In the near future the ancient DNA group led by David Reich will publish a bunch of stuff, and one paper will note that the variation in steppe ancestry in the Bronze Age Greeks did not have class implications. In other words, the ancient Greeks did not have a caste system as you might find in India, despite the way the Spartans treated the helots or Messinians. Of course, the Indo-Europeans did have a ‘tripartite’ caste system of rulers and warriors, priests and commoners. In the Indian varna system, this was translated into Kshatriyas, Brahmins and Vaishyas. But it is found elsewhere, including among the German Saxons. But to my knowledge nothing like the Indian caste system has been found genetically in these ancient populations; some individuals have more “farmer” ancestry in initial generations, but this is all smoothed away by admixture.
India is different. It has jati-varna, with varna being caste as you would understand, but jati being one of thousands of endogamous “communities” in the subcontinent. At first, like many, I assumed this had something to do with the Indo-Aryan migration into the subcontinent, but I noticed a few things early on. First, there are apparent genetic differences between groups in Non-Aryan South India that are not Brahmin. For example, between Nadars and Dalits. These differences correlated to global biographic fraction differences. Dalits have more AASI (Ancient Ancestral South Indian). Mind you, I believe South Indian “Dravidians” were strongly shaped by the Indo-Aryans, so that’s not dispositive. Nevertheless, Non-Aryan cultural regions have this institution, and, jati is peculiarly India, even if varna is not.
But, what has shifted my view is looking at admixture variation in “Indus Valley Periphery” samples in samples dated from 3000-2000 BC. There’s a wide range of AASI. Why? Well, admixture in structured populations takes time. But there’s something suspicious to me about this variation combined with India’s later endogamy and the mystery of how the Indus Valley Civilization organized itself. There seems to have been very little stratification in a way we would understand it from Egypt or Mesopatamia. Were they anarchists? I doubt it. The early emergence of jati may explain the IVC sociopolitical system. The Indo-Aryans, when they arrived, were simply integrated into the framework.
Ancient DNA will prove me right or wrong. But I’m putting my cards on the table.
In European and many African, Middle Eastern and southern Asian populations, lactase persistence (LP) is the most strongly selected monogenic trait to have evolved over the past 10,000 years1. Although the selection of LP and the consumption of prehistoric milk must be linked, considerable uncertainty remains concerning their spatiotemporal configuration and specific interactions2,3. Here we provide detailed distributions of milk exploitation across Europe over the past 9,000 years using around 7,000 pottery fat residues from more than 550 archaeological sites. European milk use was widespread from the Neolithic period onwards but varied spatially and temporally in intensity. Notably, LP selection varying with levels of prehistoric milk exploitation is no better at explaining LP allele frequency trajectories than uniform selection since the Neolithic period. In the UK Biobank4,5 cohort of 500,000 contemporary Europeans, LP genotype was only weakly associated with milk consumption and did not show consistent associations with improved fitness or health indicators. This suggests that other reasons for the beneficial effects of LP should be considered for its rapid frequency increase. We propose that lactase non-persistent individuals consumed milk when it became available but, under conditions of famine and/or increased pathogen exposure, this was disadvantageous, driving LP selection in prehistoric Europe. Comparison of model likelihoods indicates that population fluctuations, settlement density and wild animal exploitation—proxies for these drivers—provide better explanations of LP selection than the extent of milk exploitation. These findings offer new perspectives on prehistoric milk exploitation and LP evolution.
1) Doesn’t seem to explain why LP started becoming common in Britain before the continent
2) Why are the alleles not in HWE? There’s not really any assortative mating.
I mentioned this in my latest Time Well Spent (a recurring feature of my newsletter), but I’ve started a collab with a firm called dry.io. On its website they say they want to “Build tools that let your team and your community work how you want.” For over a decade many of you have been reading me via my Total Content Feed, but I now have a new way to interact with all of my content thanks to dry.io, a landing page that pulls from all the various places that I drop content. They also have a nice search engine.
