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

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

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

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

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

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

Continuing:

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

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

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

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

Continuing:

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

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

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

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

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

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

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

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

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

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

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

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s Talk Genetics (Polish and German)

source: Big Think: Genetic map of Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Language Instinct

People have long wondered if language is an instinct. If you raised a child without speaking to it, would it begin spontaneously speaking? I hear some folks tried this experience on an orphanage, wondering if the babies would start spontaneously speaking German or French or whatever, and all of the babies died due to neglect.

Of course they wouldn’t have started speaking even if they’d survived. We have no “speak French” instinct, but we do have an instinct to imitate the funny sounds other people make and possibly to “babble”–even deaf babies will “babble” in sign language.

Oh, I found the experiment (I think.) Looks like its a lot older than I thought. According to Wikipedia:

An experiment allegedly carried out by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the 13th century saw young infants raised without human interaction in an attempt to determine if there was a natural language that they might demonstrate once their voices matured. It is claimed he was seeking to discover what language would have been imparted unto Adam and Eve by God.

The experiments were recorded by the monk Salimbene di Adam in his Chronicles, who wrote that Frederick encouraged “foster-mothers and nurses to suckle and bathe and wash the children, but in no ways to prattle or speak with them; for he would have learnt whether they would speak the Hebrew language (which he took to have been the first), or Greek, or Latin, or Arabic, or perchance the tongue of their parents of whom they had been born. But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments.”[5]

That said, we likely do have some instincts related to language acquisition.

Open Thread: Announcement

341ea6e08a49012ee3c400163e41dd5bI’m starting some new IRL projects (that have nothing to do with the blog and won’t be discussed here.) It’s a big time commitment and if all goes well, I’m going to be really busy for the foreseeable future.

Right now I have no idea how this will affect the blog, whether I’ll be figure out how to balance my time and keep up my regular schedule or will need to cut back. I’ll let you know when I find out.

(Update: hooo boy has life been kicking my butt.)

m3-agenesis-carter-worthington-2015In the meanwhile, here’s a graph of the incidence of people who never develop their permanent third molars, broken down by continent (I assume N. and S. America are sampled from Native American populations.)

This is not the same as not getting your wisdom teeth, though I’d wager a graph of that would look similar.

(“agenesis”= does not begin; “m3″= third molar.)

male-heights-from-skeletons-in-europe-1-2000-clark-645x403And a simple graph of heights in the US, Europe and Sweden over the past … 2000 years.

I propose that the recent increase in heights isn’t just because of better nutrition/more food/more milk and protein in the diet, but also because fewer women die giving birth to large babies now that we have c-sections, and large babies likely grow into large adults.

hybridThis is just a joke. It has no deeper meaning.

In interesting news:

Lethal aggression in Pan [chimpanzees] is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts:

Observations of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) provide valuable comparative data for understanding the significance of conspecific killing. … Lethal violence is sometimes concluded to be the result of adaptive strategies, such that killers ultimately gain fitness benefits by increasing their access to resources such as food or mates. Alternatively, it could be a non-adaptive result of human impacts, such as habitat change or food provisioning. To discriminate between these hypotheses we compiled information from 18 chimpanzee communities and 4 bonobo communities studied over five decades. Our data include 152 killings (n = 58 observed, 41 inferred, and 53 suspected killings) by chimpanzees in 15 communities and one suspected killing by bonobos. We found that males were the most frequent attackers (92% of participants) and victims (73%); most killings (66%) involved intercommunity attacks; and attackers greatly outnumbered their victims (median 8:1 ratio). Variation in killing rates was unrelated to measures of human impacts. Our results are compatible with previously proposed adaptive explanations for killing by chimpanzees, whereas the human impact hypothesis is not supported.

Behind the Murky World of Albanian Blood Feuds:

…He produces a list of recent killings he contends are the result of feuding families – not just random acts of violence in a country awash with guns, but the result of continued adherence to an ancient Albanian code of justice known as the “kanun”, or canon.

There is a farmer who was killed after cutting down his neighbour’s tree, a lover who shot both his girlfriend’s brothers after being denied her hand in marriage, and a returning migrant worker gunned down after he went back to his village, reigniting a decades-old feud.

Such are the rules of the “kanun”, a tribal code of 1,262 rules laid down by the 15th-century Albanian nobleman Lekë Dukagjini, which ordains that “spilled blood must be met with spilled blood”.

