Law of the Plains

51ta-us7crlWelcome back to our discussion of Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. I know we normally hold book club on Mondays, but since I spent most of Monday just laying the groundwork necessary to be able to discuss Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa law, today we’ll actually jump into the subject.

Notably, the nomadic plains Indian lifestyle was not some ancient way of living the Indians had followed since time immemorial, but an essentially new invention enabled by the importation of the horse. Comanches started out as hunter gatherers and maybe sporadic horticulturalists in the Great Basin (Utah, more or less.) The Kiowa started out near the Canadian boarder in western Montana. They’re related to agriculturalists, but probably weren’t farming up in the black hills. And the Cheyenne hailed originally from the other side of the continent, descended from agriculturalists who were driven out of their homes by other Indians who’d gotten guns from the settlers. The Cheyenne also have a tradition stating that they intentionally decided to stop being farmers and become nomads; the other two groups were likely already nomadic before they got horses.

The authors write:

Faced with a sudden opportunity for progress, the chance to stop scratching in the earth as primitive agriculturalists and turn into noble savages hunting buffalo living in tipis and proving their manhood by making war on each other, the Indian tribes living on or near the Great Plains seized the opportunity.

Obviously I question whether the Comanche were ever agriculturalists, but the Cheyenne probably were. A better question is what happened to the other agriculturalist/horticulturalist peoples near the edges of the Great Plains like the Mississippian peoples, whose cities had largely disappeared by the time American settlers reached them.


Cynthia Ann Parker’s son, Comanche chief Quanah Parker

The result was the development in the eighteenth century of a common material culture shared by tribes with quite different origins. It depended on the horse but also made good use of the rifle rifles having been initially provided by the English to tribes willing to fight tribes allied with the French and by the French to tribes willing to fight those allied with the English.

One thing I noticed while researching this chapter is that the eventual triumph of the settlers in the late 1800s by no means seemed guaranteed in 1800. Once they got ahold of horses and guns, the Indians held their own against American and Spanish/Mexican settlers for over a hundred years. Their eventual defeat was due to a combination of the railroad, increased wartime production of guns during the Civil War, the steel plow, irrigation techniques that opened up the Great Plains to agriculture, and overwhelming quantities of European immigrants that just kept flowing into the US. (Oh, and diseases.)

But anyway:

I start with the Comanche; their government is the simplest of the three to describe, since they did not have one. A Comanche war chief was simply an entrepreneur a warrior who announced his intent to go steal horses from the Mexicans Americans, or some other tribe and invited anyone interested to come along. Within the war party he had absolute rule, but anyone unhappy with the situation was free to leave.

I note that the Comanche seem likely to have had the simplest social structure before they obtained horses, so this might account for their simplicity after moving onto the plains.

In addition to peace chiefs and war chiefs, there was also a council.

The council consisted of respected elders whom everyone simply agreed were held in respect; there was no formal process for joining the council, nor any formal process for implementing the council’s decisions.

Generally the majority made little effort to impose its will on the minority, for, as in most Indian tribes, it was thought that agreement should be unanimous.

When your lifestyle involves riding horses around on the open plains at will, it is hard to impose your will on anyone because it is hard to catch them. If they don’t like you, they’ll just move away and go hunt somewhere else.

The Comanche, in other words were anarchists. Their social system included institution for coordination at the level of the individual band but nothing we would recognize as a government over either the band or the entire tribe.

The authors note that one of the theoretical problems with an anarchist society is convincing everyone to pay enough to contribute to the common defense; the Comanche solved this problem by making “providing for the common defense” extremely profitable to the individual–mostly by stealing their enemy’s stuff, raping their women and torturing the men to death.

I mean, it’s a solution, sure, but it’s a solution that didn’t exactly inspire their neighbors not to massacre them when they could.

Still, I’d like to contrast Comanche warfare–which probably bears a close resemblance to warfare as typically conducted throughout human history, plus or minus the horses and guns–with modern warfare. The US has been in many wars over the years, but hasn’t actually held onto any of the land it conquered since, well, the Indian wars (which we hardly even recognize as real wars). We conquered Cuba and the Philippines in the Spanish American War, but we no longer own these territories. We conquered big chunks of Europe and Asia in WWs I and II, but we gave France back to the French and Japan back to the Japanese. We gave South Korea back to the South Koreans and have basically tried to return Afghanistan and Iraq to local rule.

There might be some government fat cats or weapons contractors who make money off these wars, or they might potentially benefit us all in some grand, abstract way that you can’t really pinpoint in your daily life, but no common American has benefited from these conflicts in the direct, immediately obvious way of an Irish raider carrying off his neighbor’s cattle or a Comanche stealing another man’s wife. We’ve invented the concept of “just war,” and it seems that everyone hates it.

[The Comanche] drove the Apache from the southern plains raided the Mexicans for horses and slaves and, despite the disadvantage of lower technology and smaller population, blocked American expansion across Texas for decades, fairly earning the title of Spartans of the plains.

In this case, it’s not about tech, it’s about mobility and the ability to survive largely off theft.

… they made warfare into a private rather than a public good. for most of their history, the incentive to fight was not the welfare of the tribe but the individual warrior. Successful raids produced valuable loot. Heroic and successful fighting produced status.

I think there is still some status in being a soldier, but not much. We might say that modern governments have appropriated for themselves the spoils that would rightfully go to their soldiers.

On the other hand, modern soldiers get paid.

On wife stealing and family structures:

The strongest bond within the tribe was between brothers who, among other things, shared their wives and had the power to marry off their sisters. [Note: maybe] From the standpoint of the brother the ideal brother-in-law was a wealthy and successful warrior. The sister might prefer someone [else]… and given the opportunity, leave the husband chosen for her by her brothers to run away with one such. The incentive of the wife stealer was less possession of the wife than the opportunity to outface the husband.

Wife stealing was carried out openly, followed by demands of compensation from the original husband. Of course, with no police or prisons to enforce the demand for compensation, the only real threat the aggrieved husband can make is that of killing the thief.

Carrying out that threat was neither desired nor likely, since if the husband killed the stealer (or vice versa) the victim’s kin would take revenge by killing the killer. The intended result of the threat was to set off the game that economists call bilateral monopoly.

So each side calls up whatever resources it can to back up its threats and then one side pays up.

Of course, if a man suspected his wife of adultery, he could just torture or kill her. After all, men are stronger than women and there weren’t any police or prisons to protect them from violent spouses.

Cases of wife stealing and adultery seem to have been the nearest thing to legal disputes among the Comanche. … One possible resolution was for the wife to swear by earth an sky that she was innocent, at which point the husband accepted the oath… The same approach was used to settle some other disputes, such as disagreements as to which member of a war party had counted coup on an enemy… As far as minor theft was concerned, the Comanche, like the other two tribes I will discuss, regarded such matters as beneath the notice of a warrior. As a Cheyenne would have put it, “if you had asked, I would have given it to you.”

What we regard as extreme generosity is often noted of nomads. It’s in part due to the fact that nomads simply cannot store up large amounts of stuff. They don’t store grain for winter because they don’t farm and they have nowhere to store it. As a result, nomads–especially nomadic hunters–always face the threat of simply having a couple of bad weeks and running out of food. Nomadic economies work better when people share food (and hunting weapons) fairly freely, especially from large kills such as buffalo that a single man can’t hope to eath by himself, anyway. This doesn’t mean that people lose their sense that “This is my arrow because I made it myself,” but it does result in a lot of sharing, some voluntary, some very socially enforced.

We see as well the abundance of the nomadic lifestyle. Certainly they had fewer physical belongings than we do–since they can’t carry that much around–but what they did have, like horses and buffalo, they had in abundance. This abundance is partly due to the fact that they stole a lot of horses from other people, so they didn’t have to put in the hard work of raising them themselves, and yes, it is easy to be generous and happy when you are living off the fat of another man’s labor, and partly because they had a low population density on an open plain that was full of giant herds of delicious animals.

Low population + tons of resources = happy people.

The more people are trying to share a certain area or set of resources, the less there is to go around, the less “wealth” each person feels they have, the less freedom, less happiness, more hoarding.

From Footnote 441:

“From the liberality with which they dispose of their effects on all occasions of the kind it would induce the belief that they acquire property merely for the purpose of giving it to others.” (Neighbors 1853, 134)

I am reminded as well of a by now only vaguely remembered passage in which some missionaries or others initiating contact between the settlers and plains Indians gifted them with necklaces, beads, and other sundry products of civilization which they thought fine presents, and which the Indians happily received. Then when time came to break up camp, all of the new gifts were abandoned, trampled underfoot in the process of getting underway and left behind in the mud. Of course the missionaries probably saw this as some failure to value items of wealth or perhaps ingratitude, but to nomads who have to physically pack up and haul all of their belongings from place to place, additional stuff that doesn’t have hooves quickly acquires negative value.

The value of a gift-giving network, though, is much greater than the value of any individual item that passes through it. Through such networks travel not just trifles like beads and necklaces, but things of substantial value like food, horses, weapons, wives, or allies, so it makes perfectly reasonable sense for a man to obtain something simply for the sake of giving it away.

What about murder? As already mentioned, a first killing required a second, of the killer by the kin of his victim. At that point the matter ended. … For these purposes, killing a favorite horse, thought of as having a soul, counted as murder and so justified the killing of the responsible human in revenge.

