Where Europe expanded & New Guinea persisted

By Razib Khan | January 3, 2012 1:26 am

The model outlined in Guns, Germs, and Steel serves to a great extent as a corrective to ideological theories about the expansion and rise to dominance of European power in the 18th and 19th centuries, before its crest in the 20th. Jared Diamond famously gives a great deal of weight to biogeographical parameters. Charles C. Mann has taken Diamond’s wager, and raised him one. But as noted in the comments below the ascendancy of Europeans in a geopolitical sense is only Act I in this drama.

At a certain point early in the 20th century Europeans or people of European descent (e.g., the scions of the white Creoles in Latin American nations where the majority were indigenous or mestizo) were dominant agents across almost the whole of the globe. Even in nations which remained independent, such as Persia or China, European powers were influential, and independence was maintained in part due to rivalries.

But, there is a differentiation here that must be noted. In some regions, obviously Europe itself, but in much of North America, southern South America, parts of southern Africa, and Australia and New Zealand, people of European descent became demographically preponderant. In other areas, such as India, Europeans were unquestionably the ruling stratum, but their longer term demographic impact was to be marginal. Why the difference? As observed by readers the key here is that in some regions where Europeans intruded they filled the vacuum after a demographic collapse, usually induced by introduction of diseases to which the natives were not immune. In the natural course of things one imagines that native populations would have rebounded. And in fact in certain areas they did, such as the highlands of the Andes. But a native rebound would never be possible in a situation where Europeans settled the land.

The highland zones of Latin America are particularly interest because they illustrate the perils and promise of these regions. In the Andes the elevation is such that Europeans exhibited great physiological stress, and it was reputed that women of European descent were simply unable to carry children to term. The historical records make it clear that the collapse of the Inca Empire was preceded by plagues, almost certainly introduced by the Spaniards. But in the centuries after the collapse the Inca cultural system did not disappear. On the contrary, the Inca language, Quechua, became the lingua franca of the highlands, and a post-Inca aristocracy retained a measure of power in this region. Why? Despite demographic catastrophe due to germs, germs, germs, and a lesser extent guns and steel, the Europeans themselves had to face up to the limits imposed by oxygen. In contrast, the highlands of Central America, in particular around Costa Rica, were much more healthful than the coasts. In much of this region, down into northern South America, the coastal regions are populated disproportionately by people of African descent. That is because of the new endemic status of diseases such as malaria, to which Europeans and indigenous people were vulnerable.

We are frankly in our age reluctant to talk about the real biological differences between human populations because of the excesses in this area in the past. But the human geography of the world today is not a function of ideology, but biology! The Scottish attempt to establish a colony in Panama failed for many reasons, but it is clear that the difficulties that Europeans had with lowland tropical climates was one major factor which serves to scaffold the patterns of settlement we do see. The success of European settlement, as opposed to simply colonial dominion, in temperate climates was not a matter of ideology. The Dutch East Indies company sent hundreds of thousands, if not millions (the labor pool expanded out across northern Germany), of young men to man its enterprises in the eastern seas over several hundred years. Though there is a population of mixed-race people who descend from these, their long term demographic impact has been trivial next to the smaller number of Dutch, French, and German pioneers who settled the Cape, and became the ancestors of the Afrikaners. Of course this is the region of southern Africa with a Mediterranean climate, and where the lack of efficacy of the Bantu agricultural toolkit allowed for the persistence of large numbers of Khoisan people down to the early modern period.

Up to this point I’ve been emphasizing disease. But that’s just the most obvious issue. The Bantu likely introduced practice of cattle herding to the Khoikhoi, so those who pushed west toward the Cape could theoretically have switched away from some aspects of their culture to become pure pastoralists. But this does not seem to have happened. In First Farmers Peter Bellwood argues that there is a consistent problem with getting non-farming populations to engage in sedentary agriculture (though pastoralism seems to come easier). Cultural, and perhaps biobehavioral, dispositions are hard to transmit. But there is no reason why switching from wheat to rice based agriculture should be so easy. Argentina’s pampas and Australia’s Murray-Darling basin were candidates for easy transplantation of European cultural systems, which existed as complex interdependent implicit folkways. In tropical or semi-tropical zones where Europeans settled it seems most often that instead of being primary producers they had to install themselves as the drivers of men, extracting rents in a relatively brute force fashion (e.g., slave capitalism in the South, Caribbean, and northeast Brazil).