But while the Kanun stories remain part of Albania’s cultural and historical DNA, they are also a source of growing concern for Britain’s asylum tribunals. Since 2012 tens of thousands of Albanians have migrated to Europe, many seeking asylum on the basis that they are afraid for their lives as a result of “blood feuds”. …

Darwinian Perspectives on the Evolution of Human Languages:

Herodotus, writing in the Histories, Book II.53 around 450 BCE, remarked that Homer “lived, as I believe, not more than 400 years ago.” Many modern classicists and historians prefer a more recent, mid-8th century date for the Iliad. We (Altschuler, Calude, Meade, & Pagel, 2013) decided to try to estimate a date for the Iliad by investigating patterns of cognacy among the 200 words of Swadesh’s (1952) fundamental vocabulary in three languages: Modern Greek, Homeric Greek from Homer’s Iliad, and Hittite, a language distantly related to both modern and Homeric Greek.

We first recorded whether each word in the Swadesh list was cognate or not between pairs of the three languages. Then, we solved for the date in history that was the most likely for the Iliad, given our knowledge of the rates of change of the words and the patterns of cognacy we observed. Our calculation suggested that the original text of the Iliad was released in approximately 762 BCE. This date is in close agreement with classicists’ and historians’ beliefs arrived at independently by studying historical references and the nature of Homeric Greek as expressed in the Iliad.

Staffordshire Strikes Gold with Iron Age Find:

An archaeological find on Staffordshire farmland is believed to include the earliest examples of Iron Age gold ever discovered in Britain.

The collection, which has been named the Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs, was discovered by two metal detectorists just before Christmas.

Unveiling the torcs today (February 28), experts said the unique find could date back as far as 400BC and was of huge international importance.

For Comment of the Week, I’ve been enjoying the conversation between multiple commentators about Fishing and Fish Sauce over on What Mental Traits does the Arctic Select For?

E: … I know in terms of iodine deficiency, pre-modern-transport and storage, distance from the sea makes a big difference. And probably in a well-ordered place with relatively good transport like the Roman Empire at its height, fish sauce must have been the easiest way to get the benefits to the most people, regardless of distance from the ocean. (I wonder if there would be any way to test iodine deficiency in bodies in the Alps before, during, and after the Roman Empire…)

Someone get on testing bodies for iodine deficiency!

 

So, what are you thinking about?

Meditations upon Language

There is a certain frustration in not being able to express thoughts in a clear, unadulterated, perfectly understood form. This is impossible. There’s no point in whining about it, only in trying one’s best, anyway.

I run up against the limits of common language fairly often–at least once a week, if not five or ten times–when I find that there exist no words exactly suited to my purpose. A graceful word that sounds perfect given the cadence of a sentence may carry an unwieldy baggage of political connotations, or the word that perfectly expresses a particular notion may be grammatically awkward and ungainly. I generally aim to both produce pleasant writing and avoid overly-charged political language, but there are times when this is impossible. Ethnonyms are particularly prone to politicization. Should I refer to the nomadic or formerly nomadic descendants of Indians who’ve lived in Europe for several hundred years as “Gypsies” or “Roma”? “Inuit” or “Eskimo”? “Indians” or “Native Americans”? For each of these, you can find members of the relevant group who prefer Term A and dislike B, and members who, likewise, prefer Term B and dislike A. And no matter which term you pick, someone out there will assume that you are making a political statement about those people.

Heck, I used to know a man who preferred to refer to himself as a “Negro.”

In general, I try to stick with the most commonly known term; if two terms are equally known, I tend to use both. “Roma” I assume is fairly obscure, whereas “Native American” is clear, if clunky. (“Indian,” while actually the term a small majority of Indians preferred last time I checked, has the unfortunate confusion factor.) But there are times when innovation could be useful. “POC,” for example, is a mere three letters long and well-known. But it is severely tainted by politics, making it unsuitable for anything attempting even a vaguely neutral stance, or anything aimed at a non-leftist audience. Then I am left with some clunky phrasing, like “people who aren’t white.”

It would be lovely to be able to write posts that appeal to everyone, but words the left uses to distinguish its writing are anathema to the right, words used on the right are likewise anathema to the left, and neutral territory is generally regarded as simultaneously inadequately right and left.

Moderatism is possible, but neutrality is nigh impossible, whether I want it or not. So posts have their audiences, and the language selected accordingly, along with a heavy dose of my own bloody-mindedness, with the inevitable result that the language will never be perfect.

For example, Nick B. Steves recently expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the word “fascism” to denote generically authoritarian regimes in the post, “Increasing Diversity => Fascism.” I agree that “fascism” is really an unideal word. Unfortunately, “Increasing Diversity => Lots More Laws” or “Increasing Diversity => More Authoritarian Regimes” just doesn’t have the same cadence, and makes for an awkward title. (Also, the post was originally composed as a direct response to the sorts of people who’d inspired it.)

(There are those who argue that one should not write with an audience in mind, but that writing should instead be some sort of pure emanation of your soul/id/creativity/whatever. This is bollocks. All language exists in order to communicate something between the sender and the receiver, whether that be spoken language or written language. If I wanted to write something where the intended audience is just myself, I could, and I would write it in my diary and keep it there instead of posting it on the internet. Once something is put out there, it exists to convey a message to someone outside of myself, and therefore needs to be able to do so. If it cannot, then I have failed.)

