Horses, not people (sort of)

By Razib Khan | September 5, 2011 3:16 am

I have criticized the “pots not people” paradigm on this weblog before. In short, the idea is that material cultural changes reflected in the archaeological record are an indicator of memetic, not genetic, evolution. So a shift from pottery style X to pottery style Y informs you of an cultural switch. This is not implausible on the face of it. In the year 450 the dominant religion in the Roman Empire was a derived Jewish sect, Christianity. The only other de jure recognized religious organization within the Empire was another derived Jewish sect, an early form of Rabbinical Judaism.* But most people assume that there was far less genetic gains to Jews and Jewish-derived people. Rather, it was Jewish ideas which spread to non-Jews, and superseded non-Jewish ideas.

There are two issues that immediately come to mind with this analogy. The first is that there are many debates as to the Jewishness of Christianity in substance. Some Christians have argued that the Jewishness of much of contemporary Christianity is superficial. Rather, they make the case that Christianity is fundamentally a Hellenic system of thought which has been outfitted in plausibly Hebrew garb. Much of their argument rests upon the fact of the heavily Greek philosophical intellectual superstructure of much of Nicene Christianity, and in particular the Christianity derived from the Roman Imperial Church (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy). These points are advocated often by self-identified Christians themselves. Isaac Newton believed that the Christian Church which came out of the Roman Empire had been hijacked by pre-Christian philosophy. Some modern thinkers, such as the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, also holds to this position (though not nearly as assertively and aggressively as Isaac Newton). There are whole Christian denominations which espouse this model. The Jehovah’s Witness are outspoken on this issue, while the Mormons are more muted, but often reflect similar sentiments in relation to the influence of pre-Christian philosophical thought on the Christian religion as a primary motive force in its degeneration.

A second issue is that the example of the triumph of Christianity may not be a good model for changes in the nature of material remains. It is one thing for individuals to profess the belief in a different god, but another for individuals to master the system of thought which buttresses that belief. Very few Christians have a good mastery of systematic theology. In contrast, many material objects emerge from the combined actions of a large proportion of the population (in the era before specialization), and are a product of a set of interlocking skills and processes. To produce geometric pottery is somewhat more involved than accepting Jesus Christ as the son of the one true god, or repeating the shahada. The transition to farming was probably even more difficult for individuals.

In other words, even though memes can flow relatively freely in theory, one may have a situation were memeplexes characterized by a set of interlocking and contingent ideas move more rapidly through replication of individuals, groups, and societies in which those memeplexes are dominant. Going back to the religious example, the United States being a predominantly Christian society has to do primarily with changes in demography, not the religious conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. The latter did occur, but it’s a minor variable. In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia you have the opposite extreme, where native populations converted to Christianity, and there was little migration of European Christians. But intriguingly you also have a situation here where unlike the United States the Christian religion has a heavily indigenous flavor. One could observe that the natives of the Altiplano have done to Christianity what the ancient Romans did, remake it in their own image, while retaining the exterior garb, which is ultimately Jewish. This illustrates the subtle but important difference between cultural diffusion through flow of ideas vs. replacement of populations. Transplantation of many forms from one intact society to another results in modest but discernible transmutation. In contrast, demographic replacement often produces memetic replication over time and space with a much higher fidelity.

Today some findings from cultural anthropology and ancient DNA have moved me to a position where I am highly skeptical of the null or default position that material changes in ancient societies were due to movement of ideas as opposed to people. This does not entail that I accept the converse position. Rather, I believe we need to admit to the case to be made for agnosticism or uncertainty, because that’s where we are. But if forced to elucidate a clear and distinct viewpoint which I would have to defend, I would suggest that in the prehistoric era the transition to farming was characterized by a great deal of demographic change. In other words, farmers replaced or absorbed many hunter-gatherer populations. The victory of agriculture was not ideological in a direct sense, rather it was demographic. Not proselytization, but procreation! Such a solution at least resolves the question of why farming replaced hunting and gathering if the former was such a raw deal in terms of nutrition and overall quality of life, as argued by many anthropologists and economic historians. The Neolithic Revolution was the prehistoric version of Idiocracy.

This makes sense in a way. The farmer was a radically new morph of human which extracted per unit productivity in a proximate fashion from the same set of resources as the hunter-gatherer. In other words, the farmer occupied the same primary producer niche as the hunter-gatherer. Therefore, there is much more people than pots than we had previously thought when it comes to the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. But what about later on? This is where I think some of our intuitions of cultural diffusion are on better footing. History, the era of writing, is one of farmers. These primary producers are lauded by the social and political philosophers of the pre-modern world because all of society rested upon their shoulders. Trade and artisan production were secondary, and often marginalized in terms of prestige (pre-modern aspirant nobility who made their fortune in trade would shift toward land assets from which they could extract respectable rents, because profit from the land was real and honorable). But the reality remained that those nobles and gentry who espoused the value of farmers were parasites upon that primary production.

