Continuity, or not….

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Dienekes reports on recent extractions of mtDNA from remains in the Iberian peninsula1…not surprisingly (to me at least) there is continuity between the ancient populations and modern ones. This is relevant to debates about replacement of various aspects of the identity of one people by another. In places like Hungary, Spain or France it seems like there was elite replacement of the substrate language and culture (though not alleles). In contrast, in places like Bulgaria or Assam the substrate absorbed the elite. But, a problem crops up when people try and extend these particular cases to the whole world as if they hold true like a scientific law. For example, the recent story that “Britains have changed little since Ice Age” is a bit too neat, and fits into an archealogical bias that is part of the backlash against excessive typological thinking about “nations” before 1950. That is, the English nation were a volk of one tongue and one blood, which replaced the British ethnos in the 6th century, as hinted in Gildas’ writings (“The barbarians drive us to the sea”). Rather, the archealogical and historical paradigms now tend to presume that the replacement of the British by the English was one of elite cultural imposition. If you read the old post Celts and Anglo-Saxons you will find that the “truth” as suggested by the genetic data that is emerging in the last 5 years is more complex than either replacement or acculturation.2 Strictly speaking the assertion that the peoples of the United Kingdom are descended from Ice Age Northern Europeans is probably correct, because even if there was an influx of alleles from Germany in the 5th and 6th centuries the two populations were not particularly distinct (well, at least in comparison to “Neolithic farmers” from the “Near East”).

Since islands are relatively simple systems (migration is often constrained to choke points) I leave you with a post Japanese origins.

1 – I assume the reference to “Iberians” implies the peoples of the southern half of the peninsula, who in pre-Roman times spoke their own languages unrelated to Celtiberian and possibly distant from the Basque dialects. The people of Tartessos are the most prominent representatives of this cultural complex.

2 – I have read recently that the transition from a Celtic to an Anglo-Saxon peasantry was marked by a shift in the layouts of field and village in much of the east of England. Such changes could be triggered by cultural diffusion, but since the change wasn’t functionally that important it suggests to me that there was some replacement of a Celtic peasantry by Germanic settlers who brought their own traditions and customs.


  1. Something that I’ve never come across is the status of vernacular Latin in 500AD Britain. Latin, like its eventual replacement, modern English, was a veritable linguistic steam roller, leaving its influence throughout the Roman world (save the parts later conquered by Islam). Would the UK have been any different? When the Angles and Jutes came, what were the locals speaking? There is certainly no evidence I am aware of that it was Latin (except, perhaps, in writings by some of the Monks at the time ? but they were trained in Latin. We can see in recorded history how easily English rolled over the native British languages (Welsh, Gaelic), but I think Latin would have been a tougher nut to crack. 
    Of course a not uncommon (but most scholars think wrong) belief is that Roman Latin somehow blended with old English ? but I think most attribute English?s early Latin element to be only obtained indirectly via the Norman conquest (again an elite having a linguistic effect well beyond what the number of invaders would have one guess). Btw, most the direct Latin influence would come later (reintroduced?) ? Mostly because Latin was the common tongue of the Universities in Medieval Europe. 
    So my point is: (1) elites seem to have huge linguistic influences (2) both English and Latin-based languages were used by elites and seemed resistant to becoming dead. (3) Just as the Normans did not kill many Anglo-Saxons, the A-S may not have killed many ??Britons or Celts??. But the apparent destruction of Latin during the 600s bothers me as it was an elite language with a lot of staying power. Did it stay on somehow or had it never become that well established during the Roman occupation? Or more grim, did the A-S really do a genocidal number on the natives (in spite of what that new work is telling us)?

