The weak shall abide, persist and inherit

To the Melians the Athenians declared “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This observation from Thucydides 2,400 years ago echoes down to the present because it reflects much of the world we see around us. The ancient Athenian wisdom clearly come naturally to the government of the People’s Republic of China:

At this point, I’ll reiterate the wisdom of Thucydides. It’s not like on a deep level Muslims don’t know how the People’s Republic of China treats its co-religionists. So why the quiet? Because they know that their bleating and remonstrations against China will fall on deaf ears. A nation like Pakistan needs China far more than China needs it, and China and the oil kingdoms need each other mutually and are aligned on other salient geopolitical issues. In contrast, remonstrating against India or the West will obtain results.

Notice with China there are two issues. First, its raw power insulates it from external moral pressures. China’s concessions to morality are a matter of its own choice, its own agency. Second, there is the axis of self-interest. Self-righteous social justice warriors like NBA coach Steve Kerr balk at criticizing China’s atrocious human rights record because the economic carrot and stick dynamics loom large. Rather than a matter of practicality, where protestation would have no effect on China, the calculus of decision-making is on self-interest for much of the American corporate elite. They wish to become richer, so they turn a blind eye. Obviously, these two are often comingled, especially in the case of small Muslim nations who may empathize with the Uyghurs, but know their protests will have only negative impacts geopolitically and economically on themselves.

From this one might conclude that I’m a cold rationalist, espousing Nietzschean amorality. But 2,400 years on, despite all its flaws, the legend of Athens shines brighter than the militaristic ethos of Sparta. The victors lost in the halls of memory.  2,200 years ago the First Emperor of China crushed the power of the classicists and literati, only to have his image and name tarred by their depictions of him in future ages. The Christians were a pacific and marginal group for the first two centuries of their existence, but within a few generations, they captured Rome and became synonymous with Western civilization. The martial ethos of the Vedic Kshatriyas is not what undergirds Hindu civilization, rather, it is the pacific ritualists and the philosophers, the Brahmins, who turned away from animal sacrifice in the first millenium AD.

Blood wins the battles, but ideas win the war.

The universality of the res publica and reality of Greco-Roman contingency

A small discussion on social media has arisen about the idea that freedom and political and social freedoms are fundamentally Western. Setting aside the libertarianism present in non-Western traditions like Daoism (David Boaz devoted a portion of Libertarianism: A Primer to this connection), more interesting are questions of the form “did the Greeks invent democracy?” My contention, broadly, is that the Greeks did not invent democracy, but all modern democracies are genealogically descended from the Greeks.

Small self-governing political units have existed in many places. Early Iron Age India for example had many statelets that are often described as “republics,” like the that of the Sakyas. If you look at the history of Mesopotamia it seems clear during the early periods some of the city-states were run on an oligarchic, not autocratic basis. Across the Iron Age, the arrow of history pointed to despotism. This is true in Greece and Rome, as the original more representative and distributed political systems slowly gave way to top-down despotism. But, the transition, especially for the Romans, was pragmatic, gradual, and de facto, rather than de jure. This means that they did not turn their backs on their republican institutions, but maintained the external facade for centuries after they were functionally powerless. The republican facade faded piecewise between the reign of Septimius Severus (who began promulgating law in his own name rather than with the figleaf of the Senate), to the emergence of the autocracy of the Tetrarchy a century later, that initiated the Dominate and the end of the Principate.

This persistence, along with Greco-Roman articulation, explication, and literary detail and depth, means that the political forms of the ancients were stored away in a manner that could be resurrected through replication in later centuries. In contrast, the Indian oligarchic Mahajapandas are historical footnotes, while the republican city-states of early Mesopotamia left no cultural descendants. I believe autocratic governmental forms are cultural adaptations. The fact that they spread across much of the world indicates they’re effective ones, but that doesn’t mean they’re “natural.” Primordial human bands were not run anarchistically, but in all likelihood, power structures were flatter than what became the norm during the Iron Age. If the democratic impulse is common why are the Greco-Roman models so critical? Because the Greco-Romans engaged in extended and copious abstraction and systematization of their social and political forms, and this process lends itself to translation into literary form. The written word is immortal and echoes down the centuries. The memories of the Mahajapandas fades. The speeches of Demosthenes persist.

R1b-L21 and Goidelic Celtic

The new paper, Large-scale migration into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, did not resolve the origin of the Celts. But one thing I was curious about:

Evidence for a substantial contribution from the C/EBA population to later populations also comes from Y chromosome haplogroup R1b-P312/L21/M529 (R1b1a1a2a1a2c1), which is present at 89±5% in sampled individuals from C/EBA Britain and is nearly absent in available ancient DNA data from C/EBA Europe (Supplementary Table 9). The haplogroup remained more common in Britain than in continental Europe in every later period, and continues to be a distinctive feature of the British isles as its frequency in Britain and Ireland today (14-71% depending on region19) is far higher than anywhere else in continental Europe (Extended Data Fig. 5).

