Roman cultural history has almost no demographic imprint


Several friends have asked that I weigh in the recent dust-up between Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mary Beard. I haven’t for a few reasons. First, I can’t really be bothered to go incognito and see every detail of Taleb’s argument, as he has me blocked on Twitter (he called me a fucking idiot or something at some point). Second, the passion around this topic has little to do with genetics or ancient history from what I can see, two topics which I am actually interested in. Rather, it’s more about contemporary geopolitics. This is interesting too, and I have opinions on that, but I try really hard to keep history and politics in separate silos unless I am explicit about the connections and relevance. That’s because I don’t see classical history as simply something instrumentally important for modern times, but interesting in and of itself (the same goes for population genetics).

And for what it’s worth, Mary Beard says the same in her conclusion to SPQR. The ancients were ancients. Let them be what they were.

That being said, as someone with knowledge sets in ancient history and historical population genetics, I will make a few statements and let others interpret them however they wish (to be frank, I’m not going to cede ground to any of the experts I’ve seen who have spoken on the intersection of these two knowledge sets, so I figured it was time to put something somewhere beside Twitter).

* The prior probability that a Roman officer of the period in Britain would have visible black African ancestry (as seems clear by the cartoon, though no one has asked the cartoonists what their intent was) probability seems rather low. But it is non-zero, because a small minority of Roman subjects and citizens would have been defined as black by their physical appearance if they were alive today (they are mentioned passingly in the literature and texts from the period). Including in Britain.

* The probability conditional that he was based on an officer in Britain who was a native of Tidis is low, but higher. Several historians have pointed out in defense of the cartoon’s plausibility that there were many North Africans in Roman service, as well as prominent North Africans in Roman history (to name three of note, Septimius Severus, Tertullian, and St. Augustine). Whole tribes of what we’d today term Berbers enrolled in the Roman military a federates.

There are several separate issues to note. First, of the many North African genotypes I’ve seen detectable Sub-Saharan ancestry is found in almost all of them. But, many (most?) North Africans do not look visibly of Sub-Saharan African ancestry (see list of heads of states of Algeria). Second, both historical and genetic evidence indicates that this admixture from Sub-Saharan Africa is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) from the period after Islam and the rise of a much bigger trans-Saharan trade (see Genomic Ancestry of North Africans Supports Back-to-Africa Migrations). Modern North Africa does have a large population today of people who are black or of obvious part-black ancestry, but this is due to the slave trade under Islam, and not antiquity.

* As evidence of the lack of non-European ancestry the paper The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population has been submitted. This is a great paper with best-of-breed methods and a massive data set of native English, with regional data. How do we resolve textual and archaeological evidence of people born outside of Britain during the Roman period in Britain with their lack of long-term genetic footprint among native modern Britains?

These sorts of questions need to be integrated in a broader context of the demography and genetics of antiquity that we have. On the whole looking at papers on modern and ancient DNA I am surprised by the lack of perturbation on the genetic structure attributable to the Roman period across Western Eurasia. I will offer two likely reasons that are related.

First, Classical civilization was an urban one, and the textual evidence we have is going to be highly skewed culturally in terms of our perception. The Roman world was predominantly written in cultured Latin and Greek (from what I have read the early translations of the Bible are indicative of a more pedestrian background of Christians due to the class markers of their lexical choices and idioms). But it was not necessarily spoken in cultured Latin and Greek across vast swaths of its territory. Even in St. Augustine’s time Punic was still spoken in the North African countryside, while the persistence and resurgence of Basque and Berber, and perhaps Brythonic Celtic in Britain, attest to vast reservoirs of people who were under the Roman peace, but not of it (also, the persistence of Albanian from a native Illyrian substrate). Because of the resources historians have on hand, text, there is going to be a major lacunae in our understanding and perception of the past. We hear the urban elites speaking to us. Not the rural majority.

Second, Classical civilization was an urban one, and this might have a major impact on the demographic consequences of migration. At any given size the effective breeding population is smaller than the census population, and the breeding population may not be representative of the overall population in terms of their genetic character. More specifically, it seems highly possible that the cosmopolitan urban Roman cities were massive demographic sinks. Rome before the Gothic Wars was a very populous city, not too far on the path of decline from its early imperial peak. But by the year 600 it had decreased its population to the point that vast swaths of the city were abandoned. Where did these people go? No doubt some of the elites scattered. Cassiodorus simply moved when barbarism came to his front step. But this was less possible for the urban proletariat. There is strong evidence that slaves in the ancient world were not replacing themselves reproductively due to brutality under which they lived. Some of the same was likely true of the urban proletariat.