  2. I think the models that would most closely approximate the mixing of two groups of people are ones of corporate mergers, with hostile takeovers being a common scenario. 
    Corporate mergers can take on many forms applicable to the mixing of two people. Competitors could merge with one management team replacing the other, imposing their corporate culture on the other. Or just an upper management team could be brought on to help manage a pre-existing company. In this case, the management team would assume the previous culture and just manage it. Sometimes complimentary corporations could merge to increase efficiency and open other markets. 
    Taking a look at the case of Bulgars and Magyars, we could look at the phenomena as two different types of corporate dynamics. In the case of Bulgars, they were likely more of an elite management team looking for someone to manage. The found them in the Southern Slavs and became a ruling dynasty. But because they were a minority and it would be likely that they had to retain the ‘middle management’ (Slavic landlords), they could not impose their language and culture on the Slavs and perhaps being largely comprised of males had eventually lost their separate identities thru intermarriage. A similar process likely occurred with the Scandinavian Rus and the indigenous Slavs in Ukraine. 
    Prior to the Bulgars, a different process likely occurred in the Balkans and that was the Slavicization of the indigenous Balkan population. In this case it was likely Slavic warriors, remnants of the Hunnish conglomerate, took advantage of the chaos, poverty and population decline in the Balkans during the 5th and 6th century to set themselves up as landlords over people already their. In this case, the indigenous population was Slavicized by a ruling minority, because their really wasn?t any ?middle management? that could maintain the culture. Similar processes but different results.  
    With the Magyars, if the historical demographics are reasonably accurate, it seemed to be the case that the Magyars possessed well-organized semi-state and largely migrated en masse into the Carpathian Basin. There were almost as many people there already, but there doesn?t seem to be historical accounts of what actually happened. A reasonable assumption is that the Slavic ruling nobility was probably killed and chased away. The Magyar middle management basically took over the estates of the Slavic nobility and imposed their language on the new subjects. Over the centuries there was migration into the Hungarian kingdom from the surrounding people so that combined with the earlier Magyarization of Basin population, whatever unique genetic markers the original Magyars may have possessed has largely been swamped out by the surrounding populations. If you look at genetic maps of Europe, there?s no reason to suspect that Hungarians speak a very distinct language from their neighbors.

  3. We really have at least six cases: Latin in Gaul, Latin in England, Frankish in Gaul, Anglo-Saxon in England, Breton in Brittany, and Norman French in England. Latin in Gaul, Anglos-Saxon, and Breton took hold; Frankish and Norman French didn’t; Latin in Briton I don’t know about. (Norman French, like Danish, left a permanent mark in Anglo-Saxon. A Norse language actually survived in the northern islands into the XIXc.

  4. Did it stay on somehow or had it never become that well established during the Roman occupation? Or more grim, did the A-S really do a genocidal number on the natives (in spite of what that new work is telling us)? 
    the last continental celtic language that was no british derived (ie; breton) was a form of swiss gaulish that was last mentioned in the 6th century. gaulish celtic died out rather quickly in the first few centuries of the christian era. the situation in britain was different, it seems that though a romano-british elite developed that spoke latin (and had latinate names quite often), the hinterlands remained celtic. one reason might be the constant movement between the non-latinized celtic frontiers in scotland and wales and britain proper. but basically, the elites were the only ones latinized, they decamped from brittany. 
    and remember that genocide is not the only option, many ancient cultures was around replacement level fertility. being driven to marginal lands might have resulted in a sharp drop in population, and at some point the remnants simply switched languages. the genetic data does point to a lot of germanic Y chromosomal lineages in england as opposed to wales, for example. it might have been mostly male mediated. 
    also, note that christianity died out in what became england, and the anglo-saxons were rechristianized by continentals, not the celts. this is significant i think, as christianity had great assimilative powers (norse and franks for example).

  5. The Gaulish men were very highly mobilized, so the Gaulish survivors would be mostly women, children, and the old, and Gaulish could become a kitchen language of servants and children very quickly, without the need for slaughter except of warriors. Both sides also practiced a scorched-earth policy, so there would be an additional die-off for that reason.

  6. except of warriors 
    well, the warriors must have been a relatively small % of the population. i haven’t seen much evidence that settlement of italy by colonists had a wide-ranging impact on the french genetic landscape.

