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Pots not People

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I have criticized the “pots not people” paradigm on this weblog before. In short, the idea is that material cultural changes reflected in the archaeological record are an indicator of memetic, not genetic, evolution. So a shift from pottery style X to pottery style Y informs you of an cultural switch. This is not implausible on the face of it. In the year 450 the dominant religion in the Roman Empire was a derived Jewish sect, Christianity. The only other de jure recognized religious organization within the Empire was another derived Jewish sect, an early form of Rabbinical Judaism.* But most people assume that there was far less genetic gains to Jews and Jewish-derived people. Rather, it was Jewish ideas which spread to non-Jews, and superseded non-Jewish ideas.

There are two issues that immediately come to mind with this analogy. The first is that there are many debates as to the Jewishness of Christianity in substance. Some Christians have argued that the Jewishness of much of contemporary Christianity is superficial. Rather, they make the case that Christianity is fundamentally a Hellenic system of thought which has been outfitted in plausibly Hebrew garb. Much of their argument rests upon the fact of the heavily Greek philosophical intellectual superstructure of much of Nicene Christianity, and in particular the Christianity derived from the Roman Imperial Church (Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy). These points are advocated often by self-identified Christians themselves. Isaac Newton believed that the Christian Church which came out of the Roman Empire had been hijacked by pre-Christian philosophy. Some modern thinkers, such as the physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne, also holds to this position (though not nearly as assertively and aggressively as Isaac Newton). There are whole Christian denominations which espouse this model. The Jehovah’s Witness are outspoken on this issue, while the Mormons are more muted, but often reflect similar sentiments in relation to the influence of pre-Christian philosophical thought on the Christian religion as a primary motive force in its degeneration.

A second issue is that the example of the triumph of Christianity may not be a good model for changes in the nature of material remains. It is one thing for individuals to profess the belief in a different god, but another for individuals to master the system of thought which buttresses that belief. Very few Christians have a good mastery of systematic theology. In contrast, many material objects emerge from the combined actions of a large proportion of the population (in the era before specialization), and are a product of a set of interlocking skills and processes. To produce geometric pottery is somewhat more involved than accepting Jesus Christ as the son of the one true god, or repeating the shahada. The transition to farming was probably even more difficult for individuals.

In other words, even though memes can flow relatively freely in theory, one may have a situation were memeplexes characterized by a set of interlocking and contingent ideas move more rapidly through replication of individuals, groups, and societies in which those memeplexes are dominant. Going back to the religious example, the United States being a predominantly Christian society has to do primarily with changes in demography, not the religious conversion of Native Americans to Christianity. The latter did occur, but it’s a minor variable. In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia you have the opposite extreme, where native populations converted to Christianity, and there was little migration of European Christians. But intriguingly you also have a situation here where unlike the United States the Christian religion has a heavily indigenous flavor. One could observe that the natives of the Altiplano have done to Christianity what the ancient Romans did, remake it in their own image, while retaining the exterior garb, which is ultimately Jewish. This illustrates the subtle but important difference between cultural diffusion through flow of ideas vs. replacement of populations. Transplantation of many forms from one intact society to another results in modest but discernible transmutation. In contrast, demographic replacement often produces memetic replication over time and space with a much higher fidelity.

Today some findings from cultural anthropology and ancient DNA have moved me to a position where I am highly skeptical of the null or default position that material changes in ancient societies were due to movement of ideas as opposed to people. This does not entail that I accept the converse position. Rather, I believe we need to admit to the case to be made for agnosticism or uncertainty, because that’s where we are. But if forced to elucidate a clear and distinct viewpoint which I would have to defend, I would suggest that in the prehistoric era the transition to farming was characterized by a great deal of demographic change. In other words, farmers replaced or absorbed many hunter-gatherer populations. The victory of agriculture was not ideological in a direct sense, rather it was demographic. Not proselytization, but procreation! Such a solution at least resolves the question of why farming replaced hunting and gathering if the former was such a raw deal in terms of nutrition and overall quality of life, as argued by many anthropologists and economic historians. The Neolithic Revolution was the prehistoric version of Idiocracy.