* There is a difference between the inheritance pattern of culture and genes. In The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe this passage has always stuck out for me: “There is relatively little common ancestry shared between the Italian peninsula and other locations, and what there is seems to derive mostly from longer ago than 2,500 ya…The rate of genetic common ancestry between pairs of Italian individuals seems to have been fairly constant for the past 2,500 years, which combined with significant structure within Italy suggests a constant exchange of migrants between coherent subpopulations.”

The straightforward conclusion from this is that the Latinization of the Italian tribes and Magna Graecia occurred with no great demographic transformation. Modern Italy has within it the ghost of tribes long gone. This is notable because if you read the historical records of the Roman period you see evidence of trade, transport, and migration. But the genetic data would not lead you to this conclusion outside of Sicily and a few parts of Southern Italy.*

Above I have presented my reasoning for why this might be. But I think what it tells us that genetic data can informs us when there is a demographic turnover, and therefore a cultural turnover, but it will miss cultural turnovers which don’t have demographic impacts. These are many. To give a few examples, the rise of Islam in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the Latinization of the Western Mediterranean, the de-Latinization of Britain after the withdrawal of Roman legion and before the mass arrival of Saxons, and arrival of Buddhism in East Asia. All these are massive historical and cultural events, but they would not be visible in the genetic record.

If you want to learn about Roman history there are many books you could read. But I do recommend you try Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. It’s a nice materialist take, and I think it gets to the underlying dynamics of institutional fragility of ancient civilization which was so easily wiped away by barbarism.

Addendum: The migration of the Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and the Islamic Empires, all seem to differ from antiquity in having a major demographic impact. Why? In the case of massive institutional collapse, as in the first two cases, very old dynamics of inter-group competition arise, and famine probably does the rest of the trick. For Islam, it was a genuinely cosmopolitan civilization, with a more complex gradation between free and slave than in antiquity. Though it was quite brutal, African and Turkish slaves became free, and their genetic impact can be seen throughout the Islamic world.

* Like Spain, a substantial proportion of the Sicilian gene flow exchange is almost certainly due to the Islamic period. There are segments of North African and Sub-Saharan ancestry in Sicilians, albeit to a smaller extent than in Spain (in keeping with the shorter time period as part of the Islamic world).

Open Thread, 08/13/2017

Busy with kids and life. But perhaps time to read Peter Turchin’s Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History. I was skeptical when Peter presented this idea years ago. Less so now.

I’m on the eclipse train. The whole family will be chasing it soon.

Paul Thompson is on Twitter. If you read this blog in the early/middle 2000s it will be a familiar name. Paul had thought I had stopped blogging! Moving platforms every few years does that.

So a friend of mine was advising that I should push sign-ups to my newsletter, as he too believes that Twitter’s days in its current form are numbered. I’ve only sent out one mailing so far, but may increase the frequency to once a month or so. Mostly I’m a little worried that without Twitter people like me who produce content, but aren’t affiliated with a media distribution channel, are going to get lost in the din.

Anyway, please sign up if you don’t follow me on Twitter (or if you do).

The revolution which came to archaeology without archaeologists?

The recent letter to Nature, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, has elicited some response from those outside of genetics. The first author of the paper linked to these two, Who are you calling Mycenaean? and On genetics and the Aegean Bronze Age.

One of the common elements to both reactions was that the paper’s definition, or reification, of Mycenaean and Minoan constructs was naive. From one of the posts:

In a press interview following the publication of the study, one of the main authors claimed that ‘there is no doubt that our findings reflect historical events in the Greek lands’: ‘the picture of historical continuity is crystal clear, as is very clear the fact that through the centuries Greeks evolved receiving genetic influences from other populations.’ The category of ‘Greekness’ here appears more or less given and stable, despite the ‘influences’, from the Early Bronze Age to the present. It sounds like a version of the 19th-century national narrative of the power of eternal Hellenism to absorb external influences.

Context is important here. The last ten years have seen a massive updating of our assumptions about the nature of demographic change in the pre-modern world. Geneticists using ancient DNA have been central to this process. They’ve overturned a lot of archaeological orthodoxies.

