A few years ago I also read First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies and other archaeological works. But unlike with genetics archaeology is foreign territory to me, and I didn’t totally integrate and internalize what I read. Nevertheless, lately, when it comes to the transition between the late Neolithic and the early Copper Age in Northern Europe, the switch from the Funnel Beaker people to the Corded Ware cultures, I’ve developed a new sense of what happened and how to describe it: the arrival of Indo-Europeans en masse in the centuries after 3000 BC was into a fallen world well past its peak.
Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization convinced me that material remains, or lack thereof, tell us something about social complexity and civilization as such. Eric Cline in 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed brings home to us just how fragile early societies were. Four centuries after the collapse of Mycenaean Greece the people of archaic 8th-century Greece seem to have had only vague memories and recollections of this period, and were unclear as to the provenance of the ruined citadels strewn across their land (these were constructed by the Greeks themselves).
The Megalith societies of Western Europe and Cuceteni-Tripilliya were pretty impressive. The last Neolithic societies left more substantial material remains than their Indo-European successors. Because we don’t have written records we don’t describe it for what it was: a “Dark Age.”
This pattern is clearer in South Asia. The Indus Valley Civilization was connected, at least tenuously, to the West Asian oikumene. After its decline and collapse, the Indo-Aryans created and perpetuated a much simpler and barbaric society. Only in the 5th century BC did post-tribal polities come into being.
More generally, the ancient intuition that the Golden Age lay in the past might not be unfounded. Many of the people whose mythologies we have were heirs of great past civilizations which were barely a memory.
If the late Neolithic societies were Arnor, the Yamnaya and their cousins were the Rohirrim.
Over at his Substack, Robert Wright puts in a defense of Charles Darwin against a comment in Science, “The Descent of Man,” 150 years on. On the whole, I agree with Wright, and not with the author of the Science piece, Augustin Fuentes. But, I will say that I’ve always found the hagiography and adulation given to Darwin the man a bit tiresome and overdone. This was probably taken to the most ridiculous extremes in Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. Fuentes’ piece is somewhat hard to parse for me, but if he thinks that most students (as opposed to intellectual historians) should reflect on Darwin’s non and para-scientific views as if it’s worth their time, then he’s not super interested in the science. In many ways, Darwin was not an atypical exemplar of the English gentry of his period.
The reason we remember Darwin is because of his exceptional science, not his unexceptional social views. For Victorians, Darwin would have been viewed on the liberal or progressive side. But for our time he would seem hopelessly reactionary and problematic. That’s really all there is to it.
But as a practical matter, I think Fuentes will win and Wright will lose, and that in the near term the muddled thinking will reign supreme. The analogy here I will use is Herbert Spencer, whose views were misrepresented by Richard Hofstadter in the 20th century. Today, most non-specialist intellectuals know Spencer through Hofstadter’s distortion, not Spencer’s primary works. Those who read Spencer in the original are often surprised at the extent of the misrepresentation, but attempts to correct the record are futile. No one cares nerd.
I believe that something similar may happen to Darwin. Many scientists know the truth and have read Darwin’s work. He’s a complex figure who is hard to position in the modern landscape, and reductive analyses often miss the mark. But most scientists have better things to do, at least in their opinion, than counter ridiculous propagandists. Additionally, those ridiculous propagandists are often fellow-travelers in far-Left politics, which saturates modern science. I believe that one day scientists will wake up, and come to understand that the lie has become the truth, and then they will have to make the choice whether to speak the true truth, as opposed to the socially expected false truth. I don’t think there’s any suspense in my guess as to what choice they’ll make.
Of course to understand the fullness of who Charles Darwin was you can read his works and his letters, and draw your own conclusions. But you will be the few. Most people will rely on the most lurid and misrepresentative letters posted as screenshots on Twitter.