Harvard Magazine has a nice piece up on David Reich’s biography and research. The section where Reich addresses the strange issues regarding Neanderthals jumped out at me, as I’ve had the same confused thoughts:
Reich is not resting on his laurels. As the data accumulate, and the tools become more sophisticated and powerful, he has begun revisiting some of his own prior interpretations of human prehistory, and coming to terms with what he describes as “weird signals in the current data.” Mitochondrial DNA shows that modern humans and Neanderthals are much more closely related to each other in the maternal line than either is to Denisovans. The Y chromosomes of modern humans and Neanderthals, passed only in the paternal line, are also much more closely related to each other than to Denisovans. “But then if you look at the whole genome, on average, Neanderthals and Denisovans are more closely related to each other than either one is to modern humans. Having an entirely male line and an entirely female line saying one thing, and then the rest of the genome saying something else, is weird.” The explanation some people give is that there may have been modern human mixture with Neanderthals further back in time than currently understood, somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 years ago, and that contributed a few percent to the Neanderthal genome. “But it’s very surprising that only a few percent contribution would be the source of both the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA for Neanderthals.” Maybe contemporary non-Africans are actually Neanderthals, and later waves of modern human DNA from Africa swamped the rest of non-Africans’ genomes so “non-Africans are best described as Neanderthals, with 98 percent modern human mixture, or something profoundly philosophically unsettling like that,” he says, half seriously.
“There’s going to be a challenging of our understanding of these relationships” in the years ahead, Reich continues, “based on analyzing the data in more sensitive ways and looking at it from new perspectives. We’re taking a couple of steps back and realizing that key events and relationships are different, in a deep way, from the first-pass model we have collectively developed. The model that I’ve had a role in building is teetering. I find that exciting, as well as destabilizing. And I’d like to be part of trying to figure out the truth.”
Neanderthals clearly have a bit of “modern” human-like DNA from paleo-Africans. On the order of a few percent. But strangely, their Y and mtDNA seem to fit into a lade with modern humans, as opposed to the Neanderthal’s Denisovan cousins. This isn’t impossible; over time rare lineages will replace common ones. But what’s the chance that both Y and mtDNA from humans would replace that of Neanderthals? (probability of fixation of a new mutation is 1 over the number of gene copies)
The new Rings of Power series debuts on September 2nd, so they have a new trailer out. I’m skeptical, but they pulled all the stops for the effects. My expectation is that this will be to the Tolkien canon what Taco Bell is to Mexican food, but I will be happy to be surprised. It is obvious that they are taking Black Númenóreans a bit too literally, but if they execute well on things unrelated to the identity politics I bet people will be willing to overlook that (it could be that this was just the price they’d have to pay in Hollywood to get this produced).
Tad Williams Into the Narrowdark – Last King of Osten Ard Book 3 is good. Williams, in my opinion, is great at navigating between George R. R. Martin’s somewhat excessively gruesome world-building with Brandon Sanderson’s “boy scout” approach. Like R. Scott Bakker he is excellent at the fashioning of human-like elven analogs that push into the uncanny valley territory of “human nature,” very much like us but different in critical ways as to seem alien and fantastic.
I don’t have time to write up all the ancient DNA that is coming out, but I do try and read it. Keep the links coming; I do appreciate them.
Most of you know I ungated my Substack podcasts after two weeks. The reviews have trailed off, which means that there will be ‘less discovery’ of them. If you have a moment, I would appreciate a five-star (I may mention this on my podcast at some point, I don’t push this heavily).
I’ve been writing on this blog for 20 years. One sad trend is that a huge swath of academics are becoming incredibly conformist, censorious and ideologically motivated. Yes, this tendency was always there in a field like sociology, for example, but now it’s everywhere. The public doesn’t even know the tenth of it from what the stuff I hear. Just keep your skeptical hat on…
For about two decades after the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, the South dominated American politics. True, there were Northerners like Martin van Buren who became President, but they headed a Southern-dominated coalition. By the 1850s this alignment was not stable because the North was developing industrially and outpacing the population of the South. Nevertheless, it took some time for a realignment to occur, where the Mid-Atlantic regions of the North began to vote with Greater New England as a unit, and so would serve as the basis for Republican domination for decades until FDR broke the old parties.