Therefore the relationship between historical elites and the masses, and invading populations and native populations, is very different from that of the prehistoric era. Why? Because societies are more complex, and it isn’t simply a matter of one group expanding to swallow up the niche of another group, as occurred with farmers in relation to hunter-gatherers. Nobles may perceive themselves to be superior to the peasant, but they can not exist without the peasant. The flourishing of their own niche is continent upon the flourishing of the peasant niche. Laced across this baroque web of social relations were a variety of ideological strands which produced a memetic cross-hatch. The tight integration of a discrete group and ideology, between demography and culture, was decoupled. Rather, the historic societies exhibited cross-linkages, as Protestant nobles and Protestant peasants sometimes stood together and sometimes stood apart.

All of this leads up to this comment below:

… Pastoralists overcome peasants politically, sometimes culturally, but rarely demographically. Demographically, I think the peasants almost always win.

It may be apocryphal that Yelü Chucai advised Genghis Khan to tax rather than slaughter the peasants of the North China Plain. Apparently the Mongol leader was entertaining the idea of turning the farmland into pasture, to support more Mongols and their herds. This would have been a classic demographic replacement. But what happened? He saw that the Han peasants were resources from which one could extract rents. Where the farmer views the hunter-gatherer as a competitor in the long term when they coexist in the same ecology, the pastoralist can complement the peasant. Often that entails extortion and terrorism, with the Mongol case being the archetype.

There are two types of major cultural changes we see around us. Those driven from the bottom up via the mass action of peasant fecundity. And those driven from above by an elite cadre of pastoralists who excel in extraction of rents from sedentary populations in a mobile opportunistic fashion. Both of these have ideological consequences. The arrival of rice farmers to Japan laid the groundwork for modern Shinto because those farmers brought the spiritual beliefs of Northeast Asians with them. The defeat of the Roman and Persian armies by groups of mobile Arabs in the 7th century resulted in the rise of Islam. In the first case you have a demographic shift driving cultural change. In the second case the demographic shift was much more modest (though it is discernible), but the cultural change was earth-shattering nonetheless (though again, there is a case to be made that Islam was profoundly transmuted by its growth in a milieu dominated by Oriental Christianity and Persian culture).

There is no null hypothesis. Rather, there are a set of likelihoods which are acutely sensitive to time and space. Context matters.

* A substantial minority, and perhaps a de facto majority, of the Roman population remained in the catchall “pagan” category in 450, but the elite culture had become at least nominally Christian in a normative sense, except for philosophy and a few isolated locales (e.g., Harran). Pagans and philo-pagans in public life had come to accept their marginal position (because of the necessary cryptic nature of the paganism of these personalities, it is difficult to differentiate who was genuinely privately a pagan, and who was accused of paganism as a slander, except for those such as Zosimus who made their views explicit in their private writings).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
  • bob sykes

    This is slightly off-topic, but you can make the argument that Rabbinical Judaism was also hijacked by Greek philosophy. The Jews were under Greek cultural and economic domination for over 300 years by the time of the Diaspora. There was a great deal of Jewish resistance to the domination, but they were dominated to the extent that Jews outside Judaea spoke Greek and Greek was a lingua franca through Roman times. Hence the creation of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that was written in the Third Century BC and used by assimilated Jews. It is also evident that the Rabbinical conception of G0d owes much to Greek philosophy. Yahweh is neither, omnipotent, omniscient, ubiquitous nor benevolent, all of which are attributes of the Greek Godhead.

  • Razib Khan

    #1, , but you can make the argument that Rabbinical Judaism was also hijacked by Greek philosophy. yes. the only qualification i would add that a lot of this was explicitly interjected by maimonides quite late in history, though all of that was present implicitly in jewish thought earlier. the bigger issue seems to be the more consistent avoidance of philosophical exploration in much of sunni islam and mainstream judaism in favor of legal analysis. a matter of labor hours rather than fundamental principle (some sects of shia islam, such as ismailism, retain a much stronger philosophical stamp which comes down from the early centuries of the religion).

    also, minor addendum that even pre-greek jewish thought was strongly stamped with persian and mesopatamian religious ideas due to the exile. from a non-religious perspective one can easily reduce the “pure hebrew” aspect of the abrahamic religions down to a very limited finite set of elements.

