Facing the ocean

By Razib Khan | April 28, 2012 11:35 pm

Halford Mackinder’s conceptualization of the world

With the recent publication of the paper on the archaeogenetics of Neolithic Sweden I feel like we’re nearing a precipice. That precipice overlooks lands of great richness, filled with hope. It’s nothing to fear. It is in short a total re-ordering of our conception of the recent human past, at minimum. The “pots not people” paradigm arose in archaeology over the past few generations due to both scholarly and ideological factors. The scholarly ones being that intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th century made assumptions of extremely tight correspondence between material and cultural characteristics, and demographic dynamics, which seem to have been false. Therefore, the rise of an Anglo-Saxon England and the marginalization of Celtic Britain to the western fringes was not just a cultural reality, but also a fundamentally racial one, as Germans replaced Celts in totality. The ideological problem is that this particular framework was take as a given by the Nazis during World War II, lending a bad odor to the

hypotheses of migration which were once so ascendant.

No one could deny that material cultures rise and fall in pulses, and exhibit variation in spatial distribution over the millennia. But by and large scholars large took a very skeptical view of the idea that large scale migrations of populations may have occurred in prehistory, and could have been the underlying causal factors driving the changes in material culture. But a null hypothesis of demographic stasis was in itself a positive statement of beliefs as to the character of the human past. It was no withholding of judgement.

Today the results from ancient DNA, and more powerful inferential methods which extract patterns out of extant variation, simply can not be easily fitted into a “pots not people” framework. Nor can we go back to a race-is-culture and culture-is-race model in the vein of the Victorians. Rather, the new order model must take into account the imperfect, but non-trivial, correlation between cultural and genetic variation, and, the differences between patterns of cultural and genetic variation.

L. L. Cavalli-Sforza first made famous the correlation between language and genes in History and Geography of Human Genes. But over the past generation a lot of human genetics does seem to confirm that the sharp discontinuity between language families is correlated with discontinuity between genes. I say correlated, because though by and large a demarcated population may have one native language to contrast it with its neighbors, these populations are rarely have one “native genotype” to contrast with their neighbors. Though two populations may exhibit genetic differences, if they have been neighbors for any period of time there is usually gene flow across them which reduces between population difference. A classic case of this can be found in Southern Africa. The Xhosa Bantu ethnic group has long been geographic neighbors with Khoisan populations. This shows in their genomes, which are on the order of 10-20% Khoisan. Additionally, the Khoisan themselves show admixture, from the Bantu, and even Europeans! But though the Xhosa language shows some Khoisan influence, it is certainly not “10-20%”, whatever that may be. Similarly, despite the presence of European and Bantu origin ancestry in the Bushmen, they remain culturally distinct.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward: you are 50% genetically derived from each parent, you are not necessarily 50% culturally derived from each parent.  If parents differ in language, religion, and norms, the children may select one particular set of cultural values from one parent, usually in line with the majority culture. In this way individuals who migrate between populations may introduce genetic diversity, but not so much cultural diversity. But this is on a relative small scale, that of the clan or band. What about on a larger structural scale?

Over the past 500 years we have seen cultural shifts which had very little to do with genetics. From what I have read Gaelic went from being the majority to the minority language of the Irish Roman Catholic peasantry between 1800 and 1850. Presumably the famine of those years played a role. Whatever the specific historical factors at work, obviously this was a massively significant shift, without much genetic cause. On contrary, previous non-Gaelic speaking transplants either assimilated (e.g., the Old English and the Norse-Gaels), or remained culturally distinct (e.g., the Ulster Scots and the New English). A contrast to this was the Columbian Exchange, which involved either massive cultural and genetic replacement, or substantial cultural replacement and significant genetic amalgamation.
A key point is that massive cultural change does not always correlate with massive genetic change. The reason that “pots not people” became popular is that earlier scholarship was predicated on an assumption of perfect correspondence, rather than correlation of patterns. As an example of what I mean, assume that you are a given a population of predominantly African origin, with a European minority ancestral component. The population speak a Germanic language, and adhere to Protestant Christianity. What region of Europe would you assume that the European ancestral contribution derived from? Of course it would be Northwest Europe, and that is exactly what you see in black Americans, and what you do not see in black Brazilians, who speak a Southwest European language and are predominantly Roman Catholics. Despite the European language and religion of the African Diaspora of the New World, the dominant genetic contribution remains African. But, you can derive from the cultural identity of these groups which European populations amalgamated with them genetically, or inversely, you can make reasonable inferences of cultural state simply by observing the character of European ancestry on a population level! In other words, robust correlations between genes and culture can occur, even if the two do not exhibit the same weight from population to population (i.e., black Americans are mostly European culturally, but genetically mostly African).

