Nomads, cosmopolitan predators, and peasants, xenophobic producers

Ten years ago when I read Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians, its thesis that the migrations and conquests of the post-Roman period were at least in part folk wanderings, where men, women, and children swarmed into the collapsing Empire en masse, was somewhat edgy. Today Heather’s model has to a large extent been validated. The recent paper on the Lombard migration, the discovery that the Lombards were indeed by and large genetically coherent as a transplanted German tribe in Pannonia and later northern Italy, confirms the older views which Heather attempted to resurrect. Additionally, the Lombards also seem to have been defined by a dominant group of elite male lineages.

Why is this even surprising? Because to a great extent, the ethnic and tribal character of the post-Roman power transfer between Late Antique elites and the newcomers was diminished and dismissed for decades. I can still remember the moment in 2010 when I was browsing books on Late Antiquity at Foyles in London and opened a page on a monograph devoted to the society of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. The author explained that though the Vandals were defined by a particular set of cultural codes and mores, they were to a great extent an ad hoc group of mercenaries and refugees, whose ethnic identity emerged de novo on the post-Roman landscape.

In the next few years, we will probably get Vandal DNA from North Africa. I predict that they will be notably German (though with admixture, especially as time progresses). Additionally, I predict most of the males will be haplogroup R1b or I1. But the Vandal kingdom was actually one where there was a secondary group of barbarians: the Alans. It was Regnum Vandalorum et Alanorum. I predict that Alan males will be R1a. In particular, R1a1a-z93.

But this post is not about the post-Roman world. Rather, it’s about the Inner Asian forest steppe. The sea of grass, stretching from the Altai to the Carpathians. A new paper in Science adds more samples to the story of the Srubna, Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians. Ancient genomes suggest the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe as the source of western Iron Age nomads. The abstract is weirdly nonspecific, though accurate:

For millennia, the Pontic-Caspian steppe was a connector between the Eurasian steppe and Europe. In this scene, multidirectional and sequential movements of different populations may have occurred, including those of the Eurasian steppe nomads. We sequenced 35 genomes (low to medium coverage) of Bronze Age individuals (Srubnaya-Alakulskaya) and Iron Age nomads (Cimmerians, Scythians, and Sarmatians) that represent four distinct cultural entities corresponding to the chronological sequence of cultural complexes in the region. Our results suggest that, despite genetic links among these peoples, no group can be considered a direct ancestor of the subsequent group. The nomadic populations were heterogeneous and carried genetic affinities with populations from several other regions including the Far East and the southern Urals. We found evidence of a stable shared genetic signature, making the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe a likely source of western nomadic groups.

The German groups which invaded the Western Roman Empire were agropastoralists. That is, they were slash and burn farmers who raised livestock. Though they were mobile, they were not nomads of the open steppe. Man for man the Germans of Late Antiquity had more skills applicable to the military life than the Roman peasant. This explains in part their representation in the Roman armed forces in large numbers starting in the 3rd century. But the people of the steppe, pure nomads, were even more fearsome. Ask the Goths about the Huns.

Whole German tribes, like the Cimbri, might coordinate for a singular migration for new territory, but for the exclusive pastoralist, their whole existence was migration. Groups such as the Goths and Vandals might settle down, and become primary producers again, but pure pastoralists probably required some natural level of predation and extortion upon settled peoples to obtain a lifestyle beyond marginal subsistence. Which is to say that some of the characterizations of Late Antique barbarians as ad hoc configurations might apply more to steppe hordes.

There has been enough work on these populations over the past few years to admit that various groups have different genetic characteristics, indicative of a somewhat delimited breeding population. But, invariably there are outliers here and there, and indications of periodic reversals of migration and interactions with populations from other parts of Eurasia.

Earlier I noted that Heather seems to have been correct that the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire were events that involved the migration of women and children, as well as men. The steppe was probably a bit different. Here are the Y and mtDNA results for males from these data that are new to this paper:

CultureMtDNA HaplogroupY Haplogroup
Late SarmatianU5b2bR1b1a1a2?
Late SarmatianD4qR1b1a1a2
Late SarmatianT1a1R1a1a
CimmerianC5c (50%)Q1a1

I’m assuming you aren’t surprised. These steppe tribes seem to be defined by extended paternal lineage networks. The Srubna people are R1a1a1, as is dominant in Eastern Europe today. But, an ancient Srubna male dating to 1800 BC was found to have the Asian variant of R1a1a1, found in South and Central Asia, not the one predominant among Slavic peoples.

