The phylogeography of the trans-Caucasus

By Razib Khan | January 18, 2012 9:52 pm

Randy McDonald points me to this fascinating post, Genetic clues to the Ossetian past. In the post author outlines phylogeographic inferences one can make from uniparental lineages; maternal and paternal lines of descent. Specifically, they are in interested in the origins and relationships of the Ossete people. I assume that one reason Randy pointed me to this post is that the Ossetes are assumed by many to be the descendants or fragments of the Alans. More broadly they’re remnants of a broad array of North Iranian peoples, of whom the Scythians were the most prominent, which have been erased from the pages of history because of the expansion of the Slavs and Turks.

The main lacunae in the above analysis is that it does not cover results from autosomal studies. Some of that has been performed by Dienekes, but more is necessary for a region characterized by as much ethnographic diversity and density as the Caucasus. One peculiarity that emerges in analyses of autosomal data sets is that the Caucasus looms relatively large in a wide array of dispersed populations. For example, there is a genetic signature which ties Indo-Aryan and Caucasian populations together, and others which seem to connect the latter to some Balkan groups.

These are possible hints that the Caucasus is the “mother of nations,” and that the old idea of the “Caucasian race” may have some reality to it. But I would bet on something else: the Caucasus is not the mother of nations, but the repository of forgotten peoples. The Ossetes themselves are presumed to be just such a population. I offer up the hypothesis that one reason that disparate Caucasian populations have diverse and wide-ranging connections has less to do with outward expansion, and more to do with the fact that on the margins of the Caucasus a great range of historic genetic diversity erased by later demographic events (e.g., the Slavic and Turkic expansions from two directions in on the North Iranian peoples) is preserved, as the defeated take refuge.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Although I’m not saying it best fits the data in this case, I wonder if we’ve under-estimated the number of cultures with a “men’s language” and a “woman’s language” in the past. Such a system is known to happen in various parts of the world (Sumeria, Australia, etc), but has inherent instabilities, as any time a major event happened which disrupted the male population too much (say a devastating war which killed off much of the adult male population), the system would tend to drift towards making the women’s, instead of the men’s, the predominant and eventually sole language. I am wondering if this is how many Austronesian peoples seem to be mostly descended from Austronesians only on the mitochondrial side, while the YDNA points to a Melanesian/Papuan background.

  • Paul Givargidze

    Just wish to add some possibly relevant bits to the discussion.

    From the GeoCurrents article discussed by Razib: “But the plot thickens if we consider the question of where these haplogroup G2a1a Ossetian males might have come from.”

    Here is an interesting bit from Ray Banks’ Haplogroup G Newsletter, from early last year, regarding data published in Haber et al., on the specific topic of G2a1a:

    “There seems quite an unusual concentration of G2a1a in this country that was not observed before. This concentration is actually almost entirely seen in Christian groups, among which are the Maronites. There are Greek Orthodox Christians in Lebanon as well. So it is not clear why there are concentrations of G2a1a in both the central Caucasus and among Lebanese Christians. The Caucasus has much higher concentrations of G2a1a.”

    Razib: “The main lacunae in the above analysis is that it does not cover results from autosomal studies.”

    Indeed. The Dodecad “Caucasus” component for Near East minority groups hover around 50%. This includes even the most extreme southwestern population, the Samaritans. Interestingly, the Caucasian populations have very little of the Dodecad “Southwest Asian” component. A component often associated with Semitic languages, and the Arabian Peninsula.

    Also, in the GeoCurrents article, they referred to the Balanovsky et al. study. Here is a bit from the Balanovsky et al. conclusion: “The data suggested a direct origin of Caucasus male lineages from the Near East, followed by high levels of isolation, differentiation and genetic drift in situ.”

    If I had to hazard a guess, I would say the most recent significant gene exchange between the Caucasus and the Semitic-speaking parts of the Near East occurred in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, with the southern expansions of groups such as the Hurrians. I believe this is why groups such as Armenians, Assyrians, and peoples of Dagestan (e.g. Lezgins), may share some paternal lines, such as J1*.

  • alani

    An excellent point that the Caucasus is a repository of forgotten and ‘defeated’ people who were safe from both East and West conflicts. Through this, homogeneity was maintained through the centuries, with geography providing safety and security. Keeping in mind, the area was Islamized but still providing haven for Armenians and similar Christian groups.
    Fast forward to when the area came under Russian control that Western Europe began to take interest in this ‘settled’ population to hone their theories on World New Order programmes instigated by Adolf Hitler and renforced by others to this day.

  • Victor Grauer

    Musically, this is an extremely interesting region, with the richest array of polyphonic vocal traditions in the world, outside of Africa. For further discussion of these remarkable oral traditions and what they might mean, with links to some very beautiful and interesting audio clips, see Chapters Twelve and Thirteen of my online book, Sounding the Depths:

  • Justin Giancola

    Interesting that you make the exception “outside Africa” as whenever I’ve asked people about “African Harmony” who study music no one can tell me any rules and some even think it may have to do with Christian missionaries or one guy brought up them often using the phrygian mode which could be a link to the Shiraz Empire or Islam spreaders…and how would we know how long they used harmony?

    I do know of some groups making beats vocally and having polyrhythms with different tones.

  • Victor Grauer

    Justin, African music has been intensively studied over the last 50 years or so, and musicologists now agree that singing in harmony and, in certain cases, counterpoint, is an indigenous practice of considerable antiquity, completely independent of Western influence. Chapter One of my book offers some theories regarding the possible origins of these traditions along with several links to musical examples that might interest you.

  • Justin Giancola

    thanks, everything I’ve been able to find cites lots of examples of counterpoint but no examples of true harmony of melodies before colonialization – which is sortof the defacto for other places in the world. Where the caucasus stuff seems like it could be the origin of western harmony via early church chants in Armenia, Geogia etc.

    Whenever I hear “African” style harmonies in popular music I feel like I’m often hearing an extended 2nd in the high voice with a 5th in the middle voice..maybe? :) that’d fit well with pentatonic stuff.


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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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