I try to aim for an “intellectual but friendly” tone, but the tone has changed over time, which occasionally leads to confusion, especially if posts get shuffled around in the schedule. “Once a Political Position Becomes Popular, it has already won,” is one such post. Attempting coherence:

Mainstream political positions change over time. For example, the majority of people once opposed gay marriage, but now the majority support it. Two hundred years ago, being pro-slavery was a fairly mainstream political position, while believing in full racial equality was far outside the mainstream. Today, these positions have reversed.

People who are advocating a political position that is gaining popularity but not yet dominant or has not yet won all of its objectives often get very worked up about the fact that any vestiges of opposition remain, leading to increasingly strident demands that everyone need to toe the line and fall-in with the new position.

Of course, in a world with more than one person in it, there will always be someone who disagrees about something; in a country with 300+ million people, you can find tons of people who disagree with you! You can even find people who think they’re telepathically communicating with the CIA. The mere existence of people who disagree with a position does not mean it is not dominant.

How do we know whether a position that only a minority of people agree with is “winning”, in the sense of becoming steadily more dominant?

Look at who is advocating the position. Movie stars, popular musicians, Cathedral leaders and the “popular” people, at school and on the internet. Thought leaders shape and influence other people’s opinions; people want to look and act like elites.

People often make a big deal out of how brave they are for taking a popular position. There has been nothing particularly “brave” about being pro-gay rights for the past two or three decades; no one has been sued for being willing to bake a gay cake. Neither is Caitlyn Jenner “brave.” It is taking the opposition position that has cost people jobs, freedom, and money.

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Sometimes the problem is long-windedness increasing the noise:signal ratio. “Transsexuals Prove that Gender is Real,” may have been one such post. The TL; DR version:

  1. The idea that “sex is biological, gender is a social construct” is bollocks. Sex=gender.
  2. All trans people I have known in real life have obvious chromosomal or hormonal conditions leading to improper gender development.
  3. I suspect this is true of the majority of trans people.
  4. Trans people don’t actually act on the radical feminist claim that gender is some random, made-up thing invented by the patriarchy to oppress women. Rather, they pick a gender and then try to actually live like it.
  5. Note that this does not require you to agree that a trans person “is” a particular gender; it is merely asserting that they are trying to live as one.

I’m sure there have been some other things that were unclear or inelegantly or improperly worded, though I can’t think of them off the top of my head.

In the meanwhile, have a lovely day.

Reality is a Social Construct

I agree that gender is a social construct. So is sex. (So is the other kind of sex.) So is species. So is “fish”. So is blue. So is reality.

People say “X is a social construct” as though this were some deep, profound statement about this thing being actually some form of mass delusion.

All “socially constructed” really means is that the definition of a word–or concept–is agreed upon via some form of common consensus. Thus, the meaning of words can be changed if everyone decides to do so.

“Gay” was once socially constructed to mean “happy.” Now, by popular consensus, “gay” means something else. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, homosexuality and pedophilia were conceptually linked–we would say, homosexuality was socially constructed to include pedophilia. Today, the two terms are not seen as synonymous–the social construction has changed.

You ever notice that “red onions” are purple? Our socially constructed categories of “red” and “purple” have changed.

We all filter the raw material data of reality through the ideas, concepts, patterns, and categories already in our heads–our assumptions about the world can lead two different people to have radically different experiences of the exact same physical reality.

This is a natural effect of language being language, rather than, say, rocks. It is not a profound statement. It is a caution that we may be led astray at times by conceptual categories, our categories/definitions may need occasional updating in light of new data, or that edge cases may not always fit neatly into broad categories.

Most people understand this intuitively, as part of how interfacing between our fallible little selves and reality works. That reality does not always conform exactly to our notions about it is confirmed every time we stub a toe.

When people start making a big deal out of social constructivism, it is natural to think this must be some big, profound, important insight, otherwise they wouldn’t be going on for so long.

But people only pull out this argument when they want to deny the existence of actual reality, not when trying to argue that your notion of “ornamental shrub” is socially constructed and you should plant a blueberry bush.

Reality exists, no matter how we care to conceptualize it and organize the data we’re getting about it. Most categories that weren’t invented for the sake of a novel (“elves” probably are totally made up,) exist because they serve some sort of functional purpose. Being able to call someone “male” or “female,” “black” or “white” or “Bantu” or “Japanese” allows me to convey a bundle of information to the listener–a feature of language obvious to virtually everyone who has ever engaged in conversation, except to folks trying to eliminate such words from the language on the grounds that they are made up and so carry no information.