or 12.5%) Ainu men have been found to belong to Haplogroup C-M217, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup among the indigenous populations of Siberia and Mongolia.[49] … Some researchers have speculated that this minority of Haplogroup C-M217 carriers among the Ainu may reflect a certain degree of unidirectional genetic influence from the Nivkhs, a traditionally nomadic people of northern Sakhalin and the adjacent mainland, with whom the Ainu have long-standing cultural interactions.[49]

The Nivkhs live basically next door and have a lot of cultural similarities–for example, both groups traditionally had shamanic rituals involving bears, which they raised and then sacrificed:

Nivkh Shamans also presided over the Bear Festival, a traditional holiday celebrated between January and February depending on the clan. Bears were captured and raised in a corral for several years by local women, treating the bear like a child.[34] The bear was considered a sacred earthly manifestation of Nivkh ancestors and the gods in bear form (see Bear worship). During the Festival, the bear would be dressed in a specially made ceremonial costume. It would be offered a banquet to take back to the realm of gods to show benevolence upon the clans.[29] After the banquet, the bear would be sacrificed and eaten in an elaborate religious ceremony. Often dogs were sacrificed as well. The bear’s spirit returned to the gods of the mountain ‘happy’ and would then reward the Nivkh with bountiful forests.[35]

A very similar ceremony, Iomante, is practiced by the Ainu people of Japan.

While haplogroup D-M174 shows affinity with more southerly Asian groups, like the Tibetans or Andaman Islanders, haplogroup C-M217 is found throughout northern Asia (principally Siberia) and northern North America.

To be continued…

What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select for?

Apropos Friday’s conversation about the transition from hunting to pastoralism and the different strategies hunters employ in different environments, I got to thinking about how these different food-production systems could influence the development of different “intelligences,” or at least mental processes that underlie intelligence.

Ingold explains that in warm climes, hunter-gatherers have many food resources they can exploit, and if one resource starts running low, they can fairly easily switch to another. If there aren’t enough yams around, you can eat melons; if not enough melons, squirrels; if no squirrels, eggs. I recall a study of Australian Aborigines who agreed to go back to hunter-gatherering for a while after living in town for several decades. Among other things (like increased health,) scientists noted that the Aborigines increased the number of different kinds of foods they consumed from, IIRC, about 40 per week to 100.

By contrast, hunters in the arctic are highly dependent on exploiting only a few resources–fish, seals, reindeer, and perhaps a few polar bears and foxes. Ingold claims that there are (were) tribes that depended largely on only a few major hunts of migrating animals (netting hundreds of kills) to supply themselves for the whole year.

If those migrating change their course by even a few miles, it’s easy to see how the hunters could miss the herds entirely and, with no other major species around to exploit, starve over the winter.

Let’s consider temperate agriculture as well: the agriculturalist can store food better than the arctic hunter (seal meat does not do good things in the summer,) but lacks the tropical hunter-gatherer’s flexibility; he must stick to his fields and keep working, day in and day out, for a good nine months in a row. Agricultural work is more flexible than assembly line work, where your every minute is dictated by the needs of the factory, but a farmer can’t just wander away from his crops to go hunt for a months just because he feels like it, nor can he hope to make up for a bad wheat harvest by wandering into his neighbor’s fields and picking their potatoes.

Which got me thinking: clearly different people are going to do better at different systems.

But first, what is intelligence? Obviously we could define it in a variety of ways, but let’s stick to reasonable definitions, eg, the ability to use your brain to achieve success, or the ability to get good grades on your report card.

A variety of mental traits contribute to “intelligence,” such as:

  1. The ability to learn lots of information. Information is really useful, both in life and on tests, and smarter brains tend to be better at storing lots and lots of data.
  2. Flexible thinking. This is the ability to draw connections between different things you’ve learned, to be creative, to think up new ideas, etc.
  3. Some form of Drive, Self Will, or long-term planning–that is, the ability to plan for your future and then push yourself to accomplish your goals. (These might more properly be two different traits, but we’ll keep them together for now.)

Your stereotypical autistic, capable of memorizing large quantities of data but not doing much with them, has trait #1 but not 2 or 3.

Artists and musicians tend to have a lot of trait #2, but not necessarily 1 or 3 (though successful artists obviously have a ton of #3)

And an average kid who’s not that bright but works really hard, puts in extra hours of effort on their homework, does extra credit assignments, etc., has a surfeit of #3 but not much 2 or 1.

Anyway, it seems to me like the tropical hunting/gathering environment, with many different species to exploit, would select for flexible thinking–if one food isn’t working out, look for a different one. This may also apply to people from tropical farming/horticulturalist societies.

By contrast, temperate farming seems more likely to select for planning–you can’t just wander off or try to grow something new in time for winter if your first crop doesn’t work out.

Many people have noted that America’s traditionally tropical population (African Americans) seems to be particularly good at flexible thinking, leading to much innovation in arts and music. They are not as talented, though, at Drive, leading to particularly high highschool dropout rates.