My offhand reference in the open thread to continuity of devotion to the Babylonian God Tammuz to the 10th century elicited a fascinating email from a long-time reader about paganism in modern Afghanistan, which I will paraphrase below. But, before I go on, I should mention also the inhabitants of the Mani peninsula in the southeast Peloponnese were Greco-Roman pagans until the 870’s A.D. The reason for this persistence is simple: the Mani peninsula is very isolated. The premodern world was not like our world today with global media and interconnected trade networks. Presumably, these pagan villagers interacted only a few times a year with outsiders. The Christian church might send a priest (there is evidence of churches as early as the 4th century in the region), but without the force of the state, the locals could continue to practice their indigenous religion without much interference.
This is a good introduction to the story I will pass on. Apparently, my reader, who wishes to remain anonymous and so sent an email, was a translator in Afghanistan. Some of the officers he worked with told him a story about a strange Afghan militant they captured in 2001. This man was nominally a Sunni Muslim Pashtun. But, in his isolated valley, the inhabitants believed that the sun was a jewel vommitted by a dragon every morning. In the evening the dragon swallowed the jewel (which slipped under the flat earth). The militant joined the fight against the Americans, whom he thought were Germans because he believed they came to steal the jewel, and therefore usher in an age of darkness.
My informant says the Afghan officers were quite disturbed that this man had such rich and sincere pagan beliefs despite his Islamic identity. He was not Nuristani or one of the more exotic groups, but a Pashtun.
I think the existence of beliefs and people like this even in our modern globalized world, where semi-pagans know who “Germans” are, should make it more comprehensible why down to the 800s and 900s there were pockets of belief in literal Bronze age gods in the medieval world.
The Calusa of southwestern Florida might provide a natural experiment for thinking about our Turkish neolithic site: a complex hierarchical society that built mounds, towers, and wide canals, yet engaged in no agriculture. A grand temple—if that is what Göbekli Tepe was—wouldn’t have been beyond their abilities. Instead of the granaries posited by conventional accounts of the origin of civilization, they built “watercourts” to store the rich catches of fish they harvested from the waters of the Florida Keys. The Calusa were a relatively advanced society built on aquaculture instead of agriculture.
Well worth a read (it’s long). It’s not crazy anymore to suggest such things.
There is a narrative that Yelu Chucai, and advisor of Genghis Khan and his son, was responsible for the saving of much human life by making the case for taxation rather than extermination. The story told is that the Mongols toyed with the idea of driving peasants off their land so as to create vast pastures for their animals. Of course, peasants driven off their land would die of starvation. Yelu Chucai’s clearly correct argument was that peasants in place yielded more rents than larger herds. The Emperor of China was always wealthier than the Shanyu of the Xiongnu.
I posited to Kristiansen that the early Yamnaya did not have an ideology or theory of subjugation and subordination. That is, rather than conquering the native Neolithic societies the Yamnaya only saw the opportunity to replace them because that’s what human populations had been doing since time immemorial. Some of Kristiansen’s work involves highlighting the fact that in Western Europe the Yamnaya/Corded Ware seem to have engaged in mass burnings to clear the forest and transform them into pastures. As the Mongols imagined doing!
The near-total elimination of Neolithic paternal lineages is striking. Within a few centuries, the overwhelming preponderance of the lineages in Northern Europe was Indo-European. No native chiefs were co-opted into Corded Ware society. All the local elite lineages were all extinguished.
The world became less brutal when men could dream of being rich and lazy, living off the rents of their inferiors.
Michael Lind has a piece in Tablet, The Revenge of the Yankees: How Social Gospel became Social Justice. As a trained American historian, Lind is always a good read and generally makes erudite and cogent arguments, whether you believe him or not. To me, the piece struck me as trying a bit too hard to fit facts into a thesis…but it foregrounds dynamics of American history that many modern Americans, being totally ignorant, are unaware of.
Knowing people in the D.C. nonprofit world, I recall being told by an old-line WASP that this is where all the WASPs went. So Lind is not seeing something that is not there when he says that WASPs retained control in the “Deep State” and nonprofits, while the white ethnic, Southern, and black, coalition dominated politics and culture between the 1930s and 1960s. The past few generations has seen a realignment of that configuration, but that is not the only thing that happened.