Ruminations on these issues are important when taking into account the latest findings of genome bloggers. As has been noted, trying to reconstruct past populations as combinations of present populations is going to miss something. That is, there is no guarantee that the present captures all the variation of the past. Additionally, the analytic tools must always be used judiciously. The model based clustering algorithms return “ancestral components,” but only in some specific cases do they truly return proportions which align with admixtures between real concrete populations. Rather, you get back patterns of variation and relationships which are visualized for you, but must not be taken in a literal fashion. In regards to the hypothesis free method of principal component analysis, the independent dimensions of variation are still conditional upon the variation you put into the algorithm. By this, I mean that if you overload the data set with one particular population, then the largest explanatory dimensions of variation are going to be dictated by that population.

With all due caution entered into the record, it does seem that some “mysteries” are going to solved in the near future, at least to a first approximation. As far back as the mid-2000s it was apparent in the early STRUCTURE analyses using microsatellites that some European populations, the French Basque and Sardinians, lacked an affinity which spanned Central Eurasia, and reached deep into South Asia. Adding Finns into the mix seems to have confirmed that they too seem to lack it. The main “twist” on this picture though seems to be that Lithuanians and Latvians also have very little of it too. But there is also earlier uniparental work which suggests marginal differences between Indo-European and Finnic populations in the northeast Baltic. To-be-published work on Indian genetics does seem to imply that there was significant in-migration of Indo-European populations into the subcontinent within the last 4,000 years. And an earlier publication by the same group confirmed the old intuition that South Asians seem to exhibit significant, though not total, affinity to West Eurasians. That affinity being a product of recent descent in part from West Eurasians, via a hybridization event.

But perhaps the biggest general takeaway, as opposed to specific inference, is that the humans who inhabit the southern and western reaches of “Rimland” are syntheses which emerged in the last 10,000 years. Southeast Asians are derived from several pulses of farmers from the fringes of what became southern China, but absorbing an ancient earlier substratum. South Asians are the product of a fusion of West Eurasians and the western elements of that same substratum, a Paleolithic population of South Eurasians who once spanned the Indus to the South China Sea, and extant today in “pure” form only in the Andaman Islands and the Negritos of the Malay peninsula.* At minimum Europe looks be a synthesis of least two pulses from outside or the margins of Europe (i.e., Southwest Asia and West Central Eurasia), as well as possible expansions from within the subcontinent, not to mention assimilation of the deeply rooted populations by an within the newcomers. As far as the Middle East and North Africa, I think there is enough circumstantial evidence that there too there have been significant population movements since the Neolithic. This is perhaps why many of the earlier genetic analyses using particular Southwest Asian populations as “references” for the original Middle Eastern farmers who moved into Europe may have yielded misleading results.

The major lacunae in my model is in East Asia, in particular China. The Han Chinese do not seem to have much West Eurasian admixture at all (in contrast to the Mongolians and the Hui). Additionally, the data do seem to point to some amalgamation of non-Han populations in southern China. But overall I don’t have a good gasp of how the landscape of East Asia came to be be. Both archaeology and genetics point us to the likelihood that phenotype which we associate with East Asians became overwhelmingly dominant only recently. It is here that the strongest instance of the “first farmers” hypothesis may be found.

Sometimes it is good to live in interesting times.

* The Negritos of Malaya are not pure from the samples I have seen. And those of the Philippines seem to be very distinct the more westerly South Eurasians.