This makes sense in a way. The farmer was a radically new morph of human which extracted per unit productivity in a proximate fashion from the same set of resources as the hunter-gatherer. In other words, the farmer occupied the same primary producer niche as the hunter-gatherer. Therefore, there is much more people than pots than we had previously thought when it comes to the transition from hunting and gathering to farming. But what about later on? This is where I think some of our intuitions of cultural diffusion are on better footing. History, the era of writing, is one of farmers. These primary producers are lauded by the social and political philosophers of the pre-modern world because all of society rested upon their shoulders. Trade and artisan production were secondary, and often marginalized in terms of prestige (pre-modern aspirant nobility who made their fortune in trade would shift toward land assets from which they could extract respectable rents, because profit from the land was real and honorable). But the reality remained that those nobles and gentry who espoused the value of farmers were parasites upon that primary production.

Therefore the relationship between historical elites and the masses, and invading populations and native populations, is very different from that of the prehistoric era. Why? Because societies are more complex, and it isn’t simply a matter of one group expanding to swallow up the niche of another group, as occurred with farmers in relation to hunter-gatherers. Nobles may perceive themselves to be superior to the peasant, but they can not exist without the peasant. The flourishing of their own niche is continent upon the flourishing of the peasant niche. Laced across this baroque web of social relations were a variety of ideological strands which produced a memetic cross-hatch. The tight integration of a discrete group and ideology, between demography and culture, was decoupled. Rather, the historic societies exhibited cross-linkages, as Protestant nobles and Protestant peasants sometimes stood together and sometimes stood apart.

All of this leads up to this comment below:

… Pastoralists overcome peasants politically, sometimes culturally, but rarely demographically. Demographically, I think the peasants almost always win.

It may be apocryphal that Yelü Chucai advised Genghis Khan to tax rather than slaughter the peasants of the North China Plain. Apparently the Mongol leader was entertaining the idea of turning the farmland into pasture, to support more Mongols and their herds. This would have been a classic demographic replacement. But what happened? He saw that the Han peasants were resources from which one could extract rents. Where the farmer views the hunter-gatherer as a competitor in the long term when they coexist in the same ecology, the pastoralist can complement the peasant. Often that entails extortion and terrorism, with the Mongol case being the archetype.

There are two types of major cultural changes we see around us. Those driven from the bottom up via the mass action of peasant fecundity. And those driven from above by an elite cadre of pastoralists who excel in extraction of rents from sedentary populations in a mobile opportunistic fashion. Both of these have ideological consequences. The arrival of rice farmers to Japan laid the groundwork for modern Shinto because those farmers brought the spiritual beliefs of Northeast Asians with them. The defeat of the Roman and Persian armies by groups of mobile Arabs in the 7th century resulted in the rise of Islam. In the first case you have a demographic shift driving cultural change. In the second case the demographic shift was much more modest (though it is discernible), but the cultural change was earth-shattering nonetheless (though again, there is a case to be made that Islam was profoundly transmuted by its growth in a milieu dominated by Oriental Christianity and Persian culture).

There is no null hypothesis. Rather, there are a set of likelihoods which are acutely sensitive to time and space. Context matters.

* A substantial minority, and perhaps a de facto majority, of the Roman population remained in the catchall “pagan” category in 450, but the elite culture had become at least nominally Christian in a normative sense, except for philosophy and a few isolated locales (e.g., Harran). Pagans and philo-pagans in public life had come to accept their marginal position (because of the necessary cryptic nature of the paganism of these personalities, it is difficult to differentiate who was genuinely privately a pagan, and who was accused of paganism as a slander, except for those such as Zosimus who made their views explicit in their private writings).

• Category: History, Science • Tags: Anthropology, Pots not People 
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The German magazine Der Spiegel has a rather thick new article out reviewing the latest research which is starting to reintroduce the concept of mass folk wanderings into archaeology. The title is How Middle Eastern Milk Drinkers Conquered Europe. In the story you get a good sense of the recent revision of the null model once dominant within archeology that the motive forces of history manifested through the flow of pots and not people. This viewpoint came to ascendancy after World War II, and succeeded an older method of interpretation which presumed a tight correlation between race and culture. It repudiated the idea that the flow and change of pottery styles and extant patterns of linguistic dialects may have been markers for the waxing and waning of peoples.

Obviously a pots-not-people model had some major exceptions even during its heyday. The demographic explosion of European peoples after 1492, and especially the Anglo peoples after 1700, occurred within the light of history. Even if it hadn’t it would be ludicrous on the face of it to assert that the modern American population were derived from the indigenous populations, and that they had simply adopted the language, religion and folkways of the British conquerors of North America. But outside the presumed aberration of the European imperialist and colonial venture of the modern era the details on the ground were obscure enough that a model could be imposed from without.

No longer. In non-European societies such as China with extensive records it is clear that demographic increase and colonization were driving forces of the expansion of a given cultural domain. A neglect of this reality could only occur via ignorance of the primary documents. Plausible if one did not know Chinese. As in the case of Spanish conquest of the New World the demographic wave was not total; biological and cultural amalgamation with the native substrate south of the Yangtze did occur to produce a new synthesis. But the revision does not occur just through space, but time as well. The methods of genetics, whereby samples from ancient burials may be retrieved and compared to modern populations, have allowed us to reject the post-World War II assumption that the Etruscans were an indigenous Italian culture. Due to the lack of copious records a theoretical presupposition was able to interject itself into the data. When the story about Etruscan genetic relationships to Near Eastern groups broke in early 2007 I actually proceeded to skim the latest archaeological monographs on the archaeology of this group, and most of them had erudite expositions on exactly how the myriad distinctive aspects of Etruscan culture which suggested an exogenous origin were in fact derived from the antecedent Bronze Age societies of Tuscany.

Ancient DNA extraction is now allowing scholars to map the change in frequencies of genetic markers of archaeologically known groups as a function of both space and time more broadly. I think one can safely see that there are more perturbations, fluctuations, and turnovers, than any pots-not-people model could predict. On the specific issue of lactase persistence it is almost certainly a genetic novelty in Eurasia which arose over the last 10,000 years in a co-evolutionary fashion with animal husbandry. The genomes of modern Europeans suggest this, but we have confirmation from ancient DNA extraction as well. A rise in frequency of a particular allele does not entail a replacement of one population with another; lactase persistence today can exhibit a great deal of variance as a function of geography and ecology because its frequency no doubt responds to local selective pressures. But, in concert with other DNA data (mostly maternal lineages) as well as a fresh look at evidence of cultural discontinuity and rapid pulses of colonization in late Paleolithic and early Neolithic Europe, one must be open to the possibility that the spread of animal husbandry, copious raw milk consumption, and an aggressive and fecund population, were all concurrent processes which were tightly interlocked in some causal sense.

An aspect of this story which I am fuzzy and weak on is the archaeology. You likely know nearly as much about the Linear Pottery Culture as I do. It seems though that this cultural-complex brought agriculture deep into the heart of Central Europe ~7,000 years ago, and there are clear signs that its origin was to the southeast, from the Eastern Mediterranean region. L. L. Cavalli-Sforza’s ‘demic diffusion’ model which argued for the expansion of Neolithic farmers from the Middle East into Paleolithic Europe seemed to suggest that it occurred through a ‘wave of advance‘ impelled by endogenous population growth and gradual migration. The model as reported by Der Spiegel seems at some variance with this. Instead of a gradual advance it seems that there may have been periodic pulses and explosions of demographic advance. Using the historical examples we have this should not be particularly surprising. Overlain atop the reality of an inexorable push across the ‘frontier’ in both North America and China by the colonizing peoples I alluded to earlier it is important to remember that there were periodic punctuations of gradualism by bursts of mass colonization, displacement, and relocation. The migration out of overpopulated New England to the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest in the early 19th century, the retreat to the south by the Han Chinese after the collapse of their first dynasty and the conquest of the north by barbarians. Both of these are examples of the explosive process in demographics and migration which can revolutionize the cultural landscape within a generation or two. From the data that the archaeologists have collected this seems to have occurred with the expansion of agricultural society in Central Europe as well, as the Linear Pottery Culture and its descendants proceeded in fits & starts.

