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 Rather, it was Jewish ideas which spread to non-Jews, and superseded non-Jewish ideas.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).