The Dravidianization of India

On this week’s The Insight Spencer Wells and I talk about the Indo-Aryan arrival to South Asia. This was recorded very early last summer, and I’m rather unguarded (it’s well before I had the piece published in India Today).

I think 2018 will finally be the year that a lot of South Asia will be “solved.” There has been some foot-dragging on papers and results, but that can only go so long.

All that being said I suppose I should make some suppositions I have arrived at on this topic more explicit, as in a discussion with an Indian friend he admitted had no idea about some of my views, though he reads this weblog when I expressed them. That’s because they are speculative and my confidence in them is weak, though you can infer my opinions if you look very closely.

The figure to the left is from Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East, a paper published about a year and a half ago. You see various South Asian populations being modeled as a mixture of four different source populations. The Onge are an Andaman Islander population (and the closest we can get to the aboriginal peoples of South Asia). Iran_N represents Neolithic Iranians, the canonical “eastern farmer” population. Steppe_EMBA represent Yamnaya pastoralists, who are themselves modeled as a mixture of Eastern European Hunter-Gatherers (EHG) and southern population which has affinities with the Iran_N cluster. EHG in their turn seems to exhibit ancestry from Western European Hunter-Gatherers (WHG), whose heritage dates to the late Pleistocene, and Ancient North Eurasians (ANE), who flourished in Siberia, and contributed ancestry to populations to the west and east (including the ancestors of Native Americans).

When I first saw this specific figure I was incredulous. I had long thought that “Ancient North Indians” (ANI) were a compound of two elements, one related to the farmers of West Asia (Iran_N), and the other steppe Indo-European (Steppe_EMBA/Yamnaya). But the fraction of Yamnaya/Indo-European/Indo-Aryan ancestry seemed far too high.

A few years later I am less certain about my skepticism. The fractions here in the details are debatable. Within the text of the paper, the author admits that the true ancestral populations are probably not represented by the model. But they are close. In most cases, the “Han” ancestry is probably indicative of the fact that the non-ANI component of South Asian ancestry is most closely related to the Onge, but is significantly different nonetheless.

The ratio of Iran_N and Steppe_EMBA is the key. Here is a selection from the paper:

Group Iran_N Steppe_EMBA Ratio
Jew_Cochin 0.53 0.23 2.27
Brahui 0.60 0.30 1.98
Kharia 0.13 0.07 1.97
Balochi 0.57 0.32 1.75
Mala 0.23 0.18 1.25
Vishwabrahmin 0.25 0.20 1.21
GujaratiD 0.29 0.28 1.04
Sindhi 0.38 0.38 1.00
Bengali 0.22 0.25 0.91
Pathan 0.36 0.45 0.81
Punjabi 0.24 0.33 0.72
GujaratiB 0.27 0.38 0.72
Lodhi 0.21 0.29 0.72
Burusho 0.27 0.43 0.64
GujaratiC 0.23 0.37 0.61
Kalash 0.29 0.50 0.58
GujaratiA 0.26 0.46 0.57
Brahmin_Tiwari 0.23 0.44 0.51

Any way you slice it, a group like the Tiwari Brahmins of Northern India have more Onge-like ancestry than most of the groups in Pakistan. But also observe that the ratio toward Steppe_EMBA is more skewed in them than among even Pathans or Kalash.  The Lodhi, a non-upper caste population from Uttar Pradesh in north-central South Asia are more skewed toward Steppe_EMBA than Pathans.

It is important for me to reiterate that the key is to focus on ratios and not exact percentages. Though the Steppe_EMBA fraction did strike me as high, glimmers of these sorts of results were evident in model-based clustering approaches as early as 2010. The population in the list above most skewed toward Iran_N are Cochin Jews. This group has known Middle Eastern ancestry. But next on the list are Brahui, a Dravidian speaking group in Pakistan. There is a north-south cline within Pakistan, with northern populations (Burusho) being skewed toward Steppe_EMBA and southern ones (Sindhi) being skewed toward Iran_N. Additionally, Iranian groups such as Pathans and Baloch likely have had some continuous gene flow with Middle Eastern groups, probably inflating their Iran_N.