One of the major assumptions seemingly at the heart of the two critical posts is that modern ideas of nationhood were a recent construction. The stylized assertion is that modern nationalism begins with the French Revolution. To me this is like the assertion that the troubadours invented romantic love during the High Middle Ages. While it is true that the troubadours popularized a particular form of romantic love, the core emotional impulses are primal, and didn’t need “inventing.” Similarly, ideas of nationality are clearly primal, because they derive from the tribal structures of prehistoric humanity. Tribes are an evoked part of human culture. That is, given similar cognitive hardware, the same software seems to get installed for the same tasks (group cohesion and inter-group competition).

Ironically, the period between the “rise of civilization” and the modern era may have been one defined by the regression of nationalistic thinking, because tribalism had to be suppressed with the rise of multiethnic agricultural states. Only with early modern information technology, and the spread of a literate middle class culture united by common mores and touchstones, could primal tribalism be transformed into modern nationalism (to this way of thinking it is not a coincidence that German nationalism with the Lutheran Reformation was supercharged by the arrival of the printing press).

Peter Heather in Empires and Barbarians and Azar Gat in Nations outline the revisionist views I’m alluding to in regards to the ancient origins of nationalism. But from a perspective of a geneticist the very high differentiation between nearby groups that persist for hundreds and even thousands of years is indicative of high levels of cultural distinction and consciousness (because only small amounts of gene flow between groups is enough to eliminate differences very rapidly). Genetics can’t maintain these sorts of differences, only strong cultural ideologies can.

Finally, quoting from the same post:

First, there’s not much new here. I mean, the data are new, but the conclusions are largely consistent with the archaeological consensus: there’s no big genetic difference between “Minoans” (Late Bronze Age Cretans) and “Mycenaeans” (Late Bronze Age inhabitants of the Greek mainland), and both are pretty close genetically to Late Bronze Age southwestern Anatolians….

The archaeological consensus was correct here to a great extent. But in other areas it has not been right of late. That’s why it is not so ho-hum. In The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe the authors show that:

1) the spread of Beaker culture from Southwest Europe to Central Europe was one of cultural transmission (archaeologists would not be surprised).

2) the spread of Beaker culture to England from Central Europe was one of demographic replacement on the order of 90% over a few hundred years (archaeologists would be surprised).

It’s easy for archaeologists to be surprised that geneticists are presenting ideas that they “refuted” in the 1960s. But it turns out that the predictions on a demographic scale are easily refuted in many places and times by genetics. The issue isn’t whether it’s pots or peoples, but what the mix of pots and people are. This research is part of a broad program of nailing down the values in these parameters, as opposed to simply going along with archaeological orthodoxy.

Addendum: The title is somewhat unfair now that I think about it. Many archaeologists have been instrumental in the revolution triggered by ancient DNA. But, the vast majority of archaeologist and historians who are outside of these collaborations, I’m not so sure they are aware of the recent developments.

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is a monthly deal

Just a heads up to readers, Amazon Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World is $1.99 right now. I’d highly recommend you get this book if you are interested in this general topic.

Here is my review from about seven years ago.

But evolution converges!

Stephen Jay Gould became famous in part for his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. By examining the strange creatures in the Burgess Shale formation Gould makes the case that evolution is a highly contingent process, and that if you reran the experiment of life what we’d see might be very different from what we have now.

But the scientist whose study of the formation that inspired Gould’s interpretation, Simon Conway Morris, had very different views. Though it can sometimes be churlish, his rebuttal can be found in The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and the Rise of Animals. Simony Conway Morris does not believe that contingency is nearly as powerful a force as Gould would have you believe. And his viewpoints are influential. Richard Dawkins leaned on him to make the case for convergence in evolution in The Ancestor’s Tale.

This crossed my mind when reading Carl Zimmer’s new column, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, Mammals Took to the Skies:

Today, placental mammals like flying squirrels and marsupials like sugar gliders travel through the air from tree to tree. But Volaticotherium belonged to a different lineage and independently evolved the ability to glide.

They were not the only mammals to do so, it turns out. Dr. Luo and his colleagues have now discovered at least two other species of gliding mammals from China, which they described in the journal Nature.

Dr. Meng said that the growing number of fossil gliders showed that many different kinds of mammals followed the same evolutionary path. “They did their own experiments,” he said.