The Comanche believed in magic and sorcery, and might kill a man believed to be killing people via lethal magic, but don’t appear to have believed in it strongly enough to make killing the sorcerer mandatory (a rare show of good sense in the ethnographic record on sorcery).

Occasionally the whole tribe might come together and decide that a particularly bad medicine man deserved to die and killed him.

The Kiowa:

The Kiowa, while in some ways similar to the Comanche, had something a little closer to a government and much closer to a well-defined class/rank system. The latter consisted of four classes. The Onde were the high-status warriors… they are estimated to have been 10% of the men. The Ondegupta were the would-be Onde… Not surprisingly, the Ondegupta were the chief source of conflict within the tribe as they… tried to gain status. Below them were the common men and below those the Dapom, the dregs of society. … Kiowa bands had recognized headmen, almost all of Onde rank, who in practice made important decisions for the band.

There were also ten “medicine bundle” keepers and one “keeper of the Sun Dance fetish,” the nominal grand chief of the tribe. In case of disputes, the medicine bundle keepers would hear out both sides and help them come to an agreement about an adequate resolution and compensation.

If someone was killed, the killer might be killed in retaliation by his victim’s kin or they might accept compensation, the equivalent to the Icelandic wergeld or the payments that atoned for killing under Islamic law or among the Somali.

This seems to be a very common pattern. It’d be interesting to see a broad cross-cultural comparison of the communities where it is (or was) common vs the ones where it isn’t.

The Kiowa and Cheyenne had military fraternities or warrior societies. Wikipedia reports:

Like other plains Indians, the Kiowa had specific warrior societies. Young men who proved their bravery, skill, or displayed their worth in battle were often invited to one of the warrior societies. In addition to warfare, the societies worked to keep peace within the camps and tribe as a whole. There were six warrior societies among the Kiowa.[24] The Po-Lanh-Yope (Little Rabbits) was for boys; all young Kiowa boys were enrolled and the group served mostly social and education purposes, involving no violence or combat. The Adle-Tdow-Yope (Young Sheep), Tsain-Tanmo (Horse Headdresses), Tdien-Pei-Gah (Gourd Society), and Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Legs or Leggings), were adult warrior societies.[25][26] The Koitsenko (Qkoie-Tsain-Gah, Principal Dogs or Real Dogs)[27] consisted of the ten most elite warriors of all the Kiowa, who were elected by the members of the other four adult warrior societies.[28]

As for the Cheyenne:

Specific warrior societies developed among the Cheyenne as with other plains nations. Each society had selected leaders who would invite those that they saw worthy enough to their society lodge for initiation into the society. Often, societies would have minor rivalries; however, they might work together as a unit when warring with an enemy. Military societies played an important role in Cheyenne government. Society leaders were often in charge of organizing hunts and raids as well as ensuring proper discipline and the enforcement of laws within the nation.[23] Each of the six distinct warrior societies of the Cheyenne would take turns assuming the leadership role within the nation.[24] The four original military societies of the Cheyenne were the Swift Fox Society, Elk Horn Scrapper or Crooked Lance Society, Shield Society, and the Bowstring Men Society. The fifth society is split between the Crazy Dog Society and the famous Dog Soldiers. The sixth society is the Contrary Warrior Society, most notable for riding backwards into battle as a sign of bravery.[6] All six societies and their various branches exist among the Southern and Northern Cheyenne Nations in present times.

The Dog Soldiers have their own Wikipedia page, with a photo of a fellow in an excellent headdress.

The Dog Soldiers or Dog Men (CheyenneHotamétaneo’o) are historically one of six Cheyenne military societies. Beginning in the late 1830s, this society evolved into a separate, militaristic band that played a dominant role in Cheyenne resistance to the westward expansion of the United States in KansasNebraskaColorado, and Wyoming, where the Cheyenne had settled in the early nineteenth century.[1]

After the deaths of nearly half the Southern Cheyenne in the cholera epidemic of 1849, many of the remaining Masikota band joined the Dog Soldiers. It effectively became a separate band, occupying territory between the Northern and Southern Cheyenne. Its members often opposed policies of peace chiefs such as Black Kettle. In 1869, most of the band were killed by United States Army forces in the Battle of Summit Springs. The surviving societies became much smaller and more secretive in their operations.

Apparently they’re still around.

On to Cheyenne law:

Of the three tribes, perhaps of all the Plains Indians, the Cheyenne came closest to having a government–part of the year.

That might be because they started out as agriculturalists with a more complicated social system.

The Cheyenne had a seasonal government. During the winter, the tribe split into small bands that each went their own way in search of food, fuel, pleasant lodgings, etc. During the summer, when food was abundant, the entire tribe came together in gatherings of a few thousand people–possibly four thousand.

The summer encampment had a government, the Council of Forty-Four, as was probably necessary for coordinating 4,000 in close proximity.

This reminds me both of the Eskimo (Inuit) that similarly camped together during the long summer days in Kabloona and modern annual events like Burning Man.

Of course, we would call the rulers of Burning Man rulers simply of the event, not of the Burning Man attendees once the event is over for the year.

Once every ten years, the members of the Council chose a successor for themselves. You couldn’t name yourself as your own successor, but someone else could. The Council was responsible for making decisions that required coordinating the whole tribe, like whether to declare war or make peace. They ruled on homicide cases and could allow an exiled killer to return to the tribe if the family of his victim also permitted it. And they organized things related to buffalo and other hunts, which are very large scale, organized activities.

The Soldier Societies had their own internal structures as well, consisting of two war chiefs (clear decision-making is important in battle) and two “servants,” lower-level chiefs “responsible for a particularly dangerous part of the defense against attackers.”

That said, anyone could organize a war party if they wanted to and could get anyone to follow him.

A further responsibility of Council was to control the buffalo hunt… The basic rule was that nobody was to attack a buffalo until the word was given, at which point the line of hunters would charge the herd, with the ends of the line wrapping around to entirely enclose it.

There follows a description of what happened to two lads who, being full of teenage spirit, entered the buffalo hunt before the signal was given. The tribe caught up with them, whipped them, killed their horses, and broke their guns.

The boys and their father apologized, and the tribe forgave them:

“Look how these two boys are here in our midst. Now they have no horses and no weapons. What do you men want to do about it?”

One of the soldiers spoke up. “Well, I have some extra horses. I will give one of them to them.” Then another soldier did the same thing.

Bear Standing on a Ridge was the third to speak out. “Well,” he announced, “we broke those guns they had. I have two guns. I will give them one.”

All the others said, “Ipewa, good.”

There is another interesting story about a man who borrowed a horse, then kept it for a year. When the owner finally got antsy and asked for it back, he returned it with a second horse in apology for keeping the first for so long. The original owner, having done without his horse for so long, didn’t need two, and so sent the original back to the borrower, since he seemed to like it so much.

Beating up another Cheyenne was between you and him. Killing another Cheyenne meant exile from the tribe.

The reason, as they saw it, was not punishment but hygiene. Killing a fellow Cheyenne polluted the medicine arrows that were one of the tribal fetishes… Until the arrows had been ceremonially renewed and the killer exiled, no luck could be expected in hunting or warfare.

This is rather similar to what we read in Things Fall Apart. The exiled man doesn’t die (usually) but goes and joins another friendly tribe until tempers have cooled and his own tribe will have him back.

Eventually the exiled man could return to the tribe if the victim’s kin were okay with it, but he was still seen as somewhat polluted.

Llewellyn and Hoebel see the combination of temporary exile and permanent pollution as successfully replacing feud, evidence of the superiority of the Cheyenne institutions to those of other primitive societies.

The authors note that it was probably only a partial replacement, though.

Exile and feud have probably existed side by side in many societies, depending on how strong each side is and how bitterly one side resents the death. For example, if a death is accidental, like the one in Things Fall Apart, people may accept the killer just moving away so they don’t have to look at him anymore. If the death was intentional, the family may be motivated by grief and rage to put an end to the killer.

Anyway, that’s the end of the chapter. I hope you’re enjoying the book; I think it’s a little dry, but quite manageable in small chunks.

I think anyone who wants to point to these societies as examples of what anarchist societies could be, or how human societies could “chose” to only have governments part of the year, and so on, is really neglecting the fact that these societies had some very important features that made them possible:

  1. Very high ratio of resources and land to people
  2. Very high rates of violence–these tribes were permanently at war
  3. Economic dependence on theft from settled neighbors who domesticated horses and manufactured guns
  4. Extreme mobility
  5. Extremely low standard of living by modern standards.

Modern, city-dwelling people do not have anything like the ratio of people to resources the Comanche enjoyed, and the average person doesn’t want to join a motorcycle club or warrior society and murder every last outsider who moves into their area.

Not that we can’t learn something useful or gain some inspiration into different, perhaps better ways to structure human societies, but we shouldn’t gloss over the fact that they were extremely violent.

You know, part one of this post went up, by random chance, on Columbus Day. I guess that’s fitting. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for the Cherokee, because the Trail of Tears is, well, sad. But I don’t feel sorry for these guys. You can’t have an economy based on theft and murder and expect any stronger governments around not to squash you as soon as it can.

Yet as someone whose natural inclination is to be outdoors and who starts feeling trapped when indoors for too long, I know something of the deep longing to race across the plains and how much modern society closes us in. They fought for their families and their lives against an overwhelming flood, and there’s something admirable in that, too.

Have a great weekend and I’ll see you on Monday.


