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March 11, 2003

Man Makes Himself (with a little help from ice)

Vinod tells me there is a documentary on the Discovery Channel this weekend about how the Ice Age shaped human evolution. Reminds me a lot of William H. Calvin's work. When I first read one of his books on evolutionary biology about 7 years ago, I was a bit disturbed by his idea that Europe served as a cauldron in which humanity was tempered and that we migrated back to Africa several times. Of course, I am a bit more open to controversial ideas that might not dovetail so well with the axiom of equality nowadays. And as some of you might know, he indicated in his most recent book that he finds human biodiversity plausible. Don't hold your breath that that sort of material will slip by the censors.....

Posted by razib at 01:35 AM

May I take this opportunity to raise a question about the origin of modern racial groups?

A good forensic pathologist can make a fairly reliable identification of the racial group of a dead (modern) individual, based only on the skull and jawbone. At least, it is usually possible to allocate the individual to one of the main racial groups (Caucasian, Negroid, or East Asian). Individuals of mixed ancestry or unusual minority groups may be more problematic.

If a forensic pathologist can do this with a modern skull, presumably an experienced archeologist or paleontologist can do the same for a skull that is, say, 5,000 or 10,000 years old.

So my question is: at what point in human prehistory do the main modern racial groups first become clearly identifiable from skeletal remains?

This might seem a very simple and basic question, but I have looked through a number of books about prehistory, human evolution, etc., without finding an answer.

Posted by: David Burbridge at March 11, 2003 02:41 AM

A long time - part of the controversy around the Kennewick man is that some scientists think he is more caucasoid than mongoloid. And he's probably about 8,500 years old.

Posted by: rvman at March 11, 2003 11:40 AM

this is a complex question and my own opinions have undergone some revision. at 8,5000 years ago, i suspect the terms "caucasoid" and "mongoloid" have little meaning in the north american context.

on the issue of "race" in general-i think the problem is we as human beings see ourselves as the atomic units of organizations-ie; you are white, brown, yellow, etc. we throw in neutral marker lineages or polymoprhic traits or what not into our computers, and create clusters that correlate with populations, and say, voila, a race has been born! but the reality is that we are a mob of genes, and we are finding the races of our genes, their own relationships and lineages. often, most of our genes share the same history as someone of our own ethnic group (jews, japanese, etc.), but many times they don't. additionally, different portions of the genome throughout an ethnic group could have varying racial histories (jews on their y chromosome vs. mtDNA lineage, levantine/vs. non-levantine, or basques, on their neutral markers (y & mtDNA) vs. their Rh- factor, similar to other spaniards vs. different from other spaniards). rather than clusters and clades that branch off in a binary fashion - we need a multi-dimensional relationship of all our genes to all other genes, but it is really hard to visualize this. i think of it as smears and clumps....

anyway, the short end of it is that i don't put stock in any ONE method of ascertaining racial history, whether that be skulls, neutral markers or phenotypically important genes. c. s. coon and his multiregionalist heirs say that they see morphological continuity throughout the world-that europeans descend from neandertals, while australian aborigines descend from java man.....

Posted by: razib at March 11, 2003 01:34 PM


8,500 years ago is very recent in evolutionary time.

I don't disagree with anything you say, but, IMHO, you are dodging my original question!

Give a good forensic pathologist a skull, say, 20,000 years old, will he or she be able to say 'probably Caucasian', 'probably Mongoloid', etc, or would he or she usually be baffled?

In the case of Kennewick Man, as I understand it, the skull doesn't fit neatly into modern categories, though its affinities are probably more Causasian than Mongoloid. The fact that there is uncertainty in this particular instance doesn't prove very much, but if such uncertainty is the general rule for skulls older than 10,000 (or 20,000, or whatever) years, then this would be a good reason to believe that the modern racial groups had not yet emerged.

Posted by: David Burbridge at March 12, 2003 02:29 AM

i think 20,000 years is too far back. that's just my opinion. some of the partisans of the multi-regional theory would probably take you up on it-but i think the racial pictures was too complex than.

have you ever stopped to think that we are today in fact a far simpler world in human biodiversity than we were 10,000 years ago? by this, i mean that the neolithic revolution and the cocomittant changes (the high population levels allowing the development of further innovation, ne, compelling) resulted in a wholesale redistribution of racial patterns. addtionally, a few "luckly" sub-populations were blown up numerically out of proportion to their earlier levels. for instance, "middle easterners", form anywhere from 20-50% of the ancestry of modern europe. even on the low end, a substantial number of southeastern europeans were probably swamped by the neolithics. though india is a complex today, there are many tribes that are clear relics of more ancient cultural complexes. and of course, china and to a lesser extent southeast asia have been transformed by waves of migration going north->south supplanting and submerging the indigenous negrito peoples.

basically-i would suspect forensic analysis today is far easier than it would have been 10,000 years ago, and we might be trying to shoe-horn modern conceptions based on a few people who lucked out in the technological blitzkrieg of the past 10,000 years....