  7. I’m not sure about warriors being a small %. “Tribal” non-state peoples tend to mobilize almost all able-bodied men. As I recall, the Celtic mobilization for the Roman wars was especially high — Vercingetorix (sp?) was an innovator.  
    As far as I know, while there was a specialized leadership group, I don’t think that there was a male non-combatant group like those that feudal societies often have. So if only 15-20% were directly killed (and some were also exported as slaves), if they were all young adult males that would come close to destroying the culture (as 20% across the board cuts wouldn’t).

  8. well, 
    1) my impression was that caesar overblew numbers, and some celtic tribes were romanized or roman-loyal, so that would mitigate die off. 
    2) also, in the case of the gauls, it seems that the destruction of the druids resulted in their relatively fast assimilation of romanesque values. there are a few references to the worship of kerrunos in the 4th century, but it seems a folk belief more than a general indicator of celtic vitality.

  9. It’s interesting that the Normans who brought French and overlaid a Franco element onto Anglo-Saxon themselves just recently adopted the French language. They likely were not very different genetically or even culturally than the Saxons or Danish.

  10. Trivia: the Bretons who arrived on the mainland intermarried with Alan (Scythians) from a demobilized Roman detachment. The name Alan comes from that. The Breton folk tales (King Arthur) are thought to have a Scythian element.

  11. It’s interesting that the Normans who brought French and overlaid a Franco element onto Anglo-Saxon themselves just recently adopted the French language. They likely were not very different genetically or even culturally than the Saxons or Danish. 
    Yes, that the Normans recently adopted the (early) French language is also testimony to the durabiliy (usefulness) of the Latin offshoot (unlike the Celtic tongues – which seem to crumble under any assault by Germanic or Latin-based speech.

  12. It wasn’t all that recent — at least a century before 1066, probably somewhat more. (Rollo was baptized in 912). The Normans seem to have been an elite overlay over a latinate population which vasically absorbed them.

  13. “The Breton folk tales (King Arthur) are thought to have a Scythian element.” 
    The recent movie King Arthur had Arthur and his knights as Sarmatians in service to the Romans. One thing about the influence of, say, Sarmatians in Britain and Scandanavians in Normandy or Russia is that their presence is noted in historical texts but their numbers were likely small in comparison with the indigenous population. This is why there wouldn’t be much of a genetic or linguistic legacy. 
    Since my corporate merger analogy seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, I will make a couple more points about it. The Normans and Rus were largely merchants who probably needed to be bilingual and as they settled among others could quickly switch to the native language. Also Samo, who organized the first Slavic state in the 7th century was also a merchant. 
    The Turkic influence on Hungarian is largely along the lines of agricultural terms indicating that there may have been cooperative merger of peoples, where the Turkish element formed the agricultural base and the Ugrian element formed the warrior elite. This may explain why there is little or no Finno-Ugrian markers in modern Hungarians – there just weren’t very many to begin with. 
    To come up with any predictive generalities about what happens to language and cultural development when two peoples meet it helps to have some demographic understanding of those peoples: how many are there and are there women among the invaders, what sort of economic or political niche do they fill, what sort of lines of communication do they have, what is the lingua franca, if any, is there some higher organizing princle like religion, etc.

  14. Terms like Scythian, Sarmatian or Hun are generic designation that does not necessarily refer any particular ethnic group. It’s likely that any group that found themselves on the Steppes adopted similar lifestyles regardless of ethnic affiliation.  
    Were the Scythians and Sarmatians Iranian speakers as is generally assumed or were there Turkish or Slavic groups among them as well? Did the Huns speak a Turkish language since they were generally assumed to be Turks, or did they acquire another language as they traversed the Steppes? Who were included in the Hunnish hordes? Certainly Goths and Slavs.  
    There are plenty of groups like the Alans and the Avars who at a time played a significant role in history, but seem to have left no lasting legacy. 
    It’s all quite fascinating and there doesn’t seem to be any end to the numbers of theories that can be wove.

