The long terror of the warrior


warbeforeOver then years ago The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols was published. This paper illustrated the surprising genetic effects that historical demographic events might have; the authors found that one particular Y chromosomal lineage was extremely common in Central Eurasia, and, that lineage exhibited an explosive growth over the past 1,000 years. Combined with the high frequency in the Khalkha Mongols in particular the natural inference made was that this lineage was reflective of the reproductive success of the group of warrior elites descended from Genghis Khan.

Some have been skeptical of this relationship. Part of this is due to ignorance or skepticism of what one can learn from genetics broadly among some scholars. In a discussion with John Horgan the cultural anthroplogist R. Brian Ferguson dismissed the possibility of something like the Genghis Khan modal haplotype. This makes sense. Here is a quote from George Orwell’s 1984:

Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ‘If I wished,’ O’Brien had said, ‘I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’ Winston worked it out. ‘If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’ Suddenly, like a lump of submerged wreckage breaking the surface of water, the thought burst into his mind: ‘It doesn’t really happen. We imagine it. It is hallucination.’ He pushed the thought under instantly. The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ‘real’ world where ‘real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.

Even cultural anthropologists who reject the “Post-Modern” tendencies common in the United states in this field often live at some remove from an enterprise where data dictates the set of plausible models about the world. If science fiction is a vision of the future conditioned on the priorities of the present, cultural anthropology is an ethnography of the present and history of the past conditioned on the ideological values of the present.

In 1984 the dictates of the present determine the past. One of the reasons it is useful to read Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage is that it serves as a record of the stated positions of many cultural anthropologists, and how they have evolved over the years in light of new evidence, without any acknowledgement that their past positions were obviously false. In a progressive conception of science error is essential for the field to slowly converge upon reality as it is over time. But one must admit that one has made errors, and is changing one’s views to match the facts. Often cultural anthropologists strike a pose that “we always knew/believed that.” Many cultural anthropologists have given upon on any pretense that learning about the world out there is possible, and at the extreme even meritorious.

The conclusions of The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols are more plausible in light of a paper which was published last year, A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture. In the paper the authors show that a massive bottleneck and subsequent explosion of very common Y chromosomal lineages such as R1b and R1a seems to have occurred on the order of 5,000 years ago. The star-shaped phylogeny is not just the legacy of Genghis Khan.

How did this situation come to be? Read Andrew Currey’s Slaughter at the Bridge in Science. It’s riveting. Here are some interesting passages:

Before the 1990s, “for a long time we didn’t really believe in war in prehistory,” DAI’s Hansen says. The grave goods were explained as prestige objects or symbols of power rather than actual weapons. “Most people thought ancient society was peaceful, and that Bronze Age males were concerned with trading and so on,” says Helle Vandkilde, an archaeologist at Aarhus University in Denmark. “Very few talked about warfare.”

DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia

The precis: 3,200 years ago thousands of men clashed around a bridge in a narrow valley in northeast Germany near the Baltic sea. Hundreds of these men died. Their skeletons yield the facts that they were in their 20s, were often killed in the brutal manner that occurs in pitched battle, and isotope analysis suggests that most of them came from hundreds of kilometers away. Both DNA and analysis of their bones to infer their diet suggest that some were similar to modern Southern Europeans, and may have been Southern Europeans in terms of their provenance, though I do not discount that there were pockets of people who were similar to the descendants of the European European Farmers (EEF) who persisted down to that period.

What does this tell us? In The Shape of Ancient Thought, most of which was written decades ago, there are presumptions about the nature of transmission of ideas from civilized (e.g., Mesopotamian) to non-civilized (e.g., archaic Greeks and Vedic Aryans) peoples. But what these results, and books such as War Before Civilization, remind us that writing and literacy is only one of the aspects of complex human organization. Complex societies seem necessary for literacy, but literacy is not necessary for social complexity (E.g., the Inca domains). Keeley documents suggestive evidence of large-scale conflict between the first farmers to arrive in Central Europe and marine foragers along the coastal littoral thousands of years before the slaughter at the bridge. Rather than being the start of something new, I suspect what occurred at Tollense was the later stages of a tradition of preliterate conflict and competition which persisted down the period of Christianity.

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