Posted by: razib at March 12, 2003 03:53 AM

I have to respectively disagree with Razib as a late multiregionalist convert: a 30,000 year old Cro-Magnon man could walk down the main street of London, and look not much different to any other white man.: he would not be mistaken for a Chinaman or black. A Cro-Magnon skull (and other features) is far similar to the modern English skull than Chinese, Negro, or Aboriginal skull. Indeed the Cro-Magnon’s had a larger cranial capacity than present Eureopeans.

I’m not sure how people can maintain that broad racial groups were not evident 10000 years ago or earlier. If you mean that that the English, a mixture, of at least Paleolithic Caucasian, Neolithic Mediterrean, Celtic, German Belgae, Picitish, Roman, Anglo/Saxon/Jutish, Viking, Norman (Nordic-Gallic-Roman), and Huguenot of course this mixture was not apparent 10000 years ago but that does not mean that you cannot make broad disctinctions between Caucasoids, Negroid, and Mongoloids. I would argue it is likely the basic proto-types popululation groups were visible 30000 years ago, Homo Erectus (strongly evident in Oz aborigines), Neanderthal (probably slightly evident amongst Caucasians), Capoid, Negroid, Caucasian, and Mongoloid. I understand that inward directing teeth in the Chinese and other features can be traced back to Peking man 500000 years ago.

I take your point about the Neolithic Revolution: Britain was swamped by Neolithic Iberians which largely shape the modern Irish phenotype, but Neolithics did not racially have the same impact on Germans and Scandanavians, where the neolithic revolution occured more by technology transfer rather than mass immigration. Nevertheless Neolithic Mediterranean's still fall in the broader Caucasoid spectrum, distinguished from Mongoloids, Negroids, and others.

On ancient Caucasians in America, Kennwick man, has not been the only find. Others include the 13000 year old Peņon skull found in New Mexico, the 12,500 year old Monte Verde site in Chile, the 9400 year old Spirit Cave Mummy in Churchill County, Nevada , and others. DNA distinguishing US Indians with Mongoloids, evidence also stengthens the above evidence. Pre-Clovis and Clovis stone tools are found in America; similar to those in North Western Europe, but have never been found in Siberia.

For obvious political reasons the anthropological community have suppressed the issue in coalition with Native Indian groups.

That Chris Stringer does not find such evidence convincing is further proof.

Posted by: Dan at March 12, 2003 08:29 PM

Wow. I love how the Huguenot, a small group of French Protestant refugees who arrived in Britain in the late seventeenth century, have now become their own racial category. Take that, Louis! Revoke the Edict of Nantes, will you? Well, we'll just go and change the racial make-up of Britain. That will show you that our form of worship is more holy than yours. Ignoring, of course, that there are no racial differences between the English and the French, though that doesn't hinder one of the oldest (and by now most congenial) prejudices on the planet.

I also like how we know exactly what a Cro-Magnon man looks like, what with no extant skin or cartilage. It's not like we are biased by illustrations in (segregation era) 1960's childrens' books or Jean M. Auel novels.

I don't know yet what I think about pre-historic human evolution (more reading is needed), but anyone who knows European history knows that to talk of discrete ethnic or racial groups is pointless. Migration took place from all over Eurasia and to and from Northern Africa as well. The Magyars were from Central Asia and settled in modern Hungary, ruling people who spoke both Germanic and Slavik languages. Somalians, though much darker than most African-Americans, have the most typically "Caucasian" features of any region, that is, large round eyes and long thin noses.

While it is true that different regions often have different physical features, they cannot be simply laid out in categories like "race", let alone subraces. (As the black-eyed child of a largely blue-eyed family, I know that I must be a different sub-race, probably Elvish). Race is purely in the eyes, and the mind, of the beholder.

Posted by: j at March 12, 2003 09:04 PM

for the record-i am undecided on the out-of-africa vs. multiregional controversy. the answer-as always-probably is somewhere in the middle range. my background is in biochemistry & molecular genetics-so i say it with likely some professional bias that that field indicates that out-of-africa might be the most parsimonious hypothesis.... but again-there is room for something in the middle.

i also found the comment about the cro-magnon a bit amusing-though he might or might not be right.

Posted by: razib at March 12, 2003 09:20 PM

THe three main racial groups is an erroneus grouping based on a very smal set of genes that are subject to the influence of ones enviroment. While for convenience anthropologist have set up categories such as "caucasoid", "negroid" and "mongoloid" the are in truth very unscientific. A Somalian with a "caucasoid" Skull(senseless considering that the caucasoid or mediterrenean skull type probably originated in Africa) may negroid skin color, hair, skeletal structure and other africoid features. Looking at genetic markers in junk genes has been more effective in mapping the origins and movements of humans. Thats why a New Guinean and a Rwandan can look alike but be the farthest from each other in genetic similarity, leading to the conclusion that New Guineans were part of that first group to leave Africa if we are to assume the Out of Africa hypothesis is correct.

Posted by: Aleph at March 15, 2003 09:19 PM