  • B

    Hey, can you write something on the Altaic peoples? For instance, there are Karasu (black water) rivers everywhere from Turkey to Japan.

  • Alice

    I would suggest that most of the pioneers who settled in North America were protestant. In South America the settlers were primarily Catholic. In those days, the Catholic Church believed that all indigenous people must be converted whether by assent or by force. They meant well; but, this practice resulted in many “converts” who had no spiritual conversion and simply put the Church face on their existing religion. The Church of Rome has ceased this type of proselytizing, thankfully. But, the habits cannot die easily when religion is the subject.

  • Razib Khan

    #4, there wasn’t that much of an ideological difference between protestants and catholics then. remember, cuius regio, eius religio. and the new england colonies in particular spent a good deal of time trying to convert the natives, and they were partly successful. but demographic die off made their efforts somewhat less of a long term issue. i suppose one could argue that the greater scriptural focus of some protestants made the nominal affiliation tolerated by some catholic states in their colonies more difficult, but i don’t think it made a big difference. the large protestant elite in sri lanka disappeared pretty quickly and become buddhist again after their patrons no longer existed to induce them. in contrast, the catholic sinhala remain, probably because their social class was marginal enough in origin that their new identity was far superior to what they had before and could hope for as buddhists.

  • benj

    1. Judaism also does not really see Christianity as having anything Jewish. Up to this day many rabbis see Christianity as a Pagan religion.
    2. There was a few years ago a study claiming that Christianity conquered the Roman Empire, at least in the first few centuries, by demography – Christians had a slighter higher fecundity rate – I don’t remember exactly the figure but it was something like 2.6 instead of 2.3 only to Pagans – and this difference on the long run made the Christians the majority.

  • Razib Khan

    #6, it was rodney stark. he wrote a book on the issue. it was a demographic model. not implausible, BUT NO ONE believes that christians were the majority when constantine began to favor it, and it is highly debatable whether they were the majority when theodosius finally banned public paganism de jure in 395. in his earlier work stark himself seems to believe that the co-option of xtianity by the roman state, and its subsequent *forcible* imposition upon the populace through fiat coercion or inducement ended up being counterproductive by short circuiting the natural and inevitable triumph of the religion through demographics. the main reason i’m skeptical of stark is this: christianity was notoriously an urban religion, as most of the mystery cults were. this implies that its locus in the imperial period was in population sinks. its later triumph in europe was through fiat, not bottom up demographics. or, more precisely, like higher religions elsewhere it convinced the elite to grant it a monopoly or preeminence of position, and that was sufficient to bring the populace along at least nominally.

    Judaism also does not really see Christianity as having anything Jewish. Up to this day many rabbis see Christianity as a Pagan religion.

    stipulating that pagan and non-pagan are clear and distinct, christianity can still be a derived form of judaism and be pagan. you can call it degeneration or debasement or something. i don’t agree with that position, but it can be defended.

  • carpetanuiq

    1. The sequence in Eurasia is clear: hunter-gatherers bands (paleolithic/shamanism)–> agricultural tribals (from early neolithic to the empires of late antiquity/tribal religions and early universalism)–>pastoralists/trader tribal elites superimposed over civilised peasants (from early middle ages to the empires of late modern times/the triumph of universal religions)–> industrialized nation-states (since XIX to our days/the triumph of science). What´s next ?

    In some of these past film frames (the most recent) we know which of the two processes (memetic or genetic replacement), or which mix, took place. In some others the avalaible information and tools are not enough for telling this appart yet. I wonder if ancientDNA will solve definitively some of these questions.

    2. I agree with the proposition that “pre-greek jewish thought was strongly stamped with persian”. I even would say that the persian empire was a game changer in all early eurasian antiquity in the political (as a model for great multicultural empires of late antiquity such as classical Greece and Rome, classical Han China, classical India from Mauryans to Guptas), the economic and social (starting the trend of “killing” tribalism in peasants) and cultural (causing the emergence of philosophy in Greece, China and India) areas.

    On the other hand the tribal elites superimposed over civilised peasants in the middle- ages (germans-vikings in europe, arabs-turks-berebers in north africa, middle east and east-asia, turks, mongols and manchus in India or China) were not only interested in territories / pastoralism but also in control of trading routes. Until their reaction in modern times, the logic obsession of European (and maybe North Indian elites) with territory was an outlier here. The not accidental discovery of direct sea routes to asia by europeans killed the possibility of controling these routes and hence caused the decadence of these intermediate eurasian empires (Ottomans, Safavids, Moghuls, Kazaks…) in the long term.