About 15 years ago I read many books on the history of American Catholicism, and the book that stays with me the longest is Catholicism and American Freedom: A History. In it, the author highlights the strong strand of intellectual anti-Catholicism that existed in the 19th century, and the victory of American Anglo-Protestant culture over the Catholic attempt to remain apart and distinct (one of the intra-Catholic stories is the erosion of German-language instruction due to the pressure put by the Irish dominated hierarchy).
One of the threads of Catholicism and American Freedom is the collapse of the intellectual alliance between Jews and Roman Catholics after World War II. Basically, American Jews who secularized and assimilated switched sides in the 1960s and aligned with secular post-Protestants in fighting the attempts of Roman Catholic thinkers to maintain a level of social conservatism informed by religious values on the Center-Left. Earlier, due to the nativism of early 20th-century Protestant progressives, Jews and Catholics had fit together as “white ethnics,” albeit with some disagreements (Jews never supported Roman Catholic attempts to gain support for parochial schools because they, on the whole, took to public education).
What does this have to do with Lind’s piece? Let’s grant his contention that modern-day social justice activism has its roots contingently in WASP Protestant culture, and particularly Yankee culture. Anyone who reads Curtis Yarvin or David Hackett Fisher will see the cultural genealogy here. But secular Jews, who are overrepresented in the Ivy League and institutions more broadly, have assimilated perfectly as well. And not just them. Indian Americans who grew up in this country in the last quarter of the 20th century are extremely well assimilated too.
One of the geniuses of modern social justice ideology is that it’s highly portable and deployable by people who are educated in the WEIRD way.
One of Peter Turchin’s ideas which have had a major impact on me is that of a “meta-ethnic” identity, and how that fits perfectly with what we might term “world religions.” Meta-ethnic identity isn’t a fancy construct, but the name itself gives essential information. In the world of the Bronze Age human societies were scaling beyond tribe, but they lacked the ideological toolkit, or what Samo Burja calls “social technology,” to maintain institutional continuity. In Brotherhood of Kings the author outlines how Bronze Age Near Eastern polities established diplomatic relationships by extending the idea of biological kinship. There was no great creativity, and the analogy was imperfect enough to cause confusion (e.g., Egyptian ideas of status and kinship were substantively different from Levantine and Mesopotamian ones, which led to inefficiencies).
The development of religions which span ethnicities, and unite people in spiritual and ideological kinship and affinity, breaks the biological analogy enough to be flexible and portable. Common books and mythologies serve as transmission vehicles of meta-ethnic norms. As I have noted before, the reason that most of the world religions emerged between the period of 500 BC and 500 AD (give or take a few centuries and definitions) is that this was the period of social technological innovation. Once the major players shook out, ideological oligopolies stabilized into a new equilibrium. There may even have been structural reasons in relation to the scaling of human civilizations that mean the number of world religions was never going to converge upon one (e.g., I believe that Islam is best thought of as an offshoot of Christianity which emerged almost accidentally from the perspective of the principals; perhaps in the pre-printing press world Christianity simply ‘outran its supply lines’).
But though the horizontal nature of meta-ethnic identities seems to have obtained an equilibrium, there has been a great shift in their vertical impact, from the top to the bottom of the social hierarchy. In 360 A.D. Julian the Apostate renounced Christianity, the religion in which he was raised, and embraced Neoplatonism and Late Antique Paganism. This was feasible at the time because Christianity identity had not become solid among the Roman elites, who were still in the main nominally pagan, though there was a vociferous rising Christian minority. But over time Christianity swallowed the Roman elite, so rulers who may privately have had little sympathy or piety would never have engaged in apostasy.
