The rise of men & the fall of the non-men

By Razib Khan | November 23, 2010 3:35 pm

Dienekes Pontikos ruminates on the changes in human genetic variation on a world-wide scale over the past 10,000 years based on an MDS plot of East Eurasian genetic variation which he generated. I’ve taken his plot and added geographical labels, so you can see the difference in scale between geography and genetics in terms of distance:


He argues:

What this plot shows, in tangible form, is a picture of mankind’s past: before the invention of agriculture, most humans lived in small tribes, scattered across the world. We can be fairly certain that the action of genetic drift and natural selection would have created a cornucopia of human diversity, with high between-group diversity due to high levels of genetic drift.

Out of all this variety, some tribes of hunters made the transition to agriculture, growing in numbers, filling the areas they exploited, and expanding into new ones. The hunters were on their way to extinction, but new tribes formed at the fringes, those of pastoral nomads exploiting animals to thrive where neither farmer nor hunter could.

In the world of farmers, with growing population densities and expansion came the breakdown of isolates: this led to a further homogenization of the farmers’ gene pool, as different tribes that had adopted the new way of life lost all trace of their past tribal identities and formed new ones based on the common language of the agriculturalists and the new way of life.

With more human bodies in the farming communities, came more novel mutations, and hence more of the raw materials of selection.

Coupled with the new challenges of agriculture, for which man is unaccustomed to, the social challenges of living close to many others in villages, and, later, cities, the cognitive challenges of new symbolic systems of communication, selection further reduced diversity in key aspects of human appearance and behavior, while maintaining it, or even increasing it in others, such as resistance to pathogens.

In western Eurasia this process was pushed to its limits, and there are virtually no nomads or hunters to be found there anymore. Africa was explored by Europeans just in time to find living hunters such as the San and Pygmies still in existence there. A few centuries more, and perhaps they, too, would have beeen absorbed into the mass of expanding farmers.

I pretty much agree with this. Intuitively this seems to jibe with reports of strange looking peoples in the mythologies of many literate civilizations. One plausible explanation for trolls, witches, and fairy-folk is that the human mind is inventive, and perceives mystery and agency all around us. But another seed of these legends may simply be the conventional human tendency to de-humanize other populations. In World War I you saw a perfect illustration of this, as Americans were told that the Germans were “Huns.” This de-humanization occurred despite a substantial minority of Americans being of recent German ancestry at that time, and the Germans and Americans themselves being relatively culturally close (the American colonies were after all ruled by a dynasty of German origin just 150 years before).

495px-AinuManStilfliedBefore the expansion of agricultural peoples within the last 10,000 years perhaps there was more phenotypic diversity than we’re used to seeing around us now. As first-mover advantage allowed for the rapid demographic expansion of some groups into the “frontier” they may have absorbed or assimilated peoples of a far different countenance than themselves. One of the best examples of this seems to be the Ainu. These people retreated to Hokkaido by the historical period, but it seems likely that their near relations, the Jomon, were the indigenous people of the Japanese islands, only driven north or absorbed within the last 2,500 years by rice farmers from southern Korea, the Yayoi. Here’s the received wisdom from Wikipedia:

Direct comparisons between Jōmon and Yayoi skeletons show that the two peoples are noticeably distinguishable…The Jōmon tended to be shorter, with relatively longer forearms and lower legs, more wide-set eyes, shorter and wider faces, and much more pronounced facial topography. They also have strikingly raised browridges, noses, and nose bridges. Yayoi people, on the other hand, averaged an inch or two taller, with close-set eyes, high and narrow faces, and flat browridges and noses….

When European physical anthropologists encountered the Ainu in the 19th century the standard assumption was that these hirsute people without epicanthic folds were a “Lost White Tribe.” Genetic science in the 20th science debunked this inference. The Ainu are an East Asian people, and resemble other East Asians far more than Europeans or other populations. But, their physical appearance clearly was atypical. The reality is that the “typical” East Asian physical appearance is probably a function of the demographic expansion of the Han, and later the Yayoi in Japan.

