Post-Neolithic revenge of the foragers

By Razib Khan | March 31, 2012 11:18 am

If I have something to share, why not share it? Over the past few weeks I’ve been ruminating on some of the possible intersections between historical population genetics and anthropology, especially in light of the discussion that I’ve had in the past with Robin Hanson about ‘farmers vs. foragers’. Entering into the record that such a dichotomy is too stark, and only marginally useful (i.e., I think it is important to separate farmers and foragers in to their own sub-classes, as some farmer types may share more with some forager types, and so forth), it may be that after the first wave of the Neolithic expansion the descendants of the foragers “bounced back” in many regions of the world. It does seem that ancient European hunter-gatherers have left modern descendants. They were not totally swamped out. Using autosomal patterns some genome bloggers have inferred the same pattern, and perhaps even a counter-reaction by “Mesolithic” populations which adopted some aspects of the “Neolithic” cultural toolkit.

But here let me come back to the Turks. Are they the descendants of farmers who expanded out of the valleys of eastern Asia? In fact, the historical and oral record indicates that many of these populations still engage, or engaged in, hunting & gathering until relatively recently (this was a slur against the early Mongol tribe, that they were “hunters of rats”). Keeping in mind that populations may shift cultural strategy depending on ecological opportunities (i.e., there are some attested “hunter-gatherers” who seem to be no more than marginalized agriculturalists which engage in hunting & gathering facultatively), one might posit that the Turks derive from Siberian populations which were shielded by Neolithic expansions due to reasons of ecology. You can’t farm very well north of the Yellow river plain.

So what happened? Some time between 1000 BC and 0 AD nomadism spread from the western end of the great Eurasian plain to the eastern end. Between 0 AD and 1000 AD these new nomands exploded out of their sub-Siberian ur-heimat. With Southeast Asia, the British Isles, and Japan excepted, horse nomads have influenced almost all Eurasian societies over the past 2,000 years, if not directly, at least via the menace which they presented over the horizon.

Related to this, a few years ago I read a history of Australian Aborigines. This population of hunter-gatherers is not very well suited to modern life, and attempts to turn them into agriculturalists on mission stations generally failed. But, Aborigines did take to a role as labor in the pastoral economy of the Murray-Darling basin. The same may be true to some extent of the hunter-gatherer populations of northern Eurasia. With the ‘invention’ of pastoralism, which was contingent only upon other aspects of a cultural toolkit introduced by farming populations, the hunter-gatherers, foragers in Robin Hanson’s formulation, found a purchase upon survival in the new landscape. In the case of the Turks they bounced back. But are the Turks sui generis? I think not. I believe that the prehistory of Europe has been deeply shaped by this dynamic between farmers and foragers, where the latter came into their own only after being enriched by the novel innovations introduced by the former.

Image credit: Dbachman


Comments (8)

  1. Hi Razib,
    Would just like to say that you are *on fire* with this post and the previous “Revenge of the Herders.” This seems to lay the groundwork for a new way of looking at the complexities of hunting, gathering, farming, and herding–it’s a dynamic approach with the potential to combine genetic, biological, archaeological, linguistic and sociocultural interpretations. Very exciting and I’m looking forward to more!

  2. Seconded. A pleasure to read Razib.

  3. Nice, but what are the “other aspects of a cultural toolkit introduced by farming populations?” Southern African Khoisan seemed to pull it off just fine without farmer neighbors.

    The Mongol and Turkish expansions look a lot like rehashes of the earlier expansion of Indo-Europeans. I can conjure up an ecological/nutritional basis for the former (70% of the energy in mare’s milk is lactose) but I don’t have any grasp of what may have fed the latter.

  4. John Massey

    You would think that it should have been obvious to them that Aborinal men would take much more successfully to droving, perpetually on the move, chasing down animals and sleeping under the stars, than they would to sedentary farming growing plants – women’s work. Natural athletes, they took to horse riding like ducks to water. The Aboriginal stockman is pretty legendary, although it conceals abuse. But there are still plenty of Aboriginal stockmen now, and these days they even get paid for it.

  5. @ John Massey
    “Natural athletes?” Sorry for saying so, but more than a few people might find such a statement offensive in the same way that most people nowadays think that “they have that natural rhythm” was an offensive way to characterize the descendants of Africans displaced by the slave trade with the American colonies. In fact, saying that Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islanders are “natural” anythings is offensive–full stop.

  6. pconroy

    @3 Henry,

    Wasn’t there a mini-ice age in the medieval period that reduced the amount of grass available for forage on the Steppes, and forced the Mongols to search for more/new pasturage, for their flocks??
    Same story I believe with the Huns centuries earlier.

  7. John Massey

    #5 – Why?

    If you don’t recognise the reality that most of the best sprinters in the world have West African ancestry, that’s not my problem, it’s your problem.

    If you don’t recognise the reality that most of the best long distance runners in the world have East African ancestry, that’s not my problem, it’s your problem.

    If you don’t recognise the reality that Aboriginal footballers are over-represented among the Australian football elite, that’s not my problem, it’s your problem.

    If you don’t recognise that Aboriginal people have exceptional spatial cognitive abilities that are well documented in the literature, that’s not my problem, it’s your problem.

  8. John Massey

    And who said anything about Torres Strait Islanders?

    You do realise that some Aboriginal people find it offensive to be grouped with them, don’t you?


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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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