Völkerwanderung back with a vengeance

By Razib Khan | October 17, 2010 3:50 am

800px-European_Middle_Neolithic

The German magazine Der Spiegel has a rather thick new article out reviewing the latest research which is starting to reintroduce the concept of mass folk wanderings into archaeology. The title is How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe. In the story you get a good sense of the recent revision of the null model once dominant within archeology that the motive forces of history manifested through the flow of pots and not people. This viewpoint came to ascendancy after World War II, and succeeded an older method of interpretation which presumed a tight correlation between race and culture. It repudiated the idea that the flow and change of pottery styles and extant patterns of linguistic dialects may have been markers for the waxing and waning of peoples.

Obviously a pots-not-people model had some major exceptions even during its heyday. The demographic explosion of European peoples after 1492, and especially the Anglo peoples after 1700, occurred within the light of history. Even if it hadn’t it would be ludicrous on the face of it to assert that the modern American population were derived from the indigenous populations, and that they had simply adopted the language, religion and folkways of the British conquerors of North America. But outside the presumed aberration of the European imperialist and colonial venture of the modern era the details on the ground were obscure enough that a model could be imposed from without.

No longer. In non-European societies such as China with extensive records it is clear that demographic increase and colonization were driving forces of the expansion of a given cultural domain. A neglect of this reality could only occur via ignorance of the primary documents. Plausible if one did not know Chinese. As in the case of Spanish conquest of the New World the demographic wave was not total; biological and cultural amalgamation with the native substrate south of the Yangtze did occur to produce a new synthesis. But the revision does not occur just through space, but time as well. The methods of genetics, whereby samples from ancient burials may be retrieved and compared to modern populations, have allowed us to reject the post-World War II assumption that the Etruscans were an indigenous Italian culture. Due to the lack of copious records a theoretical presupposition was able to interject itself into the data. When the story about Etruscan genetic relationships to Near Eastern groups broke in early 2007 I actually proceeded to skim the latest archaeological monographs on the archaeology of this group, and most of them had erudite expositions on exactly how the myriad distinctive aspects of Etruscan culture which suggested an exogenous origin were in fact derived from the antecedent Bronze Age societies of Tuscany.

Ancient DNA extraction is now allowing scholars to map the change in frequencies of genetic markers of archaeologically known groups as a function of both space and time more broadly. I think one can safely see that there are more perturbations, fluctuations, and turnovers, than any pots-not-people model could predict. On the specific issue of lactase persistence it is almost certainly a genetic novelty in Eurasia which arose over the last 10,000 years in a co-evolutionary fashion with animal husbandry. The genomes of modern Europeans suggest this, but we have confirmation from ancient DNA extraction as well. A rise in frequency of a particular allele does not entail a replacement of one population with another; lactase persistence today can exhibit a great deal of variance as a function of geography and ecology because its frequency no doubt responds to local selective pressures. But, in concert with other DNA data (mostly maternal lineages) as well as a fresh look at evidence of cultural discontinuity and rapid pulses of colonization in late Paleolithic and early Neolithic Europe, one must be open to the possibility that the spread of animal husbandry, copious raw milk consumption, and an aggressive and fecund population, were all concurrent processes which were tightly interlocked in some causal sense.

An aspect of this story which I am fuzzy and weak on is the archaeology. You likely know nearly as much about the Linear Pottery Culture as I do. It seems though that this cultural-complex brought agriculture deep into the heart of Central Europe ~7,000 years ago, and there are clear signs that its origin was to the southeast, from the Eastern Mediterranean region. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s ‘demic diffusion’ model which argued for the expansion of Neolithic farmers from the Middle East into Paleolithic Europe seemed to suggest that it occurred through a ‘wave of advance‘ impelled by endogenous population growth and gradual migration. The model as reported by Der Spiegel seems at some variance with this. Instead of a gradual advance it seems that there may have been periodic pulses and explosions of demographic advance. Using the historical examples we have this should not be particularly surprising. Overlain atop the reality of an inexorable push across the ‘frontier’ in both North America and China by the colonizing peoples I alluded to earlier it is important to remember that there were periodic punctuations of gradualism by bursts of mass colonization, displacement, and relocation. The migration out of overpopulated New England to the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest in the early 19th century, the retreat to the south by the Han Chinese after the collapse of their first dynasty and the conquest of the north by barbarians. Both of these are examples of the explosive process in demographics and migration which can revolutionize the cultural landscape within a generation or two. From the data that the archaeologists have collected this seems to have occurred with the expansion of agricultural society in Central Europe as well, as the Linear Pottery Culture and its descendants proceeded in fits & starts.