Trends I see in the data:

  1. There is a north-south cline within Pakistan with Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  2. There is a north-south cline within South Asia with Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  3. There is caste stratification within regions between Steppe_EMBA vs. Iran_N
  4. Though not clear in this table, there are strong suggestions that Indo-European speaking groups tend to be enriched in Steppe_EMBA, all things equal (e.g., the Bengalis in the 1000 Genomes look a lot like the middle-caste Telugus in the 1000 Genomes when you remove the East Asian ancestry…except for a noticeable small fraction of a component which I think points to Indo-European ancestry)

What does this mean in terms of a model of the settlement of South Asian over the past 4,000 years? One conclusion I have come to is that Dravidian speaking groups are not the aboriginal peoples of the subcontinent. Rather, their settlement across much of South Asia is very recent. Almost as recent as Indo-Aryan habitation. In First Farmers the archaeologist Peter Bellwood proposed this model, whereby Indo-Aryans and Dravidians both expanded across South Asia concurrently. Though I think elements of Bellwood’s model that are incorrect, it’s far more correct in my opinion than I believed when I first encountered it.

Why do I believe this?

  1. The Neolithic begins in South India in 3000 BC.
  2. Sri Lanka is Indo-European speaking
  3. The Dravidian languages of South India don’t seem particularly diverged from each other
  4. There is ancestry/caste stratification in South India even excluding Brahmins (e.g., Reddys and Naidus in Andhra Pradesh look somewhat different from Dalits and tribals)
  5. Some scholars claim that there isn’t a Dravidian substrate in the Gangetic plain
  6. R1a1a-Z93, almost certainly associated with Indo-Aryans, is found in South Indian tribal populations
  7. Using LD-based methods researchers are rather sure that the last admixture events between ANI and ASI (“Ancestral South Indians”) populations occurred around ~4,000 years ago

Here is my revised model as succinctly as I can outline it. The northwest fringes of South Asia, today Pakistan, and later to be the home of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), was populated by a mix of indigenous populations, a form of ASI, when West Asian agriculturalists arrived ~9,000 years ago from what is today Iran. These were the Iran_N or “eastern farmer” groups. The West Asian agricultural toolkit was serviceable in northwestern South Asia for reasons of climate and ecology, but could not expand further east and south for thousands of years.

There is where the first admixture occurred that led to a population was mixed between ANI and ASI. These people lacked Steppe_EMBA. They were pre-Indo-European. They were almost certainly not all Dravidian speaking. The Burusho people of northern Pakistan, for example, speak a language isolate (in India proper you have Nihali and Kusunda)

By ~3000 BC this proto-South Asian (in a modern sense) population began to expand, while the IVC matured and waxed. Eventually, the IVC waned, fragmented, and disappeared.

Around ~2000 BC, or perhaps somewhat later, Indo-Aryans arrive in South Asia. The situation at this stage in not one of a primordial and static Dravidian India, on which Indo-Aryans place themselves on top. Rather, it’s a dynamic one as the collapse of the IVC has opened up a disordered power vacuum, and a reconfiguration of cultural and sociopolitical alliances.

In the paper above the author alludes to the pervasiveness of both Iran_N and Steppe_EMBA ancestry in South Asia, including in South India. “Indo-European” Y chromosomal lineages are also found among many South Indian groups, albeit at attenuated proportions region-wide. In Peter Turchin’s formulation, I believe that “Indo-Aryan” and “Dravidian” identities became meta-ethnic coalitions in the post-IVC world. Genetically the two groups are different, on average. But some Dravidian populations assimilated and integrated Indo-Aryan tribes and bands, while Indo-Aryans as newcomers assimilated many Dravidian populations.

The reason that the ratio of Iran_N to Steppe_EMBA does not decline monotonically as one goes from west to east along North Indian plain is that Indo-Aryans were not expanding into a Dravidian India.  Dravidian India was expanding only somewhat ahead of Indo-Aryan India, and in some places not all at all. In the northwest fringe of South Asia there had long been a settled population of peasants with West Asian ancestry with Iran_N affinities. In contrast to the east the landscape was populated by nomadic tribal populations with ASI affinities. North Indian Brahmins may have more Steppe_EMBA than some populations in Pakistan and more ASI because they descend from Indo-Aryan groups who absorbed indigenous ASI populations as they expanded across the landscape.

