Beringia 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.
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.
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?)
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).
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.
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.
(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.
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. includinga 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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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 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.
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.
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.
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?
Here are the numbers I’ve found so far for Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA in different populations:
Sriram Sankararaman 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%
(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%
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:
Neandertal ancestry (%)
CEU–Euros from Utah
CHB–Han Chinese Beijing
CHS–Han Chinese South
CLM: Colombians from Medellin
MXL: Mexicans from LA
PUR: Puerto Ricans
LWK: Luhya in Webuye, Kenya
ASW: African Americans South West US
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.
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.
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.
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:
Sriram Sankararaman 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%
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%
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.
Scientists have long believed that the first humans made it to the Americas by crossing from now-Russia to now-Alaska. When and how they did it–by boat or by foot–remain matters of contentious debate. Did people move quickly through Alaska and into the rest of North America, or did they hover–as the “Bering standstill” hypothesis suggests–in Beringia (or the Aleutian Islands) for thousands of years?
Archaeologists working at the Upward Sun River site (approximately in the middle of Alaska) recently uncovered the burials of three children: a cremated three year old, and beneath it, a 6-12 week old infant and a 30 week, possibly premature or stillborn fetus. The three year old has been dubbed “Upward Sun River Mouth Child,” and the 6 week old “Sun-Rise Girl Child.” Since these aren’t really names, I’m going to dub them Sunny (3 yrs old), Rosy (6 weeks), and Hope (fetus).
They died around 11,500 years ago, making them the oldest burials so far from northern North America. Rosy and Hope were probably girls; cremation rendered Sunny’s gender a mystery. Rosy and Hope were covered in red ocher and buried together, accompanied by four decorated antler rods, two dart points and two stone axes. (Here’s an illustration of their burial.) The site where the children were buried was abandoned soon after Sunny’s death–perhaps their parents were too sad to stay, or perhaps the location was just too harsh.
Rosy and Hope were well enough preserved to yield DNA.
Surprisingly, they weren’t sisters. Rosy’s mother’s mtDNA hailed from haplogroup C1b, which is found only in the Americas (though its ancestral clade, haplogroup C, is found throughout Siberia.) Hope’s mtDNA is from haplogroup B2, which is also only found in the Americas. Oddly, B2’s parent clade, (B), isn’t common in Siberia–it’s much more common in places like Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, and Saipan. It’s not entirely absent from Siberia, but it got to Alaska without leaving a larger trail remains a mystery.
Since they are found in the Americans but not Asia, we know these lineages most likely evolved over here; the main questions are when and where. If the Bering Standstill hypothesis is correct and the Indians spent 10-20,000 years stranded in Beringia, they would have had plenty of time to evolve new lineages while still in Alaska. By contrast, if they crossed relatively quickly and then dispersed, these new lineages would have had much less time to emerge, and we would expect them to show up as people moved south.
Or there could have been multiple migration waves, with different haplogroups arriving in different waves. (There were multiple migration waves, but the others occurred well after Sunny and the others were buried.)
In fact, there are five mtDNA lineages found only in the Americas (A2, B2, C1, D1, and X2a.) With Hope and Rosy, we have now identified all five mtDNA lineages in North American burials over 8,000 years old, lending support to the Beringian Standstill hypothesis.
But were the Upward Sun River children’s families ancestral to today’s Native Americans? Not quite.
It looks like Sunny’s tribe split off from the rest of the Beringians (or perhaps the others split off from them) around 22-18,000 years ago. Most of the others headed south, while Sunny’s people stayed in Alaska and disappeared (perhaps because all of their children died.) So Sunny’s tribe was less “grandparent” to today’s Indians and more “great aunt and uncle,” but they still hailed from the same, even older ancestors who first set out from Siberia.
I have previously favored the Aleutian or at least a much more rapid Beringian route, but it looks like I was wrong. I find the idea of the Bering Standstill difficult to believe, but that may just be my own biases. Perhaps people really did get stuck there for thousands of years, waiting for the ice to clear. What amazing people they must have been to survive for so long in so harsh an environment.
While researching the Trail of Tears and removal of the Five Civilized Tribes from the southeast to Oklahoma, I was brought up short by this photo of Samuel Worcester, of Worcester v. Georgia fame. Sam, born in 1798, was a 7th generation minister and missionary to the Cherokee Indians. When they moved to Oklahoma, he went with them.
And he looks just like my little brother.
My brother who wanted to move to Oklahoma and train to be a missionary. (There’s a relevant school in OK, but it’s expensive.)
If this weren’t a grainy photo from the 1800s, this Sam Worcester could be my long-lost sibling.
I have kin in Oklahoma, though I’m not sure how closely related they are.
But 1798 was a LONG time ago. Depending on exactly when you were born and how quickly your ancestors had their children, you had somewhere around 256 to 512 very-great-grandparents in the late 1700s. A mere 1/256th resemblance is not going to show up like this without constant inter-marriage with other people who also look like your relatives. Of course, Sam and his descendents were in the time and place to do that.