Click to enlarge

Speaking of South Asians, there is some interesting discussion on this issue in the paper. I’ll quote a few sections:

The Bronze Age Srubnaya-Alakulskaya individuals from Kazburun 1/Muradym 8 presented genetic similarities to the previously published Srubnaya individuals. However, in f4 statistics, they shared more drift with representatives of the Andronovo and Afanasievo populations compared to the published Srubnaya individuals. Those apparently West Eurasian people lacked significant Siberian components (NEA and SEA) in ADMIXTURE analyses but carried traces of the SA component that could represent an earlier connection to ancient Bactria. The presence of an SA component (as well as finding of metals imported from Tien Shan Mountains in Muradym 8) could therefore reflect a connection to the complex networks of the nomadic transmigration patterns characteristic of seasonal steppe population movements….

There are two ways, not exclusive, that I can explain the “South Asian” component you find in some of the steppe individuals. First, the “South Asian” component is found in the Neolithic Iranian sample. And, you can see in another plot that the Scythians are enriched for West Asian ancestry in comparison to the Srubna. As noted above there was probably south to north migration of these Indo-European nomadic groups. So yes, just as with the East Asia ancestry which periodically appears, this is evidence of an “Inner Asian International.”

A second possibility though is that the South Asian ancestry is artifactual and that it’s just emerging in ADMIXTURE because of shared ancestry between the Srubna and South Asians because of gene flow from the steppe into South Asia (and since South Asians have “Iranian farmer” ancestry it also pops up in the Iranian Neolithic sample).

The Srubna flourished between the 18th and 12th centuries BC. According to Wikipedia:

Philological and linguistic evidence indicates that the bulk of the Rigveda Samhita was composed in the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent, most likely between c. 1500 and 1200 BC.

Mitannia Indo-Aryan is attested in Syria in 1380 BC.

In the centuries around 1500 BC it seems quite possible that there was an “Indo-Aryan Inner Asian International”, just as in the first millennium AD there emerged a Turkic International, and for more than a century after 1200 AD there was a Mongol International. In the north, the Indo-Aryans were absorbed by Iranian and Uralic peoples. In West Asia they didn’t have a major cultural impact, aside from introducing chariots. It is in India by happenstance that Indo-Aryan linguistic culture and aspects of their folk memory are preserved to this day.

This isn’t that amazing. Half of the speakers of Turkic langauges are ethnic Turks, who live in Turkey. Anatolia genetically isn’t really very East Asian, though there is some of that. But the cultural heritage of the ancient Turks remains stronger there than in areas anciently inhabited by Turks, such as western Mongolia (where the people are genetically more like the original Turks were in the first millennium AD).

What’s the upshot here? I think that there is a spectrum of passivity and xenophobia in the modes of production outlined above. Sedentary peasant peoples are the most conservative and xenophobic.  They are also the least warlike because their skill set is the least transferable to warfare. They specialize in production, not extortion.

Pure nomads are the least xenophobic and most open to various forms of cultural innovation. The Mongol horde rapidly expanded in the decades of Genghis Khan’s rule through assimilation of various Turkic and Tungusic peoples. Though Genghis Khan put his sons by his first wife Borte in all the major positions, competent individuals outside of his own family line were elevated to power and authority. We have enough evidence now that these social dynamics are also strongly driven by the reality of migrating males, who marry a variety of conquered peoples.

Though Mongols were religiously tolerant and relatively accepting of ethnic diversity so long as subordinate peoples did not rebel, they were fundamentally an extortive order where organized mass violence was always the weapon of first resort. They were almost certainly not atypical, but continuing an Inner Asian tradition which probably dates to the Bronze Age, and matured 1,000 years later with groups like the Scythians.

Agropastoralists, such as the people of Nothern Europe during antiquity, were probably somewhere in between peasants and nomads. Not as xenophobic as peasants, but definitely more inward looking than the steppe nomads.

22 thoughts on “Nomads, cosmopolitan predators, and peasants, xenophobic producers

  1. Just a small correction: It is supposed to be Srubna culture, not Sbruna.

    Concerning xenophobia, endogamy and the treatment of conquered people: I am under the impression of a case to case decision making of the expanding Indo-Europeans. Probably the elite of the leading warriors and priests made binding rules even in the early times and depending on the circumstances. The differences seem to be huge even among closely related groups.

  2. Related, tweets by Alexander Kim from the ISBA presentation on “Re-evaluating #Scythian nomadism”

    “Only small component of these pops highly mobile (in range of early childhood to adolescence), w/ interesting dietary composition correlates. Ongoing turn in Eurasian steppe archaeology towards seeing many of the iconically Scythian expressions of personal & warrior prestige as “urban” affordances of overall perhaps rather non-mobile and agriculturally-committed societies concentrated in fortified centers”

    Huns might be different? E.g. generally functioning less like an equestrian class over non-mobile population. Or not? Some ideas that Transeurasian languages (inc. Turkic) originate from northern millet farming groups (Hongshan Culture).