Unfortunately as this is the domain of prehistory we won’t ever know in concrete terms exactly what occurred. In the Der Spiegel piece they report that the agriculturalists had a 500 year pause. Why? If demic diffusion was the primary dynamic through which they expanded there should be no pause. But we can think of a host of scenarios. Perhaps the Middle Eastern cultural toolkit had reached its natural outer boundary, and it was here that the tide turned to the indigenous Paleolithic societies of Europe, which maintained an advantage in the north because of the lack of the adaptability of southerners to new conditions. Humans can be stubbornly conservative in their ways. It is famously asserted that the Norse of Greenland did not adapt to a more inclement regime, and so went extinct (or, possibly evacuated to Iceland). The adoption of potatoes and other productive and useful crops among European peasants was retarded by their instinctive conservatism. We need not imagine a scenario where Paleolithic hunters and gathers would naturally wish to take up the hoe. Nor is it plausible that the agriculturalists would wish to refashion their tried & tested traditions so as to push the outer boundary of their limes.

But all things must change. Something happened, and the agriculturalists shifted the modus vivendi, and the hunter-gatherers gave way. There are detailed historical processes which can give us insight as to how such long-held boundaries could rapidly collapse. Europeans had circumnavigated Africa by 1500, and had had factories and trading posts around the continent’s fringe for over 400 years by the late 19th century. But deep into the 1800s the European presence in Africa was marginal. By 1914 the continent was divided into European zones of control. What happened in the space of a few decades? Quinine and machine guns. The biological barrier to Europeans fell away, and the military superiority was amplified by orders of magnitude. What could have occurred in an analogous fashion in Central Europe? The combination of a mutation for lactase persistence and animal husbandry may have resulted in rapid population growth, leading to densities which precipitated the outbreak of an epidemic. A reduction in population may have had much greater impact on the less numerous and resistant hunter-gatherers. Additionally the economic changes wrought by animal husbandry may have allowed for a scaling up of the organization of war. The Mongol Empire exploded onto the scene in mere decades to sweep across most of Eurasia. Why couldn’t something similar plausibly have occurred in Central Europe on a much smaller scale 7,000 years ago?

Ultimately we’ll never know the details. But in constructing our plausible scenarios for prehistory I suspect that we moderns have a bias toward viewing pre-literate societies as usually small-scale, at best simple chiefdoms. I believe this is a false model, and that there was a non-trivial level of scalability possible among pre-literate societies. Going back to the Mongol example, I see no reason why the initial existence of their polity necessitated literacy, though it may have been essential for its administration and perpetuation. Cultural forms likely marched with confederacies and were driven forward by warlords. This would easily explain the punctuated pattern of the spread of agriculture, as the rise and fall of states has a somewhat spasmodic and periodic character.

Finally, I want to emphasize that the Der Spiegel piece verges on a maximalist position which I am not comfortable with. There is much we don’t know, and I am in no hurry to replace one tired and dogmatic orthodoxy with another. Because the article was translated from German into English I can understand that that is responsible for the artlessness of some of the assertions. But phrases such as “There was no interbreeding between the intruders and the original population” from a German magazine really makes me think they’re suggesting that there were Stone Age Nuremberg Laws. Ethnic separation and differentiation was a reality among many ancient peoples, but so was intermarriage and assimilation. I am aware of the starkness of some of the DNA analyses, which suggest disjoint frequencies across the two populations, but the results are far too spotty at this point to make definitive assertions.

Note: The accompanying map is worth perusing.

(referral credit, Steve Sailer)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
  • Lars

    Sounds like rubbish. The Basque people were there before the Mid-Easterners, and they are the most lactose tolerant in the world.. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose_intolerance#Lactose_intolerance_by_group

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  • bioIgnoramus

    Some detailed stuff in society is near to unguessable. 10 years ago we had a French girl stay with us on a schoolgirl exchange. She took home to Normandy a particular British delicacy which, she assured us, was essentially unknown in Normandy and was delicious beyond her dreams. Once you chaps have had a chance to guess what we consume and our Norman cousins don’t (it matters that it’s Normandy and not, say, Provence) I’ll tell you what it was. It’s certainly more striking than the corresponding wonderful comestible that a Bavarian exchange schoolgirl took home – peanut butter.

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

    Sounds like rubbish. The Basque people were there before the Mid-Easterners, and they are the most lactose tolerant in the world.. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactose_intolerance#Lactose_intolerance_by_group

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/02/the-basques-may-not-be-who-we-think-they-are/

    also, please read my post before you comment:
    A rise in frequency of a particular allele does not entail a replacement of one population with another; lactase persistence today can exhibit a great deal of variance as a function of geography and ecology because its frequency no doubt responds to local selective pressures.

    your point is not a necessary refutation.

  • kurt9

    My question is, if lactose tolerant people came out of the middle-east 9000 years ago, why are modern middle-eastern people so lactose intolerant? Would this just be 9000 years of genetic drift following the migration, or is there another explanation?

  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com agnostic

    “if lactose tolerant people came out of the middle-east 9000 years ago, why are modern middle-eastern people so lactose intolerant? ”

    Over time the sheep and goat pastoralists of the Turkey-Iran area have relied less on animals for subsistence and more on trading them with sedentary people in exchange for tools, grain, etc. When these animal raisers first began, there were no gigantic states with rich markets and bazaars for them to trade with, so they relied more on their animals for subsistence.

    However, to their south in the Arabian desert, the nomads relied heavily on their animals (the camel) for subsistence, which triggered a separate wave of lactase persistence, independent of the one that began farther north and spread into Europe. These Arabians had very little in the way of markets and bazaars to trade with, so this is probably what it was like for the earliest animal raisers.