As the “world became flat” it looks like there was a “winner take all” dynamic at work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics, History
MORE ABOUT: East Asian, History, Japan
  • Pingback: Tweets that mention The rise of men & the fall of the non-men | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine --

  • Rafe Kelley

    I have often thought it would be fascinating to see the physical diversity of paleolithic humans in the same way the greater megafauna diversity would have been fascinating. I think this diversity would have looked very different from the variety we see today. In group physical diversity has likely increased as selection for civilized behavior has played havoc with developmental genes just as selection for domesticity has allowed all sorts of morphologies in our domesticates unknown in their wild ancestors, Including, naked skin, long hair, long head hair, curly hair, a wide variety of coat colors and much broad variation in cranial morphology.

    The hallmark skeletal characteristics of anatomically modern humans increased forehead height, reduced mid face prognathism, and gracile skeletons are all features seen in domesticates compared to their wild ancestors. Its interesting to speculate just how many of the other features we see almost soley in domesticates like long head hair, curly hair, and naked skin, co-occured with the development of those features.

    Much of this will have remain speculative until such time as we the genetic architecture of these traits sussed out and larger samples of paleolithic DNA. But I suspect that prior to 15,000 years ago nearly everyone was brown skinned, with black hair, and brown eyes. Thus allot of obvious markers of ethnicity to us would probably not have been cogent then.

    On the other while hand in group variability in physical type was probably much lower in paleolithic populations, as seems to to be case in modern hunter foragers, between group variations such as limb lengths, skeletal rusticity, muscularity and proportions might have varied hugely between groups as an adaption to different foraging styles. The gracile physiques of persistence hunting modern Kung contrasts signficantly with those the more robust net hunting pygmies for instance, facial structure seems to have varied as well between paleolithic population.

    I also wonder how sexual selection may have effected variation in beard development and head hair. Lion manes which seem to be analogous structure are divergent in various lion populations for instance.

    Once you add agrilculture and pastoralism to the mix it is easy to imagine various tribes having extremely stereotypic differences in physiognomy that would lead to seeing the other as inhuman even magical.

    I am also stoked on the send up to R. Scott Bakkers work. Which I am huge fan off.

  • Razib Khan

    I am also stoked on the send up to R. Scott Bakkers work. Which I am huge fan off.

    hey, let me stay on the down-low about that dawg 😉

  • onur

    The reality is that the “typical” East Asian physical appearance is probably a function of the demographic expansion of the Han

    Han expansion is relatively recent and limited to China and it isn’t clear how much demographic, how much assimilationist it is. You should try other explanations for the spread of the typical East Asian physical appearance, which isn’t limited to East Asia BTW.

  • Razib Khan

    the comment wasn’t too clear. but in any case, it’s semi-clear how much it is demographic and assimilation. last fall’s chinese genomics papers indicate it can’t be exclusively either, but it seemed less assimilative than i would have expected. but yeah, obviously not just the han, though the spread of the vietnamese and thai/dai into southeast asia are pretty strongly conditional on the push of the chinese state into the south of what is today china, but was the historic home of these people.

  • onur

    I think the most plausible explanation for the spread of the typical East Asian physical appearance is the various agriculturist (including nomadic pastoralism) expansions in that part of the world, which usually predated the Han expansion by thousands of years.

  • Razib Khan

    sounds plausible.

  • Sandgroper

    #6 – Please expand, preferably in language suitable for a 10 year old child. You owe me, I was very open and honest in answering your questions about me. Not that I minded, but quid pro quo.

    Also, could someone please expand on ‘typical East Asian appearance’, because I see very obvious differences between different geographical regions of China, never mind Korea and Japan. But then, I’ve been exposed on the ground for a while. The average Australian can’t pick a Vietnamese from a Japanese, hence the catch-all ‘Asian’ which is applied to both appearance and, hugely stupidly, culture, but I’m not average.

  • Matt B.

    English pointer: “Jibe”, not “jive”.

    @8. Sandgroper – “hence the catch-all ‘Asian’”
    Which is stupid also for the fact that the Orient is not all of Asia. “Asian” technically includes everyone in India, Iran, Arabia and Turkey. I have not figured out how “Oriental” came to be treated as derogatory when no one ever used it that way, or how simply being more generic in terminology would make a person less racist.