This ultimately comes down to physics. There are only so many ways you can make an organize that flies or glides. Mammals come to the table with a general body plan, and that can be modified only so many different ways.

This is not a foolproof point of datum in favor of convergence as opposed to contingency. Frankly these are often vague verbal arguments which are hard to refute or confirm. And even molecular evolutionary analyses come to different conclusions. It may be that we are asking the wrong question. But, it does suggest that evolution may work in a much narrower range of parameters as time progresses because of the winnowing power of selection.

Jon Snow + Daenerys Targaryen far creepier genetically than you know

Screenshot 2016-06-14 22.09.51
Credit: poly-m (deviantART)

If you have been following Game of Thrones you have been noticing that there is a brewing romance between Jon Snow, King in the North, and Daenerys Targaryen, the aspiring claimant to her father’s Iron Throne.

Of course there is a twist to all of this: unbenknownst to either, Jon Snow’s biological father is Daenerys’ dead brother, Rhaegar. This means that Daenery’s is Jon Snow’s aunt.

Long-time followers of the world of Game of Thrones are aware that incest between near relations is neither unknown nor shocking. But there is a non-trivial detail which it is important to note. Jon and Daenerys are far more closely related than typical aunts and nephews.

The reason is simple, Daenerys and her brother were the products of two generations of sibling incest. Incest results in inbreeding, and inbreeding as you know results in loss of genetic diversity. By Daenerys’s generation the coefficient of relationship between herself and her brothers was much higher than normal.

To be concrete, the coefficient of relationship of full-siblings is 0.50. That of half-siblings 0.25. Identical twins? Obviously 1.0. Another way to think about this is how much of the genome do any two pairs of individuals share in terms of long tracts of inheritance from recent ancestors. On the whole siblings share about half of their genomes in such a fashion. After two generations of inbreeding Daenerys and Rhaegar have a coefficient of relationship of 0.727 (using Wright’s method). They’re not identical twins, obviously, but their genetic relationship is far closer than full-siblings!

Don’t let the mother of dragons ride you Jon!

Dividing  this in half gives 0.36 as the coefficient of relationship between Jon and Daenerys, as opposed to 0.50 for full-siblings and 0.25 for a conventional aunt-nephew. Jon and Daenerys have almost the same genetic relationship as 3/4 siblings; two individuals who share a common parent, like half-siblings, but whose unshared parents are first order relatives (full-siblings or parent-child).

Not Jaime & Cersei creepy, but still creepy.

Addendum: Though Daenerys is quite inbred, Jon is not at all. One generation of outbreeding can eliminate all inbreeding.

Open Thread, 08/06/2017

I know that George R. R Martin has stated that the ending to A Song of Ice and Fire is going to be bittersweet. R. Scott Bakker’s conclusion to the Aspect Emperor tetralogy ends with a bittersour ending. Fair warning.

Also, the writing of the last third of The Unholy Consult was good in terms of packing a lot of action and plotting, but it was hard to keep track of all the obscure names.

The new episode of Game of Thrones is very good. Nice for things to actually happen.

I’ve been offline most of the weekend. Several people asked me about the Google Memo. Here’s the weird thing: huge subcultures within the organization aren’t even American. Several friends for example have been token Americans on Chinese teams. Their values and priorities are obviously very different even if they don’t inform the ‘public face’ of the company. It’s all rather strange (yes, whoever wrote that memo will surely be fired).

How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. I think Matt Stoller’s anti-monopolist views should appeal to many people on the Right as well as the Left. Google and Facebook are arguably much more powerful than any state government when it comes to shaping our culture.

A. N. Wilson spent five years working on a biography of Charles Darwin that is coming out next year. So he published It’s Time Charles Darwin Was Exposed for the Fraud He Was. I find Darwin idolatry a bit much sometimes personally. And I’m  not deeply versed in his intellectual biography. I’ve read The Origin of Species, and have read several of Peter J. Bowler’s works.

I can only comment on what I know in more detail. At some point Wilson tries to tag Neo-Darwinians with Dawkins’ atheism. But Dawkins is an extreme case. Arguably the god-father of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, R. A. Fisher, was an Anglican and a Tory. No offense to Dawkins, but his substantive scientific contribution is dwarfed by Fisher. And yet Wilson is pushing Dawkins to the front as an exemplar of Neo-Darwinism.