    So, the formation of large states offering the chance to trade animal products for other things probably relaxed the selection pressure for lactase persistence in the Turkey-Iran area. This would also explain why it’s so high in northern Europe — it remained backward in this lack-of-trading-opportunities sense for millennia after the mutation first showed up.

  • Henry Harpending

    Agnostic’s model is clever but it is a strain. A simpler model is that LT is from central or eastern Europe and has nothing to do with early Anatolian farmers. This better fits the story of “Old Europe” and its trashing.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Did you get your info on Greenland from Jared Diamond? Because he’s wrong.

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

    Did you get your info on Greenland from Jared Diamond? Because he’s wrong.

    read it before him. after believing you about rosseau and seeing it was more complicated perhaps, i’m taking your corrections with a grain of salt ;-)

    A simpler model is that LT is from central or eastern Europe and has nothing to do with early Anatolian farmers. This better fits the story of “Old Europe” and its trashing.

    i think the “european” allele has more haplotype diversity in central eurasia, so yeah. in any case, there’s nothing that says that an allele which arises in a particular region necessarily has to have maximal fitness in that region. the modal frequency of the north eurasian LP allele is around jutland. no one believes it derives from that region, to my knowledge.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    “after believe you about rosseau and seeing it was more complicated perhaps, i’m taking your corrections with a grain of salt”

    What? From what I recall I linked to Callahan previously on Rousseau’s “noble savage” being a misrepresentation of the philosopher. I don’t recall you saying that my correction on Rousseau was wrong. Or perhaps you take every correction with a grain of salt.

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

    Or perhaps you take every correction with a grain of salt.

    no. i don’t.

    callahan made too strong of a case from what other commenters were saying, and there were also errors in his argument due to overweight of some sources. also, the lack of fishing is only one aspect. don’t presume that everything hinges on that. if you don’t presume that, don’t bring that up as if it’s particularly probative.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I’m still confused, are you saying in the above comment he was wrong about Rousseau, Greenland or both?

    “from what other commenters were saying” could mean that others said he made too strong of a case, or that his too strong case was made from what other commenters said. The bit about sources suggests the second but I’d appreciate pointers to those comments (for either controversy) if its the former.

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

    I’m still confused, are you saying in the above comment he was wrong about Rousseau, Greenland or both?

    the way you state these corrections indicate great confidence. i assumed you knew the material well enough the first time you made such a statement (re: rosseau) that i used it in a subsequent post. turns out you were relying in callahan, and from what i could tell he made too strong of a case and flubbed a few details (or, he trusted sources which turned out to be polemical). now you come in and make a claim that jared diamond is “wrong.” that’s a pretty strong assertion. now, obviously he is wrong a lot of the time. and he probably is wrong about the fish issue. that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the broader point. also, do you know he’s wrong, or are you trusting in gene callahan’s authority on this issue? if so, if i was in your position i would simply attribute the opinion/assertion to callahan, unless you’ve made a thorough investigation of the topic yourself.

    (of course diamond was extending and relying on previous scholars anyway)

    in any case, that’s all i’m interested in allotting to this issue.

  • bioIgnoramus

    The “particular British delicacy …unknown in Normandy and delicious..” was ordinary milk – as delivered to our doorstep in the early hours. I emphasise “ordinary”- not the super Gold Top or the super-duper Jersey. She insisted on taking a few pints home. Anyway, milk to Normandy – talk about coals to Newcastle.

  • onur

    This viewpoint came to ascendancy after World War II, and succeeded an older method of interpretation which presumed a tight correlation between race and culture.

    From my casual readings of the pre-WWII literature, it seems to me that there wasn’t a standard presumption of a tight correlation between race and culture, but a chaotic and rich variety of many different approaches, some of which can be classified as varieties of the the pots and not people model.

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Yeah, I was primarily referring to the fish aspect which I always found implausible despite his assertion that it’s “The only serious explanation”. And I’m convinced by the scientists quoted in the Boston Globe piece who explained why we shouldn’t have expected the absent evidence Diamond cites, along with the isotope analysis which confirms they ate plenty of fish (it was the majority of their diet in the later period). But I also think Diamond is on shaky ground with a number of his claims about Easter Island. I enjoy his books but, like you, am reacting to what I perceive to be overconfident pronouncements.

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

    I enjoy his books but, like you, am reacting to what I perceive to be overconfident pronouncements.

    if i’m the audience, that’s obviously discounted with diamond….

  • pconroy

    In terms of the Basque and LCT, remember that Basque men have a high frequency of haplogroup R-M167 (aka SRY2627) (about 11%), the highest frequency in Iberia though is Northern Catalonia (22%). The area of Europe with the highest variability – often seen as the place of origin of a haplogroup – though is France (5%) and Germany (3%).
    Interestingly, Northern Catalonia and West into the Basque Region corresponds to the Frankish March of Charlemagne, and so both R-M167 and LCT may be a legacy of the Franks or the Visigoths, and nothing to do with Ancient Basques?!

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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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