Genes and Peoples

Western European archaeology is largely a humanistic tradition where many scholars have little knowledge of the natural sciences. For instance, I myself haven’t studied natural sciences in any organised way since high school. Still, in my field, I’m known as an unusually science-orientated guy. (Just look at me now, merrily blogging away at Sb.) I believe that human societies are to a fairly large extent shaped by human nature, which has long been controversial in anthro circles. I also favour stringent methods of data collection and analysis: archaeology should study and interpret its object in basically the same way as a palaeontologist does, not in the way a lit-crit scholar studies and interprets a body of fiction. Because the archaeological record ain’t fiction.

Being seen as such a hard-nosed science type at home, I’m amused to find that I often come across as this fuzzy humanities person here on Sb. Most recently, I’ve disagreed with Razib’s interpretation of some interesting genetic studies over at Gene Expression.

My objections to Razib’s thinking start already with his entry’s headline: “From where came the Slavs?“. BEEP goes my humanistic b-s detector. What is a Slav? Is that a well-defined and relevant category? As it turns out, Razib has stepped squarely into a trap where many other smart people have also gotten stuck through the ages. Razib believes that Slavs are people who speak Slavic languages and/or share certain genetic traits and/or share certain traits of material culture. His Slavs all belong together somehow, wherever they are and at whatever point in time. This model is called ethnic essentialism and has been abandoned in archaeology and social anthropology long ago.

My point is that ethnicity does not map 1:1 with either language, genetic ancestry, religion nor political organisation. It is possible for a bunch of people to be genetically and linguistically close, and still not be a single ethnic or political unit. This means that even if you can establish genetic and linguistic grouping, you may not have caught the grouping that was seen as most important by the people themselves.

Take, for instance, today’s Croatians and Serbs. They are, in Razib’s terminology, all Slavs. But they sure wouldn’t be happy if you told them they’re basically the same guys. Take, on the other hand, today’s speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese in China. They’re entirely distinct, yet cultivate the millennia-old Imperial fiction that they are the same guys.

Evidence was recently published (and discussed on Gene Expression) that suggests the ancient Etruscans may have had genetic origins in Asia Minor. Yet the Etruscans’ ideas about where they came from and who they were related to may not have been very similar to the actual origins documented in that study. Only Herodotus says so, and his writings on foreign people are not a good historical source in the technical sense. I’m fine with the Etruscans having a significant Lydian element in their ancestry. I just don’t find it very interesting that this confirms statements in a poor historical source. My job isn’t to evaluate proto-historic written sources.

But Razib, in my opinion, takes his reasoning one further step in the wrong direction: he discusses his Slavs in evolutionary terms.

“… assume that they had a better cultural toolkit for the far north. people can often be quite conservative so i would imagine that gave the slavic cultures a leg enough so that they could absorb a bunch of finns before the finns changed their practices enough so that they were at competitive parity in terms of exploitation of resources” [link]

Razib apparently believes not only that a Slav is a Slav is a Slav, but that the expansions and regressions of Slavic territory across the map have been directed by the adaptive fitness of “Slavic culture”. This model was abandoned by archaeologists and ethnographers in the 1940s.

When Razib looks at a distribution map of “Slavic culture” in, say, AD 1000, I imagine that he interprets the blob on the map as if it represented a biological species. “This is the distribution of the lynx / Slav. There is some variation in this population, but for most purposes all lynxes / Slavs are alike. One end of the blob represents the same thing as the other end. The shared characteristics of the blob’s members determine the blob’s evolutionary fate.” (Those are all my words put into Razib’s mouth.)

Archaeological cultures and linguistic areas are not like biological species. One end of a culture blob often hates the guts of the other end, insisting that although the two have similar languages and pottery styles, they are in fact not related at all. One end will happily join forces with part of an adjoining blob to annihilate the other end of the home blob. As a result, a third blob may be born, consisting of ten sub-blobs that fight constantly among themselves while exchanging wives and porphyry axe-preforms with the two parent blobs.

Most anthropologists these days reckon that there are several parameters in a person’s identity that can and often do vary independently of each other, and which can vary over the course of that person’s life, even situationally on a scale of days. Some of the most important ones are:

  • Ethnic self-identification: “I am a Swede”
  • Linguistic group: “I speak Swedish”
  • Genetic/phenetic type, i.e. “race”: “I am blue-eyed and pale-skinned”
  • Religion: “I was brought up a Protestant”
  • Material culture group: “I wear denim jeans and an Elvis T-shirt”
  • Political allegiance: “I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Sweden”

Razib and I both agree that genetic studies of modern and archaeological human populations can tell us a lot of interesting things. It seems to me, however, that they are not able to tell us quite what Razib thinks they can. Because a person’s self-reported identity cannot be read off anything material or genetic. And any group that appears tightly knit in material, linguistic and genetic terms may in fact consist of several groups that don’t want anything to do with each other.