Wilson also says that Neo-Darwinians couldn’t therefore revere Gregor Mendel because he was a monk. It’s all rather strange because it’s called “Mendelian Genetics.” Not mention that biographies I’ve read suggested that Mendel himself was not excessively pious. Rather, his monastic vocation freed him from financial worries, allowing him sufficient leisure to engage in studies. But perhaps I’m wrong in this, after all Wilson has studied Darwin for five years!

Finally, there is the utilization of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge to attack Darwinian gradualism. I’m not a big fan of all this macroevolutionary talk, but the late Gould and Eldridge would not be happy to be drafted in this way. Charles Darwin was wrong on a lot of things. That’s because he had a lot of ideas.

The central deep insight from Darwin’s theory was the power of natural selection to shape variation and drive adaptation. One can argue about the importance of this dynamic in evolutionary process, but the fact that it is still being studied shows how fruitful Darwin’s theory was in generating a living program of science.

What the company I work for is working on.

Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply


In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically important to remember that though Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.

 

* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.

But editing embryos is normal science!

The media is writing breathless stories about the recent CRISPR “embryo-editing”, In Breakthrough, Scientists Edit a Dangerous Mutation From Genes in Human Embryos.

The paper is out in Nature, Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos.

My major confusion is that this is normal science. The breakthrough was the discovery of the power of CRISPR-Cas9. Once the discovery was made there was a literally stampede to use the technique because its power and ease was so manifest. What’s happening now is that the technique is getting more powerful and effective. I think it would surprise people if it didn’t get better.

A major problem for economists in modeling productivity growth is that innovation is unpredictable. But in this case the big innovation has occurred. The next few decades are likely going to see progressive and continuous improvement in the technology. Where that will lead us? Unpredictable….

When the ancestors were cyclops


The Greeks are important because Western civilization began with Greece. And therefore modern civilization. I don’t think the Greeks were “Western” truly; my own preference is to state that the West as we understand it is really just Latin Christendom, which emerged in the late first millennium A.D. in any coherent fashion. Yet without Classical Greece and its accomplishments the West wouldn’t make any sense.

But here I have to stipulate Classical, because Greeks existed before the Classical period. That is, a people who spoke a language that was recognizably Greek and worshipped gods recognizable to the Greeks of the Classical period. But these Greeks were not proto-Western in any way. These were the Mycenaeans, a Bronze Age civilization which flourished in the Aegean in the centuries before the cataclysms outlined in 1177 B.C.

The issue with the Mycenaean civilization is that its final expiration in the 11th century ushered in a centuries long Dark Age. During this period the population of Greece seems to have declined, and society reverted to a more simple structure. By the time the Greeks emerged from this Dark Age much had changed. For example, they no longer used Linear B writing. Presumably this technique was passed down along lineages of scribes, whose services were no longer needed, because the grand warlords of the Bronze Age were no longer there to patronize them and make use of their skills. In its stead the Greeks modified the alphabet of the Phoenicians.

To be succinct the Greeks had to learn civilization all over again. The barbarian interlude had broken continuous cultural memory between the Mycenaeans and the Greeks of the developing polises of the Classical period. The fortifications of the Mycenaeans were assumed by their Classical descendants to be the work of a lost race which had the aid of monstrous cyclops.

Of course not all memories were forgotten. Epic poems such as The Iliad retained the memory of the past through the centuries. The list of kings who sailed to Troy actually reflected the distribution of power in Bronze Age Greece, while boar’s tusk helmets mentioned by Homer were typical of the period. To be sure, much of the detail in Homer seems more reflective of a simpler society of petty warlords, so the nuggets of memory are encased in later lore accrued over the centuries.

When antiquarians and archaeologists began to take a look at the Bronze Age Aegean the assumption by many was that the Mycenaeans were not Greek, but extensions of the earlier Minoan civilization. The whole intellectual history here is outlined in Michael Wood’s 1980s documentary In Search of the Trojan War. But suffice it to say that many were shocked when Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B, and found that it was clearly Greek!

The surprise here was partly due to the fact that though Mycenaean cultural remains indicated a different civilization from that of the Minoans, its motifs are clearly inherited from the earlier group. Mycenaeans seemed in many ways to be Minoans in chariots. And the presumption has long been that the Minoans themselves were not an Indo-European population. In fact, the island of Crete had developed early on and become part of the orbit of civilized states from the northern Levant down to Egypt, including Cyprus. Therefore some scholars hypothesized an Egyptian connection.