Dravidian groups as they expanded also assimilated indigenous populations. This explains some groups with very high fractions of ASI. Their ASI ancestry is a compound, of an old admixture in Northwest India, and also later assimilation in South India. The presence of R1a1a-Z93 in these populations reflects the integration of some originally Indo-Aryan groups into the expanding Dravidian wavefront.

Where does this leave us?

  1. The Indo-Aryan vs. Dravidian dichotomy is not one of newcomers vs. aboriginals. It is of two different sociocultural configurations which came into their current shape in the waning days of the IVC. That is, it is less than 4,000 years old
  2. The two populations were clearly interacting closely around the time of the collapse and disintegration of the IVC and post-IVC societies. There has been gene flow between the two
  3. ~4000 years ago ANI and ASI populations existed in their “pure” form, but that is because ASI aboriginals still existed to the south and east of the IVC, while Indo-Aryans were a new intrusive presence in the Indian subcontinent

Genomic ancestry tests are not cons, part 2: the problem of ethnicity

The results to the left are from 23andMe for someone whose paternal grandparents were immigrants from southern Germany. Their mother had a father who was of English American background (his father was a Yankee American with an English surname and his mother was an immigrant from England), and grandparents who were German (Rhinelander) and French Canadian respectively on their maternal side.

Looking at the results from 23andMe one has to wonder, why is this individual only a bit under 25% French & German, when genealogical records show places of birth that indicates they should be 75% French & German (more precisely, 62.5% German and 12.5% French). Though their ancestry is 25% English, only 13% of their ancestry is listed as such.

First, notice that nearly half of their ancestry is “Broadly Northwestern European.” Last I  checked  23andMe uses phased haplotypes to detect segments of ancestry. This is a very powerful method and is often quite good at zeroing in on people of European ancestry. But with Americans of predominant, but mixed, Northern European background rather than giving back precise proportions often you obtain results of the form of “Broadly…” because presumably, recombination has generated novel haplotypes in white Americans.

But this isn’t the whole story. Why, for example, are many of the Finnish people I know on 23andMe assigned as >90% Finnish, while a Danish friend is 40% Scandinavian?

The issue here is that to be “Finnish” and “Scandinavian” are not equivalent units in terms of population genetics. Finns are a relatively homogeneous ethnic group who seem to have undergone a recent population bottleneck. In contrast, Scandinavia encompasses several different, albeit related, ethnicities which are geographically widely distributed.

Ethnic identities are socially and historically constructed. Additionally, they are often clear and distinct. This is not always the case for population genetic classifications. On a continental scale, racial classification is trivial, and feasible with only a modest number of genetic markers. Why? Because the demographic and evolutionary history of Melanesians and West Africans, to give two concrete examples, are distinct over tens of thousands of years. Population genetic analyses which attempt to identify or differentiate these groups have a lot of raw material to work with.

Read More

Video is for consumption and text is for production

The Information has a piece up, The Case Against Video. The Information charges a decent amount for its services which are in text form, so of course there is some bias here insofar as this belief was probably preexistent.

But I happen to agree. It strikes me that video is relatively low density, and it often takes reading to be able to combine facts/concepts together to form something new. It can be done via video, but it ends up taking more time.

For most people video will be sufficient, just as for most people television news is sufficient. But real depth will require reading.

Smartphones killed the fabulist

EVIL!!!

In The Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr has a bizarre but unsurprising op-ed, How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds:
Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens
. By the title, you can immediately pick out tells that should induce skepticism. “Research suggests” is usually indicating that the author has a hypothesis, and they went and searched the literature for research that confirmed their hypothesis. Carr actually did better than much of modern journalism. He found peer-reviewed literature, instead of quote mining, or selective elisions. Journalism, you have a story to tell, and you’ll make someone else tell it!

And to his credit, Carr cites the publications transparently, with links. Unfortunately, you see that in some cases the sample sizes are very small, and the statistical significance is marginal. In other instances, it doesn’t seem like there’s any real causality. One can’t know if there is a confound with who decides to take phones to class and who does not. It may be that those students who are very focused simply don’t take their phones. Finally, a lot of the research cited in the piece looks like it was sliced and diced to me.

