Tag: History

Ancient people were not static

By Razib Khan | September 12, 2013 9:53 pm

Citation: Witas HW, Tomczyk J, Jędrychowska-Dańska K, Chaubey G, Płoszaj T (2013) mtDNA from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman Period Suggests a Genetic Link between the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamian Cradle of Civilization. PLoS ONE 8(9): e73682. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073682

Today Dienekes points to a PLoS ONE paper, mtDNA from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman Period Suggests a Genetic Link between the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamian Cradle of Civilization. The title is pretty self-explanatory, though above I’ve posted a figure which shows the mtDNA haplogroup affiliations of the four individuals dated to between 2500 BC and 500 AD. If you are a even moderately familiar with the human mtDNA phylogeographic literature then you know that haplogroup M is not West Eurasian, and these lineages are often South Asian. The existence of people of South Asian origin in West Asia during the Roman period is rather unsurprising, the Persian (and Hellenistic) polities spanned West and South Asia (albeit, in a liminal sense in the latter case). But what about extremely ancient finds? This too has an explanation. From Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East:

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The neglected regionalism of these United States

By Razib Khan | July 2, 2013 6:37 pm

Non-Hispanic White vote for John McCain 2008 according to National Exit Polls
Red = 100% for McCain
Blue = 100% for Obama

As we come up to the day celebrating American independence from the Britain there will be the standard revelries and reflections. Personally, I have no problem with that. A modicum of patriotism seems healthy in all, and if appropriately channeled a surfeit is often useful in the populace as a way to maintain civic engagement. That being said I did admit that in the positive and descriptive sense I am far more ambivalent about the consequences and rationale for the rebellion than I was as a child. I don’t accept that the American revolution was indisputably about Virginia gentry who wished to avoid financial ruin, New England fundamentalists yearning for oppression of Quebecois Catholics, or upcountry Scots-Irish chafing at the bit to explode into the western hinterlands, heretofore restrained by the Empire. But I believe that this narrative is as true as the story I was told as a child about an unjust and oppressive British monarchy battling the cause for the cause of freedom and liberty. When Patrick Henry declared ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’, it was not a universal declaration. It was implicitly a call to arms for the rights of white male property holders in the context of colonial Virginia. This is not a palatable message for elementary school age children, so such subtle but true details are neglected in the standard narrative.

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Mackinder’s revenge and the rise of the mongrels

By Razib Khan | June 24, 2013 3:58 am

Several years ago I reviewed Christopher Beckwith’s magisterial Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. In many ways Beckwith’s narrative is a refreshing inversion of the traditional form of macrohistory, whereby charter societies along the Eurasian littoral issue civilizing tendrils toward the heartland, and are met with periodic barbaric eruptions which they then have to assimilate. From what I can gather Beckwith is not a subjectivist. Rather, the inversion of perspective serves to flesh out neglected dynamics at work across history and near prehistory. For example he highlights the reality that core polities of the Eurasian littoral often crystallized on the barbaric marches of established civilization via process of synthesis between the two cultures.  Zoroastrian religion emerged on the northern frontier in Khorasan rather than the southwestern Iranian heartland of Fars. Han China’s predecessor in the form of the Chin dynasty arose from a marcher state in the northwest, and the same was true of the previous ruling house, that of the Zhou. In India classical Hindu civilization first congealed in an elaborated form in Magadha, on the eastern frontiers of Aryavarta. In the West Rome was fundamentally a barbaric and peculiar fringe polity, with only tenuous connections to Magna Graecia, and arguably more influenced by the enigmatic Etruscans.

The last of the World Conquerors?