  • onur

    Sandgroper, what I stated in comment #6 was my educated guess; I didn’t make a special investigation to make those statements, I relied completely on what I had already known about the spread of various agriculture types and Mongoloid physical types in East Eurasia and beyond. In general I see a parallelism between the spread of agriculture and Mongoloid physical types in East Eurasia.

  • Razib Khan

    Also, could someone please expand on ‘typical East Asian appearance’, because I see very obvious differences between different geographical regions of China, never mind Korea and Japan. But then, I’ve been exposed on the ground for a while. The average Australian can’t pick a Vietnamese from a Japanese, hence the catch-all ‘Asian’ which is applied to both appearance and, hugely stupidly, culture, but I’m not average.

    all those groups look alike compared to south asians or europeans. south asians generally even look alike compared to europeans or east asians. europeans look alike compared to africans and east asians. don’t quibble in this manner, i’m not a moron, i’m aware that the groups look different. but we can talk intelligently about a ‘typical’ european look where bjork is atypical. we can talk about a typical south asian look where the kapoor family is on the margins. east asians themselves know what they typically look like compared to europeans, who were stereotyped has having big noses and non-black hair. the japanese majority and the ainu were strongly conscious of the physical differences between the two groups.

    these sorts of objections are frankly stupid and waste a lot of time. the context of what i was discussing was clear. don’t test my patience.

  • Sandgroper

    Razib, I apologize, I did not mean to give offence, I was trying to gain understanding and seeking elucidation.

    Because Japanese are a hybrid race. Southern Han are hybrid between Northen Han and Austronesian. Koreans are not identical genetically to Northern Han, but I presume must be pretty close. These are things I have learned from you, primarily. There is no reason, prima facie, why they should look like each other. Although of course I get the point that they look more similar to each other than they do to other major population groups.

    I have been pretty far into north-eastern China, and I have been to Hainan Island, and the two populations look nothing alike. The former are typically pretty tall, robust and very pale skinned, but with a bit less pink in their skin reflectance spectra than Europeans. The latter are tiny, gracile and pale to mid-brown. The Chinese advocates of “we are one people” must be blind if they can’t see this, or putting politics before science. A composite of the two different populations would look very different. I’ve made the observation before that as you travel from south to north in China, the people change in size and appearance and, at least to my pretty well calibrated eyes (simply due to long exposure and interest), the changes are very visually obvious.

    You recently posted on composites – so really I’m asking what the East Asian composite would look like, and what geographic samples it should be based on. Do you separate out the Southern Han and Japanese, for example?

    It’s not an objection, but the more I learn about substructure among East Asians, the more I wonder about it. Yes, I realize it’s a tiny cluster on a world scale, but not in the eyes of the people themselves, and they see the cultural differences as even larger.

    So my question is, what does typical East Asian look like? And I don’t remotely think you are a moron, it’s a genuine, honest question. I think it was Dienekes who posted some composites a while back for Japanese, Chinese, etc, but a lot of finer grained regional detail was lost in those – there are a lot of people who would be lumped into East Asian if based on nationality who look very different from those composites.

    On another level, I make the observation that I would guess at least 80% of white Australians can’t distinguish between Indonesians and Koreans – I mean, they can detect some differences, at least some of them can, but they can’t identify geographical origin, so they all just get labelled as Asian. This is very Eurocentric, and even more so in relation to culture.

    The ability to detect, or even be aware of, visual racial differences is very context- and exposure-specific when it comes down to the level, not just of East Asian peoples, but Asian peoples generally. The first country I travelled to outside of Australia was Malaysia. I couldn’t distinguish between the Malays and Indians. By the time I got to Thailand, I had no trouble distinguishing between Thais and Thai-speaking Chinese in Bangkok.

    I’m sorry if I am testing your patience. If that is still coming across as stupid, just ignore or delete, and ban me. I don’t mind, but it will be a matter of regret that I can no longer seek elucidation from people whose intelligence and knowledge I greatly respect. It’s the population sub-structure that I am interested in, and how it arose.