Which brings me to New Guinea. Below is a topographical map. You can see that substantial zones of the highlands are at elevations of ~10,000 feet. To no great surprise these highland regions are also the districts with the highest population densities across the island. The whole island of New Guinea has a population somewhat less than 10 million. This is not exceedingly large (Taiwan has more than 20 million), but it is certainly indicative of a basal level of primary productivity due to the system of agriculture which Papuans practice.

Unlike the Papuans, their Australian cousins never took up agriculture, and likely never attained the same population densities or numbers. And, they have been much more decimated by Europeans. But a question: if the people of New Guinea were isolated, why did they not suffer a major population crash? Or did they? And we simply don’t know. This doesn’t seem implausible on the fact of it, though a quick literature search didn’t bring anything up. One issue that has be mooted is that it is clear that New Guinea had a great deal of contact with Southeast Asia over its history. Not only are the coastal people strongly influenced by Austronesians, but the western fringe of New Guinea may have been in the orbit of Majapahit, tenuous as that may be.

I am curious about New Guinea and its people, but all the accessible books or documentaries are rather similar, in sensationalizing (e.g., “headhunters!”) or romanticizing (e.g., “an innocent people who know not the ways of the world”). But this enormous island is peculiar, as it resisted the wave of the Austronesians, and developed in parallel with the rest of the world its own system of agriculture. And unlike other agricultural societies there never seems to have been a phase of political consolidation. Rather, New Guinea remained pre-state, perhaps one of the most pure illustrations of Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization.

In any case, I’d be curious about some good book recommendations about New Guinea. I’m especially interested in the highlands.

Image credits: Wikipedia (public domain)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Culture
MORE ABOUT: New Guinea
  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    I suspect that highland New Guinea was never isolated from Eurasian diseases. Their contact with the rest of the world was comparable to the Peruvians before European contact (i.e. they were already plagued by disease).

    Many years ago I read this (I think it’s the right book), and enjoyed it:


  • Henry Harpending

    A striking result in the original Rosenberg and others paper in Science
    is that the PNG and Melanesian group, green, never leaked into their neighbors. Every other major group they found is also found in neighbors, for example sub-Saharan African in the Mediterranean, European in Asians, etc. Not so for the Oceanians of that paper.


  • ExPat

    I believe that the geographical differances between New Gunea and Australia presented tremendous challenges to the establishment of aboriginal populations. The differances between the agrarian model pursued by the New Guinea group and that of hunter gatherer in the case of the Australian branch is quite interesting. It promotes the question of disimilarity between the populations. Did the Australian group split culturally with the parent population and pursue cultural traits associated with nomadic peoples. Was this present in the group prior to migration or was it acquired with the abundance of food sources / stocks?

  • http://forwhattheywereweare.blogspot.com/ Maju

    “The Scottish attempt to establish a colony in Panama failed for many reasons, but it is clear that the difficulties that Europeans had with lowland tropical climates was one major factor”…

    Then why did Castilians succeed? Please! You are putting the cart before the horses: you believe in this biological explanation and try to reason everything as result of it. That’s pseudo-science!

    As for New Guinea (or the Amazonian jungle for the matter, i.e. the jungle), what happens is that the environment is relatively hostile for human habitation (not good farming land) and only those who have been accustomed since birth have good chances of managing well. For European colonists that would be one of the less friendly kind of environments, so they just had to leave it aside for the greatest part, what allowed natives to persist and mostly as independent tribal entities. Only with the late 20th century kind of technology can, up to a point, the jungle be exploited in an short-term effective way (and that’s a serious global environmental risk but off-topic).