But why? The Reformation and the conundrum of Akbar tell us why. Richard Eaton argues in India in the Persianate Age that Akbar wanted to leave Islam behind for much of his life. By the end, he even innovated and created his own pantheistic religion. He and some of the later Mughals (e.g., Dara Shikoh) were clearly influenced by the Brahmins and other Indian religious thinkers in their circle and felt keenly the tension between world-normative Islam, and the assimilative power of the Indic religious tradition. Just like Julian, Akbar was raised as a conventional follower of a monotheistic religion but became emotionally and intellectually invested in something different, and more ancient. But Akbar never went as far as Julian, who clearly wished to marginalize Christianity in a way that Akbar could never marginalize Islam. The reason is that Julian’s elites were religiously plural, and their identity was still weak and new. By the time of Akbar the Islamic military elites that the Mughals relied upon could imagine no other religious identity than world-normative Islam, to which they were bound by family and cultural ties (e.g., most were Turk, Afghan, and Persian, not Indian converts; Akbar would have been unable to build his rule around Hindu Rajputs alone).
By the 16th century in much of the world meta-ethnic identities have percolated down from the elites to the ruling class. One reason the Reformation happened in much of Europe is that the nobility and proto-bourgeoisie were quite open to the religious change, as winds of reform were blowing through late medieval Westen Christianity. In contrast, the peasantry was less relevant. The little information we have indicates that in places like Denmark and England the rural peasantry was not enthused about changing their folkways through the Reformation commanded from on high, and imposed by elites and sub-elites. But they did eventually change.
The point here can be illustrated by a 17th Cambodian king who converted to Islam. His nobles overthrew him. Similarly, when the Hohenzollern’s became Reformed Christians in the 17 century, the people whom they ruled remained Lutheran. They would not convert. Confessional meta-ethnic had percolated and suffused mass identity by the 17th century in much of the world so that elites could not control it, dictate it.
Today we are far beyond that. The collapse of religious identity in the 1960s in the United States was unpredicted. Its stabilization in the 1970s and 1980s was unanticipated by secularization theory as well. But it’s subsequent collapse again in the 1990s and into the 21st century was also not anticipated (Samuel Huntington’s last work was written in the 1990s and published in the early 2000s, before the research was in about secularization, leading to some erroneous conclusions about the power of religious assimilation). Bottom-up dynamics are hard to model* and occur through information and communication channels which elites and scholars may not have access too (think conspiracy theories).
Meta-ethnic identity emerged during the Iron Age to add solidity to the political structures of the period. They were tools for the elites operationally, no matter the sincerity with which most people held to them. Though peasants had nominal affinities, their deeper beliefs were often animist, and their most important affiliations were in the local community. But with the printing press and thicker more pervasive political and cultural institutions, elite identities became popular identities. Elite control faded away, as popular passions took over.
In the 1990s many of us had delusions about what the internet would do. How information would illuminate and enlighten. What has really happened is that information production and consumption are now driven by popular passions in totality. Meta-ethnic identities emerged to foster social cohesion and stability. Today their protean uncontrolled nature may actually lead to the collapse of societies, as passions are unleashed with no conscious direction and guided by no initiated cabal. The information does not aid humans, it is now parasitic upon our minds and the infrastructure that we created to facilitate it’s spread.
* Is this true? Any modelers in the house? That’s my impression.
I recommend Michael Axworthy’s A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind because there are very few books aimed at the general audience that survey the history of Persia from the ancient period down to the modern one with some balance. Often the Iranian Revolution and contemporary events are given too much space. Or, ancient history is basically just a retread of Herodotus.
The title of the book is somewhat interesting. What does “Empire of the Mind” allude to? I think the primary point is that after the conquest of the Arabs and the rise of Islam Iranian identity persisted as high culture. For nearly 1,000 years ethnic Iranians were ruled by non-Iranian peoples, primarily Turks. Nevertheless, just like Greek under the Romans, Persian became the prestige language on in a broad zone from Ottoman Anatolia, through Iran proper, and onward into Turco-Muslim India. Just as late 18th-century Russian elites cultivated French, the Ottomans cultivated Persian.