    BTW, the first time I went to Hainan Island I was interested to see how many mosques there are there, and to realize that a lot of Arab traders got that far and settled there.

    Onur, thanks. My interest specifically is where the Mongoloid physical types arose and when. I do know what you mean by Mongoloid because I have read a lot of the old ethnographic stuff. I have long been interested in, for example, how epicanthic eye folds arose and why, whether it was selection or just founder effect.

  • Razib Khan

    There is no reason, prima facie, why they should look like each other.

    there is, they’re genetically very close in a world wide context. this does not entail that they look like each other, but it should probably bias our calculus.

    So my question is, what does typical East Asian look like

    if you weight by population, and include island southeast asia, perhaps like someone from guanghzhou?

    i am aware that han chinese vary a great deal. but on a world wide scale you can quite obviously talk abut someone looks ‘typically’ chinese vs. someone who does not. both swedes and greeks vary quite a bit in appearance. but when talking about the two populations you can talk about ‘typical’ or ‘atypical’ individuals. this is not mysterious.

  • Sandgroper

    Yes, I get all of that and don’t have any problem with it here in your place. I’m interested at a much finer scale than global, although also interested globally, although central Asia is a total mystery to me, but evidently important with great time depth.

    The Chinese (young female) composite I saw looked like a real life Hong Kong TV starlet of Cantonese ancestry, but I don’t know what sample populations the composite was compiled from. I thought it was Dienekes who posted it, but can’t find it again, so I must have found it somewhere else and didn’t bookmark it. It was interesting only in the sense that the Chinese, Japanese and Korean composites looked similar, but differed in ways that are familiar to me from seeing lots of real people.

    For a population-weighted composite for the whole of east + southeast Asia, that would be my guess also – Guangzhou.

    I do obviously get the point that in a global context we are talking about fine degrees of difference here, I would be blind not to. I choose to drive some distance to shop for fruit and vegetables in the poorest neighbourhood populated by Vietnamese, Afghan, Kurdish, Somali and Sudanese refugees, and no doubt some others, partly because they have the best stuff at the best prices, partly because they have Chinese and Thai vegetables you don’t find in the whitey supermarkets, and partly just to get my weekly diversity fix in a large majority white society I now find alien and abhorrent. It’s a humbling experience to rub shoulders in the supermarket with a 7 foot tall slender African woman, and then find out you share the same basic sense of humour and standards of mutual respect, politeness and helfulness, far more than you do with your typical fellow white Australians. OK, we’re both on our best behaviour and she’s above-average educated, but that’s really the point, and that we both recognize each other as same rather than other, but sufficiently different to be interesting. There is nothing interesting about aggressive obese tattooed moronic white people who have nothing to talk about and who are shopping for Coke and potato chips, and who shove your wife out of the way because she’s Asian and not fat or tattooed.

    I derive a lot of entertainment from watching the African ladies – apart from the fact that many of them are physically beautiful, they walk a long way to the supermarket, then walk all the way home again pushing their stuff in the supermarket trolley. The next time they go shopping, they wheel the empty trolley back again instead of just leaving it by the roadside somewhere, these are decent honest women, but they wheel it back to a different supermarket, so the trolleys get all mixed up between commercial competitors and the supermarket operators get very pissed off having to drive around in vans to collect their trolleys from their competitors.

    The supermarket where we go to buy our fruit and vegetables has trolleys from 4 different competing supermarket chains. Those African ladies are long distance walkers foraging for bargains, and they have the fit healthy bodies to show for it. It’s the whiteys in their SUVs who are obese, rude, inconsiderate, racist and unhappy looking.

    I’m not trying to philosophise, just observing people, which I love to do.

  • Tom Bri

    I’m with you, Sandgrouper, on the distinctions between different East Asian populations. Just in Japan, it is clear there are very different ancestries. The Japanese make such distinctions among themselves: she looks Chinese, he looks Korean. My mother-in-law is called ‘the Samoan’ by her family.
    Certain northern Japanese are believed to have Russian blood, because they tend to be very white-skinned, and are envied by other Japanese women for that.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

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


See More


RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar