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Eyed sewing needles from Ice Age Europe (17,000 to 10,000 BP). (source: Didier Descouens)

As early modern humans spread farther north, they entered more challenging environments. This was particularly so when they left the boreal forests and entered the open steppe-tundra that covered much of northern Eurasia. Food was plentiful but largely took the form of meat—herds of reindeer and other herbivores. With few plant foods to gather, women took on other tasks: meat processing, shelter building, and garment making. Men also had to make the most of their hunting successes, since no other food was available during lean times.
Necessity is the mother of invention. Northern hunting peoples had to create a wider range of new and complex tools, as well as mental simulations of how their actions would play out in the future:

The technology of recent hunter-gatherers is also influenced by temperature and diet. Both the diversity of tool types and the complexity of individual tools and weapons […] increase as effective temperature and the percentage of plant foods in the diet decline […]. This apparently reflects the need for greater foraging efficiency in habitats where resources are available for limited periods of time. Recent hunter-gatherers in cold environments also tend to make increased use of storage technologies and untended facilities (e.g., traps and snares). The former represent another adaptive response to seasonal variations in resource availability, while the latter reflect an efficient approach (i.e., reduced mobility) to collecting unpredictable and widely dispersed resources […]. Finally, modern hunter-gatherers in northern environments produce relatively complex technology for heat conservation and cold protection (e.g., tailored fur clothing).(Hoffecker, 2002, p. 10).

On the frozen steppe-tundra, each base camp became a center of activity for production, processing, and storage. Deep storage pits were dug into the permafrost for meat refrigeration. Hand-powered rotary drills made their appearance. We find “traces of fired ceramic technology, including remains of kilns heated to as much as 800 degrees C.” There is also evidence of woven textiles, as well as eyed sewing needles and other fine instruments for the making of tailored clothing (Hoffecker, 2002, p. 161, 107).

Much of this activity was driven by the need to do a lot in a short time:

In such [non-tropical] areas, one or two seasonally abundant resources may be relied on to produce the critical storable surplus for the lean seasons. This would require short periods of intensive harvest and precise scheduling during those times of the year when these resources were available. In such ‘time-stressed environments’, time was at a premium and hunter-gatherer societies responded by developing time-saving devices: by budgeting their time and by preparing in advance more sophisticated, but also more complicated tools designed for the specific tasks involved. The development of capture facilities, such as pits, traps, weirs, and nets can be also seen as time-saving devices. Another technological requirement for effective exploitation of seasonal resources consists of storage. […] These technological developments, combined with the development of the microlithic industry, could be called, with some justification, the original industrial revolution. (Zvelebil, 2009, p. 170)

Did these new cognitive demands have an evolutionary impact? Did they select for certain mental capacities over others? Piffer (2013) has addressed these questions by seeing how hunter-gatherers differ from farming peoples in alleles at COMT, a gene linked to executive function, working memory, and intelligence:

Ethnic groups whose economy is based on farming have higher frequencies of the Met allele (symbol: A), whereas societies based on a hunter-gatherer economy have very low frequencies of the Met allele and a disproportionate predominance of the Val allele. Moreover, the frequency of the Met allele was positively correlated to the populations’ IQ (r = 0.57).

Northern hunting peoples, however, differ from other hunter-gatherers and resemble more advanced farming populations:

[…] hunter-gatherers living at high latitudes (Inuit) show high frequencies of the Met allele, possibly due to the higher pressure on technological skills and planning abilities posed by the adverse climatic conditions near the North Pole.


Modern humans arose in Africa, and founded the first civilizations in the Middle East. These two milestones are separated by the development of a new mental toolkit, i.e., an improved ability to imagine how resources can be used collectively not only in the present but also over long periods of time in the future. Surely, then, this mental toolkit must have arisen in the same geographic area. Wouldn’t that be the simplest answer?

Sometimes the simplest answer is not the right one. Evolution can appear unnecessarily complicated at times, and this is a fine example. Although the new mental toolkit was initially an adaptation to harsh semi-Arctic conditions, it would later prove useful in warmer climes. We see this in an apparent series of demographic expansions out of the northern tier of Eurasia, beginning as early as 15,000 years ago, as indicated by the existence of the Eurasiatic language macrofamily and the more hypothetical Borean macrofamily. Today, most of the human gene pool has its origins in people who once roamed the northern wastes of Eurasia.


Hoffecker, J.F. (2002). Desolate Landscapes. Ice-Age Settlement in Eastern Europe. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Piffer, D. (2013). Correlation of the COMT Val158Met polymorphism with latitude and a hunter-gather lifestyle suggests culture–gene coevolution and selective pressure on cognition genes due to climate, Anthropological Science, 121, 161-171.