The vigor of frontiers is such an established historical cliche that I have no great enthusiasm to revisit it in detail. Rather, following Beckwith I believe we need to seriously revisit the proposition that the vast expanses of the Eurasian heartland beyond the civilized frontiers have served as more than just a source of militarized barbarians bent on exploitation. Yes, all that is true, but it seems likely that the cultural and racial melange at the intersection of internal Eurasian trade networks have fundamentally reshaped the contemporary landscapes in ways we are only now beginning to understand. But first, our worldview has to acknowledge that not all peoples and lands have made contributions of equal weight to the shape of the world.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History

The Kings of Minos were not Pharaohs

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2013 3:51 am

Credit: cavorite

A few years ago I predicted to some friends that ancient DNA would transform our understanding of the human past. The reason being that inferences of population movements via material remains were imprecise at best. We are beginning to see my prediction come to fruit (mind you, the prediction was not a bold or courageous one). A new short communication in Nature Communications, A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete, addresses an old and frankly somewhat outdated question: whether the first European literate civilization derived from a transplantation from Egypt, or was autochthonous.

I say that this is a somewhat outdated test because the modern proponent of this theory, Arthur Evans, lived a century ago, when our understanding of pre-Classical antiquity (i.e., the world before 600 BC and literate alphabetic Greek civilization) was sketchy at best. The reality is that ancient Crete, like the ancient Levant, does seem to have been in the greater Egyptian culture sphere of influence, just as ancient Elam (southwest Iran) was a de facto part of the Mesopotamian world. But we know the language of the Elamites, and it was not related to Mesopotamian languages. Just as the Finns have been influenced by their Nordic neighbors, so were the Elamites influenced by their Sumerian neighbors. But their linguistic difference points to fundamentally distinct origins. And so it is with the Minoans. It was already likely from the peculiar nature of Minoan writing, Linear A, that this civilization was not a simple derivation of Egypt. These genetic data just add more evidence.

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The full shape of human history

By Razib Khan | February 28, 2013 3:18 am

With great ambition comes the opportunity for stupendous failure. If one does not strive, one can not fail in a bold manner. And Ian Morris is bold indeed. I read his previous book, Why the West Rules–for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, and found in enjoyable. And yet it isn’t that original a departure from many economic histories one might encounter. This is a major worry I have with Morris’ new book, The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations. Is there anything here that Angus Maddison fans will find novel?

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To know China is to know half the world

By Razib Khan | January 9, 2013 2:05 am

Unfortunately history is a discipline where we can not run experiments. From my earlier posts it should be clear that I have a keen interest in Western antiquity. But another passion of mine is Chinese history. A frustrating experience I have is that many people feel confident in making cross-cultural generalizations despite having deep familiarity with only one civilizational tradition. A comparative perspective is highly illuminating, but only if you stand on a solid ground of factual bases from which to actually make comparisons.  The existence of complex societies at both ends of Eurasia over the past 2,500 years are fascinating parallel “natural experiments.” But to compare and contrast you need to know a great deal about both civilizations.

Increased knowledge enriches discussion, and in the near future this weblog will once again have vibrant comments sections. With that in mind here are some books on Chinese civilization which I have found informative and useful:

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History as intellectual hydrography

By Razib Khan | December 23, 2012 3:26 am

One of the great aspects of owning a Kindle has been that I have been able to load it with cheap copies of “classics.”* As it happens I had physical copies of many of these works, but often it became difficult to keep track of various books in even my modest personal library. Generally scientific references were placed prominently, and I made use of them often, and so always was able to mark exactly where they were. But when it came to Nicomachean Ethics or The Critique of Pure Reason, I would proactively seek them on only rare occasions. Now with a compact and well organized personal digital library I find that I revisit the ancients much more often to engage with them in dialogue. Here I recall what Niccolò Machiavelli once asserted:

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

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The great Eurasian explosion

By Razib Khan | September 17, 2012 9:38 pm

Dr. Joseph Pickrell has updated his preprint, The genetic prehistory of southern Africa, with some more material on the Sandawe. I’ve explored the genetics of the Sandawe a bit using ADMIXTURE, so I jumped straight to the section on ROLLOFF:

…To further examine this, we turned to ROLLOFF. We used Dinka and French as representatives of the mixing populations (since date estimates are robust to improperly specified reference populations). The results are shown in Supplementary Figure S22. Both populations show a detectable curve, though the signal is much stronger in the Sandawe than in the Hadza. The implied dates are 89 generations (2500 years) ago for the Hadza and 66 generations (2000 years) ago for the Sandawe. These are qualitatively similar signals to those seen by Pagani et al. [65] in Ethiopian populations. There are two possible historical scenarios that could lead to these signals: either the Hadza and Sandawe both directly admixed with a western Eurasian population about 2,000 years ago, or they admixed with an east African population that was itself admixed with a western Eurasian population. The latter possibility would be consistent with known east African admixture into the Sandawe [16] .


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics

Rise of the planet of the Indo-Europeans

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2012 10:00 am

In response to my post below a friend emailed me the above sentence. As I suggest below it sounds crazy, and I don’t know if I believe it. But here’s an abstract from the Reich lab from June:

Estimating a date of mixture of ancestral South Asian populations

Linguistic and genetic studies have demonstrated that almost all groups in South Asia today descend from a mixture of two highly divergent populations: Ancestral North Indians (ANI) related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners and Europeans, and Ancestral South Indians (ASI) not related to any populations outside the Indian subcontinent. ANI and ASI have been estimated to have diverged from a common ancestor as much as 60,000 years ago, but the date of the ANI-ASI mixture is unknown. Here we analyze data from about 60 South Asian groups to estimate that major ANI-ASI mixture occurred 1,200-4,000 years ago. Some mixture may also be older—beyond the time we can query using admixture linkage disequilibrium—since it is universal throughout the subcontinent: present in every group speaking Indo-European or Dravidian languages, in all caste levels, and in primitive tribes. After the ANI-ASI mixture that occurred within the last four thousand years, a cultural shift led to widespread endogamy, decreasing the rate of additional mixture.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: History, Indo-Europeans

The Age of Heroes

By Razib Khan | August 15, 2012 6:42 pm

Sometimes when you read reviews or papers you need to look very closely at what people say in a tentative speculative fashion. That’s because though the prose may be as such when read plainly and without context, you often have more prior information as to the background of the authors. In other words, assertions which literally seem cautious are actually foreshadowing likely probabilities down the pipeline, because the authors are not distant third-party observers, but active participants in the production of new insights. I think that’s what’s going on in a new paper in Trends in Genetics, The genetic history of Europeans:

Future research should also reveal the effects of post-Neolithic demographic processes, including migration events, which preliminary data suggest had a major impact upon the distribution of genetic variation. These include events associated with Bronze Age civilizations, Iron Age cultures, and later migrations, including those triggered by the rise and fall of Empires. Challenges remain in being able to sequence aDNA routinely from serial samples in the range of megabases, and in the development of software that allows spatially-explicit simulation of genome-scale data, but advances in these areas are now a weekly occurrence and the stage is set for a rapid increase in our knowledge on the evolutionary history of AMH in Europe.

I’d have said this was crazy a few years ago. No longer.


Historical Dynamics & contingent conditions of religion

By Razib Khan | August 10, 2012 12:39 am
Below is a long essay I wrote four years ago which I’m reposting. It may be a useful guide for readers who are not aware of my various non-genetic interests….

Peter Turchin’s Historical Dynamics: Why States Rise and Fall showed up a little sooner than I’d thought it would, and it was an even quicker read than War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (see review). There isn’t really anything new verbal in the more technical treatment, but the book is about half the length because so much of the text was condensed into simple differential equations and figures which displayed the results of simulations. The figure to the left was one that I found particularly interesting, the differential equations which this is based on are:

dA/dt = c0AS(1 – A/h) – a

dS/dt = r0(1 – A/[2b])S(1 – S)

Where A = area, c = state’s resources translated into geopolitical power, r is the growth rate, h is the spatial scale of power project, a is the geopolitical pressure from the hinterland and S is average polity-wide level of collective solidarity. You can find the elucidation of the details of the simulation in the appendix of Historical Dynamics.

Turchin was obviously pleased with how similar the dynamics of area of polity vs. time were in the simulation to what the empirical data showed. Of course, because of the sensitivity to initial parameters there isn’t going to be a real prediction of the trajectory of state rise and fall, as opposed to inferences about the likely patterns. For example, in the comments to the previous post Italy was focused in on as a weakness in many of the generalizations, and Turchin actually spends a fair amount of time admitting that he has no real answer for why Italy turned out the way it did and admits that his model can explain a lot, but not all. He’s happy with an r-squared of 0.75.

The above was just a taste, I’m not going to go much deeper since you can get the book yourself. Mathematically oriented works are pretty straightforward and you can reject it or accept it (or not understand it). In any case, I want to focus on another issue which is emphasized in Historical Dynamics, the autocatalytic model of religious conversion. The idea here is simple; the rate of conversion is proportional to the number of converts, and the result is a logistic curve over time. Turchin draws strongly upon Rodney Stark & co’s work on the importance of transmission through social networks, and uses textual data to suggest that the growth of Christianity during the Roman Empire, and Islam in both Spain and Iran, seem to map well onto a logistic growth function.

In The Rise of Christianity Rodney Stark comes close to asserting that the conversion of Constantine, and the progression in the 4th century of Christianity becoming a state-identified cult, actually slowed the spread of the religion! Stark’s thesis is obviously derived in large part from the American experience of cult, sect and denominational rise and fall. Historically minded readers might wonder as to the generalizable nature of a supply side rational choice model for the ancient world. In The Barbarian Conversion the difference between the Roman and early medieval periods in terms of the spread of Christianity is rather clear and distinct, what was plausibly a “bottom up” dynamic quickly turned into a “trickle down” and fiat process (also see Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History

British class differences persisting down centuries?

By Razib Khan | July 22, 2012 11:01 am

People with Norman names wealthier than other Britons:

Research shows that the descendants of people who in 1858 had “rich” surnames such as Percy and Glanville, indicating they were descended from the French nobility, are still substantially wealthier in 2011 than those with traditionally “poor” or artisanal surnames. Artisans are defined as skilled manual workers.

As Steve Sailer observes strict adherence to surnames on a mass scale post-dates the Norman invasion by centuries. So the headline is pretty sensational. But I went and read the original working paper, and there is no mention of Norman or French names! The author of the piece in The Telegraph is probably right (i.e., a casual reading of history will show that Norman names are enriched in the English elite), but this is clearly another case of one having to be careful of the details when it comes to British media.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, History
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, History

The many Americas

By Razib Khan | July 20, 2012 1:25 am

One of my main hobbyhorses is that in the United States today the identities of race and religion get so much emphasis that it is easy forget the divisions among white Anglo-Protestants which persist, and to some extent serve as the scaffold for the rest of American culture. This is why I recommend Albion’s Seed and The Cousins’ Wars to anyone interested in American history. Often these realities of American “dark ethnicity,” the divisions between Yankees and Low Country Southerners, Scots-Irish and the people of the port cities of the Northeast, get conflated with issues of class. Class is a major dimension, but it is not the only one. For example, the people of Appalachia are poor, but they are not Appalachians because they are poor.

These issues of dark ethnicity rooted in “dark history” can crop up in the strangest places. For example, in The New York Times Magazine, Greg Ousley Is Sorry for Killing His Parents. Is That Enough?:

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Iranian religious distinctiveness is not primal

By Razib Khan | July 19, 2012 2:03 pm

Dienekes has a discussion up of a new paper on Iranian Y-chromosome variation. My post isn’t prompted by the genetics here, but rather a minor historical note within the text which I want to correct, again, because it isn’t totally minor in light of contemporary models of the uniqueness of Iranian (specifically Persian) identity in the Middle East:

Persian identity refers to the Indo-European Aryans who arrived in Iran about 4 thousand years ago (kya). Originally they were nomadic, pastoral people inhabiting the western Iranian plateau. From the province of Fars they spread their language and culture to the other parts of the Iranian plateau absorbing local Iranian and non-Iranian groups. This process of assimilation continued also during the Greek, Mongol, Turkish and Arab invasions. Ancient Persian people were firstly characterized by the Zoroastrianism. After the Islamization, Shi’a became the main doctrine of all Iranian people.

