Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not as the crow flies   posted by Razib @ 1/21/2010 12:29:00 AM

A comment below:
This thought has probably occurred to others as well, but isn't it interesting that if this theory of Baltics being the "true" Europeans is correct, that history repeated itself several thousand years later when the Baltic peoples became the last adopt Christianity, a Middle Eastern Religion? There must be something repelling about the region.

This is a good point. The Baltic sea is a bit closer on a straight line than Ireland and Scotland, but pre-modern transport and communication was much more dependent on water. The comment references the fact that Lithuania became a Christian nation only in the late 1300s. Some of this was a matter of geopolitics, the Baltic peoples were being subjected to what we'd probably term genocidal assaults from various German military orders whose notional rationale was to spread the Christian faith in a series of crusades. Christianity was therefore broadly construed as the religion of the enemy, with the Christian God being termed the "German god" in some cases. But another issue was that in the 14th century Lithuania expanded into the lands of the West and East Slavs, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians, respectively, and the religious neutrality of the Lithuanian elite allowed them to play off the two subject populations usefully. Once the Lithuanian elite chose Roman Catholicism, it began the centuries long process of total assimilation of that elite into the Polish nobility and their alienation from their East Slavic Orthodox subjects and allies (the final completion of which occurred after the Union of Lublin).

But even accounting for the historical and geopolitical contingencies, the relatively late conversion of the Baltic peoples to Roman Catholic Christianity is notable. The Sami of northern Fenno-Scandinavia actually were only nominally Christianized during the medieval period, and maintained their shamanistic indigenous religion until the 18th century (along with a few beliefs and practices adopted from their Norse neighbors, there are woodblocks which seem to depict Sami venerating an idol of Thor). One Finnic group in Russia actually claims an unbroken line of non-Christian religious belief & practice down to the modern day. The lesson here is that it is in northeastern Europe that the homogenizing processes which swept across much of the rest of the continent were felt last, and to the least effect.

Why? I assume it's ecology. Or as some would say, maybe its agriculture (or the lack thereof). The climate of northeastern Europe is very unsuitable for crops which originate in the Middle East, so it would take some time for them to adapt them appropriately. The historical and genetic data imply a relatively recent push of Slavic-speaking farmers into northeastern European Russia. A model which posits that northeastern Europeans are particularly deep reservoirs of ancient European lineages would rely on the ecological parameters as the primary reason.

The parallelism between the spread of cultures and genes here is notable, because the two often interact. Just as northeastern Europe may be the last redoubt of the hunter-gatherer relict populations within the continent, so it was also the region which was the last to join the medieval "Christian Commonwealth." In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond introduced the importance of geography in understanding historical patterns. This is quite clear when it comes to something like the history of the native populations of the New World; the critical role of environment in the lives of aboriginal peoples is something we're preconditioned to assume as an important background parameter. But the same factors are at work in Europe, in both prehistory and history.