Unfortunately as this is the domain of prehistory we won’t ever know in concrete terms exactly what occurred. In the Der Spiegel piece they report that the agriculturalists had a 500 year pause. Why? If demic diffusion was the primary dynamic through which they expanded there should be no pause. But we can think of a host of scenarios. Perhaps the Middle Eastern cultural toolkit had reached its natural outer boundary, and it was here that the tide turned to the indigenous Paleolithic societies of Europe, which maintained an advantage in the north because of the lack of the adaptability of southerners to new conditions. Humans can be stubbornly conservative in their ways. It is famously asserted that the Norse of Greenland did not adapt to a more inclement regime, and so went extinct (or, possibly evacuated to Iceland). The adoption of potatoes and other productive and useful crops among European peasants was retarded by their instinctive conservatism. We need not imagine a scenario where Paleolithic hunters and gathers would naturally wish to take up the hoe. Nor is it plausible that the agriculturalists would wish to refashion their tried & tested traditions so as to push the outer boundary of their limes.

But all things must change. Something happened, and the agriculturalists shifted the modus vivendi, and the hunter-gatherers gave way. There are detailed historical processes which can give us insight as to how such long-held boundaries could rapidly collapse. Europeans had circumnavigated Africa by 1500, and had had factories and trading posts around the continent’s fringe for over 400 years by the late 19th century. But deep into the 1800s the European presence in Africa was marginal. By 1914 the continent was divided into European zones of control. What happened in the space of a few decades? Quinine and machine guns. The biological barrier to Europeans fell away, and the military superiority was amplified by orders of magnitude. What could have occurred in an analogous fashion in Central Europe? The combination of a mutation for lactase persistence and animal husbandry may have resulted in rapid population growth, leading to densities which precipitated the outbreak of an epidemic. A reduction in population may have had much greater impact on the less numerous and resistant hunter-gatherers. Additionally the economic changes wrought by animal husbandry may have allowed for a scaling up of the organization of war. The Mongol Empire exploded onto the scene in mere decades to sweep across most of Eurasia. Why couldn’t something similar plausibly have occurred in Central Europe on a much smaller scale 7,000 years ago?

Ultimately we’ll never know the details. But in constructing our plausible scenarios for prehistory I suspect that we moderns have a bias toward viewing pre-literate societies as usually small-scale, at best simple chiefdoms. I believe this is a false model, and that there was a non-trivial level of scalability possible among pre-literate societies. Going back to the Mongol example, I see no reason why the initial existence of their polity necessitated literacy, though it may have been essential for its administration and perpetuation. Cultural forms likely marched with confederacies and were driven forward by warlords. This would easily explain the punctuated pattern of the spread of agriculture, as the rise and fall of states has a somewhat spasmodic and periodic character.

Finally, I want to emphasize that the Der Spiegel piece verges on a maximalist position which I am not comfortable with. There is much we don’t know, and I am in no hurry to replace one tired and dogmatic orthodoxy with another. Because the article was translated from German into English I can understand that that is responsible for the artlessness of some of the assertions. But phrases such as “There was no interbreeding between the intruders and the original population” from a German magazine really makes me think they’re suggesting that there were Stone Age Nuremberg Laws. Ethnic separation and differentiation was a reality among many ancient peoples, but so was intermarriage and assimilation. I am aware of the starkness of some of the DNA analyses, which suggest disjoint frequencies across the two populations, but the results are far too spotty at this point to make definitive assertions.

Note: The accompanying map is worth perusing.

(referral credit, Steve Sailer)

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"