We are Whigs, whether we want to be or not. History moves in one direction, and that direction is associated with progress. Progress being something we would recognize as associated with ourselves in some fashion. Ergo, the “mystery” of the evacuation of Greenland by Scandinavians in the 1400s. Today that mystery seems to be solved to the satisfaction of most. With the waning of the Medieval Warm Period the Scandinavian agro-pastoral economic system of production was not a viable form of subsistence at high latitudes. Greenland got less green. In contrast the Greenland Inuit’s ancestors, the Thule culture, were eminently well prepared for the shift in climatic regimes. In a previous more Eurocentric age the curiosity was that a European society which was advanced enough to receive bishops from Rome could be replaced by hunter-gatherers in sealskin canoes.
Of course many peoples would not have been shocked, the ancients were well aware of the concept of societies falling from states of greater complexity or social elaboration to ones of simplicity, as a matter of necessity (see: Dark Age Greece). It was in Europe where the Age of Discovery transformed into the industry & science driven era of European colonialism, that gave us the idea that the world was ascending up a ladder of development evermore, under the aegis of the white race. Cases where Europeans gave ground to non-Europeans, and ones in an earlier mode of production in a historical determinist sense (i.e., societies moving through modes of production in sequence), would certainly raise eyebrows in a culture where the Garden of Eden had been turned into a legend and Greek myths of ages of Gold giving way to Silver and Bronze were seen as anthropological curiosities.
Obviously things have changed a great deal, but the shadow of the Whig, and the vision of eternal progress haunts us. Scratch a Critical Race theorist, and you get James Mill. A Whiggish and Eurocentric perspective colors our own perceptions of the past, even if we live in an age of the critique of all things Western and white. Most especially thees sorts of biases are a problem when it comes to prehistory, when we don’t even have to bother to twist and interpret the past’s words to fit our preconceptions. We can simply impute upon it because it is mute. In this blog I have been talking about the impact ancient DNA has had upon our understanding, and the impact it will have. But the inferences we make are only as good as our interpretative framework. The researchers who are working at the cutting edge of the field understand they aren’t explaining everything. Rather, they are attempting to construct some broad sketches which can serve as a scaffold for more specific detailed understanding of events which transpired before history.
In Proceedings of the Royal Society B there is a paper which explores the dynamics of the transition from hunting & gathering to farming as the dominant way of life in Finland, Neolithic dairy farming at the extreme of agriculture in northern Europe. As you can see in the map to the left Finland spans the same latitudes as southern Greenland. Only its position along the western maritime fringe of Eurasia moderates the conditions so as to make agriculture marginally viable. The paper takes as a starting point what we know in general about the transition to farming in the far northeast of Europe. It came late. Around ~2500 BC. It was associated with the Corded Ware culture. Though such suppositions are fraught with uncertainty, believe that the Corded Ware were the first early Indo-Europeans in Northern Europe. The hunter-gatherers preceding the Corded Ware were of the Comb Cermic culture. The culture relatives of these people in Scandinavia were the Pitted Ware culture.
The basic results of the paper are easy to understand from a non-specialist perspective. Around ~2500 BC there was a very rapid shift to agro-pastoralism utilizing dairy from a predominantly marine diet. This correlates with the switch from Comb Ceramic hunter-gatherers, who were specifically reliant on marine animals in much of Finland, to the Corded Ware people. Later it seems that marine organisms made something of a comeback in the diet of the peoples of Finland, and a culturally more synthetic society emerged, with elements from the Comb Ceramic and the Corded Ware.
This should be somewhat familiar. Genetically it seems that in Northern Europe the arrival of agriculture was heralded by a demographic and culture eruption, which was eventually synthesized with the local substrate. If you read ancient DNA papers Scandinavians today are genetically an admixture of farmers and hunter-gatherers, with perhaps a modest bias toward the latter. The figure at the top of the post illustrates that the Pitted Ware populations seem to be genetically distinct from modern Northern Europeans, and in particular Finns. The same goes for the first farmer populations in the north. They were either emulsified in the still dominant hunter-gatherer demographic substrate, or, they experienced a major die off.
A simple model, implied in this paper, is that the modern Finns are a synthesis of the Corded Ware agro-pastoralists and indigenous hunter-gatherers populations. One can then envisage an admixture shock ~2500 BCE, and the past 5,000 years have been an equilibration. Obviously most people will immediately wonder though about the fact that Finns speak a Uralic language. And more specifically a Finno-Permian language. There have long been arguments about whether the Finns, in a cultural sense, are primal to Northern Europe. This plays out in the context of the fact that non-Indo-European languages in Europe always get special attention. What we do know from high density SNP data, as well as earlier Y chromosomal work, is that Finnic peoples seem to have a connection to populations in Siberia. By this, I do not mean the Ancestral North Eurasians. Rather, a population with affinities to modern Northeast Asians. If the Pitted Ware genetic results can be generalized to the Comb Ceramic people, and I do think they can be, then the Siberian admixture in Finns post dates 2500 BC. Since this element is not found in most populations descended from the Corded Ware (the ones where it is found, the Russians, have historical reasons for likely admixture from Asian populations, or, were Russified Finns), I doubt it is from the Corded Ware. Rather, the most likely scenario involves Finnic peoples moving into the population, and adding themselves as a dominant cultural element. The modern Indo-European language spoken in Finland by natives is Swedish, which arrived during the Common Era. With Swedish cultural hegemony and some colonization broad coastal zones of modern Finland are dominated by ethnic Swedes. But if the model I’m outlining above is corrected then Swedish is not the first dominant Indo-European language in Finland. Rather, an earlier Indo-European speaking population were absorbed by the Finns.
Swedish hegemony over Finland after 1200 was to a large extent a function of the fact that Swedes were a post-tribal population which were in the early states of constructing a nation-state. In Finland they encountered a tribal population which was easy to dominate, and integrated into a Swedish Baltic zone of rule. One ultimate basis of the Swedish superiority in domains of statecraft and social mobilization is probably economic, in that the ecology of Sweden was marginally more favorable to agriculture than that of Finland. The Finnish tribes were operating closer to the margins of subsistence, and at a lower limit of population density enforced by Malthusian strictures. But like the Thule conquest of Greenland I suspect the success of the Finnic tribes from the margins of Siberia is the very fact that they were masters of the cultural adaptations necessary for survival on the sub-arctic littoral of Eurasia. The Corded Ware people were like the Greenlanders of their era, agro-pastoralists who attempted to transfer a southern way of life in totality, but who ultimately were transformed and superseded.