Zvelebil, M. (2009). Hunters in Transition: Mesolithic Societies of Temperate Eurasia and Their Transition to Farming, Cambridge University Press.

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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  1. The middle east is a long way from the north pole. And contrary to your earlier statement, the people living there now aren't related to ancient north eurasian hunter gatherers. It's the opposite: Europeans and middle easterners share neolithic farmer ancestry. There wasn't some huge migration from the forest-steppes to the near east until around 1,000 BC well after the agricultural empires there were under way.

    I think you were onto something when you said there is no single "unified" theory of HBD. There are many ways to develop intelligence and complex societies, either by hunting deer in marginal lands, frozen for half the year, or by practicing intense agricultural for thousands and thousands of years, as the west africans, near easterners and ancient east asians did.

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  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The middle east is a long way from the north pole. And contrary to your earlier statement, the people living there now aren't related to ancient north eurasian hunter gatherers. It's the opposite: Europeans and middle easterners share neolithic farmer ancestry.

    Be careful with the certainty on this one.

    We know from the recent paper that the Early Farmer samples in Europe look like a mix including European Hunter Gatherer ancestry, which is absent in the Near East.

    However, even though the Near East lacks European Hunter Gatherer per se, the ancient Near East (prior to disturbance by Ancient North Eurasians) also seems to be modeled by this paper as being itself a mix including another kind of ancestry that is at least slightly more akin to European Hunter Gatherer ancestry than ancient Siberian.

    This modelling is necessarily relatively tenuous in the absence of direct samples. However the possibility certainly exists that this may ultimately come to indicate that, yes, gene flow did in fact happen from some sister of these Europe/steppe populations (Western Hunter Gatherer and Ancient North Eurasian) to the early Neolithic Near East.

    I agree there is no silver bullet for selection for traits useful to complex societies. But that isn't to say that Peter is necessarily totally wrong – some of the adaptations which led to the Neolithic could have come from cool climate hunters-fishers, and some from more southerly populations, in fusion.

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  3. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The middle east is a long way from the north pole. And contrary to your earlier statement, the people living there now aren't related to ancient north eurasian hunter gatherers. It's the opposite: Europeans and middle easterners share neolithic farmer ancestry.

    Europeans and Middle Easterners are both Caucasoids though. Wouldn't they both be related to an ancient Caucasoid hunter-gatherer population?

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  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Europeans and Middle Easterners are both Caucasoids though. Wouldn't they both be related to an ancient Caucasoid hunter-gatherer population?

    Could be more than one ancient population.

    Some features could be very persistent, perhaps as plesiomorphic features or due to similar environmental selection,

    e.g. tropical morphs in African and Australasia have little genetic connection but are similar in many dimensions other than overall robusticity (where Australians have a relatively larger face and this causes many of their distinctive characteristics, like strong supraorbital ridges, etc.).

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  5. Yes, anon. But caucasoid is a recent term used to describe populations with physiological similarities and genetic connections: But there's nothing that says that those populations have those relations because they all evolved from some ur-caucasoid population or they are just a mix of similar very divergent components in varying degrees.

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  6. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Yes but wouldn't the shared component ultimately evolve from some ur-Caucasoid population?

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  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The peoples of the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Southeast Asia derive their ancestry primarily from these Northern Eurasian because their genes largely swamped those of the earlier inhabitants. The older southern Eurasian genes survive mainly among the tribal peoples of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, like the Veddahs and Negritos. There are also very faint traces in Yemen and Oman.

    This is one reason why geneticists have had a hard time reconstructing early modern human migrations in Eurasia after the first out-of-Africa event. The confusion over whether mtDNA haplogroup L3 and Y haplogroup E originated in Africa or Asia, for example, is a product of the fact that much of the original genetic landscape between sub-Saharan Africa and Australia was painted over starting around 40-50 thousand years ago. (L3 has only recently been nailed as Asian through careful research in Arabia).

    Spencer Wells does a good job of explaining this in "The Journey of Man." He talks about how long it took to pin down Y-chromosome traces of the Asian ancestors of Australian Aborigines. Finally, he found a man in a remote South Indian village who carried the ancient marker. The vast majority of Indian men, by contrast, derived from the later out-of-North Eurasia flux that he traced back to Kazakhstan.

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  8. Though 'HBD' people are frequently accused of racism, they seem reluctant to consider the subspecies or major races of man. Although biotaxa are not fixed in essence, I suspect that the novel alleles Peter is thinking about are indeed Caucasian-wide and Mongoloid-wide, or at the very least belong to important genetic subsets within these clusters.