    Re: more openness in pastoralist populations than sedentary agriculturalist, it seems plausible (and I have some vague memory of a anthropological study among present day populations found less emphasis on tradition among more mobile groups?).

    On the other hand of it, I the differences within both these groups are relatively great; Would I be comfortable to place Austronesian expansion, Bantu expansion, Roman Empire, classical Greece, European post-medieval, China Warrings States / Song, as being cultures less open to innovation, change, interaction, migration than pastoralist peoples (even of the time)? Pastoralist peoples more open to innovation in a sense of being more productive of new ideas or more accepting of new ideas from other groups, or in a sense of encountering frequently settled people and other steppe groups with new ideas (so just a product of their experiences and situation, not outlook)?

  3. Nomade seem to be very conservative in some ways, but we deal with special cases in which they conquered and subdued very different people living a different lifestyle in a different environment. If they did more than raids and wanted to fully exploit their chance, for being successful they had to adapt.
    Taking foreign women while being on the move in groups of male warriors, with the own females being far away, if being available for the young warriors at all, compare with Maasai, seems just predictable. While it may be less likely with the own womenfolk in the trek.

  4. I would also expect R1b-L23 as a result of the Alan migrations. … I have a somewhat different opinion regarding the genetic heritage of the Turks. In this I follow Omeljan Pritsak in that the Turks were not originally ethnic tribes but a male-bonding {of warriors} a ‘Mannerbund’ … I would suspect that it drew from a wide range of peoples with original languages from the Tungusic to the Iranian as well as Turkic & Mongolic. The names of the first Göktürk emperors and their brothers Bumïn, Ishtemi (552 – 575), Muqan/Mughan/Mahan/Muhan (553 – 572) and Nivar/Näbär/Nawär (581 -587) as well as their family name Ashina were Iranian {Golden}. Even the Turk founding myth had near Biblical implications: They were slaves who rose up and became the strong ones, indicating class over free tribes. Like other fast-growing hordes their numbers came from joiners and not simply an immense jump in birth-rate. As you have noted we see the diminution of NE-Asian ancestry as the movement came into Central Asia, the Caucasus and later Anatolia.

  5. The Alans were Iranians, correct? Can we predict anything about their genetics from their modern-day descendants (the Ossetians)?

  6. good points sgt! it is plausible that the turks BECOME an ethnicity of predominantly siberio-mongolic character over time…. (just like the modern TURKS are a mix of armenian, greek, and kurd).

  7. I can think of a big difference between the Lombards and the Vandals, though. The Lombards went from central Europe to dominating northern Italy in less than ten years, meaning that there probably just wasn’t much time for admixture to happen. Meanwhile, thirty years passed between when the Vandals crossed into Iberia (to say nothing of when they moved into Gaul) and when they finally cemented their domination of the area that is now Tunisia in North Africa.

  8. “but pure pastoralists probably required some natural level of predation and extortion upon settled peoples to obtain a lifestyle beyond marginal subsistence.”

    The rest of your analysis seems solid, but this point does not. Pastoralists were, on average, healthier and better fed than farmers.

    Also, pastoralist predation on farmers historically appears to be for the most part cyclic. During periods of inferior climate conditions, farming economies collapse and the pastoralists swoop in. During periods of farming climate conditions, farming economies are healthy and pastoralists largely leave them alone.

    I think a more plausible hypothesis is that pastoralists are better adapted to arid conditions than farmers, and that when farming economies collapse in arid periods, pastoralists swoop in to fill the leadership vacuum because their culture is better adapted to thrive in these conditions (while simultaneously feeling a push to leave their usual range because in arid conditions their usual more arid territory becomes incapable from continuing to support them).

    This is a phenomena that is still playing out in Africa’s Sahel. Muslim pastoralists are pushing south into historically Christian/animist farmer territory all across the Sahel (from Mali to Northern Nigeria to the Central African Republic to Sudan) as the desert expands and become more arid, and the Christian/animist farmers struggle to hold them back but are struggling themselves because aridity is making their farming less bountiful. The pastoralists are ruthless not just out of religious fervor but also because if they don’t relocate from their historical increasingly arid range to better watered lands to the south, they will starve and die.

    It is fair to presume that a similar dynamic drove historical pastoralist hordes.

  9. let me be more explicit: pure pastoralist *elites* need sedentary people to produce their luxury goods 🙂

    status doesn’t accrue from freedom alone…

  10. The so-called openness of the pastoralists is countered out by how fragile they are culturally (see how Mongol conquerers ended up being assimilated into the lands they invaded) and how unproductive/dysfunctional they are (see evidence that China’s economy sunk under the Mongols and didn’t recover until they were safely out of power). If anything, it shows the Alt-Right point that lack of homogenity is a liability to building a stable and productive society.