  15. Razib: 
    “I assume the reference to “Iberians” implies the peoples of the southern half of the peninsula, who in pre-Roman times spoke their own languages unrelated to Celtiberian and possibly distant from the Basque dialects. The people of Tartessos are the most prominent representatives of this cultural complex.” 
    My understanding is that “Iberians”, as used in the source article, does not refer to the pre-Indoeuropean, pre-roman populations of Iberia in general, but to the specific group known as Iberians. 
    The Iberians proper inhabited most of the Eastern part of the peninsula, including modern day Catalonia.

  16. A map showing where the Iberian language was spoken: 
    More on Iberian: 
    Note that Iberian writings have been found as far north as Béziers, in Southern France. 

  17. During their great ages the Scythians and Sarmatians presumably led polyglot coalitions. After the rise of the Huns, though, the Alans (descendant from Scythians) were a specific group, sometimes independent and sometimes subordinate to the Romans or other groups. So they probably had a more definite group identity than the horde they had led had had. This doesn’t mean that they were in any way a “pure culture”, of course. My guess is that all of the western steppe peoples were heavilt intermarried with European peoples of various origins, just as the Eastern steppe peoples had been. (The term “Turk” is linguistic, with very diverse racial content). 
    The Alan / Sarmation influence on the Bretons isn’t just from a movie. See  
    Bernard Bachrach, “A History of the Alans in the West” Minnesota, 1973. 
    “From Scythia to Camelot” (C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malco, Garland, 1994) can’t be taken at face value, but it’s interesting. 
    The overall thesis would be that the Breton was a hybrid culture with an elite Alan influence, and that the aspects of Breton culture (King Arthur) that were influential medieval Europe were partly of Alan origin. In the military world, the ultimate Alan origin of the medieval heavy-armed knight is widely accepted. 
    The Alans were still a functioning group in Genghis Khan’s time, and after their conquest served as military specialists in his forces. They survive today as the Ossetes in the Caucasus.

  18. More at my URL

  19. Sorry, this one should work.

  20. The fluidity of germanic or slavic identities in early medieval Europe was very important. As a Galician I speak a language derived from latin with a celtic or western indo-european influence. But Galicia was also the first Germanic Kingdom in Western Europe, the Suebic Kingdom of Gallaecia: 
    Despite this fact, you can only detect this Suebic or Germanic identity of Galicians in our rural popular culture( feasts, traditions) and a few words( luva=gloove, brétema,…). So, apparently the Suebi People disapeared from the scene of Europe like the Alans or the Vandals. 
    ” There are plenty of groups like the Alans and the Avars who at a time played a significant role in history, but seem to have left no lasting legacy.” 
    Well, I do not agree in this case: I feel the lasting legacy of Suebi Nation was the National Identity of Galiza like a truly Nation in the Iberian Peninsula and Western Europe: 
    I am , at least partially, of suebic offspring, and this is a good motivation for the defense of our culture and language against spanish cultural and political imposition.  
    So, the ancient frontier of the Suebic Kingdom still lives for us, and the ancient battles became political struggles between Galicians Parties and pro-spanish coalitions in our territory.  
    The Suebic identity: 

  21. As an example of how a thin elite might have a great influence, the British in India and Hongkong added little to the mix genetically, but their institutions had a powerful effect. (I’d like to see a study of HK Chinese vs. Mainland Chinese regarding attitudes toward individual rights, the rule of law, and individual initiatives). 
    This is less true of barbarian conqueror elites, but the Norman fusion really did owe a lot to the Norse with regard to political organization, law, and above all military organization (which initially was virtually identical to political organization).

  22. Razib, 
    One point I think you might be missing about Gildas saying that the barbarians were driving them to the sea, is that after the barbarians have settled down in the new land, the original inhabitants can start to drift back. 
    This happened over and over again in Ireland, that an area that was colonized by invaders, gave way to them re-employing many of the original owners as laborers on their newly acquired estates. Within a few generations, the area had reverted to being almost the same as it had been prior to invasion, except thatthe ruling elite were still comprised of invaders. 
    Now I know you will point to field systems, as evidence against this, but a new master might just request that his laborers use a system that he was more comfortable with, from his original country.