Great Plains Indian Law: Background

Map of Native American language families

Welcome back to our discussion of Friedman, Leeson, and Skarbek’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours. Today we’ll be looking at the legal systems of three plains Indian tribes: the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne.

(Take note of the map. We’re going to need it.)

I had previously been under the impression that these groups had started as farmers who adopted the horse when the Spanish arrived. This is the account given by the authors:

Faced with a sudden opportunity for progress, the chance to stop scratching in the dirt as primitive agriculturalists and turn into noble savages hunting buffalo… the Indian tribes living on or near the Great Plains seized the opportunity.

So the Comanche hail from the Uto-Aztecan language group–these folks included, as you can tell from the name, both the Aztecs of Mexico and the Utes of the Great Basin. (Utah is named for the Utes.) The Comanche themselves appear to have hailed from the Great Basin, an arid region that’s mostly too dry for agriculture. As Wikipedia notes: 

Different ethnic groups of Great Basin tribes share certain common cultural elements that distinguish them from surrounding groups. All but the Washoe traditionally speak Numic languages, and tribal groups, who historically lived peacefully and often shared common territories, have intermingled considerably. Prior to the 20th century, Great Basin peoples were predominantly hunters and gatherers.

“Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” refers to the culture of the Great Basin tribes. This culture is characterized by the need for mobility to take advantage of seasonally available food supplies. The use of pottery was rare due to its weight, but intricate baskets were woven for containing water, cooking food, winnowing grass seeds and storage—including the storage of pine nuts, a Paiute-Shoshone staple. Heavy items such as metates would be cached rather than carried from foraging area to foraging area. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas (modern agriculture in the Great Basin requires either large mountain reservoirs or deep artesian wells). Likewise, the Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although winter villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same group of families. In the summer, the largest group was usually the nuclear family due to the low density of food supplies.

In between the Great Basin and the Aztec empire lie the Pueblos, built by the various Pueblo peoples. Interestingly, most of them do not speak an Uto-Aztecan language; some of the Pueblo languages are quite isolated. The Navajo language, likewise, is related to languages spoken way up in Canada, rather than other local languages.

The history of this region of the country post-1492 follows the Spanish, not English colonists. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, as is rather famously known, then moved north into the Pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico in the 1540s. The Pueblos were the biggest settlements in the southwestern US in those days–California was inhabited primarily by hunter-gatherers and didn’t attract much settlement until the Spaniards developed better routes across the Pacific ocean (the need for which partially drove the Opening of Japan in the late 1800s), the Great Basin of Utah and nearby states was too dry for many permanent settlements before irrigation and wells were dug, and without horses, the Great Plains were nearly uninhabited.  The first Spaniards who crossed them found them horrifyingly vast and empty.

On the other side of the Great Plains lay the Mississippian people, who, like the Puebloans, built towns and cities, as well as monuments like Serpent Mound in Ohio–but these folks were beyond the normal reach of the Spanish empire. To the far north were other peoples, like the totem-pole carving denizens of the lush Pacific northwest but this was Russian territory at most, and generally left to its own devices.

In those days, the peoples of the Great Basin were mostly nomadic hunter gatherers, occasionally trading with farmers and pastoralists from the south and moving with the seasons. Their only “draft animal” was the dog, which pulled sleds (travois) laden with their belongings over the ground; this is not a terribly effective way to move.

Comancheria, prior to 1850

The Pueblos revolted against Spanish rule in 1680. The revolt was successful, and about 2,000 Spaniards and their slaves were driven from the territory and their domesticated animals–including horses–were variously slaughtered, captured, or lost to the wilds. The horses took easily to what had formerly been their native habitat, and by the mid-1700s, the Comanches had them.

Gone were the days of puttering around with puny, dog-drawn sleds; for the next hundred years these fearsome warriors were the lords of the southern plains, the quintessential horseback riding, tipi-dwelling, buffalo hunting anarchists of American lore.

According to Wikipedia:

Their original migration took them to the southern Great Plains, into a sweep of territory extending from the Arkansas River to central Texas. The earliest references to them in the Spanish records date from 1706, when reports reached Santa Fe that Utes and Comanches were about to attack [16]. In the Comanche advance, the Apaches were driven off the Plains. By the end of the eighteenth century the struggle between Comanches and Apaches had assumed legendary proportions: in 1784, in recounting the history of the southern Plains, Texas governor Domingo Cabello recorded that some sixty years earlier (i.e., ca. 1724) the Apaches had been routed from the southern Plains in a nine-day battle at El Gran Cierra del Fierro ‘The Great Mountain of Iron’, somewhere northwest of Texas. There is, however, no other record, documentary or legendary, of such a fight [17].

They were formidable opponents who developed strategies for using traditional weapons for fighting on horseback. Warfare was a major part of Comanche life. Comanche raids into Mexico traditionally took place during the full moon, when the Comanche could see to ride at night. This led to the term “Comanche Moon”, during which the Comanche raided for horses, captives, and weapons.[18] The majority of Comanche raids into Mexico were in the state of Chihuahua and neighboring northern states.[19]

Comanche–Osage Fight by George Catlin, 1854 (Comanche on the right.)

The Comanche were such effective warriors that they nearly turned the tide against Spanish colonization:

The Comanche–Mexico Wars was the Mexican theater of the Comanche Wars, a series of conflicts from 1821 until 1870 which consisted of large-scale raids into northern Mexico by Comanches and their Kiowa and Kiowa Apache allies which left thousands of people dead.[1] The Comanche raids were sparked by the declining military capability of Mexico in the turbulent years after it gained independence in 1821, plus a large and growing market in the United States for stolen Mexican horses and cattle.[2]

By the time the United States army invaded northern Mexico in 1846 during the Mexican–American War the region was devastated. The largest Comanche raids into Mexico took place from 1840 until the mid-1850s, thereafter declining in size and intensity. The Comanche were finally defeated by the U.S. in 1875 and forced onto a reservation.

(Their defeat was due in large part due to the decimating effects of disease; their population appears to have dropped from about 20,000 people to just a few thousand. Today, they number about 17,000 people.

So that’s where the Comanche came from. How about the Kiowa?

3 Kiowa men, hand colored photograph, 1898

The Kiowa speak a Tanoan language, not an Uto-Aztecan language like the Comanche. Most of the other Tanoan speakers are Pueblo peoples, who built permanent towns and raised corn in New Mexico, but the Kiowa were hunter gatherers from around the Black Hills of western Montana/South Dakota. They were driven from their homelands by the Sioux and other tribes, migrated south, obtained horses, and moved into the flat parts of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, northern Texas, and parts of New Mexico. According to Wikipedia, they numbered about 3,000 people in those days and 12,000 today.

This leaves us with a mystery: the historic geographic spread of the Uto-Axtecan language family was split by the Pueblos; the historic geographic spread of the Pueblo-based Tanoan family was split by the Great Basin-dwelling Utes and their linguistic cousins. In other words, each language family was split by the other.

How did the Kiowa begin their journey so far from the other members of their language family? Wikipedia frustratingly notes:

There is apparently no oral tradition of any ancient connection between the peoples. Scholars have not determined when the peoples were connected so that the common linguistic elements could have developed.

Archaeology offers many tantalizing clues, but I wish we had more genetic data (many American Indian tribes are officially disdainful of genetics and see nothing to be gained by participating in genetics research, which may be true for them but is frustrating to me.)

The Wikipedia page for the Kiowa language says:

Although Kiowa is most closely related to the other Tanoan languages of the Pueblos, the earliest historic location of its speakers is western Montana around 1700. Prior to the historic record, oral histories, archaeology, and linguistics suggest that pre-Kiowa was the northernmost dialect of Proto-Kiowa-Tanoan, spoken at Basketmaker II Era sites. Around AD 450, they migrated northward through the territory of the Anasazi and Great Basin, occupying the eastern Fremont culture region of the Colorado Plateau until sometime before 1300. Speakers then drifted northward to the northwestern Plains, arriving no later than the mid-16th century in the Yellowstone area where the Kiowa were first encountered. The Kiowa then later migrated to the Black Hills and the southern Plains, where the language was recorded in historic times.[3]

(Basketmaker II is from roughly 50-500 AD.)

The full history is likely to be complicated. Corn was domesticated in southern Mexico around 9,000 years ago and soon spread to both South America and the Mississippian cultures of the eastern US. The ancestors of the early Pueblo peoples adopted it, but the Aztecs were still hunter-gatherers when they conquered the Valley of Mexico around 1250 AD. Perhaps the same pressures that sent the Aztecs into the Valley of Mexico also drove the Kiowa north–or perhaps the events were entirely unrelated, separated by hundreds of years. History is frustratingly silent.

At any rate:

The introduction of the horse to Kiowa society revolutionized their [hunter-gatherer] way of life. They acquired horses by raiding rancheros south of the Rio Grande into Mexico, as well as by raiding other Indian peoples who already had horses, such as the Navajo and the various Pueblo people. With the horse, they could transport larger loads, hunt more game over a wider range and more easily, and travel longer and farther. The Kiowa became powerful and skilled mounted warriors who conducted long-distance raids against enemies. The Kiowa were considered among the finest horsemen on the Plains. A man’s wealth was measured primarily by the size of his horse herd, with particularly wealthy individuals having herds numbering in the hundreds. … The Kiowa considered it an honor to steal horses from enemies, and such raids often served as a rite of passage for young warriors. …

In the early spring of 1790 at the place that would become Las Vegas, New Mexico, a Kiowa party led by war leader Guikate, made an offer of peace to a Comanche party while both were visiting the home of a mutual friend of both tribes. … The two groups made an alliance to share the same hunting grounds and entered into a mutual defense pact and became the dominant inhabitants of the Southern Plains. …  In addition to the Comanche, the Kiowa formed a very close alliance with the Plains Apache (Kiowa-Apache), with the two nations sharing much of the same culture and participating in each other’s annual council meetings and events.

Note: the Plains Apache do not speak a language related to Kiowa or Comanche–their language is from the Athabaskan family, which is spoken primarily in Canada and by the Navajo. The Plains Apache were apparently never very numerous–only about 400 people at the time.

The strong alliance of southern plains nations kept the invading Spanish from gaining a strong colonial hold on the southern plains and eventually forced them completely out of the area, pushing them eastward and south past the Rio Grande into present day Mexico. …

The Kiowa were notable even among plains Indians for their long-distance raids, including raids far south into Mexico and north onto the northern plains. Almost all warfare took place while mounted on horses.

These “raids” involved not just stealing horses, but also raping, torturing, and murdering people. The fact that the area was full of extremely hostile Indians who liked to torture people for fun was why the Mexican government thought it was a good idea to let a bunch of Americans come settle in their Texas territory and deal with the Indians for them.

The Kiowa kept plenty busy:

Enemies of the Kiowa include the CheyenneArapahoNavajoUte, and occasionally Lakota to the north and west of Kiowa territory. East of Kiowa territory they fought with the PawneeOsageKickapooKawCaddoWichita, and Sac and Fox. To the south they fought with the Lipan ApacheMescalero Apache, and Tonkawa. The Kiowa also came into conflict with Indian nations from the American south and east displaced to Indian Territory during the Indian Removal period including the CherokeeChoctawMuskogee, and Chickasaw. Eastern tribes found that Indian Territory, the place they were sent, was already occupied by plains Indians, most notably the Kiowa and Comanche. 

Cheyenne Woman, 1930, from the Edward S. Curtis collection

The Cheyenne speak a tongue from yet another language family, the Algonquian (which is part of the broader Algic family), found across most of eastern Canada and the north eastern American coast along the Atlantic. The famous Squanto of the Wampanoag spoke an Algonquin language.

The history of the Cheyenne is thankfully better documented:

The earliest known written historical record of the Cheyenne comes from the mid-17th century, when a group of Cheyenne visited the French Fort Crevecoeur, near present-day Peoria, Illinois. The Cheyenne at this time lived between the Mississippi River and Mille Lacs Lake in present-day Minnesota. The Cheyenne economy was based on the collection of wild rice and hunting, especially of bison, which lived in the prairies 70–80 miles west of the Cheyenne villages.[11]

According to tribal history, during the 17th century, the Cheyenne had been driven by the Assiniboine … from the Great Lakes region to present-day Minnesota and North Dakota, where they established villages. The most prominent of the ancient Cheyenne villages is Biesterfeldt Village, in eastern North Dakota along the Sheyenne River. The tribal history also relates that they first reached the Missouri River in 1676.[12] A more recent analysis of early records posits that at least some of the Cheyenne remained in the Mille Lac region of Minnesota until about 1765, when the Ojibwe defeated the Dakota with firearms — pushing the Cheyenne, in turn, to the Minnesota River, where they were reported in 1766.[13]  …

By 1776, the Lakota had overwhelmed the Cheyenne and taken over much of their territory near the Black Hills. In 1804, Lewis and Clark visited a surviving Cheyenne village in North Dakota.

According to what I believe is oral history recorded in Wikipedia, a Cheyenne prophet named Tomȯsévėséhe (“Erect Horns”) received a vision which convinced the tribe to abandon their agricultural was and become plains nomads.

The Cheyenne occupied the plains north of the Comanche and Kiowa, though they sometimes came south. Their lifestyle was similar to the others’ and they fought with/raided from pretty much everyone around, though they eventually allied with their neighbors against the US.

Okay, guys, I’ve been working on this for hours and I haven’t even gotten to the actual legal systems yet, so we’re going to have to call it quits until I get some more time. (To be fair, the authors covered three different groups in this chapter, which makes for triple the background work.) For now, a quick summary:

The Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne (and Plains Apache) hail from four different language families. It is rare in the modern world to find so many different language families in such close proximity to each other.

Native American history is complex, with many population movements that are not well understood or documented.

The Comanche are descended from primarily hunter-gatherers, the Kiowa were related to agricultural peoples and might have done agriculture at some point in their past, and the Cheyenne were directly descended from agriculturalists who purposefully decided to adopt a nomadic lifestyle.

These differences in their origins might account for some of the differences in governance of their societies, despite the similarities they developed due to leading similar lifestyles dependent on hunting buffalo and stealing horses.

See you next week.

A few meandering thoughts on Native Americans, Domestication, and Potatoes

While researching last week’s post on “stupid things people do,” I came across a post on weird flute customs found in both Melanesia and a few little tribes in the Amazon rainforest: Gender Ideology Reflected in Flute Symbology of Various New Guinea and South American Cultures:

Specifically, throughout New Guinea and three Central Brazilian cultures, (Mundurucus, Kalapalo, and Kamayura), the flute is endowed with very similar powers and meaning. Each region considers their flutes sacred. They are stored in the men’s homes and females are forbidden to see or play them. In the event that women disobey this order, they can be subject to gang rape or other punishment. Spiritual associations with this instrument are present in all but the culture of the Kalapalo Indians. Ancestral communication is often achieved through the music of flutes as well. However, most importantly, a gender power struggle is represented by the flute, the rituals, and the ceremonies in which the instrument is used.

Of course, sometimes people make claims about parallels that do not exist, and we should be careful about believing claims about other cultures without reading the relevant source material, but assuming it’s true, it’s interesting.

There is a small trace of Melanesian DNA that shows up in the genomes of certain hunter-gatherers in the Amazon; perhaps there is a real cultural link–or perhaps it’s just random.

IMO, the peopling of the Americas will ultimately turn out to have been more complicated than we currently think of it, but unfortunately, we don’t have many DNA samples from Native Americans (because they think geneticists are out to get them). Until that changes, our coverage of Native American genomes is scanty and drawn largely from ancient burials (most of which are controlled by local tribes that don’t allow DNA testing) and from non-American Indians from places like Canada or Mexico.

Even this view, in the Tweet, is probably wrong–if people entered via the Bering Strait, why is the oldest archaeological site at the extreme other end of both continents? Did people run straight to Tierra del Fuego, then turn around and head back up to Montana?

At any rate, I’m not sure how this is “deep roots.” This is their only roots, since they’re from here. Of course, while Native Americans who’ve been here for 12,000 years have “deep” roots, Science would like you to know that “There’s no such thing as a pure European“:

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

Imagine telling the Cheyenne that they aren’t a distinct people with a heritage to protect just because their ancestors got conquered by another Native American tribe 15,000 years ago. Just imagine the sheer, idiotic audacity of it.

But pomo griping about newspaper headlines aside, it seems to me that the level of technological civilization in the Americas was actually pretty high prior to Columbus’s arrival. For example, the civilizations of Mesoamerica, like the Olmecs, were literate and had developed writing and counting systems over two thousand years ago. The cities of the Inca, Maya, and Aztecs, were of course large and impressive. The Natives of America, now oddly more obscure, also had impressive settlements and built large structures like Serpent Mound, Ohio. We tend not to think of them as particularly settled and civilized because by the time white settlers encountered them, their towns had already been destroyed by disease and predation by other tribes who’d gotten horses from the Spaniards.

(The stereotypical horse-riding, tipi-dwelling Indian following herds of buffalo across the Great Plains only emerged after Columbus’s arrival, because horses came from Europe.)

Since the Americas were actually settled pretty late in the scheme of human evolution, I suspect that most Indian groups were actually pretty smart (relatively speaking,) but their technological progress was retarded by a lack of good draft animals. Not because, as some have suggested, domesticable animals simply didn’t exist in the Americas–they do–but because they didn’t have them. Domestication takes time; sneaking up on animals you want to eat is tricky. Cochran has suggested that parasites might have been involved in getting aurochs to be more docile around humans, allowing us to domesticate them and turn them into cattle; the Native Americans hadn’t had the time yet to develop similar parasitic relationships with the local bison. Given another 10 or 40,000 years, though, they might have had time enough to domesticate more of the local fauna.

If the Indians could have adopted old world beasts of burden without losing 90% of their population to epidemic and plague and then getting conquered, there could have been some interesting results a few thousand years down the line.

There’s a similar case in Russia, but more successful.

One of the mysteries (to me, at least, and maybe it’s just ignorance) of European history is why Russia enters so late onto the international. The whole country was apparently founded by the Vikings, the Kievan Rus, which is just one of the weirder bits of historical trivia, and then doesn’t do much of interest until Napoleon invades; then they become important in European politics.

Russians aren’t stupid; Russia has produced plenty of works of art, literature, architecture, etc.

Of course, part of the answer lies in the fact that Russia has an enormous frontier to its east that occasionally spawned barbarian tribes, and so before Russia could do anything on the west, needed to secure the east–and frankly, conquering a bunch of nomadic tribes in Siberia was probably easier than trying to conquer Germany, so Siberia it was. Once Russia had Siberia, then it moved on to conquering Europe.

But my other thought was more mundane: potatoes.

Wheat evolved in the Fertile Crescent–Iraq. It does well in warm climates. It does not do well in cold climates.

Russia is cold.

But potatoes grow really well in central and eastern Europe.

map of potato production

Sure, they aren’t always immune to the local fungi, but when they aren’t blighted, they do really well.

The introduction of a crop that grew well provided the population with more calories more easily, allowing more people to dedicate themselves to non-farming jobs, allowing eastern European countries to become more internationally significant.

Sometimes, a low state of development is just that–the locals just aren’t very good at things like building cities or writing books–and sometimes its due to a lack of local resources, easily changed by the introduction of something new, like horses or potatoes.

Sunken Lands and lost Paradises: Beringia

caribou_feed_on_lichens_and_moss-_the_bird_is_an_alaskan_raven_-_nara_-_550384Beringia is the now-lost land between Alaska and Russia that was, during the last ice age, a vast grassland. It is believed that humans lived here for thousands of years, hunting mammoths, woolly rhinos, bison, and equines. The probably fished as well, just like modern humans in the area.

It was a land of frigid abundance, of herds of giant beasts that probably put the buffalo to shame.

Here is a nice podcast by Razib and Spencer on the lost paradises of Beringia, Sundaland, and Doggerland.

Old map of a mysterious, non-existent blob-land

Humans lived in Beringia for thousands of years before they made it into the rest of North America, because the rest of the continent was blocked off, then, by a giant impenetrable ice sheet. This period is therefore referred to as the “Beringia pause” because humans “paused” here during their migration from Siberia to the Americas, but this name obscures the lives and purposes of the people who lived here. They weren’t consciously trying to get to North America and pausing for thousands of years because their way was blocked; they were happily living their lives in a land of abundant resources. We could equally say that Europeans “paused” in Europe for thousands of years before some of them migrated to the Americas, or that anyone on Earth has “paused” in the place they are now.

DNA of the Eskimo/Inuit and related peoples, from Haak et al

According to an article published recently in Nature, The Population History of Siberia since the Pleistocine, by Martin Sikora et 53 other people, these folks in Beringia have their own interesting and complex population history, full of migration and back-migration, conquering, splitting, and joining:

Northeastern Siberia has been inhabited by humans for more than 40,000 years but its deep population history remains poorly understood. Here we investigate the late Pleistocene population history of northeastern Siberia through analyses of 34 newly recovered ancient genomes that date to between 31,000 and 600 years ago. We document complex population dynamics during this period, including at least three major migration events: an initial peopling by a previously unknown Palaeolithic population of ‘Ancient North Siberians’ who are distantly related to early West Eurasian hunter-gatherers; the arrival of East Asian-related peoples, which gave rise to ‘Ancient Palaeo-Siberians’ who are closely related to contemporary communities from far-northeastern Siberia (such as the Koryaks), as well as Native Americans; and a Holocene migration of other East Asian-related peoples, who we name ‘Neo-Siberians’, and from whom many contemporary Siberians are descended. Each of these population expansions largely replaced the earlier inhabitants, and ultimately generated the mosaic genetic make-up of contemporary peoples who inhabit a vast area across northern Eurasia and the Americas.

There is a lot of interesting material in this paper (and some nice maps and graphs), but I’m too tired to summarize it all and not lose accuracy, so I encourage you to read it yourself; perhaps the most interesting part involves migration from Alaska to Siberia, across the now-Bering Strait, of people like the Ekven (are these the same as the awkwardly named Evens?)

The polar world is a fascinating circle.

What Happens to a Nation Defeated?


Rank Race Per capita income (2015 US$)
1 Asian 34,399[1]
2 White 32,910[1]
3 Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 21,168[1]
4 Black or African American 20,277[1]
5 American Indian and Alaska Native 18,085[1]
6 Some other race 16,580[1]

From Wikipedia, List of US ethnic groups by per capita income.

No matter how you do the math, Native Americans are one of America’s poorest groups. (Indian Americans, by contrast, are one of our richest groups.) According to USA Today, America’s second poorest county is Alaska’s Kusilvak Census Area, which is 92.5% Native American (the poorest, in Alabama, is majority black.) The third poorest county is Apache County, Arizona, where 73% of the population is Native American, (though this list is a little weird because apparently they are only looking at the poorest counties per state).

DqWIx3JU4AA-lE4Wikipedia organizes its list differently, with Zieback County, home of the Cheyenne Indian reservation, coming in 6th. Buffalo and Oglala counties come in 13th and 14th, respectively.

Studies of inter-generational mobility tell a similar story–while the struggles of blacks and Appalachians are well known, Native American reservations stand out in their quiet poverty.

Meanwhile, SAT and ACT scores for Native Americans have been plummeting for the past eight years, which does not bode well for the next generation’s job prospects.



On average, Native Americans suffer from mental illness at the same rates as women, and significantly higher rates than African Americans (who are similarly poor and probably have better access to mental health diagnostic services, since they tend to live in cities.) Only mixed-race people are suffering more.

Of course, a high percent of this statistic might be alcohol abuse.

According to the APA [pdf]:

Relative to the US as a whole, AI/ANs:
• Are more likely to live in poverty: more than twice as many AI/ANs live in poverty than total US population (26% vs 12%)
• Have a lower life expectancies: life expectancy among AI/ANs is 6 years lower than the U.S. average; infant mortality is higher than the US population
• Have twice the rate of violent victimization twice that of African Americans and more than 2 ½ times that of whites.
• Die at significantly higher rates from tuberculosis, diabetes, and unintentional injuries and die from alcohol‐related causes 6 times the national average. …

• AI/ANs experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population.
• The most significant mental health concerns today are the high prevalence of depression, substance use disorders, suicide, and anxiety (including PTSD).
• AI/ANs experience PTSD more than twice as often as the general population.  Although overall suicide rates among AI/ANs are similar to whites, there are significant differences among certain age groups…

The suicide data supports the mental illness data, suggesting that the low rates of mental illness among Asians, blacks, and Hispanics is not due to cultural norms of not seeking mental healthcare (unless not seeking avoiding mental healthcare is protective against suicide.)

These are sad statistics.

The APA tries to blame high rates of mental health problems among the Indians on historical oppression–as though African Americans didn’t also suffer historical oppression. Historical oppression tends to be a terrible explanation for anything.

If you’re worried about the APA’s methods, here’s another study, of Native American women who were seen by primary care doctors in Albuquerque, NM. The study found lifetime prevalence of many disorders at alarmingly high rates:

Alcohol abuse: 28.2%
Mood disorder: 48%
PTSD: 33.3%
Anxiety disorders: 63%

(Note: the rates of disorders currently suffered, rather than over one’s lifetime, are lower.)

This study seems like it is trying hard to get high numbers (or people who are already being seen by doctors may have more mental health problems than average,) but there are enough other studies showing high mental illness rates for Native Americans that it probably isn’t that far off.

Comancheria, prior to 1850

Slate Star Codex has an interesting review of a book on the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon:

Empire of the Summer Moon was a book about the Comanche Indians. They were not very advanced by “civilized” standards. … They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it. …

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches’ land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. …

And throughout the book’s description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did …

Scott quotes a couple of other commentators who noted the same thing. including a paper by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture:

“By the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English – some contemporaries thought all of them – returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. Ont he other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians – by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.”

And Benjamin Franklin:

“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

It’s a really interesting post and you should read the whole thing.

Now I know that idealizing the “noble savage” is a well-known and obvious failure mode. But I was struck by this and by the descriptions of white-Comanche interactions in the book. Whites who met Comanches would almost universally rave about how imposing and noble and healthy and self-collected and alive they seemed; there aren’t too many records of what the Comanches thought of white people, but the few there are suggest they basically viewed us as pathetic and stunted and defective.

What does it mean to live the good life? To be healthy and happy? Does it require riding around on horseback and torturing people? Do lower levels of civilizational complexity offer people more day-to-day freedom (you can’t get fired from a job of cattle-raiding just because you stayed out too late drinking and woke up late the next morning, after all)?

Or is there something else going on?

Cahokia Aerial_HRoe_2015
An illustration of the Cahokia Mounds Site in Illinois.

I doubt the Comanche were nomadic, horse-riding hunters before whites showed up in North America, if only because there were no horses back then. Many of the iconic, nomadic Plains Indian tribes began as farmers in the towns and proto-cities of the Mississippian mound builder cultures, eg, Cahokia. These communities raised corn, squash, and beans, built monumental architecture, and were largely wiped out by a combination of disease and newly nomadic guys on horseback between their discovery by the Spaniards and the arrival of the English/Americans. Many of the survivors also acquired horses and adopted a mobile lifestyle.

Many of the Indians around Albuquerque, New Mexico, were also farmers who built rather famous towns, the Pueblos, and never turned to nomadic horse-raiding. So regardless of what made people happy in 17 or 1800, I don’t think it’s anything so simple as “Native Americans aren’t adapted to cities but they are adapted to riding horses.”

Of course the Indians have lost their traditional ways of life, whether nomadic or settled, depriving them of traditional ways of achieving status, happiness, etc., but this is equally true of blacks and Hispanics (who tend to be part Indian, albeit from different tribes than the ones in the US,) yet they have much lower rates of mental illness.

I suspect the cause has more to do with lack of opportunities in rural areas and alcohol abuse really messing up not just the people who drink, but everyone who loves them and depends on them.

The Hamatsa Society

Wow. This is an great photograph. Photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914

The Wikipedia page about Hamatsa is very interesting. 

The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous group from the Pacific North West Coast (ie, British Columbia.) During the long, dark, wet winters, tribe members traditionally entertained themselves via ceremonies put on by different “secret societies.” These were documented back in the 1880s by Franz Boas, the famous anthropologist. (Modern Kwakwaka’wakw society is probably pretty different, given that life has changed a lot in the intervening 140 or so years.)

According to Wikipedia’s version of Boas’s account, there were four main societies: The war society (Winalagalis), the magical society (Matem), the society of the afterlife (Bakwas) and the “cannibal” society (Hamatsa). 

Hamatsa was the most prestigious. Whether or not they practiced literal cannibalism or something that just sounds like cannibalism remains a matter of debate, because their rituals were pretty secret. 

In defense of the “it’s just a symbolic ritual” argument, the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ, followed by the congregation eating it, sounds a lot like cannibalism and has surely confused some folks over the centuries, but no serious Christian literally believes they are committing cannibalism. 

In defense of the “it’s totally real cannibalism” argument, real cannibalism is a thing that sometimes happens and that some anthropologists have been quick to cover up or downplay because they don’t want to say anything bad about other peoples. 

Here is Wikipedia’s account of the Hamatsa initiation rite: 

In practice the Hamatsa initiate, almost always a young man at approximately age 25, is abducted by members of the Hamatsa society and kept in the forest in a secret location where he is instructed in the mysteries of the society. Then at a winter dance festival to which many clans and neighboring tribes are invited the spirit of the man-eating giant [Baxbaxwalanuksiwe]  is evoked and the initiate is brought in wearing spruce bows and gnashing his teeth and even biting members of the audience. Many dances ensue, as the tale of Baxbaxwalanuksiwe is recounted, and all of the giant man-eating birds dance around the fire.

Finally the society members succeed in taming the new “cannibal” initiate. In the process of the ceremonies what seems to be human flesh is eaten by the initiates. Boas describes the hamatsa initiate as eating actual human flesh without chewing. After the ceremony, the initiate is forced to drink large amounts of sea water to induce vomiting, thereby voiding the body of potentially harmful toxins. All persons who were bitten during the proceedings are given expensive presents, and many gifts are given to all of the witnesses who are required to recall through their gifts the honors bestowed on the new initiate and recognize his station within the spiritual community of the clan and tribe.

Based on this account, if I may be so bold as to suggest anything after reading just a few paragraphs on Wikipedia, the ceremony sounds not pro-cannibalism, but anti-cannibalism. Cannibalism is the wild state from which the initiate is removed; he eats human flesh (or symbolic flesh) but is then made to vomit it up; he bites people, but then he apologizes. He goes from feral man-eater to civilized member of the society. 

The picture at the top of the post was taken by Edward S. Curtis, an amazingly talented photographer who documented Native Americans and life generally in the American West in the late 18 and early 1900s. 

Curtis made a film staring the Kwakwaka’wakw, titled “In the Land of the Head Hunters” aka “In the Land of the War Canoes.” It tells the classic story of jealousy over a woman leading to abduction and war. 


The movie is a little slow, but picks up around halfway through.

According to Wikipedia

In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka’wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. …

Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka’wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada’s potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951.[4]

The potlatch was (is) a related ritual involving feasting and gift-giving; a great deal has been written about potlatches–the Wikipedia page probably isn’t a bad place to start if you are unfamiliar with them.

The Canadian government saw them as wasteful because they apparently also involved the destruction of large amounts of property, and so outlawed them. This was an unproductive and stupid law, as Boas pointed out: 

The second reason for the discontent among the Indians is a law that was passed, some time ago, forbidding the celebrations of festivals. The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth. It is the great desire of every chief and even of every man to collect a large amount of property, and then to give a great potlatch, a feast in which all is distributed among his friends, and, if possible, among the neighboring tribes. These feasts are so closely connected with the religious ideas of the natives, and regulate their mode of life to such an extent, that the Christian tribes near Victoria have not given them up. Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts. Therefore the law is not a good one, and can not be enforced without causing general discontent. Besides, the Government is unable to enforce it. The settlements are so numerous, and the Indian agencies so large, that there is nobody to prevent the Indians doing whatsoever they like.[24]

On the other hand, the destruction of property at potlatches sometimes included the destruction of slaves, at least among the Tlingit. I don’t know if this happened in every society that held potlatches, but killing slaves is a practice the government certainly had an interest in stopping. 

In Tlingit Slavery and Russian Empire: Indigenous “peculiar institution” as resistance to colonialism, 1741-1867, Adam Bobeck quotes Annie Constance Christensen, Letters from the Governor’s Wife: A View of Russian Alaska 1859-1862:

You ask if those [Tlingit] women were put to death? Forget now which of the many slaves you mean. But of course not. Thank God not one has been sacrificed since Hampus is Governor; he has purchased them free on the C[ompany] account, & one slave woman we purchased by a general subscription for 700 R[oubles] B[anco] or 200 R[oubles] S[ilver] — A few months ago the Indians hada great festival. You must know that the conclusion of building new houses, or Barabors as they call them, is a great fete with them, to which they invite all their neighbors at a great distance… Before parting they give away everything they possess, not only all their provisions, but blankets, in one word everything, so that they are quite, quite poor now. At the end of such a fete it is their custom to sacrifice slaves, but before these strangers arrived, Hampus called 7 or 8 of our Teone or chiefs, & forbade them to kill anyone. He promised to give them now & then some present, & to invite them each year to dinner, besides which positively told them, that the moment they attempted to kill one of their slaves, he would fire upon them & their village. The consequence of this was, that they liberated 19 slaves & gave them as a present to the Company. I went with Hampus to see some of them, & expected to see their faces radiant with joy over their liberty. But you could not have guessed they had been doomed to die. To me it was something wonderful as I gazed at them; one was a pretty little girl of 9 – 11 years old…

A little more googling suggests that the Kwakwaka’wakw did it, too, eg: 

The Kwakiutl [Kwakwaka’wakw] Winter Ceremonial changed when blankets replaced animal skins and human sacrifice. This resulted in the emergence of a secular potlatch sometime after 1862…

From Human Trophy Hunting on the Northwest Coast, an article by Joan Lovisek, in The Taking and Displaying of Human Body Parts as Trophies by Amerindians. It appears that with the arrival of interesting trade goods from whites, the locals had less reason to sacrifice slaves, and so switched (plus they were officially forbidden to do so.) Coppers–large pieces of copper obtained via trade and beaten into a rectangular shape–were sacrificed instead. Luckily for the coppers, they could be repaired and re-sacrificed, and became a kind of currency. 

Of course, destroying goods was never as important as giving them away. 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IQ by country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They never mentioned parasites in gov class. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The past is horrific. 

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

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

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

Barros had a way with words. 

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

Source: National Geographic

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

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

Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose.)

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

An interesting linguistic note: 

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

I hope these linguistic mysteries continue to be decoded. 

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

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

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

Book Club: The 10,000 Year Explosion: pt 5: Gene Flow

Genghis Khan, spreader of genes

Welcome back to the book club. Today we’re discussing Chapter 5 of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Gene Flow. In this chapter, Greg and Henry discuss some of the many ways genes can (and sometimes can’t) get around.

You know, sometimes it is difficult to think of something really interesting to say in reaction to something I’ve read. Sometimes I just think it is very interesting, and hope others find it so, too. This is one of those chapters.

So today I decided to read the papers cited in the chapter, plus a few more related papers on the subject.

High-Resolution SNPs and Microsatellite Haplotypes point to a single, Recent Entry of Native American Y Chromosomes into the Americas

Single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis indicated that three major haplogroups, denoted as C, Q, and R, accounted for nearly 96% of Native American Y chromosomes. Haplogroups C and Q were deemed to represent early Native American founding Y chromosome lineages; however, most haplogroup R lineages present in Native Americans most likely came from recent admixture with Europeans. Although different phylogeographic and STR diversity patterns for the two major founding haplogroups previously led to the inference that they were carried from Asia to the Americas separately, the hypothesis of a single migration of a polymorphic founding population better fits our expanded database. Phylogenetic analyses of STR variation within haplogroups C and Q traced both lineages to a probable ancestral homeland in the vicinity of the Altai Mountains in Southwest Siberia. Divergence dates between the Altai plus North Asians versus the Native American population system ranged from 10,100 to 17,200 years for all lineages, precluding a very early entry into the Americas.

However, Asymmetric Male and Female Genetic Histories among Native Americans from Eastern North America

We found that sociocultural factors have played a more important role than language or geography in shaping the patterns of Y chromosome variation in eastern North America. Comparisons with previous mtDNA studies of the same samples demonstrate that male and female demographic histories differ substantially in this region. Postmarital residence patterns have strongly influenced genetic structure, with patrilocal and matrilocal populations showing different patterns of male and female gene flow. European contact also had a significant but sex-specific impact due to a high level of male-mediated European admixture. Finally, this study addresses long-standing questions about the history of Iroquoian populations by suggesting that the ancestral Iroquoian population lived in southeastern North America.

And in Mexico, your different racial mix has something to do with your risk of Type 2 Diabetes, but you know, race is a social construct or something:

Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is at least twice as prevalent in Native American populations as in populations of European ancestry, so admixture mapping is well suited to study the genetic basis of this complex disease. We have characterized the admixture proportions in a sample of 286 unrelated T2D patients and 275 controls from Mexico City and we discuss the implications of the results for admixture mapping studies. … The average proportions of Native American, European and, West African admixture were estimated as 65, 30, and 5%, respectively. The contributions of Native American ancestors to maternal and paternal lineages were estimated as 90 and 40%, respectively. In a logistic model with higher educational status as dependent variable, the odds ratio for higher educational status associated with an increase from 0 to 1 in European admixture proportions was 9.4 (95%, credible interval 3.8-22.6). This association of socioeconomic status with individual admixture proportion shows that genetic stratification in this population is paralleled, and possibly maintained, by socioeconomic stratification. The effective number of generations back to unadmixed ancestors was 6.7 (95% CI 5.7-8.0)…

In other words, Conquistador men had children with a lot of the local ladies. 

Oh hey, while we’re at it: 

The Genomic Landscape of Western South America: 

Studies of Native South American genetic diversity have helped to shed light on the peopling and differentiation of the continent, but available data are sparse for the major ecogeographic domains. These include the Pacific Coast, a potential early migration route; the Andes, home to the most expansive complex societies and to one of the most spoken indigenous language families of the continent (Quechua); and Amazonia, with its understudied population structure and rich cultural diversity. Here we explore the genetic structure of 177 individuals from these three domains, genotyped with the Affymetrix Human Origins array. We infer multiple sources of ancestry within the Native American ancestry component; one with clear predominance on the Coast and in the Andes, and at least two distinct substrates in neighboring Amazonia, with a previously undetected ancestry characteristic of northern Ecuador and Colombia. Amazonian populations are also involved in recent gene-flow with each other and across ecogeographic domains, which does not accord with the traditional view of small, isolated groups. Long distance genetic connections between speakers of the same language family suggest that languages had spread not by cultural contact alone. Finally, Native American populations admixed with post-Columbian European and African sources at different times, with few cases of prolonged isolation. 

In other news: 

Strong Selective Sweep Before 45,000 BP Displaced Archaic Admixture Across the X Chromosome

The X chromosome in non-African populations has less diversity and less Neanderthal introgression than expected. We analyzed X chromosome diversity across the globe and discovered seventeen chromosomal regions, where haplotypes of several hundred kilobases have recently reached high frequencies in non-African populations only. The selective sweeps must have occurred more than 45,000 years ago because the ancient Ust’-Ishim male also carries its expected proportion of these haplotypes. Surprisingly, the swept haplotypes are entirely devoid of Neanderthal introgression, which implies that a population without Neanderthal admixture contributed the swept haplotypes. It also implies that the sweeps must have happened after the main interbreeding event with Neanderthals about 55,000 BP. These swept haplotypes may thus be the only genetic remnants of an earlier out-of-Africa event.

Why not a later out-of-Africa event? Or a simultaneous event that just happened not to mate with Neanderthals? Or sweeps on the X chromosome that happened to remove Neanderthal DNA due to Neanderthal and X being really incompatible? I don’t know. 

The Neolithic Invasion of Europe:

Who are Europeans? Both prehistoric archaeology and, subsequently, classical population genetics have attempted to trace the ancestry of modern Europeans back to the first appearance of agriculture in the continent; however, the question has remained controversial. Classical population geneticists attributed the major pattern in the European gene pool to the demographic impact of Neolithic farmers dispersing from the Near East, but archaeological research has failed to uncover substantial evidence for the population growth that is supposed to have driven this process. … Both mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome analyses have indicated a contribution of Neolithic Near Eastern lineages to the gene pool of modern Europeans of around a quarter or less. This suggests that dispersals bringing the Neolithic to Europe may have been demographically minor and that contact and assimilation had an important role.

I wouldn’t call a quarter “minor.” But it is true that the Anatolian farming people who invaded Europe didn’t kill off all of the locals, and then later Europe was invaded by the non-Anatolian, Indo-European people. 

Revealing the prehistoric settling of Australia by Y chromosome and mtDNA analysis

(i) All Australian lineages are confirmed to fall within the mitochondrial founder branches M and N and the Y chromosomal founders C and F, which are associated with the exodus of modern humans from Africa ≈50–70,000 years ago. The analysis reveals no evidence for any archaic maternal or paternal lineages in Australians, despite some suggestively robust features in the Australian fossil record, thus weakening the argument for continuity with any earlier Homo erectus populations in Southeast Asia. (ii) The tree of complete mtDNA sequences shows that Aboriginal Australians are most closely related to the autochthonous populations of New Guinea/Melanesia, indicating that prehistoric Australia and New Guinea were occupied initially by one and the same Palaeolithic colonization event ≈50,000 years ago, … (iii) The deep mtDNA and Y chromosomal branching patterns between Australia and most other populations around the Indian Ocean point to a considerable isolation after the initial arrival. (iv) We detect only minor secondary gene flow into Australia, and this could have taken place before the land bridge between Australia and New Guinea was submerged ≈8,000 years ago…

Aboriginal Australian mitochondrial genome variation

Aboriginal Australians represent one of the oldest continuous cultures outside Africa, with evidence indicating that their ancestors arrived in the ancient landmass of Sahul (present-day New Guinea and Australia) ~55 thousand years ago. … We have further resolved known Aboriginal Australian mitochondrial haplogroups and discovered novel indigenous lineages by sequencing the mitogenomes of 127 contemporary Aboriginal Australians. In particular, the more common haplogroups observed in our dataset included M42a, M42c, S, P5 and P12, followed by rarer haplogroups M15, M16, N13, O, P3, P6 and P8. We propose some major phylogenetic rearrangements, such as in haplogroup P where we delinked P4a and P4b and redefined them as P4 (New Guinean) and P11 (Australian), respectively. Haplogroup P2b was identified as a novel clade potentially restricted to Torres Strait Islanders. Nearly all Aboriginal Australian mitochondrial haplogroups detected appear to be ancient, with no evidence of later introgression during the Holocene.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia

We find that recent population history within Indonesia is complex, and that populations from the Philippines made important genetic contributions in the early phases of the Austronesian expansion. Different, but interrelated processes, acted in the east and west. The Austronesian migration took several centuries to spread across the eastern part of the archipelago, where genetic admixture postdates the archeological signal. As with the Neolithic expansion further east in Oceania and in Europe, genetic mixing with local inhabitants in eastern Indonesia lagged behind the arrival of farming populations. In contrast, western Indonesia has a more complicated admixture history shaped by interactions with mainland Asian and Austronesian newcomers, which for some populations occurred more than once. Another layer of complexity in the west was introduced by genetic contact with South Asia and strong demographic events in isolated local groups.

I liked the quote from Jared Diamond (say what you will about him, I like Diamond. He at least tries hard to tackle difficult questions):  

“When I was living among Elopi tribespeople in west New Guinea and wanted to cross the territory of the neighboring Fayu tribe in order to reach a nearby mountain, the Elopis explained tome matter-of-factly that the Fayus would kill me if I tried. From a New Guinea perspective, it seemed so perfectly natural and self-explanatory. Of course the Fayus will kill any trespasser…”

This is why people often claim that we moderns are the WEIRDOs. 

Evidence that Alexander the Great got around (the world)–Y-Chromosomal Evidence for a Limited Greek Contribution to the Pathan population of Pakistan

Three Pakistani populations residing in northern Pakistan, the Burusho, Kalash and Pathan claim descent from Greek soldiers associated with Alexander’s invasion of southwest Asia. … In pairwise comparisons between the Greeks and the three Pakistani populations using genetic distance measures sensitive to recent events, the lowest distances were observed between the Greeks and the Pathans. Clade E3b1 lineages, which were frequent in the Greeks but not in Pakistan, were nevertheless observed in two Pathan individuals, one of whom shared a 16 Y-STR haplotype with the Greeks. The worldwide distribution of a shortened (9 Y-STR) version of this haplotype, determined from database information, was concentrated in Macedonia and Greece, suggesting an origin there. Although based on only a few unrelated descendants this provides strong evidence for a European origin for a small proportion of the Pathan Y chromosomes.

Of course, who can discuss genetic spread without mentioning that lord of men, Genghis Khan? 

We have identified a Y-chromosomal lineage with several unusual features. It was found in 16 populations throughout a large region of Asia, stretching from the Pacific to the Caspian Sea, and was present at high frequency: ∼8% of the men in this region carry it, and it thus makes up ∼0.5% of the world total. The pattern of variation within the lineage suggested that it originated in Mongolia ∼1,000 years ago. Such a rapid spread cannot have occurred by chance; it must have been a result of selection. The lineage is carried by likely male-line descendants of Genghis Khan, and we therefore propose that it has spread by a novel form of social selection resulting from their behavior.

“Novel” lol. 

And finally, Blue Eyes

Several studies have shown that the OCA2 locus is the major contributor to the human eye color variation. By linkage analysis of a large Danish family, we finemapped the blue eye color locus to a 166 Kbp region within the HERC2 gene. … The brown eye color allele of rs12913832 is highly conserved throughout a number of species. … One single haplotype, represented by six polymorphic SNPs covering half of the 3′ end of the HERC2 gene, was found in 155 blue-eyed individuals from Denmark, and in 5 and 2 blue-eyed individuals from Turkey and Jordan, respectively. Hence, our data suggest a common founder mutation in an OCA2 inhibiting regulatory element as the cause of blue eye color in humans. In addition, an LOD score of Z = 4.21 between hair color and D14S72 was obtained in the large family, indicating that RABGGTA is a candidate gene for hair color.