This is where a little history and cognitive neuroscience would go a long way. Traditionalists have inveighed against new information technologies for the whole history of the human race. No doubt when complex syntax emerged some spoiled-sport argued that it was being abused to gossip and waste time.

Most people know that some of the ancient Greeks worried that the spread of literacy was eroding the power of memory. Less well known is that the printing press helped usher in the final decline of the art of memory.

And literacy does rewire our brains. In Reading in the Brain Stanislas Dehaene outlines just how certain regions of the brain focused on shape perception are co-opted to recognize letters effortlessly. This may not be without cost. Muhammed Ali was semi-literate, in part due to dyslexia, and a recent biographer has argued that he had better visual-spatial abilities in part because he didn’t waste his attention and focus on learning to read instinctively.

Nicholas Carr has now built a career in large part on skepticism of the internet and information technology. He knows exactly how to write viral stories which travel on the internet by criticizing the internet.

And it is certainly hard to deny the distracting effect of the internet. But that’s looking at the glass half-empty. One of the positives of the ubiquity of smartphones is that it has forced the retirement of so many bullshitters. Today people can make something up, and you can just “look it up.” Everyone is fact-checking everyone, and distracting from the fabulous bullshit stories and “facts” that a certain type of person has always specialized in.

Like free trade, it’s easy to see the downsides of the internet, and mine the social science literature to “prove” that you’re right. That’s one of the benefits of the internet, it lets you find scientific research which can confirm any assertion you make under heaven. Carr’s leveraging the literature to service his likely false arguments is one of the internet’s downsides.

Burma can thank the British for its current mess


Since my last post on the Rohingya I’ve kept reading up on the topic, mostly in relation to their origins. Google scholar has been of minimal help to be honest, though this draft of a presentation given to Southeast Asia scholars in 2014 has been one of the better analyses I’ve seen, with lots of citations that you can follow up.

For me the biggest hard fact that one can not deny is that there was massive increase in the number of Muslims in Arakan recorded in the censuses of 1871, 1901, and 1911. The number of Muslims tripled in this period, and work out to an annual growth rate of 5.5%; far above anything recorded in South and Southeast Asia at the time (where growth rates were closer to 1%).

The most plausible model seems to be that most of the self-identified Rohingya in Burma today descend from a population which was part of the broader migration of peoples from the Indian subcontinent during the period of the British Raj. Between 1874 and 1917 nearly 100,000 Indians emigrated to Trinidad. In fact millions of Indian peasants were sent to far flung regions of the British Empire in the period between 1830 and 1920 (as well as merchants and traders to East Africa and elsewhere).

So where does this idea of Rohingya being in Arakan for 900 years come from? There are many websites on the internet litigating the Rohingya issue from both sides. Let me quote from one such site, Voice of the Rohingya:

The Origin of Rohingya

Rohang, the old name of Arakan, was very familiar region for the Arab seafarers even during the pre-Islamic days. Tides of people like the Arabs, Moors, Turks, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalees came mostly as traders, warriors, preachers and captives overland or through the sea route. Many settled in Arakan, and mixing with the local people, developed the present stock of people known as ethnic Rohingya. Hence, the Rohingya Muslims, whose settlements in Arakan date back to 7th century AD are not an ethnic group which developed from one tribal group affiliation or single racial stock. They are an ethnic group developed from different stocks of people. The ethnic Rohingya is Muslim by religion with distinct culture and civilisation of their own. They trace their ancestry to Arabs, Moors, Pathans, Moghuls, Central Asians, Bengalis and some Indo-Mongoloid people. Since Rohingyas are mixture of many kinds of people, their cheekbone is not so prominent and eyes are not so narrow like Rakhine Maghs and Burmans. Their noses are not flat and they are a bit taller in stature than the Rakhine Maghs but darker in complexion. They are some bronzing coloured and not yellowish. The Rohingyas of Arakan still carried the Arab names, faith, dress, music and customs. So, the Rohingyas are nationals as well as an indigenous ethnic group of Burma. They are not new born racial group of Arakan rather they are as old an indigenous race of the country as any others.