The 1856 election shows the last time that the old alliance won out, as you can see that the Republican candidate had very little support outside of Greater New England. The combination of the moral fervor of the anti-slavery movement, which eventually won over the whole North, and the unreasonable expectations of the numerically inferior South, eventually brought the rest of the North to the Republican party.
Over at my Substack I’ve spent more than a year writing about the cultural and genetic impact of the Eurasian steppe. I’ve put out a large number of essays, so I want to post them here in case you missed one. In reverse order…
The specter of these pitiless barbarians swooping in on horseback had haunted the ancients, their horror recorded in histories that filtered down to modern Europeans. In these classical texts, the Huns were the epitome of brutal and alien savages whose raison d’etre was total victory on the battlefield, punctuated by gluttonous orgies of flesh, food and drink. They were the embodiment of the European cultural imagination’s bête noire, the austere and erudite Roman aristocrat contrasting sharply with the brutish barbarian guzzling mare’s milk and gnawing on a hunk of raw meat while in the saddle.
The Yamnaya-powered transformation of Europe and Asia more than 5,000 years ago was a social and economic revolution, with the explosion of nomadic pastoralism across the Eurasian steppe. Its downstream linguistic and cultural consequences are with us to this very day: billions of us speak Indo-European languages, and we preserve those ancestral religious beliefs both in the shared mythology of the West and in the living religious traditions of India. To premodern minds untouched by science, the rise of obscure tribes to world conquest would have been evidence of divine providence and fate. Theirs was a world of miracles, and the gods always chose favorites. By the 20th century, supernatural explanations had foundered on the shoals of scientific materialism. But unless you were a Marxist, history was a matter of narrow description of particular places and times, rather than general theoretical narratives that explained the arc and ebb of societies and cultures. It was one damn thing after another, with broader patterns attributed to the vague laws of probability.
Today 3.5 billion humans speak Indo-European languages, which dominate Eurasia from Spain to the Indian subcontinent. This is the legacy of the pastoralists who roamed the Pontic steppe north of the Black sea 5,000 years ago. They were the original Indo-Europeans. They pioneered the nomadic lifestyle, leaving behind hard toil at the plow and thankless foraging in cold Siberian forests. They chose instead to wander the open grasslands in search of fresh pastures for their herds. They were the first to unleash young warriors raised as roving nomads upon the world, predatory packs marching the breadth of a continent in a few centuries. We don’t know what they called themselves. We don’t know the names of those who led them. But their cultural innovations and the choices they made transformed our world and made us who we are today. These nameless people left no monuments or seminal texts. Instead, we live with their language, their gods and their genes.
The grey wolf (Canis lupus) was the first species to give rise to a domestic population, and they remained widespread throughout the last Ice Age when many other large mammal species went extinct. Little is known, however, about the history and possible extinction of past wolf populations or when and where the wolf progenitors of the present-day dog lineage (Canis familiaris) lived1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Here we analysed 72 ancient wolf genomes spanning the last 100,000 years from Europe, Siberia and North America. We found that wolf populations were highly connected throughout the Late Pleistocene, with levels of differentiation an order of magnitude lower than they are today. This population connectivity allowed us to detect natural selection across the time series, including rapid fixation of mutations in the gene IFT88 40,000–30,000 years ago. We show that dogs are overall more closely related to ancient wolves from eastern Eurasia than to those from western Eurasia, suggesting a domestication process in the east. However, we also found that dogs in the Near East and Africa derive up to half of their ancestry from a distinct population related to modern southwest Eurasian wolves, reflecting either an independent domestication process or admixture from local wolves. None of the analysed ancient wolf genomes is a direct match for either of these dog ancestries, meaning that the exact progenitor populations remain to be located.
Dog stuff makes the headlines, but I think the wolf stuff is the most interesting in this paper.
Because our politics have been nationalized, it’s easy to forget there are still regional quirks and variations. Comparing Pew’s 2014 views on abortion by state with 2020 election results, you can see that states like Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska are far more Republican and pro-Trump than they are anti-abortion. That didn’t matter too much…until recently.