"Here be dragons"

By Razib Khan | June 20, 2010 9:21 am

I just stumbled onto two amusing articles, Ancient legends once walked among early humans?, and The discovery of material evidence of a distinct hominin lineage in Central Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago is no surprise. The second is a letter from a folklorist:

Sir, The discovery of material evidence of a distinct hominin lineage in Central Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago (report, Mar 25) does not come as a surprise to those who have looked at the historical and anecdotal evidence of “wild people” inhabiting the region. The evidence stretches from Herodotus to the present day. The Russian historian Boris Porshnev suggested that they are relict Neanderthals, although the lack of evidence of material culture suggests a type closer to Home erectus.


Needless to say many are skeptical of folk memories persisting for 30,000 years, though a standard assumption in paleontology is that the earliest and last fossil find of any given species is going to underestimate their period of origin and overestimate the period of extinction. In other words the Denisova hominin lineage almost certainly persisted more recently than 41,000 years ago. But recently enough to spawn legends of Enkidu? I’m skeptical. Someone with a better grasp of the mutation rate in oral history can clarify, but it seems that tall tales would be so distorted over a few thousand years that the initial kernel of truth would quickly be obscured.

Here’s my model for why almost all cultures have tales of various semi-human groups: cross-cultural differences are stark enough that it isn’t too hard to dehumanize other populations. More specifically, I think the biggest gap is going to be between groups who practice different modes of production. Many of the “wild people” as perceived by agriculturalists were probably just marginalized hunter-gatherers who hadn’t taken up the ways of “humans.” Consider how many upper middle class white Americans perceive rural people from Appalachia even in our enlightened age. There are even biological differences, as agricultural populations seem smaller and more gracile in comparison to hunter-gatherers (who consume more fibrous food stuffs, and probably have a more balanced nutritional intake). How hard is to conceive of a small and malnourished agriculturalist being cowed by more robust hunter-gatherer group upon first contact?*

Combine real cultural and biological differences with human imagination, and it seems that this is the most likely explanation for the universality of wild people and strange semi-human folk. It is in other words simply an aspect of evoked culture, nothing that needs special triggers in the form of other human lineages. The main exception I can think of would be Flores Hobbits, who may have persisted down to a very recent period.

* The immediate objection to this possibility is that hunter-gatherer groups tend to get sick very quickly with the approach of high density humanity, and already pushed to less productive land by the time they’re confronting the agriculturists on a daily basis. So they are less likely to be robust.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Evolution
  • http://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/my-fossil-railroad/ John Emerson

    The standard anthropological treatment of folk legends, at least while I was still following anthropology, is that whether or not they have a hook in actuality, they’re primarily projections of basic social assumptions in contrary, exaggerated, or altered form. For example, myths and legends about women warriors are scattered everywhere, and there are individual historical instances of them too, but the myths quickly diverge from the actualities (if there are any) and take archetypal forms.

    Staggerlee and John Henry are examples. They were real historical individuals but the songs and tales about them took on a life of their own. In Serbia collectors of songs have been able to match songs to real events only a few decades past and note the transformations.

    David White’s “Myths of the Dog Man” collects various stories about dogheaded men, etc., from various literatures over many centuries. They were mostly said to be on the steppe somewhere. Often a myth will be relabelled in transmission, so that the Muslims dog men are near India whereas the Indian dog men were near Persia, or something like that.

  • onur

    David White’s “Myths of the Dog Man” collects various stories about dogheaded men, etc., from various literatures over many centuries. They were mostly said to be on the steppe somewhere.

    Interestingly, Greeks described Turkmen invaders as dogheaded (kynokephalos) in the first a few centuries of the Muslim rule in Anatolia, and as everyone knows, Turkmens – a nomadic people – came to Anatolia from Central Asian steppes and deserts. It may be a medieval way of referring to Mongoloid features or simply to a hated group.

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  • onur

    Turkmen invaders’ very different way of life (almost exclusively nomadic pastoralism + pillaging/banditry) may also have led to that appellation (in accordance with Razib’s “different modes of production/wild people” hypothesis).

  • Matan Shenhav

    The title got my hopes up for a fire-breathing winged dinosaur that outlived its kin to be seen by humans… alas we will have to genetically engineer one.

    But seriously- I do wonder what the benefit (fitness) of these myths is. If initially a shred of truth has been the reason for them to spread, what about the several generations after an encounter? We can ask the same of modern myth like UFO stories.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    I do wonder what the benefit (fitness) of these myths is.

    parents tell their kids about the bogeyman….

  • Shoup

    This still occurs today in a lot of the third world, especially on ecological frontiers. Marginal indigenous groups become transformed into tail-bearing half-men quite readily.

  • Antoni Jaume

    I remember a few years ago reading that neandertals eat mostly meat, and were rather strong, and I thought hey that maybe is the source of werewolf myths. And now I think that Crichton Eaters of the Dead is alongside a similar line.