But discussion may be futile. Says Razib, “i don’t really care what archeologists think about things non-artifactual”.

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Geophysics Locate Royal Halls at Borre


I had a meeting with my geophysicist buddy Immo Trinks of the National heritage Board the other day, and he showed me an amazing Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey from Borre in Vestfold, Norway.

i-a804c839d34c1ee014043c0e70e41a57-R606.jpgBorre is Norway’s equivalent of Old Uppsala, with a large cemetery with huge barrows. One was obliterated by road workers in 1852, yielding a fairly well-preserved Viking Period ship burial of the Oseberg / Gokstad / Tune type, which sadly does not survive. Some copper-alloy metalwork from the grave gave the Borre Style its name, defined by knotwork with nicked ridges and Mickey Mouse heads.

The royal manor site that must accompany the graves at Borre has not been identified despite many decades’ attempts. Not until Immo came along, that is. Terje Gansum is head of the visitor centre at Borre, and he had a hunch that some barely visible earthworks on the edge of the mound cemetery might be a ploughed-out building terrace. Bjørn Myhre had cut a long narrow search trench across the spot in 1991, identifying a few post holes and radiocarbon-dating one to about AD 700. But his trench hadn’t been wide enough for him to be able to identify what kind of structure the post holes belonged to. The GPR solved that problem: the ground-plans of two large large hall buildings appeared! The animated plan loops a number of horizontal slices through the ground at successively greater depth: even the stones in the bottoms of the post holes are visible. The star-shaped black things in the eastern area are the roots of trees that spread wider in deeper slices.


Immo is also directing a magnetometry survey at my site in Kaga parish, Östergötland. GPR would probably give me more useful (that is, more easily interpreted) data, but unfortunately that method is much slower and thus more expensive than motorised magnetometry. Basically, to identify a house plan like those at Borre with magnometry, we would have to find a house whose postholes were full of burnt material such as pottery or daub. But magnetometry is good for hearths and rubbish pits, and sometimes waste scatters that show up in magnetometry can preserve the outline of a building. Thus, such a survey can help me place my excavation trench (and use my fieldwork time & money) more fruitfully.

Update 16 January: Added Immo on 10 January:

Actually, the sample frequency of a georadar system is much higher than that of a magnetometer.

Georadar is more expensive than magnetometry for the following reasons:

  • Georadar data is recorded by measuring many parallel, closely spaced vertical radar sections, resulting in a 3D data volume and several hundreds of samples in depth per measured surface point.
  • Magnetometer data is one sample per measured surface point.

Therefore processing, analysis and the archaeological interpretation of georadar data are considerably more time consuming than magnetic data analysis.

While it is common to run several magnetometers in parallel at the same time (e.g. four probes with 50 cm horizontal spacing), only few multichannel georadar systems exist today for similar system configurations. In recent years three interesting, approximately 2 m wide antenna arrays have been developed by some of the main georadar system manufacturers. These systems are pulled or pushed by motorized vehicles while data positioning is implemented using highly accurate Real Time Kinematic GPS (+/-2 cm positioning accuracy) or robotic total stations. Such multi-channel systems will certainly in the not too far future become the tool of choice for large-scale archaeological prospection, despite their rather hefty price tag. We plan to test some of these systems on archaeological sites with known structures in the coming year.

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Tangled Bank 96 – Toadally


Hey everyone, and welcome to the 96th Tangled Bank blog carnival! This is where you can toadally catch up with the best recent blog writing on the life sciences.



  • Charles at Science and Reason discusses FoxO transcription factors that affect genes related to cell growth, proliferation, differentiation, longevity, and embryonic development.
  • The Bad Idea Blog reports on new findings about the early evolution of the RNA-protein complex.
  • Ian at Mystery Rays from Outer Space tells us that clams have herpes. But do they have crabs?



General Science-Related

The 97th Tangled Bank will come on-line at The Inoculated Mind on 23 January. Don’t forget to submit good stuff — your own or others’.

Stockholm Blogmeet 8 January

Felicia, Tor, Jesper, Johan, Thinker, Paddy, Kai, Lars, Martin R, Martin C. Photographs by friendly man at nearby table, shoppery by Lars.

Our latest Stockholm after-work blogmeet was way back in September. It was high time for another one! Good food, good company, silly jokes. And Paddy K hatched a plan: we’re setting up a one-off Geek Fashion Blog Carnival!

Chinese Archaeology Loses Proto-Historical Innocence


Turquoise mosaic dragon and bronze bell in rich male burial at Erlitou, phase II, c. 18th century BC.