    So what we see is that where Europeans could not impose their rule effectively and specially exploit the area economically, natives persisted in spite of contact and diseases. So diseases are not that important.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    Parts of New Guinea (mainly the coastal areas) may have had significant contact with outsiders, but much of the interior remains extremely isolated even today. Papua New Guinea has something like 800 mutually unintelligible languages, most of which have fewer than 1,000 speakers and which are confined to single valleys. Except for parts of Amazonia you won’t find this extreme isolation anywhere in the Western Hemisphere.

  • dave chamberlin

    I believe I have exactly the book for you Razib. “Under the Mountain Wall, a Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea” by Peter Mathiessen. Matthiesson writes this book in a completely different style than his later books, he is just an unseen reporter of an agricultural community absolutely untouched by the outside world until the small party he was part of made contact with them in the late 1950’s. Of course I am highly biased because primitive cultures fascinate me but I can’t reccomend this book highly enough. The reasons why an agricultural community could remain completely isolated from the outside world until so recently is two fold. The people who lived there were incredibly dangerous and violent to outsiders, the saying amoung sailors was if you wrecked your boat on the shores of New Guinea, swim the other way. Secondly each rugged mountain valley was isolated from the next. Anyway, happy reading.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Essentially, there are two points where New Guinea could have suffered a major population crash.

    One would be when the Austronesians came (traditionally assumed to be around 3,000 years ago, but possibly a few thousand years earlier). The issue here is their impact on the island, both genetically and linguistically, shouldn’t be limited to the northern coast and offshore islands in that case, unless of course the densely populated Paupans infected the Austronesians with their own diseases as well, essentially evening the score during the recovery period.

    The second would be after the formation of centralized empires in the Indonesian archipelago. Presuming this happened a few hundred years before the Colombian Exchange, there probably was more than enough time for the population to recover in the highlands. Still, the sheer linguistic diversity of New Guinea argues against this, as even the dominant Trans-New Guinea language family seems to be at least several thousands of years old, dating back to the spread of highland agriculture into the lowlands. If there was a great dying within the last 1,000 years, we should see what you note from the Andes, with smaller indigenous groups folding into their neighbors.

    Still, wouldn’t it be pretty easy to find out the answer with genetics? I mean, you can determine population bottlenecks through looking at mitochondrial lineages, so a study of a few thousand people scattered across different parts of New Guinea should determine when, if ever, there was a winnowing of the population. If many different ethnic groups showed a rise from a small population at roughly the same time period (which was also clearly post-agriculture), then it would be highly suggestive of a major, island-wide disease episode.

    One thing I’m wondering, going back to my discussion of Polynesians in the other thread, is if maybe Amerinds did so poorly not just due to their lack of Eurasian domesticates. It’s still a bit unclear when humans migrated to the Americas, but it’s clear that Paupans lived in New Guinea for at least twice, and possibly four times as long. Amerinds also came from a small founding population (under 100 according to some estimates). I’m not aware of any estimates for the founding population of New Guinea, but we do know they took on some Denisova genome, meaning they started out a bit more genetically diverse. So the Paupans had a more diverse genetic base, as well as far more time to diversify (both in terms of total settlement time, and amount of time post-agriculture). Add this to the high population levels that settled agriculture brought, and the resultant disease resistance, and maybe this was enough to even withstand swine-introduced diseases.

    In contrast, the Amerind could have basically been the human version of the Irish Potato Famine – a highly similar group genetically which lacked the diverse alleles needed to withstand externally introduced plagues. It might be telling that one of the few North American groups which did not suffer greatly from the crash, and has actually grown in time, is the Navajo, who speak a Na-Dené language, and presumably have a substantial percentage of their genome from the “second wave” of migrants to the Americas.

  • http://www.rishon-rishon.com David Boxenhorn

    It’s not true that the New Guineans were as isolated as Peter (and others) imply. All populations were in contact with their neighbors, most New Guineans were multilingual, and many intermarried with speakers of other languages. The coastal populations were in contact with other islands. Any disease that reached the coast would eventually reach the highlands, as did sweet potatoes and pigs.