If you go online you can see the frequency of R1b-L21 varies a lot in England, with rather low frequencies in East Anglia, and higher fractions in western Britain. In Ireland, the frequencies may exceed 80% in the western counties. Lara Cassidy noticed early on that the Rathlin sample from Bronze Age Ireland, an a Bell Beaker individual, carries this mutation. On the continent, the mutation is found in Brittany, subject to migration from Britons, while in Spain it seems to be found in lower frequencies, mostly in the western provinces.

One of the insights of the new paper above is that there seems to have been an Urnfield-related migration that arrived in England around ~1200 BC. Did they bring Celtic speech? I think they were  Brythonic and P-Celtic speakers. I believe that R1b-L21 and the Bell Beakers brought Goidelic Q-Celtic languages, and there are some who argue that Celtiberian was a Q-Celtic language.

The echoes of greater Scythia

I’m reading The Great Indo-European Horse Sacrifice: 4000 Years of Cosmological Continuity from Sintashta and the Steppe to Scandinavian Skeid, since we now know that modern horses come from the Sintashta.

The Indo-European horse sacrifice is a pretty widespread thing. Please note the table above and its shared characteristics. Notice the references to the chariots. Chariots were clearly invented by the Sintashta. And, it seems the horses that could pull them were a special breed, the ancestors of modern domestic horses. But putatively Indo-European people expanded in Europe long before the emergence of the Sintashta in 2200-2100 BC. For example, the Bell Beakers show up in Ireland ~2500 BC. Steppe ancestry shows up ~2300 BC in Greece. Therefore, the spread of chariot-culture, and the modern horse lineages, post-date Europe’s original Indo-Europeanization.

I think this indicates that the influence of the Iranian Scythians was felt all over the Indo-European zone…

The heavenly horses of the Sintashta

Matt pointed me to the fact that the paper that’s going to come out:

Horse domestication fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare. However, modern domesticates do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia ~3,500 BCE (Before Common Era). Other long-standing candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia and Anatolia, were also recently challenged. Therefore, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses remained unknown. Here, we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they rapidly expanded across Eurasia from ~2,000 BCE, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioral adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe ~3,000 BCE driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the situation in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium BCE Sintashta culture.

If you have an interest in the domestic horse (I have) you are aware it’s the product of massive demographic radiation from a small founder population. With ancient DNA we now know where it started: with the Sintashta people of the Volga to the Ural steppe 4,000 years ago.

This is not totally surprising, because we know that the Sintashta were highly warlike and they invented the light war-chariot. This technology spread across the whole Old World, from Egypt to China to Ireland. In some cases, I believe that this was mediated directly by the Sintashta, the early Indo-Iranians. Not only were the Mitanni elite of Syria 3,500 years ago speaking an Indo-Aryan/Iranian language, and worshipping Indo-Aryan/Iranian gods but genetically some of them retained their steppe character. The Sintashta also had domestic dogs, but the lineage of these dogs persists only in China today. Not coincidentally, light war-chariots that are clearly copied from the Iranian-style vehicles show up in Shang China in 1200 BC.

The genetic/demographic impact won’t be visible in many areas. Perhaps Indo-Iranian mercenaries arrived in a city-state, and eventually taught the natives how to build, maintain, and utilize war chariots? This seems plausible. To this day we aren’t quite sure where the wagon was invented because it spread almost immediately over much of Western Eurasia 5,500 years ago.

We also have to remember that the “Iranian” zone of domination was far wider in antiquity than in the present. Around 500 BC Scythians were present as far east as Mongolia, as far west as Hungary, and as far south as northern Iran itself. This means that they could easily have spread the chariot within their own cultural-zone and then it was rapidly adopted by adjacent groups to the east, west, and south.

Related: check out my steppe series.

A Fallen World

As you may know, I’ve been thinking about the Indo-European expansion a lot. I did a lot more archaeological reading than I’m wont to for my Substacks, Steppe 1.0, Going Nomad, Steppe 1.1a: A nowhere man’s world, and Steppe 1.1b: culture vultures descend. I also got the archaeologists’ view from David Anthony, Kristian Kristiansen, and J. P. Mallory. Obviously, there are emails and earlier conversations that don’t make it into a podcast.

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.

Darwin will fall

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.

The Jewel and the Dragon, and the fight against the coming darkness

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.

Truly ancient of days

Why Civilization Is Older Than We Thought:

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.

Oppression >>> extermination, greed >>> genocide

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.

But was this wisdom always known? Next week on my Substack I’ll be posting my interview with Dr. Kristian Kristiansen about the transition from Yamnaya to Corded Ware in Northern Europe (this week’s podcast is with David Anthony of  The Horse, The Wheel, and Language). A few years ago a notorious sensationalist piece came out based on some of Kristiansen’s assertions titled Story of most murderous people of all time revealed in ancient DNA. The title and assertion were ridiculous, but Kristiansen doesn’t deny that the Yamnaya were a militaristic people.

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.