    In the New World they maybe correlate with Haddon's Neo-Mongoloids, or perhaps parallel mutations evolved in the case of the Andean region. (Bizarrely, settled life there seems to predate the arrival of full Sinodonty suggesting a genetic shift had taken place before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

    The case of New Guinea ought also to be interesting because of the extremely early evidence for vegecultural practices there.

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  9. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I think this pattern is probably correct but I think there are more latitudinal layers to it.

    Even in very broad terms the same process you describe would have been necessary moving from the tropics to the sub-tropics, the sub-tropics to the mid-latitudes and mid-latitudes to cold latitudes so imo you'd have something like

    -population A

    - population B derived from A

    -population C derived from B

    Northern Latitudes
    -population D derived from either B or C or both

    If each northwards step involved an IQ boost so population A to D were ranked 1 to 4 in IQ then the back-migration process you describe could have happened with each layer i.e. population B back-migrating into the tropics and displacing A and/or population C back-migrating from the mid-latitudes into the sub-tropics and partially displacing population B i.e the whole ladder displacing south.

    If back-migrating into the tropics was not possible then B might be displaced entirely.


    Also if you add agriculture and subsequent social complexity, higher population density etc into this then I think the pattern would go something like

    Initially IQ ranking by latitude i.e.
    tropics 1
    sub-tropics 2
    mid-latitudes 3
    cold latitudes 4

    but then population C in the mid-latitudes develop agriculture etc leading to say a +2 boost resulting in

    tropics 1
    sub-tropics 2
    mid-latitudes (+agri) 5
    cold latitudes 4

    hence their back-migration into the sub-tropics and their migration into the cold latitudes.

    I think it required the agricultural package to be added to the underlying cold latitude advantage to get the effect you describe at the end i.e.

    tropics 1
    sub-tropics 3 or 4 (the result of the back-migration from mid-latitudes)
    mid-latitudes (+agri) 5
    cold latitudes (+agri) 6

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  10. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The above might tie into the Borean language family idea.

    Say you have tropical population A.

    A population derived from A move out of the tropics into the sub-tropics to form population B with languages derived from A.

    A population derived from B move out of the sub-tropics into the mid-latitudes to form population C with languages derived from B.

    Could a back-migration of C from the mid-latitudes into the sub-tropics which completely replaces population B and their languages create such a split between the A languages and all those derived from C that it looks like they are unrelated i.e. the now extinct B languages were the missing link?

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  11. Sean says:

    Hunting the most mobile animal on earth would have implications for the propinquity groups were in, a one day old reindeer can outrun a man.

    Pagel came out with a theory that Languages evolved to prevent us communicating. A while ago in the comments you said "a number of texts, notably Hoffecker's … refer to this reindeer-hunting population as having a large effective size."

    It strikes me that technological advances would be like advantageous gene mutations, often lost when they occurred in groups that were not on friendly terms with neighbouring groups. For the northern hunter peoples there would be less focus on conflict over women and hunting grounds at an individual or group level. When there was a large effective populations size despite the space between groups, there would be a relative openness to strangers and their ideas, because on the steppe tundra everybody had a lot in common, rather than being focused with maintaining the group.

    I think that steppe tundra period led to northern people having a tendency to identify with symbolic community of unlimited scope. Of course the view that western thinking is epitomised by hellish essentialism is practically universal among the intelligentsia, who think the belief in such entities stems from (what intellectuals take to be) Aristotle's ideas gone wild.

    Why the world does not exist: but unicorns do

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  12. Essentialism is usually invoked when creating a straw man to knock down. Of course things are fluid but this does not contradict the existence of a 'telos'. And although people thinking in terms of fixed essences are a pain in the arse, it is a tendency arising from a personality trait and not a social construct or a historical legacy, so we will have to put up with it.

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  13. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The more you write on this subject, the more like a crackpot you appear in light of the new genetic evidence.

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  14. Sean says:

    Dawkins: "If, like Aristotle, you treat all flesh-and-blood rabbits as imperfect approximations to an ideal Platonic rabbit, it won't occur to you that rabbits might have evolved from a non-rabbit ancestor, and might evolve into a non-rabbit descendant." It is true Aristotle held that true entities werel eternal and natural. Scientists take philosophers' word that essentialism is a fallacy, and mainstream philosophers like Justin EH Smith target racial categories, one of his NYT pieces, says "Since the mid-20th century no mainstream scientist has considered race a biologically significant category; no scientist believes any longer that “negroid,” “caucasoid” and so on represent real natural kinds or categories". A problem with any kind of essentialism with social implications is when you say things have inner essential properties, you might go on to claim privileged aknowledge of what they are. Hence Professor Smith seems to see as a fallacy to say particular races (or other concepts like nations, or the concept of marriage) have essential properties, and cites a follower Lewontin on race being unable to see through his 'subtle sleight-of-mind' notwithstanding their training.