  • dave chamberlin

    @8) I stand corrected. What I should have said was the modern world had no idea these people even existed until planes flying over central New Guinea in the late 1930’s were amazed to look down on agricultural fields in an area assumed to be wilderness. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that they were contacted. They were very isolated, but as you point out not completely and not indefinitely.

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

    Then why did Castilians succeed? Please! You are putting the cart before the horses: you believe in this biological explanation and try to reason everything as result of it. That’s pseudo-science!

    this is kind of retarded. the spanish rule persisted (at least nominally). but the lowlands of much of central america were not inhabited by many ‘castilians.’ and rule itself was tenuous at best, e.g., belize and the independence of the ‘mosquito coast.’ that was my point. or did you not understand my point? chill on your tone. the scots were trying to replicate the english successes in eastern north america. they couldn’t. though they may have succeeded in creating sugar colonies as the english did in the carribean if they had tried something similar. you’re not always a thousand times more informed than everyone else, though you act like it.

    As for New Guinea (or the Amazonian jungle for the matter, i.e. the jungle), what happens is that the environment is relatively hostile for human habitation (not good farming land) and only those who have been accustomed since birth have good chances of managing well.

    highland new guinea is relatively densely populated. did you not know that?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Henry Harpending –

    I think the results of that study are colored by the choice of groups. It’s pretty clear that some Papaun or Melanesian genes played a part in the formation of the Polynesian people.

    On the other extreme, there are languages in Timor and nearby islands which are fairly closely related to one branch of the Trans-New Guinea languages. This language family is thought to be widespread within New Guinea due to the localized adoption of agriculture. It seems that the highlanders spread into the Lesser Sunda islands to some degree prior to the Austronesians.

    In addition, the languages on Halmahera island (in the North Maluku) are Papaun languages related to those of far Western New Guinea. The most famous of these – Ternate and Tidore – were the respective lingua francas of eponymous trading hubs and regional empires.

    Finally, a possible Papaun language was spoken on Sumbawa (not far from Bali) until 1815 when the eruption of a local volcano wiped out the group. As with Ternate and Tidore, they were an oceanic trading state, not a hunter-gatherer group. Thus it seems that Papuan farmers at least made it that far west before the Austronesian expansion halted their progress.

  • Jacob Roberson

    Maju Says:
    Then why did Castilians succeed? Please! You are putting the cart before the horses: you believe in this biological explanation and try to reason everything as result of it. That’s pseudo-science!

    North euro fail? South euro (especially Arab-mixed/-colored) succeed? That’s no surprise.

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

    North euro fail? South euro (especially Arab-mixed/-colored) succeed? That’s no surprise.

    the spanish had nominal control over large zones of their dominion. the area the scottish attempted to colonize was exactly one of those areas.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    * Just to run through the Jared Diamond analysis on the Papuan Highlands from Guns, Germs and Steel a bit (a part of the book with which he had more personal experience than many of the other cultures he discusses):

    1. The Papuans were Neolithic farmers who are far better at fending off potential invading populations, had more of an intense need to hold their ground than hunter-gatherers, and holding their own better demographically if invaded than hunter-gatherer societies.

    2. New Guinea lacked enough good candidates for animal domestication and O.K. but less than wonderful options for plant domestication, which limited how advanced its agriculture and society good get.

    3. New Guinea’s highlands are surrounded by concentric biogeographic zones that require very different adaptations and thereby discourage those attracted to the lowland coastal environment to move inland, while simultaneously offering no ready path of expansion out of the highlands for the highland Papuans with their food production tool kit and lost maritime skills. The nearest place they could have expanded into where their food production tool kit and culture would have been functional was too far away for them to discover.

    4. New Guinea’s biogeographic zones may have provided a de facto quarantine. Jungle/swamp diseases from the lowlands wouldn’t thrive in the highlands. Diseases that were naturally suited to the highlands had to get their disease vectors across biologically unfriendly to the disease vector intervening areas. By way of historical comparison, a number of the major diseases of Europe had their origins in biogeographically similar Asia and visa versa.