In any case, the Mycenaeans were Greek. And Homer then most certainly must have transmitted traditions which went back to the Bronze Age.

At this point we can now speak to demographics with some data, as Nature has come out with a paper using ancient DNA from Mycenaeans, Minoans, as well as Bronze Age Anatolians, Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans:

The origins of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean cultures have puzzled archaeologists for more than a century. We have assembled genome-wide data from 19 ancient individuals, including Minoans from Crete, Mycenaeans from mainland Greece, and their eastern neighbours from southwestern Anatolia. Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean12, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus3 and Iran45. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia678, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe1,69 or Armenia49. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. Our results support the idea of continuity but not isolation in the history of populations of the Aegean, before and after the time of its earliest civilizations.

About 85% of the ancestry of the Minoan samples could be modeled as being derived from Anatolian farmers, the ancestors of the “Early European Farmers” (EEF) that introduced agriculture to most of the continent, and whose heritage is most clear in modern populations among Sardinians. For the three Mycenaean samples the value is closer to 80% (though perhaps high 70s is more accurate).

Now the question though is what’s the balance? For the Minoans the residual is a component which seems to derive from “Eastern Farmer” populations. Additionally the authors note that the Y chromosomes in four out of five individuals in their Mycenaean-Minoan-Anatolians are haplogroup J associated with these eastern groups, rather than the ubiquitous G2 of the earlier farmer populations. The authors suggest that in the 4th millennium B.C. there was a demographic event where this ancestral component swept west, and served as the common Mycenaean-Minoan (and Anatolian) substrate.

But the Mycenaean samples (one of which was elite, two of which were not) also have a third component: affinities with steppe populations. One model which presents itself is that there was a pulse out of the Balkans, and this was part of the dynamic described in Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. But another model, which they could not reject, is that the steppe affinity came from the east, perhaps from a proto-Armenian population. Additionally, they did not find much steppe ancestry in the Anatolian samples at all.

My own preference is for a migration through the Balkans. It seems relatively straightforward. As for why the Anatolian samples did not have the steppe ancestry, the authors provide the reasonable supposition that Indo-European in Anatolia branched off first, and the demographic signal was diluted over successor generations. Perhaps. But another aspect of Anatolia is that it seems the Hittites, the Nesa, where never a numerous population in comparison to the Hatti amongst whom they lived. Perhaps a good model for their rise and takeover may be that of the post-Roman West and the Franks in Gaul.

Then the question becomes how does a less numerous people impose their language on a more numerous one? This happens. See the Hungarians for an example. In fact the paper which covered the other end of the Mediterranean, The population genomics of archaeological transition in west Iberia: Investigation of ancient substructure using imputation and haplotype-based methods, suggests that language shift can occur in unpredictable ways. On the one hand Basques seem to have mostly Indo-European Y chromosomes, but their whole genome ancestry indicates less exogenous input than their neighbors. Speaking of which, we know by the Classical period large regions of western Spain were dominated by Celtic speaking peoples, but  the genetic imprint of the Indo-Europeans is still very modest in the Iberian peninsula.

I think what we’re seeing here is the difference between Indo-European agro-pastoralists arriving to a landscape of relatively simple societies with more primal institutions, and those who migrated into regions where local population densities are higher and social complexity is also greater. This higher social complexity means that external elites can takeover a system, as opposed to an almost animal competition for resources as seems to have occurred in Northern Europe.

Finally, at the end of the supplements there is an analysis of the physical features of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. There’s not much that’s surprising. The Minoans and Mycenaeans were a dark haired and dark eyed folk. Why should this surprise us at all? We actually have self representations of them! That’s what they look like. If anything they were darker than modern Greeks (small sample size means power to draw conclusions is not high). Why?

Two reasons that come to mind: natural selection, and the fact that modern Greeks seem to be shifted to continental Europeans to their north, likely due to migration. My number one contender here are the Scalveni Slavic tribes which pushed into much of Greece in the second half of the 6th century A.D. (though a minority of Greek samples I’ve seen don’t exhibit much skew toward Slavs at all).

In the future with more samples and more genomes we’ll know more. But I think this work emphasizes that when it comes to Europe most of the demographic patterns we see around us date to the Bronze Age or earlier.