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Comments (16)

  1. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    Just regarding language shift in Ireland, while looking at the 1901 and 1911 censuses (released last year) I found out that my great-great-grandfather who was born in the late 1820’s could speak both Irish and English. His son (my great-grandfather) who was born in the 1860’s could only speak English, this marked language shift. The implications been that my G.G.Grandfather had grown up in a Irish speaking household let when his son was born (in 1860’s) he was more then likely brought up soley through english.

    This ties in with general accounts of parents purposefully not passing the language to their children, thus breaking inter-generational transmission. As part of this parents actively often encourage teachers to punish children for using Irish in a school setting. Of course when primary education was introduced by the British authorities in 1831 the teaching was mandatory in English and Irish was banned from the curriculum.

    Wales is a good comparison of what probably would have happened if there hadn’t been a famine (or it wasn’t as severe). Wales remained majority welsh speaking until at least the 1890’s, during the 20th century it fell to under 20% daily Welsh speakers, however Welsh has stablished at this level. In comparison the Irish speaking community is around 3-4% of population. (Daily + Weekly speakers outside education)

    I’ve read accounts that in the 1780’s that about 2/3rds of population were still Irish speaking. There are some decent maps of decline from late 19th century on showing the decline of “Gaeltacht” (Irish speaking regions)

    Pre-Famine (based on reseach of relevant age cohorts in 1901/1911 census)

    1851: (Post Famine)


    1926: (Gaeltacht boundaries — somewhat aspirational)

    1956: — Gaeltacht boundaries — including areas in advance stage of language shift

    2007 — Divided into three categories, Category A most likely to retain status in any future redrawing of boundaries:

  2. Hey, where’s that figure with the tree/languages from? Cavalli-Sforza?

  3. Anthony

    “you are 50% genetically derived from each parent, you are not necessarily 50% culturally derived from each parent”

    Nor does the sum of parental influences have to sum to 100%. Both my parents are immigrants, but I was born in the U.S. Genetically, I’m not a typical American – no Celto-Saxon ancestry at all, but culturally, I’m far more typically American than either of my parents.

  4. Henry Harpending

    Followup to Joe’s question, where is the map of Indo-European branches from?


  5. Paul Crowley

    Razib, you wrote: “From what I have read Gaelic went from being the majority to the minority language of the Irish Roman Catholic peasantry between 1800 and 1850.”

    What you have read is quite wrong. It is a common misconception (especially in Ireland) based on wishful nationalistic thinking. Farmers and peasants do not drop their native language and learn to speak another without extreme compulsion. While there was some pressure, there was no compulsion. The ancient ruling class — as represented later by the Irish Earls, and as seen in the courts of local chiefs — spoke Gaelic, and it is they who left nearly all the records. Illiterate farmers leave very few records, but what little there is suggests that English has been tongue of the great bulk of the Irish peasantry for as far back as we want to go. The rebels of 1598 all spoke English. Walter Raleigh had no difficulty understanding the speech of local people in Cork in the 1570s.

    The great difficulty with the records is that the ‘data’ on this matter reflects aspirations rather than facts. Since the ‘English’ (actually the Norman-French) invaded in 1172, every self-respecting Irishman has declared his deep love and respect for the language so cruelly taken from him. As a recent example, the census tells us that Gaelic was close to being the majority language in 2006 ! See: http://www.uni-due.de/DI/Who_Speaks_Irish.htm

    Year Irish speakers Non-Irish speakers
    1996 1,430,205 2,049,443
    2002 1,570,894 2,180,101
    2006 1,656,790 2,400,856

  6. pconroy

    Your lack of knowledge is acute!

    Do you actually expect people to believe that Gaelic Chieftains/Lords/Taniste spoke Gaelic, while their peasants spoke English?!

    No the rebels of 198 did NOT speak English. Some of them no doubt understood English, but Gaelic would be their usual language.

    Munster, including Cork was colonized (aka “Planted”) in or around 1586, so NO, the locals would not have understood Sir Walter Raleigh in 1570, unless you are suggesting that he understood Gaelic? Raleigh was from Devon and might have known West Welsh or Cornish dialects, and this may indeed have helped him to understand the people of Cork speaking Gaelic.