  • Razib Khan

    The not accidental discovery of direct sea routes to asia by europeans killed the possibility of controling these routes and hence caused the decadence of these intermediate eurasian empires (Ottomans, Safavids, Moghuls, Kazaks…) in the long term.

    this short/medium term impact of sea routes is over-rated. remember, for centuries europe was relatively marginal economically in aggregate to india and china. the idea that the ottomans declined due to the european age of discovery is eurocentric. in the case of this eurocentrism it’s probably misleading, as europe wasn’t enough of a factor to be such a big prize in terms of rents from transit. the europeans didn’t even always win the battles as late s the 18th century. e.g., the omani expulsion of the portuguese from much of the western indian ocean.

    much of what we perceive between 1500 and 1800 is actually a back-projection of the 19th century, when europeans were ascendant and everyone else in decline or conquered.

  • Jim Johnson

    I am not an expert in early American history as it pertains to indigenous people, but I once spoke with a woman who was, and she related to me that the members of the “5 Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole) who were moved from the Eastern states to “Indian Territory” via the infamous Trail of Tears were primarily Christian farmers living in frame houses – not wigwams, whose children attended colonial style schools, at the time of the removal.

    Perhaps these tribes were already farmers at the time of the first European landings, but their lifestyle + their ancestry certainly argues for a combination of “pots” and “people”.

    It’s not a difficult thing to imagine that a few “pot-making skills” might cross the boundary between peoples living in close proximity for 2 centuries, and I’d always assumed the initial agriculturalization of the old world took a similar course. Then, more recent genetic results seemed to show otherwise.

    Still, there must have been some transfer of cultural down through the millennia, given that all current old world populations come from lands whose primary vocations were agricultural, yet not all genetic heritages are Near-East Asian.

    I’m sure different scholars reconcile this in different ways. What are your thoughts? Tiny increments of native individuals “crossing the line” for such a long time that their genetic input eventually overwhelms that of the initial migrations of farmers? Cultural change made as a last-stop survival measure after constant, increasing pressure on native nomadic peoples as their territories are eaten up by farmland over centuries? Militarily stronger farmer societies absorbing less cohesive native tribes by force? Or something else I haven’t thought of?

  • Onur

    Hey, can you write something on the Altaic peoples? For instance, there are Karasu (black water) rivers everywhere from Turkey to Japan.

    “Kara” and “su” mean “black” and “water” respectively only in Turkic languages (other common variants of “kara” in Turkic languages are “qara” and “gara” depending on the Turkic language, and other common variants of “su” in Turkic languages are “suw” and “suv” depending on the Turkic language) among all Altaic languages. The equivalents of “black” and “water” in non-Turkic Altaic languages are generally very different from “kara” and “su” respectively. “Black” is хар (probably connected with “kara”) in Mongolian, “kɔŋnɔrɪn” in Oroqen, “sahaliyan” in Manchu, “geomeun” in Korean and “kuroi” (probably connected with “kara”) in Japanese. “Water” is “ус” in Mongolian, “mu:” in Oroqen, “muke” in Manchu, “mul” in Korean and “mizu” in Japanese. So clearly “kara su”, or a variant of it, doesn’t mean “black water” in any non-Turkic Altaic language. The equivalents of “river”, “lake” and “sea” in non-Turkic Altaic languages are very different from “su” too, so there is no way to produce the phrase “kara su” or a variant of it with the meaning “black water”, “black river”, “black lake” or “black sea” in any non-Turkic Altaic language (or also any non-Altaic language for that matter unless there is a coincidental similarity, which is so extremely unlikely to be almost impossible, or a borrowing of those words from a Turkic language, which isn’t impossible for languages that interacted with Turkic languages in the past but nevertheless very unlikely). In conclusion, whatever toponym there is with the name “kara su” or “karasu” in regions of the world that have never hosted Turkic-speaking peoples or been influenced by them, it cannot have anything to do with the meanings “black water”, “black river”, “black lake” or “black sea” even if that region has hosted (in the past and/or today) non-Turkic Altaic-speaking peoples or been influenced by them.

    For references:

    Altaic languages Swadesh list (doesn’t include Japanese):

    Japanese Swadesh list:

    Turkic languages online dictionary (it is in Turkish; type “su” and “kara” to see their variants in various Turkic languages but unfortunately in a Turkish [=language of Turkey] orthography [thus, for instance, excluding the letters “q” and “w”] for all of those Turkic languages):

    As I have adequately settled the matter, this will be my first and last post on this off-topic issue.