The Origin of Rakhine

In the year 957 AD, a Mongolian invasion swept over Vesali, and killed Sula Chandra, the last king of Chandra dynasty. They destroyed Vesali and placed on their throne Mongolian kings. Within a few years the Hindus of Bengal were able to establish their Pala Dynasty. But the Hindus of Vesali were unable to restore their dynasty because of the invasion and migrations of Tibeto-Burman who were so great that their population over shadowed the Vesali Hindus. They cut Arakan away from Indians and mixing in sufficient number with the inhabitants of the eastern-side of the present Indo-Burma divide, created that Indo-Mongoloid stock now known as the Rakhine Arakanese. This emergence of a new race was not the work of a single invasion. But the date 957 AD may be said to mark the appearance of the Rakhine in Arakan, and the beginning of fresh period.

If you didn’t connect the dots here, what is going on is that the Rohingya are being presented as the more indigenous population of Arakan in comparison to the Rakhine majority in the text above! This is almost certainly wrong in any straightforward reading…but imagine how Rakhine react to this sort polemic, even though it is almost certainly a reaction to Rakhine nativism.

The Rohingya extensively cite their Arab and assorted West Asian antecedents in Arakan. The admission of a Bengali contribution is typical, but, it is rarely given outsized influence or importance. This, despite the fact that Rohingya are physically indistinguishable from the peasants of southeast Bengal, and their language closely resembles the Chittagong dialect of that area.

I can make judgments on the issues of physical appearance and language. My own family is from a nearby region (Comilla, and some branches of the family, Noakhali), and I have been to Chittagong. I can understand to some extent the Chittagong dialect, and the Rohingya language is clearly related to it (the peasant Bengali of the region of Bangladesh my family is from is almost certainly closer to Chittagong dialect than standard Bengali because of proximity).

But it does seem clear that some Muslims were present in Arakan at a relatively antique date. The romance of Sinbad the Sailor reflects that even in the period before 1000 AD Muslim travelers and traders were a common on the shipping lanes of the Indian ocean, even as far east as the trading entrepot of Guangzhou in Tang China. This can be confirmed by the fact that Muslim conflict with Chinese occurred in 758 and culminated with a well known massacre of foreigners, mostly Muslims, in 875. They were certainly in Arakan by this period in some numbers.

Nevertheless this Arab connection to Arakan is tenuous at best. The Muslims of Arakan are of the Hanafi school of shariah, which is dominant in the Turco-Persian-Indian world. In contrast, Arabs tended to transmit the Shafi school to the eastern shores of the Indian ocean. This is evident among the Muslims of Kerala, who have long had a relationship with southern coastal Arabia, and so adhere to the Shafi school unlike the vast majority of India’s Sunni Muslims (Southeast Asia is Shafi as well).

More concrete and substantive is the association of kingdom of Mrauk U with Islamicate civilization, and in particular the Sultanate of Bengal and later the Mughal Empire. This polity flourished between the 15th and 18th centuries. In the early period the Muslim rulers of Bengal to the north and west patronized the dialect of the region, what was becoming Bengali (elite support for Bengali among Muslims declined during the Mughal period). This is also when large scale Islamicization began on the eastern frontier according to The Rise of islam on the Bengal Frontier. A number of Muslims settled in Mrauk U during these centuries, often in association with the sultan’s court. It seems likely from the literature I have seen that the term Rohingya began to become popular among Muslims in Arakan during this period at the latest. Even before the British conquest of Arakan they noted the existence of a community of Muslims who called themselves Rohingya.

So what is the connection between the Rohingya, who certainly existed as a community in Arakan before British conquest, and the modern Rohingya, who probably descend from peasants who arrived from southeast Bengal in the 19th century?

First, one needs to be reminded that at in 1940 16% of Burma’s population was of recent Indian subcontinental origin. They spanned the gamut from wealthy Chettiar financiers to middle class Punjabi police to peasants from Bengal. In the decades after World War II the majority left the country, especially the prosperous ones. The literature I’ve read indicates that the less prosperous ones, who did not have portable skills or assets, were less likely to leave. Many of them have assimilated to Burmese culture in cities such as Yangon (many Hindus have switched their religious affiliation to Buddhism, while all Burmese with total fluency).