  7. pconroy

    The only place outside The Pale – Dublin and vicinity – that spoke a West Germanic/Anglo-Frisian language were the Baronies of Forth and Bargy in Wexford, who spoke Yola:


  8. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    Rebels of 1598? Or are you talking about 1798 which was most heavily concentrated in South-East specifically Wexford?

    Either way It would be nice if you could provide some published sources for your contention. Such as for example:

    ‘In Ireland four-fights of the population of Connaught, Munster, and the north west of Ulster, still speak this language and make it the vehicle of their sentiments; in the outher counties of Ulster and Leinster, is is used as the family language, by more then one half; except the Queen and King’s Counties, with those of Wexford, Carlow and Kildare, where it is nearly extinct.’
    The post-chaise companion: or, Travellers directory through Ireland. To which is added, a dictionary, or alphabetical tables — William Wilson (Dublin 1786)
    ‘at east eight hundred thousands of our countrymen speak irish only, and there are at least twice as many more who speak it in preference’
    Projects for Re-Establishing the Internal Peace and Tranquillity of Ireland — Whitley Stokes (Dublin, 1799) — (50.5% of estimated population in 1799)
    ‘even the gentlemen often find it convenient to acquire the language, in order to be able to deal with the peasantry without an interpreter’
    Observations on the Necessity of Publishing the Scriptures in the Irish Language — Whitley Stokes (Dublin, 1806)
    ‘In Connaught, the gentry understand Irish, which facilitates their intercourse with the peasantry; therefore, they are, consqeuently, enabled to become acquainted with their wants, to assit them with advice, and restrain them by admonition’
    An Account of Ireland, Statistical and Political — Edard Wakefield (2 vols, London 1812)
    ‘about 2 millions of people in Ireland who are incapable of understanding a continued discourse in English’
    Observations on the Character, Customs and Superstitions of the Irish — Daniel Dewar (London, 1812)
    ‘Except in towns, they seldom use any language but Irish, an even in some of the best cultivated districts most of the people can speak no other .. In their native language they are generally clear and fluent in expression, though proverbially reproached as blunderers in English, from their imperfect acquaintance with its idioms.’
    A general and statistical survey of the county of Cork — Horatio Townsend (2 Volumes 1815)
    A Statistical Account, Or Parochial Survey of Ireland — William Shaw Mason (3 volumes 1814-1819) — mentions accounts of irish been stongest in Connacht and Munster but still spoke in parts of Antrim, Armagh, Fermanagh, Derry, Longford, Meath, Laois (Queen’s County) and Wexford.
    (number of monolinguals) ‘was not less then 500,000 and that at least a million more, although they have some understanding of English, and can employ it for the ordinary purposes of traffic make use of their native tongue on all other occasions, as the natural vehicle of their thoughts’
    First Report of the Commissioners of Education Inquiry, (1825)
    30% of population in what is now the Republic (26 counties) could speak Irish in 1851 (first census after famine), at same time over 50% of the population were illiterate.

    Irish-Speaking in the Pre-Famine Period: a Study Based on the 1911 Census Data for People Born Before 1851 and Still Alive in 1911 — Garrett Fitzgearld (Royal Irish Academy, Dublin 2007)

  9. Paul Crowley

    @8 pconroy wrote
    “Do you actually expect people to believe that Gaelic Chieftains/Lords/Taniste spoke Gaelic, while their peasants spoke English?! ”

    Such a pattern is so common as to be almost standard. The farmers and peasants of Roman England did not speak Latin, nor did their descendants speak Frisian, nor Danish, nor Norman-French. The farmers/peasants of Russia did not speak Mongol; nor did the Chinese under the Yuan dynasty; nor did those of the Ottoman Empire speak Turkish; not did those of former Aztec Empire speak Spanish . . and so on for every imperial and similar conquest.

    The point is that farmers and peasants are extremely vulnerable. An armed band of ravagers can destroy their crops and stores and kill their livestock, meaning that nearly everyone will die of starvation. Any military caste is acceptable so long as they stop that happening, and don’t impose crippling taxes. That caste must necessarily have a different ideology and social structure, facilitating highly mobile groups of professional warriors. Speaking another language is incidental, and probably advantageous.