    * Beyond that summary some of my thoughts:

    ** The possibility of coastal lowland New Guineans spreading diseases to people further inland who in turn spread them to highlanders could have happened with more robust diseases ***even without any direct contact between an Austronesian disease source population and the Papuan highlanders,***, so that may have built up some immunity.

    If the amount of interaction between the different populations (lowland to highland and intrahighland) were thin enough (and maybe the pre-state warfare Papuans have is an adaptation to that), an all at once crash could have been avoided and would be much harder to find archaeological traces of. Hunter-gatherer societies have individuals who cover a lot more territory, and early metal age societies (like the Aztecs and Incas) have more organized sustained higher volume trade routes than neolithic farming societies. If the disease progress is slow enough to hit only a few score new linguistic groups in any given year, it doesn’t look like a population crash, even if it eventually hits everyone on the island.

    ** An inability of the Papuan highlanders to expand by spreading their food production tool kit to large empires may also have screwed up the advantages associated with being first farmers and culturally dominating neighboring peoples or “virgin territory” that you beat to food domestication technology, and that expansion dynamic may be pretty important in making it worthwhile to establish larger scale states. The original expansion across the highlands of the first farmer society within the highlands itself may have been so long ago that we can no longer find any traces of it. Thousands of years in which no one ever gets a decisive edge could pass if there are no huge economies of scale with their farming technologies.

    ** One important factor in New World state formation was the need for large scale public works (e.g. the Four Corners has the first documented resevoir in North America ca. 900 CE). Aridity also seemed to necessitate public works and state formation to facilitate it in Egypt and Jericho and Mesopotamia (even the Roman empire is known for aquiducts and long distance grain transport made necessary by less than optimal localcereal growing conditions – Italy didn’t produce enough grain to feed Rome by itself). If the Papuan highlands weren’t so arid as any of those places, their terracing and irrigation may have been small enough in scale to make state formation unnecessary to get it done. Similarly, it is worth noting that very long time periods (ca. 5,000 years perhaps) seem to have elapsed between the North Chinese Neolithic and state formation in China, and even though state formation in Japan had its genesis in a reasonable unified wave of migration of Korea by the Yaoyi who had rice farming and horses and bronze they were extremely fragmented for the first half a dozens centuries or so.

    ** It is also worth making comparisons to the Caucusas Mountains, the Nuba Mountain populations, and the Alps, all of which seem to be able to maintain extraordinary degrees of isolation from the outside and highly balkanized cultures internally. There are as many countries and language families between Russia and Turkey as there are in vast areas of Europe’s continent plains and highlands seem to be particularly good at preserving relict populations. The Swiss are a geographically tiny country that has four official languages, delegates far more authority than a U.S. state to cantons the size of U.S. counties, and manages to secure consent to what little canton and national level authority there is only with extreme levels of electoral consultation. The Nuba Mountains has something like four completely distinct language families and similar levels of genetic diversity and cultural diversity in an area the size of a Wyoming county. Appalacia was also not particular accountable to the central government well in the late 19th and even early 20th centuries, even in the context of a powerful and large nation-state.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Googling around, I found this study of the genetics of Eastern Indonesia (by which they mean some of the Lesser Sundas) from 2009. Sadly, it mainly focuses on Y chromosomes and Mitochondria, not nuclear DNA, and the sample used, particularly for non-Austronesian peoples, is rather small

    A few interesting notes.

    1. Every population shows a mixture between Austronesian, Papaun, and presumed paleolithic remnant DNA.

    2. There is no correlation between speaking an Austronesian language and Asian ancestry – or between speaking a Papuan language and Papuan ancestry.

    3. Although it’s not entirely clear which maternal lines are Papuan versus paleolithic, at least a few percent of mitochondrial ancestry dates to recent migration from Papua New Guinea. The majority female ancestry in most groups is Asian (Austronesian), regardless of language

    4. On the male side, most ethnic groups are clearly Melanesian. No distinction is made between paleolithic and neolithic lines.

    Apparently, the split between “Asian” females and “Melanesian” males is also common in similarly mixed populations in insular Melanesia and Polynesia. One would assume the opposite without genetic data, given Austronesian ended up the dominant language family. Perhaps a hybrid culture developed around PNG, where Papuan males took on Austronesian wives, which ultimately spread from Wallace’s line to Hawaii/New Zealand/Easter Island. However, for whatever reason, the maternal side of the culture, instead of the paternal, tended to prevail in most places.

  • Amanda S

    For the story of European contact with the New Guinea highlands, I would strongly recommend a trilogy of documentaries made by film-makers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson.

    First Contact (1983)
    Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1989)
    Black Harvest (1992)

    From accounts that I’ve read from Australian planters and patrol officers from colonial days, it seems that many of them found the climate in the New Guinea highlands very pleasant and, in the early days of contact, they didn’t need to worry too much about diseases like malaria. Building roads from coastal areas into the highlands has increased the prevalence of malaria there so that it’s now a major problem. Many of the strains of malaria in New Guinea are drug resistant.


  • Nick

    #4 and #10:
    Based on my experience in Nicaragua, I would say that not only *was* rule in the Mosquito Coast tenuous, it currently *is* tenous. The eastern half of the country is sparsely populated, the population there is very different demographically than the western half, the two departments that comprise Nicaragua’s portion of the Mosquito Coast are autonomous (and somewhat lawless, based on what I’ve heard) and there isn’t even a paved road connecting the west and the east coasts.

  • SVK

    For crisp adventure writing, fascinating observations of tribes, ( one which only fought at night, another semi-aquatic with adapted legs and almost webbed feet).

    “Some Experiences of a New Guinea Resident Magistrate” C.A.W. Monckton (1920)

    Politically incorrect and fearless, could never be rehabilitated, yet respectful of the natives.


  • Stephen Hemenway

    I just read a good book called “Throwim Way Leg” by mammologist Tim Flannery about his travels in the highlands of New Guinea. He gives a great sense of the people there and the changes that are rapidly happening. There are stories about highlands people who move to the lowlands and succumb to diseases such as malaria, etc. And also a story about a pig disease that was newly introduced to the highlands with devastating results. Of course it’s all anecdotal.

  • AJ

    @ Karl Zimmerman : What are the references for your statement :
    “It might be telling that one of the few North American groups which did not suffer greatly from the crash, and has actually grown in time, is the Navajo”.

    @Razib: What do you think about the above statement??

  • Liesel

    Did you know that Latvians briefly colonized Trinidad? I realize this does not get you closer to understanding New Guinea. But can you imagine, Latvian speaking Caribbean islands?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    AJ –

    It was just musings, but let’s look at the data:

    According to this book, the Navajo population was roughly 2,000 in 1700, and grew to 10,000 by 1850. This would mean roughly 2.67% annual population growth – pretty good considering the rampant epidemics running through the area.

    In the 1860s, the U.S interned the entire Navajo population for four years. During this period 2,380 died – around a third of those interned, and 20% of the tribe’s total population. However, this wasn’t just due to smallpox, but the dysentery brought on by cramped conditions and other diseases. A terrible toll for disease, sure, but anyone kept under those conditions would have fairly high mortality.

    Since gaining their own reservation in 1868, growth has been consistently positive. Look at this link to see the explosive growth in the Navajo population. The Nation grew from 9,000 in 1868 (the foundation of the reservation) to 175,228 in 2000. Average annual population growth was 2.5%.

    this book has the most telling paragraph, however.

    Research has shown that the Navajos had lower mortality than other Indian tribes in the 19th century, especially compared to their Hopi neighbors, who lived close together in small villages atop mesas. The Navajos, in contrast, lived at great distances from each other. The Navajo dependence on stock raising encouraged a dispersed residence pattern, which may have incidentally prevented the spread of epidemic disease. In the late 19th century the Hopis experienced several devastating smallpox epidemics, while the Navajos did not. The worst recorded epidemic among the Navajos was the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, but even though nearly two thousand Navajos died from it, the long-term growth of the Navajo population seems to have been little affected.

    All the suppositions in the paragraph above may be true. In addition, livestock exposure of course provided some resistance (although how they got over initial problems from being associated with livestock is another issue). But the Navajo have a substantial proportion of their genes from a second migration from Asia, which might mean their immune system is slightly different than most other Amerinds. In addition, they took many Pueblo peoples into their fold, meaning they are also more genetically diverse than the norm for an “unadmixed” Native American tribe. This also may partially explain why they fared so much better in recorded history than neighboring tribes with far longer settled histories.

    Liesel –

    The Latvians did not have colonies, Courland did. Courland was a Polish vassal, with a German ruling class. They established some trading posts in Africa, as well as a colony in Tobago.

  • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    Just regarding the Navajos, I came across an interesting video presentation. For example he mentions that current population of Navajo is a result of a 19th century bottleneck that reduced the population to 3,000 individuals.

    Issues in Genetic Testing in Navajo Populations:



  • Karl Zimmerman


    I listened to the beginning of the presentation, and I have my doubts about the 3,000 figure. I could buy 3,000 if it meant the start of the 19th century, but linking it to the U.S. policy is ridiculous.

    First, as I had a link above, the Navajo Reservation recorded 9,000 inhabitants as of 1868, which is immediately after the “genocide” of the tribe. Second, as my last link shows, there were 7,300 Navajo in Bosque Redondo at the time of its closure. There were clearly 2-3 times as many Navajo as he says.

    I would believe, given the age spread of a hypothetical population of 8,000-9,000, that after discounting children, those past childbearing ages, and those who either didn’t have offspring or had their lines die out since (either due to erasure of the Y/Mitochondrial lines or simple petering out), that you might get down to a population of only around 3,000. But that’s not the same thing, and as I said above, it doesn’t look like there was a dramatic bottleneck in the Navajo population during the 19th century, given pre-“genocide” figures are estimated at around 10,000.

  • pconroy

    Regarding the Navajo, my wife worked as a doctor for the Indian Health Service on the Navajo reservation for a few years, and when driving with her to Burning Man a few years ago, we passed through countryside she said resembled closely the reservation land. All I can say, as an Irishman, was that I was shocked that anything could grow in such a place, as it was more desert than anything else, the ground literally was scorched earth, grass grew sparsely and was a yellowish/orange/rusty color, and there were a few small, scrawny half-starving cattle roaming about.

    1. People were widely scattered, with no urban center
    2. No right minded European settler would be in any way interested in such a desolate place

    No wonder the Navajo survived and multiplied?!

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    The Navajo and some of the Southwestern U.S. Indians did have the advantage of not facing long forced migrations to places they lacked the set of cultural adaptations and technologies to survive in at the outset. Most Native Americans in the East were diasporan strangers in strange lands.

  • AJ

    @Karl Zimmerman:
    Thanks for your reply! However I would like to know any references as to the reason the Navajo have more resistance is due to their Na Dene ancestry rather than it being an artifact of their unique geographical location and other factors specific to only the Navajo of all Na Dene groups.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    pconroy –

    The Navajo did develop a lot of health issues in the 20th century, like tuberculosis. Oddly, this was because of their success – unlike other tribes, their population grew dramatically, yet they were on low-quality land which couldn’t support them very well, leading to, among other things, highly crowded living and poor sanitation.

    ohwilleke –

    Displacement obviously causes issues. It may be part of the reason why there are ten times as many Sioux today as there are Comanche or Cheyenne. All three groups took up a nomadic horse-based lifestyle, but the former stayed in (portions) of their original territory, while the latter two were largely moved to Oklahoma.

    When you compare groups that haven’t been displaced, however, it’s not so clear. The 2010 ACS reported 308,000 Navajo. In contrast, there were only around 59,000 Puebloans in total – many of whom have lived in the same villages since Spanish contact. Other Southwest farming groups, like the Tohono O’Odham, Pima, and Yaqui, also have very sparse populations (in the 20,000 range for each one. In contrast, the Apache tribes altogether (also Na Dene) now have 65,000 members, despite their own history being predominantly hunter-gatherer.

    AJ –

    The question of Na Dene ancestry providing some disease resistance was the musing on my part. It’s unlikely to be solved any time soon, because American Indians in general, and Navajo in particular, are very suspicious of genetic testing unless it’s shown to be of immediate benefit (e.g., disease treatment).

    That said, if I was hypothesizing anything, it would be the slightly different genetic profile plus agriculture and animal husbandry were the key to the demographic success of the Navajo. Other Na Dene people certainly did suffer from European diseases. These included the Lipan Apache (those in Texas) the Tinglit (around 50% of their population died in the 19th century), and most of the Pacific Coast Athabaskan groups (some of which were entirely wiped out). However, all other Na Dene groups were either entirely hunter-gatherers, or in the case of some of the Apache, only engaged in farming to a minor extent, and thus may not be the best comparison.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    @ Karl Zimmerman

    Fair points. A transition to pastoralism certainly helped the Navajo as well. The examples you point out of non-displaced populations that took hits also suggest that the Navajos benefited from being outside effective Spanish rule for much longer than other groups, and from being distant from places that experienced gold or silver rushes (which were the proximate causes of the late but stark declines of the Utes and many California tribes) or had desirable farmland snapped up by homesteaders and the like.

  • Jess Tauber

    I note that nobody here has mentioned Austroasiatic languages, also mostly displaced by Austronesians. Some of these are spoken by Negrito populations, who had a very widespread distribution in the past. It would be very interesting to know how far these languages and peoples had been able to penetrate towards if not into New Guinea.

    As for the blind acceptance of Greenberg’s three-wave model of peopling of the Americas, I’d be a bit careful here. Greenberg was notoriously sloppy in his American work, and his language stocks are accepted by practically no professional historical linguists (even his African work is now starting to be questioned). This doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate macro-families, just that G’s aren’t them.

    I’ve been working on Yahgan, from Tierra del Fuego, for about 15 years now (reworking the dictionary, grammar, texts and such). Most linguists consider it a genetic isolate, as it has no obvious resemblance except for a handful of borrowings to its neighbors. Greenberg includes it in with his ‘Andean’ macrofamily. I’ve found very, very strong links between Yahgan and SALISHAN, found thousands of miles away in the North American Pacific Northwest, and plan to publish soon. The latter recognized family was placed by Greenberg first with his Mosan macro-family (Salish, Chemakuan, Wakashan- continuing from Sapir and Swadesh) and further into a larger stock containing Algonkian-Ritwan and others stretching across North America.

    The connection between Yahgan and Salishan being apparently much stronger than either has with its neighbors means that the linguistic and cultural prehistory of the Americas is likely to be a bit more complicated than usually advertized by people seeking simple pigeonholes. In addition, there seem to be some much older links to Austroasiatic languages, whereas other ‘Amerind’ appears to be associated with more northerly Old World linguistic lineages. So how many ‘waves’ are we talking about?

  • Karl Zimmerman

    Jess –

    While I understand your point about Amerind not being supported in terms of linguistics, I think there is enough data to assume that the Na Dene are part of a second migration to the New World. In terms of genetics, Y Haplogroup C3 is pretty closely correlated with Na Dene languages, although it’s also found in somewhat low values among other groups in the north, like the Cree and Sioux. Second, a nuclear genetic study has found at least the Chipeweyen people are actually more “Siberian” than “Native American,” and that they were the most divergent population out of all the populations sampled.

    The second study shows a huge issue with Native American genetic analyses – they didn’t use a single population from the United States, probably due to the hesitancy of any U.S. tribes to be involved in such studies. So there is a huge black hole between Canada and Mexico.

    On the linguistic side, Dené–Yeniseian is actually fairly accepted now among mainstream linguists since Edward Vajda’s paper came out. This makes a more recent origin for the language group in the Old World more plausible, unless one hypothesizes the Yeniseian’s are a back-migration from North America (which I believe the genetic data does not support).

    As to an Austroasiatic link, it’s possible, but I’m not aware of any genetic markers shared between Southeast Asians and indigenous Americans to the exclusion of North Asians. If you can point me to such evidence, I’d be much obliged.


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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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