  • Buck

    This babble is the result of over thinking and analyzing something that should be taken and believed in faith . Because of historical yet beneficial effect on humanity , I ,on faith that the bible is true and factual believe in and worship the God of Abraham and the divinity of his son Jesus Christ . This belief will do me no harm and just may save my soul . What do I lose if I am wrong ?

    [posted for amusement -razib]

  • Onur

    I wouldn’t write on this issue anymore, but I have gathered new and more conclusive information and would like to share with you.

    This is the Wikipedia disambiguation page of “Karasu”:

    As you see, leaving aside the “Fictional characters” and “Other” categories, all “Karasu”s or variants of it (their orthographies and the IPA spellings of their orthographies often don’t match, so don’t focus too much on the orthography) are river, town, city or people names from places which have been inhabited by Turkic-speaking peoples for at least several centuries (including the relevant parts of the Balkans and China) except one river name from Japan:

    So apparently the only place in the world with the name “Karasu” from a region that haven’t been inhabited by Turkic-speaking peoples is a river in Japan (so B’s above statement “there are Karasu rivers everywhere from Turkey to Japan” is false and misleading irrespective of the meaning of “Karasu”). This prompted me to search for the word “karasu” or variants of it in Japanese and soon I found that the word “karasu” means “crow” or “raven” in its non-verb meaning in Japanese:

    So, not only the meanings of “karasu” or variants of it in Turkic languages and Japanese are entirely different, but, also while in Turkic languages “karasu”, or variants of it, is a compound and is actually “kara su” or variants of it, in Japanese it is a single word. So the relevant river name in Japanese means “crow” or “raven” and in its full form it is spelled and written together with the Japanese word for river “gawa” (“kawa” is also used apparently) thus as “Karasu-gawa” meaning “crow river” or “raven river”. This brings me back to the “Fictional characters” and “Other” categories that I skipped in the beginning. Clicking them I saw that all of them are from Japan, so all of them must have the meaning “crow” or “raven” instead of “black water”, and upon examining them I found that their meanings are really “crow” or “raven”. For instance: (scroll down to “Karasu”)

    This is not all. I searched for the exact meaning of the “Karasu” in the Karasu River of Japan, and soon I found in a web document called “Japanese Maples”:

    In the document use “Search within document” option below by typing “karasu” (without ” of course), press enter, and click on the first search result. In that passage you’ll find the information:

    ‘Karasu gawa’ is similar to ‘Oridono nishiki’ but the light bright pink new growth is more spectacular, and some leaves retain streaks of light pink in the white variegation throughout the summer. The growth habit is narrow and upright, broadening with age and attaining 13 ft. (4 m) or so high. This maple is not a vigorous grower and should have a protected spot in the garden and also protection from strong sun. The name means “crow river.”

    Sorry for the off-topic again; this time this will really be my last post on this subject as this time I have more than adequately settled the matter.

  • Jim Johnson

    There is no such thing as over thinking. Saying there is, is just intellectual laziness.

  • Andrew Smith

    Genuinely enlightening thanks, I think your readers may very well want a good deal more content of this nature maintain the good work.

  • carpetanuiq

    Pls note it wasn´t my intention to be eurocentric. I agree that from early middle-ages to XIX century Europeans weight on global economy was low, comparing to the rest of Asia.

    However direct sea routes did had political and economic impact in north-africa, middle east and central asia:
    –it made possible Ottoman expansion, whose economy was based more on territory and agricultural rent extraction than in trade or industry (from wikipedia article: “The Ottomans saw military expansion and fiscalism as the source of wealth, with agriculture seen as more important than manufacture and commerce.[5] Western mercantilists gave more emphasis to manufacture and industry in the wealth-power-wealth equation, moving towards capitalist economics comprising expanding industries and markets whereas the Ottomans continued along the trajectory of territorial expansion, traditional monopolies, conservative land holding and agriculture”,
    –Safavid expansion (from this link “The newly established Iranian Empire lacked the resources that had been available to the Islamic Caliphs of Baghdad in former times through their dominion over Central Asia and the West in order to consolidate their power over the Islamic authority. Asia Minor and Transoxania were gone, and the rise of maritime trade in the West was unfavorable to a country whose wealth had depended greatly on its position on important east-west overland trade routes like the famous Silk Road”).

    I would say that if during middle ages Europe was clearly far from middle east in many things (Islamic community from Maghreb to Central Asia and India was clearly the dominant player), in modern times they catched Islamic level.


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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


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