What about you? What did you think of this chapter?

Which Groups Have the most Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA?  


Neanderthal and Denisovan contributions to different populations by chromosome (source)

Here are the numbers I’ve found so far for Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in different populations:

 et al, in The Combined Landscape of Denisovan and Neanderthal Ancestry in Present-Day Humans, 2016, report:

Native Americans: 1.37%
Central Asia: 1.4%
East Asia: 1.39%
Oceana (Melanesians): 1.54%
South Asia: 1.19%
Europeans: 1.06%

(I have seen it claimed that the high Neanderthal percents for Oceanan populations (that is, Melanesians and their relatives,) could be a result of Denisovan DNA being incompletely distinguished from Neanderthal.)

Prufer et al, [pdf] 2017, report somewhat higher values:

East Asians: 2.3–2.6%
Europeans: 1.8–2.4%

While Lohse and Frantz estimate an even higher rate of between 3.4–7.3% for Europeans and East Asians. (They found 5.9% in their Chinese sample and 5.3% in their European.)

The Mixe and Karitiana people of Brazil have 0.2% Denisovan (source); other estimates for the amount of Denisovan DNA in Native populations are much lower–ie, 0.05%.

I found an older paper by Prufer et al with estimates for three Hispanic populations, but doesn’t clarify if they have Native American ancestry:

Population Individuals Neandertal ancestry (%)
Autosomes X
Europeans CEU–Euros from Utah 85 1.17±0.08 0.21±0.17
FIN–Finnish 93 1.20±0.07 0.19±0.14
GBR–British 89 1.15±0.08 0.20±0.15
IBS–Spain 14 1.07±0.06 0.23±0.18
TSI–Tuscan 98 1.11±0.07 0.25±0.20

East Asians CHB–Han Chinese Beijing 97 1.40±0.08 0.30±0.21
CHS–Han Chinese South 100 1.37±0.08 0.27±0.21
JPT–Japan, Tokyo 89 1.38±0.10 0.26±0.21

Americans CLM: Colombians from Medellin 60 1.14±0.12 0.22±0.16
MXL: Mexicans from LA 66 1.22±0.09 0.21±0.15
PUR: Puerto Ricans 55 1.05±0.12 0.20±0.15

Africans LWK: Luhya in Webuye, Kenya 97 0.08±0.02 0.04±0.07
ASW: African Americans South West US 61 0.34±0.22 0.07±0.11

Since the paper is older, all of its estimates are lower than current estimates, because we now have more Neanderthal DNA to compare against. However, you can still see the general trend.

The difference between “autosomes” and “X” highlighted here is that (IIRC) autosomes includes all chromosomes except the XY pair, and X is the X from that pair. They’re breaking them up this way because the X chromosome tends to have very little Neanderthal on it (and the Y even less), probably because Neanderthal DNA on these particular chromosomes was selected against.

Neanderthal DNA appears to have been selected for in areas that control hair and skin–people who had just left Africa were adapted to the African environment, and Neanderthal hair and skin traits helped them survive in colder, darker winters. We also see a lot of Neanderthal DNA influencing inflammation/immune response–these may have helped people fend off new diseases. But we see almost no Neanderthal (or Denisovan) DNA in areas of the genome that code for sperm, eggs, testes, ovaries, etc. These parts of people were probably already finely tuned to work together, didn’t need to change with the environment, and changing anything probably just made them less efficient–so Neanderthal (and Denisovan) DNA on the X and Y chromosomes has been purged from the Homo Sapiens gene pool.

North African Populations Carry Signature of Admixture with Neanderthals reports its data relative to the European average (which I believe is the CEU pop, 1.17%, so I’ll do the math for you to figure how much Neanderthal they have.)

Algeria 44.57% = 0.52% Neanderthal
Tunisia 100.16% = 1.172 N
Tunisia 138.13% = 1.6% N (This is an interesting population that has been highly endogamous and thus better reflects historical populations in the area.)
Egypt 58.45% = 0.68% N
Libya 56.36% = 0.66% N
Morroco North 69.17% = 0.81% N
Morocco South 17.90% = 0.21% N
Saharawi 50.90% = 0.6% N
Canary Island* 101.44% = 1.187% N
China Beijing 193.43% = 2.26 % N
China 195.41% = 2.29% N
Texas Indu Gupti 84.37% =0.987% N
Andalusia*118.66% = 1.39% N
Tuscan 94.90% = 1.11% N
Basque BASC 129.48% = 1.51% N
Galicia* GAL 115.86% = 1.36% N
Yoruba YRI  0.00% = 0% N
Luyha LWK  −14.89% = N

The authors note that they are not sure how the Luyha received a negative score–perhaps the presence of admixed DNA from yet another species is interfering with the results.

According to Wikipedia:

Denisovan DNA is most commonly found in Melanesians, Papulans, Aboriginal Australians and Aboriginal Filipinos, who all have similar amounts around 4-6%, indicating that they probably were all one group when their ancestors met the Denisovans. However, the similar-looking but historically quite isolated Onge people have no Denisovan–so they split off before the event.

In Papuans, Neanderthal DNA tends to be expressed in brain tissue, Denisovan in bones and other tissues.

Asians have a small amount of Denisovan DNA; Tibetans have a particular gene that lets them absorb oxygen effectively at high altitudes that they got from the Denisovans.

The Mende People of Sierra Leon may derive 13% of their DNA from an as-yet unknown hominin species (ancient DNA and bones do not preserve well in parts of Africa, so finding remains and identifying the species may be difficult.)

The Yoruba derive 8 or 9% of their DNA from the same hominin.

Masai have a small fraction of Neanderthal–since they are 30% non-African, probably about 0.35% of their genome–but you can read the paper yourself. 

Biaka Pygmies and Bushmen (San): 2% from an unknown archaic.

With more testing, better and more comprehensive numbers are sure to turn up.

Greatest Hits: Native Americans and Neanderthal DNA.

Source: Ancient Beringians: A Discovery Changing Early Native American History

Over the years, a few of my posts have been surprisingly popular–Turkey: Not very Turkic, Why do Native Americans Have so much Neanderthal DNA?, Do Black Babies have Blue Eyes? and Can Ice packs help stop a seizure (in humans)?

It’s been a while since these posts aired, so I thought it was time to revisit the material and see if anything new has turned up.

Today, lets revisit Native Americans and Neanderthal DNA:

I’m sorry, but I no longer think Native Americans (aka American Indians) have higher than usual levels of Neanderthal DNA. Sorry. Their Neanderthal DNA levels are similar to (but slightly lower than) those of other members of the Greater Asian Clade. They also have a small amount of Denisovan DNA–at least some of them.

Why the confusion? Some Neanderthal-derived alleles are indeed more common in Native Americans than in other peoples. For example, the Neanderthal derived allele SLC16A11 occurs in 10% of sampled Chinese, 0% of Europeans, and 50% of sampled Native Americans. (Today, this gene makes people susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, but it must have been very useful to past people to be found in such a large percent of the population.)


And there was one anomalously high Neanderthal DNA measure in Natives living near the Great Slave Lake, Canada. (Look, I didn’t name the lake.)

But this doesn’t mean all Native Americans possess all Neanderthal alleles in greater quantities.

So how much Neanderthal do Native Americans have? Of course, we can’t quite be sure, especially since only a few Neanderthals have even had their DNA analyzed, and with each new Neanderthal sequenced, we have more DNA available to compare against human genomes. But here are some estimates:

Neanderthal and Denisovan contributions to different populations by chromosome (source)

 et al, in The Combined Landscape of Denisovan and Neanderthal Ancestry in Present-Day Humans, report:

Native Americans: 1.37%
Central Asia: 1.4%
East Asia: 1.39%
Oceana (Melanesians): 1.54%
South Asia: 1.19%
Europeans: 1.06%

I have seen it claimed that the high Neanderthal percents for Oceanan populations (that is, Melanesians and their relatives,) could be a result of Denisovan DNA being incompletely distinguished from Neanderthal.

Prufer et al, [pdf] 2017, report somewhat higher values:

East Asians: 2.3–2.6%
Europeans: 1.8–2.4%

While Lohse and Frantz estimate an even higher rate of between 3.4–7.3% for Europeans and East Asians. (They found 5.9% in their Chinese sample and 5.3% in their European.)

The Mixe and Karitiana people of Brazil have 0.2% Denisovan (source); other estimates for the amount of Denisovan DNA in Native populations are much lower–ie, 0.05%.

I found an older paper by Prufer et al with estimates for three Hispanic populations, but doesn’t clarify if they have Native American ancestry:

CLM–Colombians from Medellin: 1.14%
MXL–Mexicans in LA: 1.22%
PUR–Puerto Rico: 1.05%

Since this is an older paper, all of its estimates may be on the low side.

The absolute values of these numbers is probably less important than the overall ratios, since the numbers themselves are still changing as more Neanderthal DNA is uncovered. The ratios in different papers point to Native Americans having, overall, about the same amount of Neanderthal DNA as their relatives in East Asia.

Melanesians, though. There’s an interesting story lying in their DNA.