    Almost any kind of scientist or intelectual (Joshua Greene is representative) characterises humans as inherently tribalistic. "In-group favoritism and ethnocentrism are human universals" Greene explains "We can step outside of our tribal instincts and say, 'It’s not just the people in my tribe that matter, everybody matters. And everybody matters equally.' It’s a thought that evolution never wanted us to have".

    The type of hunting in on the European plains in Ice Age Europe led to rapid development of technology especially 14000–18000 ago: "low mass projectiles at delivery speeds that are high
    enough to allow their user to afflict a lethal puncture wound".
    The people that made that rapid snowballing advance in projectile technology must have been borrowing ideas very freely. And they are the same ones who "repudiated the idea that European civilization on its own generated the means to out-develop the rest of the world"

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  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The more you write on this subject, the more like a crackpot you appear in light of the new genetic evidence.

    And yet you somehow could not cite any of that new genetic evidence.

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  16. Ben10 says:

    Even if you can't sew in post glacial Europe you can survive, i.e., Neanderthals, supposedly, used un-sewed fur that did the job for them. Are we sure they didn't sew actually?
    Didn't we find a red-painted ornamental sea shell, with a hole in it, that was part of a neck lace? you'd need a needle to put a string in the hole, that's not far from cloth sewing.

    Also, sorry to be off topic here but I want to comment on Peter's last two posts.
    Sometimes I have the feeling that he tries to explain the conversion process that could have transform dark skin hunter-gatherers Europeans into fair skin with different alleles for eye and hair colors, in situ.

    But isn't the story supposed to be that fair-skinned Celts invaded western Europe, on top of a pre-celtic population that may have been fair skinned but not fair eyed, and that the even whiter skinned German tribes, described as almost uniformly blond-blue eyed by Tacitus, came on top of that but much later?
    So we have a Celtic western Europe + British isles for a thousand years before the Germanic elements arrived. Perhaps the phenotype variants blue-green-grey eyes and hairs didn't exist at that time.

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  17. Juoni says:

    fair-skinned Celts invaded western Europe…even whiter skinned German tribes

    I'd say the opposite. The whitest people nowadays are the remaining Celts in Ireland and Scotland and Finns. Germanic peoples have a little more tanned-looking skin on average. Something to do with sexual selection I guess.

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  18. Spageti,

    We see a similar pattern of phenotypic change in the Middle East. Until about 12,000 years ago, the dominant phenotype was African-like in appearance. I will deal with this point at greater length in my next post.


    This is something like the model I'm working with. There seems to have been a succession of demographic expansions out of Europe, with the first one starting around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. There may have been even earlier expansions. Grimaldi Man looks generally African-like but it seems to show some European-specific evolutionary change.


    Actually, the genetic evidence seems to be trending in my direction. There is a growing consensus that the modern European phenotype took shape (1) before the Neolithic and (2) long after the arrival of modern humans in Europe. We're going to see a lot of ancient DNA being analyzed this year, so even more pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.


    I suspect that the pale complexions and red hair of the Celtic peoples are pre-Celtic. In any case, there is no human population where most people are blond. Even among Swedes, the proportion is only about 30 to 40%

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  19. Ben10 says:

    OK, the topic of the historical record is too big anyway (starting from Hyperborea, that would be a loooong post), it'd be too of topic here.

    But you didn't comment about those Neandertals 'sewing' necklaces of red-painted sea shells. They had the technology apparently.

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  20. Ben10 says:

    Pre-celtic red-heads, yes. I thought about these statuettes of fertility goddesses.
    I assume that the one we have, have been too manipulated to keep any traces of ochre color, but maybe in the future, if somebody find a new one, it would be interesting to check for pigments. We know that Cro-Magnons heavily used ochre in cave painting.
    Also check for blood/DNA. I used to carve a couple things on wood and cut myself a few time. I bet some blood was transferred on the wood.
    Too bad the voice is not recorded, I'd like to hear some prehistoric profanity when such incident happened.

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  21. Ben10 says:

    My last comment may not be very clear.
    I was talking about the Venus statuettes like the one in the precedent post. I can't imagine that the same guys who painted the caves with oxides and ochre pigments didn't have the idea to use the same pigments to paint their statuettes, at least to represent a rare color feature such as red hairs.

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  22. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Piffer has recently published two papers that provide evidence for different selection on intelligence across human populations. The articles can be found on IBC:

    The provisional version of the first paper is here:
    although the final version can be found on Mankind Quarterly

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