The Rohingya were drawn exclusively from a peasant culture, and exist in concentrations in a particular region where they are preponderant (northern Arakan), and so exhibit cultural critical mass. The Rohingya are by and large not a literate people. At least until recently. Though their language is clearly Indo-Aryan, and closely related to Bengali, they do not use Bengali script.

In Bangladesh there are two regions where Bengali-related dialects are extensively spoken. In Sylhet in the northeast and Chittagong in the southeast the local dialects are unintelligible with standard Bengali. But because Bengali is a dialect continuum (standard Bengali derives from a particular region of West Bengal, in what is today India) I have better understanding of Chittagong dialect that most Bengali speakers, as I also understand to some extent rural Comilla speech, which is nearer to the Chittagong dialect. People in Sylhet and Chittagong can generally speak standard Bengali, and though both groups exhibit some ambivalence they do consider themselves Bengali.

So why are the Rohingya different? The period when the Rohingya migrated to Burma was also the period when European-style conceptions of nationalism, based around a common written language, were starting to take hold in South Asia. South Asians of all religions, at least of an elite background, understood themselves as being part of Hindustan, which was characterized by its own unique traits. But their identity on a national level, bound by language, was weak. This is in part because the languages favored by the elites were Persian or Sanskrit, with the simultaneous emergence in North India of the dialects that later became Urdu and Hindi (South India had its own independent traditions).

In Germany, Italy, and France, the standard national languages spread in the 19th and 20th centuries so that local dialects went extinct. That process in a place like South Asia has been much slower because the illiterate agricultural peasant majority has been more insulated from literacy. Just as Italian is based on the dialect of Florence, so standard Bengali derives from a particular region in modern West Bengal, and spread as an elite language across the Bengali dialect continuum (when I was a very small child in Bangladesh my parents made an effort to speak in very standard Bengali so that that was my native language, as opposed to a lower status dialect).

From what I can tell the Rohingya were untouched by the changes triggered by the Bengali Renaissance in the early 19th century, which first captured the imaginations of the Bengali Hindu upper castes, and then spread over the decades to the middle classes of all both religions and all regions. In lieu of a Bengali identity the Rohingya seem to have co-opted the identity of the earlier Muslim community of Arakan, whom they likely absorbed. This is not entirely fantastical. I have some experience talking to peasants in the countryside of Bangladesh, and even now the lower classes are vague about their national and ethnic identity. Rather, they focus on their village and locality, and exhibit little sense of scale of difference in relation to outsiders. In 1990 when I was visiting rural Bangladesh I remember being introduced to a woman from Bogra district as a “fellow foreigner.” Bogra was less than 200 miles from where I was at the time, but for these peasants it was another world, and we were interchangeable in our alienness.

There is a clear analogy to what might be happening with the Rohingya, and that exists in the Central Asia. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a broad group of settled Turks and Iranians in Central Asia under Chinese nationalist and Russian rule transformed their ethnic identities into those we know today. Groups like Uyghurs and Uzbeks have tenuous connections to the historical groups which were called Uyghurs and Uzbeks. The decision of the various Turkic speaking groups of the oases of Xinjiang to call themselves Uyghur, and so established a connection to the Turkic confederation which flourished more than 1,000 years earlier, occurred in the 1920s. Of course today we don’t say that the Uyghurs aren’t real Uyghurs; the assent of the Turkic speaking population to the term Uyghur has resulted in that becoming their new self-identity.

Similarly, a reshaping of the self-identity of the people who became Rohingya in Burma likely occurred in the 20th century. Without an educated upper class which was literate they were totally detached from the emergence of a modern Bengali identity. Rather than become Bengali the more upwardly mobile members of the Rohingya elevated their own dialect into its own language (and adopted a non-Bengali script as well). Additionally,  they synthesized various aspects of Islamic history in Arakan and integrated it into their own identity, and so establishing their bona fides as sons of the soil.