  • bioIgnoramus

    I remeber enjoying this yarn as a boy.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sawney_Bean

    A museum curator told me later that he suspected that the tale wasn’t medieval at all, but was a lingering account of tension between neolithic folk and hunter-gatherers.

  • http://haquelebac.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/my-fossil-railroad/ John Emerson

    Just to repeat, the historical value of myths, legends, folk songs, and folk tales is at the vanishing point. The various kinds of processing that art forms go through in the course of creation and transmission flatten out the specifics and add and delete detail until the original data, if any, are buried. Talk about dog-men floated around forever, just like talk about Amazon warriors, men with eyes in their chests, mermaids and mermen, etc. The basic idea (archetype) was always around ready-made to slap on whatever anyone wanted to slap it on to.

    There was a whole body of legend about Prester John, a Christian prince who supposedly ruled an empire in central Asia. There was a tiny trace of reality, in that some Mongols and Turks were Christians, though they weren’t rulers of empires and in most cases Christianity was usually an individual religion and not a collective or group religion. Europeans hoped for Prester John to help them against Islam pretty continuously for a long period, until finally they figured out that the guy was well past 100 years old and the should start hoping for his son David to arrive. Later on P.J. was reputed to live in India and Ethiopia (where there also were Christians separated from European Christendom).

    The P.J. story was propagated by an Armenian Christian prince who was working with the Crusaders and trying to forge an alliance between the Crusaders and the Mongols.

    So there was a trace of fact: ancient non European Christians in various parts of the world. A story was put out for propaganda purposes and took on a life of its own. But the evidential value of the legend was almost none.

    The process is familiar even today in urban legends.

  • jeet

    Interestingly, Greeks described Turkmen invaders as dogheaded (kynokephalos) in the first a few centuries of the Muslim rule in Anatolia, and as everyone knows, Turkmens – a nomadic people – came to Anatolia from Central Asian steppes and deserts.

    The use of wolf totems by steppe peoples, which was noted by the Chinese as far back as the Han Dynasty, may also have had something to do with it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    but according to borat the kazakhs worship the hawk!

  • onur

    The use of wolf totems by steppe peoples, which was noted by the Chinese as far back as the Han Dynasty, may also have had something to do with it.

    Greeks also called Turkmen invaders wolves and cannibals in the first a few centuries of the Muslim rule in Anatolia. The appellation “wolf” may be a reference to the wolf totem, if it existed among Turkmen invaders (we don’t know whether they had wolf totems), who were newly Islamized but still pagan in many (maybe most) aspects. But I don’t know whether wolf totems existed among Turkmens in their pagan (more properly, shamanist) times, so Muslim Turkmens may or may not have had wolf totems.

    The appellation “cannibal” may be a reference to cannibalism, if it existed among Turkmen invaders (again, we don’t know whether they practised cannibalism). But we know from historical records that pagan Turkmens (they called themselves Oghuz instead of Turkmen in those times, “Turkmen” is a name given to them by Arab or Persian Muslims after their Islamization) had actually practised cannibalism (at least some of them). Cannibalism may have persisted into their Muslim times and even into the times of their invasion of Anatolia, but unfortunately, as I said in parenthesis, we don’t know whether cannibalism persisted after their Islamization. But we know from historical records that the pagan originated practices of mummification and human sacrifice persisted among Turkmen invaders for some centuries after their initial invasion of Anatolia (1071 CE), so cannibalism may have also persisted during those centuries.

  • onur

    who were newly Islamized but still pagan in many (maybe most) aspects.

    Persistence of many pagan traditions among Turkmen invaders in the first centuries of their invasion of Anatolia is totally understandable, as Turkmens had begun their mass conversion to Islam a little before their initial invasion of Anatolia, and even there may have been some still completely pagan Turkmens among Turkmen invaders of Anatolia (unfortunately, we don’t know whether pagan Turkmens were among the invaders, but we know that the leaders of Turkmens who incited them to invade Anatolia were all Muslim and were using Islamic rhetoric to justify their invasion of a Christian land).

  • onur

    the leaders of Turkmens who incited them to invade Anatolia were all Muslim and were using Islamic rhetoric to justify their invasion of a Christian land

    So without Islamization there would hardly have been a Turkmen/Oghuz invasion of Anatolia. Even if such a thing had happened, invading Oghuz would probably quickly have Christianized and assimilated to the local population, as happened to the invading pagan Oghuz (Ouz in Byzantine sources), Cumans and Pechenegs (all of them nomadic steppe peoples) in the Balkans in those times.

  • onur

    So without Islamization there would hardly have been a Turkmen/Oghuz invasion of Anatolia.

    Also Islam was a motivating factor for more invasions and migrations. It also had solidifying effect on the identity of invading Turkmens and helped in their resistence to conversion to Christianity. And only Islam can explain the eventual assimilation of the overwhelming majority of Anatolian Christians and a significant proportion of Balkan Christians to Turkish language in addition to Islam. Even non-converting Anatolian Christians gradually became Turkish speaking in most parts of Anatolia.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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