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:

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The war between the Aesir and Vanir

In Snorri Sturluson’s preservation of pre-Christian Scandinavian mythos, he outlines two groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir. Though ultimately presented as a united pantheon in comparison to beings such as the giants, there are references to a war between these two divine factions. But, there is still scholarly debate as to the significance of the division between the Aesir and Vanir.

At one extreme some contend that the division was concocted by Sturluson himself for stylistic or poetic reasons. In contrast, others suggest that the Aesir-Vanir division is substantive, and reflects deep historical origins. The Vanir, in this telling, are the fertility gods of pre-Indo-European peoples. The Aesir, are the gods of the Indo-Europeans. The war between the two factions then is a memory of the conflict between the indigenous farmers, and the incoming Indo-European pastoralists. Sturluson himself suggested that the gods of the Norse mythos were simply deifications of great historical personages of the past, lending credence to the idea that the folklore preserved the memory of history.

Ultimately we may never know the real story behind the Aesir-Vanir war (if it ever occurred). But a new paper in The American Journal of Archaeology sheds some light on the transition to Indo-European language in modern Denmark’s Jutland, Talking Neolithic: Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on How Indo-European Was Implemented in Southern Scandinavia:

…Farming arrived in Scandinavia with the Funnel Beaker culture by the turn of the fourth millennium B.C.E. It was superseded by the Single Grave culture, which as part of the Corded Ware horizon is a likely vector for the introduction of Indo-European speech. As a result of this introduction, the language spoken by individuals from the Funnel Beaker culture went extinct long before the beginning of the historical record, apparently vanishing without a trace. However, the Indo-European dialect that ultimately developed into Proto-Germanic can be shown to have adopted terminology from a non-Indo-European language, including names for local flora and fauna and important plant domesticates. We argue that the coexistence of the Funnel Beaker culture and the Single Grave culture in the first quarter of the third millennium B.C.E. offers an attractive scenario for the required cultural and linguistic exchange, which we hypothesize took place between incoming speakers of Indo-European and local descendants of Scandinavia’s earliest farmers.

There is a lot of interesting detail in the paper itself. First, the Corded Ware arrived in Jutland in ~2850 BCE, but only occupied the western and central parts of the peninsula. The Funnel Beaker complex, along with influences and interactions with the hunter-gatherer Pitted Ware culture, persisted in robust form until ~2600 BCE in the east of Jutland. Additionally, the authors note that there was a notable cultural geographic division which separated the former Funnel Beaker territory as it was in ~2600 BCE down to ~1500 BCE, when the two zones fused together into a unified Nordic Bronze Age culture.

An explicit analogy is made to the character of prehistoric Aegean society, where a pre-Indo-European matrix was coexistent with Indo-European cultures which arrived from the north for centuries, and even millennia, down to the Classical Greek period (the Pelasgians).

But the similarity is closer than just one of form: the language of the Funnel Beaker people may have existed on a dialect continuum with the farming peoples of the Mediterranean. That is, Neolithic Europe was probably united by an ethno-cultural linguistic complex similar in scale and quality to that of the Bantus in modern Africa.

One of the hypotheses about the origins of the Vanir is that they were agricultural fertility gods. As it happens many of the hypothesized borrowings of non-Indo-European words into Germanic are of agricultural nature. Additionally, the table within the paper illustrates that many of these words span very different Indo-European language families. The implication is strong that Minoan, Basque, and the pre-Indo-European languages of Northern Europe are genetically related to each other.

Genetics does not illuminate everything, but I do think that it gives a certain solidity now to the nature of demographic turnover and variation in prehistoric Europe. With that in mind archaeologists and folklorists can interpret the mythologies and legends which have been passed down to us from the liminal periods on the edge of history and prehistory.

For example, the thesis that pre-Indo-European religion revolved around cthonic deities of the earth (e.g., the Tuatha de Danann) makes a lot more sense if you believe that these people were agriculturalists. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans from the east arrived as pastoralists, and it is not, therefore, a surprise that the one Indo-European god who has an undisputed cognate across all branches of the Indo-European peoples is the sky god, whether he is known as Zeus, Jupiter, or Dyauṣ Pitār.