To the question of whether Rohingya have been present in Arakan for 900 years, I think it is clear I believe that the answer there is no, not at all. But, to the question of whether they actually Bangladeshi, I would also have to say at this point, no. This is a subtle and nuanced issue, but the existence of a Bangladeshi national identity is relatively new, just as the nation is new. But it is has likely been on the order of 100 years or more since most of the ancestors of the Rohingya left the districts of southeastern Bengal to which they were originally native. Not only have the ancestors of the Rohingya never lived in Bangladesh, but they never lived in Pakistan. It would be somewhat similar to suggesting that an Indo-Trinidadian would be comfortable in India, though the gap here is larger because most Indo-Trinidadians lack fluency in any South Asian language today.

The non-Bengali identification of the Rohingya has also made their Islamic identity more salient. If you Google image Bangladeshi women as opposed to Rohingya women, the latter look far more Muslim. I’m no expert, but the Rohingya seem partial to the headscarves of the sort common in places like Malaysia, again attesting to their attempt, conscious or not, at indigenization. Without a connection to Bengali elite culture, which is multireligious, and of a secular bent due to that fact, the Rohingya will naturally gravitate toward an Islamic identity when they attempt to transcend their peasant origins.

Why does any of this matter? Obviously the truth matters. And if the world community is to foster peace in Burma it will not help its cause by promoting false narratives created by the Rohingya as a counterargument against those Burmese who deny their national status. The Rohingya have established their non-Bengali identity, as they have created a different one in Burma. But attempts to the deny their relatively recent origins in South Asia will almost certainly inflame and agitate the Rakhine majority and the Burmese state even more than is the case now. It will also undercut any credibility that outsider have in fostering moderation and peace.

The Ghosts of the European Pleistocene

2011’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams was a strange film. I went to watch it in the theaters mostly to see the paintings of Pleistocene peoples in an immersive manner, but the director and narrator, Werner Herzog, used the film as an instrument to forward his thesis that humanity as we understand it emerged during this period in the European Ice Age.

Whether he knew it or not Herzog was channeling the “Great Leap Forward” model of the origin of our species. That in an almost punctuated manner the cultural proteanism which we take to be a defining hallmark of our species emerged at some point deep in what we call the Ice Age. In The Dawn of Human Culture Richard Klein localized this burst of humanity ~50,000 years ago in Africa, and hypothesized that it was triggered by a biological change which enabled language fluency. In The Humans Who Went Extinct Clive Finlayson posits that cultural changes associated with the Gravettian people in central Eurasia eventually defined what he meant to be human, and explained the marginalization of Neanderthals.

To a rough approximation I’m skeptical of both these models. I don’t think humanity emerged fully formed like Athena over the last 50,000 years. Rather, humanity we understand humanity is deeply primal, and a feature of the root of our lineage, millions of years in the past. If Homo erectus populations were still around they deserve all the rights of humans, despite their numerous differences.

I suspect that we’ll found out that ‘behavioral modernity’ is a cocktail of soft selection on standing variation and cumulative cultural change. But that doesn’t mean that the Pleistocene history of Europe is not important or interesting. And recently we’ve obtained enough ancient DNA to sketch out a general picture of demographic, if not cultural, change.

Everyone should read The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. But I suspect the impact is going to get deeper when more archaeologists are familiar with the implications. Here is the abstract:

Modern humans arrived in Europe ~45,000 years ago, but little is known about their genetic composition before the start of farming ~8,500 years ago. We analyze genome-wide data from 51 Eurasians from ~45,000-7,000 years ago. Over this time, the proportion of Neanderthal DNA decreased from 3–6% to around 2%, consistent with natural selection against Neanderthal variants in modern humans. Whereas the earliest modern humans in Europe did not contribute substantially to present-day Europeans, all individuals between ~37,000 and ~14,000 years ago descended from a single founder population which forms part of the ancestry of present-day Europeans. A ~35,000 year old individual from northwest Europe represents an early branch of this founder population which was then displaced across a broad region, before reappearing in southwest Europe during the Ice Age ~19,000 years ago. During the major warming period after ~14,000 years ago, a new genetic component related to present-day Near Easterners appears in Europe. These results document how population turnover and migration have been recurring themes of European pre-history.