As Dienekes observes I’ve objected to this confusion before:

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MORE ABOUT: History, Iran, Shia

Identity by descent & the Völkerwanderung

By Razib Khan | July 17, 2012 9:07 pm

Early this year I received an email from Dr. Peter Ralph, inquiring if I might discuss some interesting statistical genetic results from analyses of the POPRES data set which might have historical relevance. I’ve been excitingly waiting for the preprint to be made public so it could trigger some wider discussion. I believe that the methods outlined in the paper perhaps show us a path into the near future, where we might gain a much sharper perspective upon the recent past. So it’s finally out, and you can read it in full. Ralph and Dr. Graham Coop have posted put it up at arXiv, The geography of recent genetic ancestry across Europe. The paper uses ~500,000 SNPs from the POPRES data set individuals, and looks at patterns of identity by descent as a function of geography. By identity by descent, we’re talking about segments of the genome which are derived from a common ancestor. Because of recombination the length of the segments can give us a sense of the date of the last common ancestor; long segments indicate more recent ancestry because fewer recombination events have chopped up sequence.

Here’s the big takeaway of the paper: …There is substantial regional variation in the number of shared genetic ancestors: especially high numbers of common ancestors between many eastern populations likely date to the Slavic and/or Hunnic expansions, while much lower levels of common ancestry in the Italian and Iberian peninsulas may indicate weaker demographic effects of Germanic expansions into these areas and/or more stably structured populations. Recent shared ancestry in modern Europeans is ubiquitous, and clearly shows the impact of both small-scale migration and large historical events….

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Demographics, History

Remembering failed engineering

By Razib Khan | June 26, 2012 9:46 pm

When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s “hippies” were figures of amusement and the 1960s was all The Wonder Years. As a child you’re not told of the “dark side,” the true history, which may seem disturbing. When I was in college I met someone who did clue me in to some of the more “adult” aspects of the 1960s they had experienced through their recollections. For example, this man had been to the original Woodstock. While there he had taken a fancy to a young girl (underage), something her brother did not approve of. So he chased my friend down, smacked him upside the head, dragged him into the bushes, and raped him (also, I don’t recall seeing the interracial group sex protesting anti-miscegenation laws he told me about in Eyes on the Prize).

My own interest in history is of the more esoteric and antique kind. More Byzantium than the Beats. But as I grow older I am more and more aware of the lacunae in my knowledge, and the childlike vision of the 1960s which I unconsciously continue to hold. This is why more fully fleshed out pictures of the “Summer of Love,” such as can be found in this July’s Vanity Fair is of particular interest. In this way the past can become real, without the antiseptic tint of our media or the nostalgia of the baby boomers.

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White supremacy and white privilege; same coin

By Razib Khan | May 19, 2012 8:55 pm

A few weeks ago I met Chris Mooney for some drinks & snacks, and we talked about his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. It was an interesting conversation. We have a long history, so it wasn’t as if we were strangers. I recall Chris from the late 1990s when we were both involved in the college “freethought” movement, and later when I followed his political journalism at The American Prospect. On the whole we’re on different political “teams,” though neither of us seems particularly enthusiastic “players,” so to speak (I think at this point I can disclose that when I emailed Chris a few times when he worked at TAP to object to items in a particular piece, I often found that he concurred with my specific objections). I assume that to push copies Chris had to make sure that the emphasis was on Republican and not conservative in the title for his new book (and also, it exhibits nice parallel to The Republican War on Science). For me this is unfortunate because I have a lot more sympathy for conservatism, than I do for Republicans. Of course that’s a trite thing to say. And bemoaning the state of party politics in the United States is as old as the origination of political coalitions over 200 years ago (remember, many of the Founders, including George Washington, opposed a party system, which they believed would produce unnecessary faction). But I am of the opinion that due to its sheer scale and diversity the United States of America may be poised for an age of sectional discord. A throwback to the first half of the 19th century in the first decades of the 21st. Sometimes “this time” is different.