And yet arguably the period when intellectuals of Iranian origin flourished the most was during Golden Age of Islam. It is notable that most of the intellectuals who were patronized and shone under the Abbassids in the decades after 800 A.D. were not Muslim Arabs. There were even some oddball characters, such as Tabit ibn Qurra, a pagan Syrian from Haran. One reason al-Kindi was the “Philosopher of the Arabs” is that he was a tribal Arab. But more typical were Iranians such as Avicenna and al-Razi. If you accept S. Frederick Starr’s argument in Lost Enlightenment and Christopher Beckwith’s in Warriors of the Cloisters Iranians disproportionately from Turan, modern Central Asia, were particularly influential in shaping the high culture and intellectual tone of the world of Islam after 800 A.D.
But this brings up the question which was recently mooted: why were Iranian intellectual achievements so much more notable under Arab Muslims and Turks than when Iranians controlled all the levels of politics, culture, and religion. Who were the great Iranian intellectuals under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanians?
These Iranian polities (the Achaemenids and Sassanian were Persians from Fars, the Parthians were from the northeast of Iran and not technically Persian) did patronize learning and culture more broadly. The Parthians were notably philhellene, even enjoying Greek theater. In the century before Islam, the Sassanian monarchy sponsored the Academy of Gondishapur, which was notable for its repository of learning in medicine and philosophy. The last Neoplatonists even fled the Byzantine Empire and took refuge in the court of the Shah for several years (before eventually returning due to the terms of a treaty between Byzantium and Persia). And yet from what we know much of the philosophical production at Gondishapur was by Christians of various ethnicities, not Persian Zoroastrians.
There were also efforts and translation and transmission of Indian thought. The Iranian Buddhist city-states were intellectually vibrant, though their long term impact seems to be more influential through their transmission of the religion to China and their inflection of Islam in the 9th century. It is also curious that the Persian national epic was commissioned by a Turkic Muslim.
I will venture an explanation for this curious pattern.
First, the scale of the Arab Empire was incredible. Iranians integrated into the Arab Muslim Caliphate had access to Egypt and India. Syria and Ferghana. The rise of Islam as an ideological scaffold resulted in civilizational robustness that the Sassanians were incapable of generating. As with the early modern “Persianate world,” the Iranians engaged in an “entryist” strategy, infiltrating and coopting the Arab Empire with the Abbassids (consider the Barmakids and later al-Ma’mun). Iranians were indispensable to the Arab Empire, providing manpower and a royal ideology after the shift away from the west after the fall of the Umayyads.
Second, the domination of military and political roles by Turks after the fall of the Samanids may have facilitated a shift toward civilian pursuits by the Persian elites. I believe a similar dynamic occurred during much of the Roman Empire. For the first few centuries of the Roman Empire, the Greek cities of the east remained under the Roman peace, but its elites remained focused on their own urban life. The vast majority of intellectuals continued to be produced by the Greek-speaking domains. Anastasius in 491 was the first Roman Emperor who was raised as a Greek-speaker, so insular were Greek elites from broader imperial politics.
The bigger message I think is that cultural and civilizational efflorescence can be hard to predict, and the consequence of unforeseen and contingent processes.
James J. O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire is a poorly edited book laced with a tendentious thesis: that Justinian ended a glorious period of multicultural amity and synthesis. The poor editing shows insofar as the book is far too long, and the author is given to prosaic flourishes. The thesis is shoehorned into contemporary sensibilities. In hindsight, the Gothic Wars were a total disaster, but obviously that was not Justinian’s intent.
Obviously Boethius plays a major role in the book. But perhaps more interesting in our current age is Cassiodorus. While Boethius died, and also contributed a philosophical work which influenced early medieval thinkers, Cassiodorus spent his last decades preserving the cultural inheritance of the ancient world. Cassiodorus’ life spanned an enormous cultural distance. He was born in the late 5th century when Rome was still a large city, albeit under Gothic rule. The Gothic hegemony over the West Roman domains can be thought of as analogous to the Arab conquests of the Near East of the 7th century: the fundamental underlying structure of society remained unchanged. It was the wars of the 6th century which wore Italy down to the point where Rome was a shadow of itself by the end of Cassiodorus’s life.
One can make their own judgments of whether Cassiodorus succeeded or not. But he was conscious that something was happening in the West, and he had to do something. A new age of barbarism was being born. Civilization’s locus was moving to the east.