I modified the model of demographic turnover to the left, adding labels for the primary paleoanthropological cultural groups. Instead of starting with the archaeology the authors let the genetic results guide them. What they discover is that there were roughly four turnovers in population defined by four “clusters”:

– the first Europeans who succeeded the Neanderthals, who seem to have left no descendents

– the Goyet cluster, associated with Aurignacians

– the Vestonice cluster is associated with the Gravettians

– the El Miron cluster with the Gravettians

– the Villabruna cluster with various late Pleistocene cultures, and is the direct ancestor of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers present in Europe when the first farmers arrived

A quick calculation suggests that very little of the ancestry of modern Europeans has deep roots across much of the continent going back to before the Last Glacial Maximum ~20,000 years ago. The “Pleistocene” ancestry of Europeans mostly derives from the last group, the Villabruna cluster. In the paper the authors note that this group is unique for several reasons:

– some individuals in this cluster have an affinity with East Asians (earlier Pleistocene groups do not)

– more universally, individuals in the Villabruna cluster have a notable affinity with Middle Eastern populations which was not evident in earlier Pleistocene clusters

Recall Middle Eastern populations can be modeled as a mix of a West Eurasian group similar to European hunter-gatherers, and, “Basal Eurasians,” who are an outgroup to all non-Africans (European hunter-gatherers to Oceanians to Amerindians!). The authors posit that the gene flow is more likely from the Middle East, because earlier European clusters have affinities with Villabruna, but they share nothing with the Middle East. The Villabruna cluster does not have Basal Eurasian ancestry though. So we might be looking at complex population structure.

Two general issues that crop up in this paper are sampling limitations and population expansions into Europe from the east. The disappearance of Goyet ancestry, only to reappear as part of the El Miron cluster, is curious. Perhaps the post-Goyet people occupied ecologies less likely to be fossilized? It reminds us of the resurgence of hunter-gatherer ancestry in Europe of the Middle Neolithic. As for why there seems to be an eastern bias into intrusive populations into Europe, these groups may simply have had a larger population, and so been more likely to avoid meta-population extinction events?

Finally, the authors point out that Gravettian culture in Siberia and Europe does not seem to be genetically related. This suggests that these people were very modern, because a hallmark of the modernity is that ideas can move between groups without too much genetic exchange.

Europe has the best coverage of ancient DNA. What we find here are repeated population turnovers and a lot of complexity and contingency. Is Europe peculiar? There is circumstantial evidence from modern DNA that Australians are descendants of first settlers. And to some extent this is also true in the case of East Asians if the work reported out of the Fu lab holds up. South Asians though are more likely to be like Europeans, and Middle Easterners show some of the same dynamics during the Holocene.

Totality, 2017

We saw totality in Independence, Missouri. It was a pretty long car trip with the kids, all of whom are under school age (though just barely in the case of the eldest). We had a big fright because there was a massive thunderstorm in the morning…but it cleared out for a few hours. And that was when the total eclipse occurred.

Really words don’t do the experience justice.

Chase a total eclipse if you get a chance.

The past was not PG

The Week has published a screed against the low moral quality of Game of Thrones, Game of Thrones is bad — and bad for you. Obviously there is something to this insofar as one can see a coarsening of entertainment, or at least a decline in the stylized aspects of the depiction of reality.

But one of my initial reactions is that much of the narrative that we value from the past was not particularly PG. If you read The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible you see that the “Good Book”, in fact the only book many read front to back by many after the Reformation in Protestant Europe, has some quite unsavory tales. The story of Judah and Tamar in particular is hard to digest from a modern Western perspective because many of the elements are understated and workaday. Greek mythology is no better obviously. From Zeus raping Leda, Achilles throwing a fit because his sex-slave was taken away, to the tradition of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia.

In some cases the shocking aspect of ancient stories is because moderns have different values. Slavery and concubinage were taken for granted during the period that the Hebrew Bible and Classical mythology crystallized into the forms which came down to us. In other cases I presume that it was unlikely that small children were going to ever read the original stories themselves, so sexual elements that might confuse were probably omitted in some oral tellings.

This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a modern masterpiece. But some of the disquieting, and frankly perverse, aspects of the narrative are only shocking if your standard is the relatively antiseptic literary fiction which one finds between the Regency and the cultural revolution of the 1960s. That is the aberration in human history, while gritty genre fiction much closer to primal human storytelling.