America’s traditionally rice-farming population (Asians,) by contrast, has been noted for over a century for its particularly high drive and ability to plan for the future, but not so much for contributions to the arts. East Asian people are noted for their particularly high IQ/SAT/PISA scores, despite the fact that China lags behind the West in GDP and quality of life terms. (Japan, of course, is a fully developed country.) One potential explanation for this is that the Chinese, while very good at working extremely hard, aren’t as good at flexible thinking that would help spur innovation. (I note that the Japanese seem to do just fine at flexible thinking, but you know, the Japanese aren’t Chinese and Japan isn’t China.)

(I know I’m not really stating anything novel.) But the real question is:

What kind of mental traits might pastoralism, arctic pastoralism, or arctic hunting select for?

Wed. Open Thread: Ruminants

Some data/graphs/research I came across while researching pastoralism:






And on the subject of hunting, from… oh crud I can’t remember which study this is excerpted from:


Some interesting links:

Cold Winter Theory in Non-Human Animals:

With regards to birds, brain size and ecology, there is a problem. Birds living in the high latitudes must either adapt a migrating behavioral pattern or learn how to survive in the winter. Most birds take the first route, but some don’t. However, to fly long distances, it helps to be lean, so there is strong selection against extra weight such as a larger brain. For this reason, bivariate latitude x brain size comparisons might show the opposite pattern than expected. One must account for the solution to the, well, cold winter problem. Some amphibians have an analogous tactic: hibernation. Many insects have yet another analogous solution: they only live in the summer (single year life spans). As far as I understand, fish do not have issues with the water temperature in the winter, so they don’t face the problem. Except for possibly hibernation (which sometimes does require planning ability e.g. in squirrels), these strategies would not seem to select so strongly for intelligence, and so one would not expect the higher latitude species to smarter, less aggressive and so on.

In general, therefore, it seems best to focus on animals that tackle the cold winter problem head-on instead of avoiding it somehow (migrate, hibernate, or single-year lifespans). Among birds, the smartest birds are of the Corvidae family — in particular crows, ravens and magpies — and they generally don’t migrate in the winter. Of the non-Corvidae, I think the smartest birds are some of the parrot species. These also often don’t migrate. (See also bird intelligence.) …

Exposure to Junk Food is Causing Obesity in Siberian Tribes:

The first-ever cases of obesity have been recorded among nomadic Arctic reindeer herders, after they became exposed to instant noodles and other junk foods.

Russian scientists are warning about the dramatic change in the Nenets and Khanty peoples on the icy Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia, who for centuries had eaten only traditional foods.

A diet based on venison and fresh river fish meant that obesity was unknown among these indigenous peoples, but now outside influences are changing everything. …

Human Behavior as a Long-Term Ecological Driver of Non-Human Evolution:

Due to our intensive subsistence and habitat-modification strategies—including broad-spectrum harvesting and predation, widespread landscape burning, settlement construction, and translocation of other species—humans have major roles as ecological actors who influence fundamental trophic interactions. … Clear examples of anthropogenic effects on non-human morphological evolution have been documented in modern studies of substantial changes to body size or other major traits in terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants in response to selective human harvesting, urbanized habitats, and human-mediated translocation. Meanwhile, archaeological records of harvested marine invertebrates and terrestrial vertebrates suggest that similar processes extend considerably into prehistory, perhaps to 50,000 yr BP or earlier. These results are consistent with palaeoenvironmental and other records that demonstrate long-term human habitat modification and intensive harvesting practices. …

Comment of the Week goes to BaruchK:

For a personal narrative of what happens when a very refined and compassionate culture encounters such starvation that mothers eat their own children, you can look at our Book of Lamentations.

It makes for very hard, heartbreaking reading, but necessary.

… G-d certainly has compassion. The way we understand the degradation described in the Book of Lamentations is that it is a just punishment and reflection for spiritual degradation we imposed upon ourselves through idolatry (more on this below).

> In Carthage “[child] sacrifice in the ancient world reached its infamous zenith.”

Perfect example of why r/k is not a good model for people. Also see Stove’s Evolutionary Fairytales (available online in pdf for free.) People are not cod fish or elephants.

Allow me to make a counter-proposal.

The Carthaginians, Aztecs etc. were not welfare troglodytes. They were not Russian peasants, who had had their grain requisitioned. And they were not the besieged and starving population of Jerusalem. They were a highly refined society with an aristocracy, literacy, and a high investment in their upper classes. They were also cruel and vile people. They did not sacrifice their children out of physical need, but rather out of idolatry, which is to say, the projection of one’s own egotistic desires and fears upon an external object which represents an imaginary deity, which is supposed to serve you. …

And Jefferson and FlockofLambs left good thoughts on Cost Disease:

J: There is a more explicitly anthropological argument to be made here, as well. All of the institutions, cultural artifacts, and policies that could be conserved grew up over centuries of agriculture. We haven’t really developed solid cultural tools to deal with industrialization, and we’re already done with it. The left plays the “it’s not relevant anymore” game, and discards important tools, but we don’t have anything to replace them with. …

FoL: So i think Scott simplified Baumol’s Cost Disease, and it gets simplified further here. The point isn’t that “the cost of things goes up” but “when the productivity of some things goes up, the cost of things with similar inputs goes up, even if their quality does not.”

Sorry I finished this late, but I hope you guys are having a great week!