I occasionally see old-stock Americans in the news who are (based on last names) likely 5th or 6th cousins of some branch of the family (including the ones I am related to by law rather than blood) and the resemblances can be uncanny.
(Speaking of family, my brother isn’t the only minister or wanna-be minister in my immediate biological [not adopted] family.)
In Sam Worcester’s case, could the coincidence be physiognomy? Is this just what missionaries look like? Is it time to start believing in reincarnation? Or have I stumbled upon a long-lost relative?
What about you? Have you ever encountered a grainy old photograph that looks just like a loved one?
A little more about Sam:
Worcester was born in Peacham, Vermont on January 19, 1798, to the Rev. Leonard Worcester, a minister. He was the seventh generation of pastors in his family, dating back to ancestors who lived in England. … The young Worcester attended common schools and studied printing with his father. In 1819, he graduated with honors from the University of Vermont.
Worcester married Ann Orr of Bedford, New Hampshire, whom he had met at Andover. They moved to Brainerd Mission, where he was assigned as a missionary to the Cherokees in August 1825. The goals ABCFM set for them were, “…make the whole tribe English in their language, civilized in their habits and Christian in their religion.” … Worcester worked with Elias Boudinot to establish the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, the first among Native American nations.
Ultimately Samuel and Ann had seven children: Ann Eliza, Sarah, Jerusha, Hannah, Leonard, John Orr and Mary Eleanor. Ann Eliza grew up to become a missionary and with her husband, William Schenck Robertson, founded Nuyaka Mission in the Indian Territory. …
The westward push of European-American settlers from coastal areas continued to encroach on the Cherokee … With the help of Worcester and his sponsor, the American Board, they made a plan to fight the encroachment by using the courts. They wanted to take a case to the US Supreme Court to define the relationship between the federal and state governments, and establish the sovereignty of the Cherokee nation. No other civil authority would support Cherokee sovereignty to their land and self-government in their territory. Hiring William Wirt, a former U.S. Attorney General, the Cherokee tried to argue their position before the US Supreme Court in Georgia v. Tassel (the court granted a writ of error for a Cherokee convicted in a Georgia court for a murder occurring in Cherokee territory, though the state refused to accept the writ) and Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) (the court dismissed this on technical grounds for lack of jurisdiction). In writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Marshall described the Cherokee Nation as a “domestic dependent nation” with no rights binding on a state.
Worcester and eleven other missionaries had met at New Echota and published a resolution in protest of an 1830 Georgia law prohibiting all white men from living on Native American land without a state license. While the state law was an effort to restrict white settlement on Cherokee territory, Worcester reasoned that obeying the law would, in effect, be surrendering the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation to manage their own territory. Once the law had taken effect, Governor George Rockingham Gilmer ordered the militia to arrest Worcester and the others who signed the document and refused to get a license.
After two series of trials, all eleven men were convicted and sentenced to four years of hard labor… Worcester and Elizur Butler declined their pardons, so the Cherokee could take the case to the Supreme Court. … In its late 1832 decision, the Court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was independent and only the federal government had the authority to deal with Indian nations. It vacated the convictions of Worcester and Butler. …
[However] He realized that the larger battle had been lost, because the state and settlers refused to abide by the decision of the Supreme Court. Within three years, the US used its military to force the Cherokee Nation out of the Southeast and on the “Trail of Tears” to lands west of the Mississippi River. …
After being released, Worcester and his wife determined to move their family to Indian Territory to prepare for the coming of the Cherokee under removal. …
His work included setting up the first printing press in that part of the country, translating the Bible and several hymns into Cherokee, and running the mission. In 1839, his wife Ann died; she had been serving as assistant missionary. He remained in Park Hill, where he remarried Erminia Nash in 1842.
Worcester worked tirelessly to help resolve the differences between the Georgia Cherokee and the “Old Settlers”, some of whom had relocated there in the late 1820s. On April 20, 1859, he died in Park Hill, Indian Territory.
Aside from being imprisoned, Worcester lost his house when the state of Georgia just up and gave it to someone else in the 1832 Land Lottery and most of his property when a steamer sank on the way to Oklahoma.
I’ve long wondered how (if) the Calvinism of the North ended up in the South. Perhaps Vermont missionaries were part of the process.
It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.
The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.
The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:
Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …
Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert, and whelk shells.
Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade. …
Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”. an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area. Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.
Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:
To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.” …
Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha). It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth. The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.
Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.
Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).
A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.
The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.
The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:
a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts. Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE. Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.
If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.
Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:
A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….
A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform. Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.
In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting. The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit. Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …
Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made. This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones. The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.” The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting . Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.
Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:
Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents. Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem. After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …
Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:
Earthen pyramids or mounds
The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.