  11. The so-called openness of the pastoralists is countered out by how fragile they are culturally (see how Mongol conquerers ended up being assimilated into the lands they invaded) and how

    that’s one case. you kind of sound like a moron to foreground this example.

    what language are we writing in? what language family is it? turkic? semitic? (there are disagreements about how pastoralist arabs were…but still).

    (see evidence that China’s economy sunk under the Mongols and didn’t recover until they were safely out of power).

    the mongols ruined pretty much all of west asia and china.

  12. the mongols ruined pretty much all of west asia and china.

    Don’t know about that. Trade routes throughout Pax Mongolica were reputedly extremely safe unlike just about any other time in history. Reputedly caravans could travel without armed escort.

    Allow me to quote Tacitus: auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque, ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

  13. Because to a great extent, the ethnic and tribal character of the post-Roman power transfer between Late Antique elites and the newcomers was diminished and dismissed for decades.

    Indeed “late antiquity” itself is an expression of the “no collapse” revisionism. When I was very young, what I learned was of the collapse of Rome and the descent into the barbarian Dark Ages. By the time I was in college, the late antiquity school that emphasized contiguity dominated (at one time I studied under a leading proponent of that paradigm). Now I feel that we are in a much more sober period in which both the elements of contiguity and the dramatic material decline and intrusion of new peoples and cultures are recognized in proper proportions.

  14. twinkie, according to motte there were issues with the incentive structure of the rents mongols were allocated. basically, they were not rewarded to maintaining long-term productivity, but tend squeeze the chinese peasants as much as possible until the peasants just ran away (rendering the property nonproductive).

    the system went through ups and downs and ups a few times over the yuan.

    in contrast, the situation in west and central asia was castrophistic. iran didn’t really recover until the early modern period. same with iraq. one reason iraq is so shia today were directed conversion campaigns of newly settled agriculturalists during the early modern period.

  15. I don’t disagree. They were not exactly Romans in being able to build a sustainable imperium. As soon as their military power waned (or frittered in internal disputes), they were done. I think one thing agriculturalists tend to have better compared to pastoralists is future-orientation/time horizon.

    I forget – was it Augustus who said that a good governor ought to shear the sheep, not flay it?

    Still, I think the Mongol destruction is overplayed and conflated with that of Tamerlane.

    By the way, the site has an odd issue. Once I write a comment and return to the main page, I can see the comment listed on the right. But if I click on that (or any reply), the page to which I am led has an older version without those comments. It clearly up by itself after a while.

  16. By the way, the site has an odd issue. Once I write a comment and return to the main page, I can see the comment listed on the right. But if I click on that (or any reply), the page to which I am led has an older version without those comments. It clearly up by itself after a while.

    yeah, the caching is an issue. i may make it less strict…but i’m really taxing the virtual host with how many hits i get 😉

    the mongol impact on central asia/siberia etc. seems to have been immense. i recall a paper which suggested that reforestation may have triggered climate change.

  17. “an ad hoc group of mercenaries and refugees, whose ethnic identity emerged de novo on the post-Roman landscape.
    I predict that they will be notably German”

    Not necessarily a contradiction. Don’t know about the book you read, but for what I remember, most (all?) of the Germanic peoples on the move in the Völkerwanderung were not actually tribes, but tribal coalitions (kind of super tribes).
    So, even if actual Vandals might have been a minority of the people who finally conquered Carthage, it’s very probable that a majority of their people were Germanic.

  18. For those of you interested, Patrick Wyman excellent fall of Roman podcasts really do a deep dive into the ethnic composition of both the Roman armies and the barbarian invaders.

    Razib knows Patrick and has podcast with him, but I don’t remember where.

  19. I’ll echo some of the above. What goes for the Lombards *might* not go for other Germanic confederations that seem to have mixed things up a bit more culturally in the long run, like all those East Germanic groups that made a trip all the way to the steppe via the Baltic before moving back south-west. The culturally East Germanic samples we’ve gotten so far go from being quasi-Scandinavian in Wielbark to kinda ‘mixed’ on the steppe and the northern Balkans, unlike the Elbe Germanic ones (we’ve actually gotten all of Bavarians, Alemanni and Lombards so far) which preserve their Scandinavian tendencies even when they reach their historical positions in Central/Southern Europe.

    (The caveat being relatively limited sampling in some cases)

  20. the ethnic composition of both the Roman armies and the barbarian invaders.

    Celto-Thracians and Germans?

    And of course “when?” and “where?” matter too.

  21. It was Tiberius, acccording to Suetonius: to be a good shepherd (“boni pastoris esse”), shear the sheep, don’t flay it (“tondere pecus, non deglubere”)


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