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It doesn't always get "better"

By Razib Khan | May 15, 2012 10:28 pm

The History News Network has a post up, Now It’s Obama Who’s Our First Gay President!, which hammers home points which I’ve been making implicitly and explicitly about historical processes, especially in the United States:

Today, I know no historian who has studied the matter and thinks Buchanan was heterosexual. Fifteen years ago, historian John Howard, author of Men Like That, a pioneering study of queer culture in Mississippi, shared with me the key documents, including Buchanan’s May 13, 1844, letter to a Mrs. Roosevelt. Describing his deteriorating social life after his great love, William Rufus King, senator from Alabama, had moved to Paris to become our ambassador to France, Buchanan wrote

This ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. Thus chronological ethnocentrism is the belief that we now live in a better society, compared to past societies. Of course, ethnocentrism is the anthropological term for the attitude that our society is better than any other society now existing, and theirs are OK to the degree that they are like ours.

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The collapse of logic & human culture

By Razib Khan | March 19, 2012 9:31 am

Slavery’s last stronghold:

Moulkheir Mint Yarba returned from a day of tending her master’s goats out on the Sahara Desert to find something unimaginable: Her baby girl, barely old enough to crawl, had been left outdoors to die.

The usually stoic mother — whose jet-black eyes and cardboard hands carry decades of sadness — wept when she saw her child’s lifeless face, eyes open and covered in ants, resting in the orange sands of the Mauritanian desert. The master who raped Moulkheir to produce the child wanted to punish his slave. He told her she would work faster without the child on her back.

Trying to pull herself together, Moulkheir asked if she could take a break to give her daughter a proper burial. Her master’s reply: Get back to work.

“Her soul is a dog’s soul,” she recalls him saying.

Consider this. A father in a biological sense leaves his daughter out to die of exposure so as to increase the economic production of the mother of his daughter! Not only that, he obviously considers his daughter an animal. The full article is about slavery in Mauretania, a nation which maintains the practice in de facto form. Because this slavery clearly has a racial character, with a light-skinned population of North African origin enslaving a dark-skinned population of Sub-Saharan origin, there is an obvious “hook” for a Western, and particularly American, audience. But to be fair, if I can use that term, de facto slavery exists in organized form in other parts of the Sahel and Sahara (e.g., among the Tuareg), though the practice is far less pervasive in magnitude.

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MORE ABOUT: History, Slavery

Are genes the key to the Yankee Empire?

By Razib Khan | December 31, 2011 1:49 pm

That’s the question a commenter poses, albeit with skepticism. First, the background here. New England was a peculiar society for various demographic reasons. In the early 17th century there was a mass migration of Puritan Protestants from England to the colonies which later became New England because of their religious dissent from the manner in which the Stuart kings were changing the nature of the British Protestant church.* Famously, these colonies were themselves not aiming to allow for the flourishing of religious pluralism, with the exception of Rhode Island. New England maintained established state churches longer than other regions of the nation, down into the early decades of the 19th century.

Between 1630 and 1640 about ~20,000 English arrived on the northeastern fringe of British settlement in North America. With the rise of co-religionists to power in the mid-17th century a minority of these emigres engaged in reverse-migration. After the mid-17th century migration by and large ceased. Unlike the Southern colonies these settlements did not have the same opportunities for frontiersmen across a broad and ecological diverse hinterland, and its cultural mores were decidedly more constrained than the cosmopolitan Middle Atlantic. The growth in population in New England from the low tends of thousands to close to 1 million in the late 18th century was one of endogenous natural increase from the founding stock.

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