    @10 Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ wrote
    ” Rebels of 1598? Or are you talking about 1798 which was most heavily concentrated in South-East specifically Wexford?”

    Sorry, that was a typo for 1798. There is a vague record in Wexford of a supposed Gaelic-speaking group of rebels from North Cork.

    “Either way It would be nice if you could provide some published sources for your contention.”

    As I said, the written records are often somewhere between dubious and absurd (e.g. recent censuses) and secondly, illiterate peasants don’t leave records. Foreign visitors to the country don’t talk to them, nor take them into account any more than they do the cattle.

    You may prefer to take the ‘records’ as trustworthy and as referring to the whole population (rather than to an elite). But then you have to live with the notion that a rural population of farmers and peasants (few of whom ever travel more than ten miles from their place of birth) will readily drop their native language and start to speak another — for no reason in particular. If you can find ONE reliably-recorded instance of THAT in the historical record of any country, I would happily accept the traditional assumptions.

  10. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    The mention of North Cork is specifically to Irish speaking members of North Cork Militia who fought in service of the British and who were killed at the “Battle” of Oulart Hill on 27 May 1798. The “rebels” (freedom fighters perhaps?) wiped them out. There are accounts of members of North Cork Militia producing rosary beeds and begging for their lives in Irish. Given that North Cork was a majority Irish speaking area in 1798.

    Now it’s over 15years since I read the source but you should be able to find it in:
    The Year of Liberty: The History of the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. (ISBN 0-679-74802-4) by Thomas Pakenham (8th Lord of Longford) by far the best book on one of most important events in Irish history.

    For those who don’t know the direct result of the “Year of Liberty” was the pushing through of the Act of Union which resulted in Ireland been subsumed into the UK in 1801.

    Anyways I have provided plenty of sources above most of which were published by non-Irish authors in the period 1780-1820. That and the census from 1851 through 1891 all predate the language revival movement and your vile allegations of linking the language purely to a “nationalistic world view”. If anything it was the growing “native” middle-class/elite who formed the bulk of the “Home Rule Party” (constitutional nationalists )led the vanguard of angliscation regarding the Irish language as “Vulgar” as it was the language of the ordinary people.

  11. chris w

    I know that average West Eurasian admixture stands at about 17-20 percent for the Mongols. I haven’t seen the numbers for the Hui — are they more or less than the Mongols?

  12. #13, 10 percentish last i checked.

  13. Paul Crowley

    @12 Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ wrote

    > “The mention of North Cork is specifically to Irish speaking members of North Cork Militia who fought in service of the British and who were killed at the “Battle” of Oulart Hill on 27 May 1798. . . ”

    I’m fairly sure that the reference was to a rebel group. But it’s too off-topic here.

    > ” . . Anyways I have provided plenty of sources above most of which were published by non-Irish authors in the period 1780-1820. That and the census from 1851 through 1891 all predate the language revival movement . . ”

    I don’t think this issue has much to do with the language revival movement. It involves a respect for your heritage (or your supposed heritage). For many centuries Irish people have believed their ancestors spoke Gaelic. That belief may have been sustained by (usually entirely justifiable) anti-English sentiments. Many born in the 19th century (such as James Joyce) may have said, or intimated, ‘good riddance’. Some of that era thought it vulgar, But so what? They shared that belief. The only question is whether or not it is based on fact,

    The non-Irish authors 1780-1820 undoubtedly got their information from Irish people. I’m saying it was as reliable as the declarations by 1,656,790 people in the 26 counties of the Irish Republic in 2006 that they spoke Irish. When the French fleet landed at Killala Bay (in County Mayo) in 1798 they put up a sign “Erin go bragh”. No local knew what it meant.

    > ” . . and your vile allegations of linking the language purely to a “nationalistic world view”. . . ”

    I have no idea which allegations of mine could be called ‘vile’.

    I simply can’t conceive how a rural population would or could change its native tongue over a few generations — for no compelling reason. I don’t believe it happened. I note that you cannot quote any other instance.

  14. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    I think this XKCD cartoon captures my final opinion.



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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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