A really good historical source is coeval with the events it describes, or it may even form a part of those events, such as in the case of a land deed. It is written by a knowledgeable participant in the events, one who is not strongly politically biased or whose bias is at least known. And any statement in a good historical source is ideally corroborated by other independent good historical sources.

Now, in no part of the world is there any historical source older than the first proto-cuneiform inscriptions in Mesopotamia about 3300 BC. In most areas, the oldest sources are many thousands of years younger. But before the historical period in each area, there is usually a proto-historical era: one for which there are only few and bad sources, often quite extremely bad ones. Typically, proto-historical sources are written centuries after the fact by political propagandists, and there exists no corroborating historical evidence.

Proto-history offers a powerful lure to all students of the past: oh, how we all wish that we could somehow dig good historical knowledge out of those crap sources! Less than a century ago, certain Scandinavian scholars were still looking for the battlefield of Brávellir and trying to pair up the kings of the “Ynglingatal” with great grave barrows at Old Uppsala and elsewhere. All futile, a chasing after the wind. Those texts must be treated like fairytales, because they most likely are and there is no way of finding out if they aren’t.

Everywhere on earth, the proto-historical sources that appear to stretch the farthest inte the past are usually genealogies, often royal ones. “Lo, King Freddie reigned for 253 years and begat King Ronnie who smote the Fellatians and reigned for 346 years and begat King Reginald who reigned for 123 years and begat King Humpty” etc. At the head of the list is usually a god who acts as mythical ancestor of whoever is king at the time when the genealogy is compiled.

For a blatant example, some Anglo-Saxon king lists are headed by Odin and Julius Caesar. A Sumerian king list from about 2100 BC appears to reach more than 1900 years into the past, but better evidence shows that the kings on the list all lived within a 600-year interval. The compiler of the king list has gathered royal genealogies from several coeval Sumerian city states and stacked them on top of each other to get a really long list.

As historical scholarship has improved, one area after another on Earth has lost its proto-historical innocence and relegated the king lists to a position as sources on the royal propaganda of far later ages than they purport to treat. But this process isn’t complete yet. A good paper by Liu Li & Xu Hong in the current issue of Antiquity (available behind a pay wall) shows that China is finally beginning the necessary reevalutation. This is a painful process, as the current Chinese elite quite likes the idea of unbroken historical continuity way back into the Bronze Age. But it is encouraging to see that although Liu is an expat working in Australia, Xu is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. The English of their paper is excellent.

The first historical sources for China are brief inscriptions from the third quarter of the 2nd Millennium BC, found at palatial sites in the Yellow River valley. Some names of kings mentioned in oracle bone inscriptions from about 1300 BC onward are identified in much later historical texts as kings of the late Shang dynasty. The Shang gave way to the Zhou in about 1000 BC. But the royal genealogies used to reconstruct the early dynastic chronology date from after 300 BC, that is, they are at best products of the final decades of the Zhou dynasty.

Shang and early Zhou China are typical proto-historic periods, though many Chinese historians will tell you otherwise. Yet Chinese proto-history reaches even farther back. Before the Shang, say the late sources just mentioned, there was the Xia dynasty, a separate people that was conquered by the Shang around 1600 BC. This means that the archaeologists of the Yellow River Valley have been called upon to identify a noteable discontinuity in the material record of the period around this date. “Show us the Xia/Shang boundary!”, cry nationalistic historians.

Liu & Xu’s paper concentrates upon China’s earliest palatial site at Erlitou. It rose into prominence about 1900 BC from Neolithic village roots and flourished until about 1500 BC or later. This is inconvenient from the point of view of the royal genealogies, because they suggest that there should be a big break around 1600 BC. Liu & Xu demonstrate that no such break is actually to be found at Erlitou, despite many attempts by earlier contributors to the debate to massage the archaeological evidence. And Liu & Xu draw the obvious (yet far from uncontroversial) conclusion: if really bad historical sources are found to clash with the archaeological evidence, then this needn’t worry either archaeologists nor historians. The Xia dynasty — kings, dates and all — is simply a later fiction.

Liu, L. & Xu, H. 2007. Rethinking Erlitou: legend, history and Chinese archaeology. Antiquity 81:314, December 2007. York.

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Canadian Creationists Care About Me

Canadian newspaper The National Post seems to be subscribing to a blog-buzz service that everybody on Sb got onto a while ago. Therefore, I just got an intriguingly worded letter from Canadian creationist David Johnston (appended below the fold for the edification of the interested Dear Reader).

In response to David’s letter, I’ll just say that I have decent basic knowledge of biology and Christian scripture, and that my reading has convinced me that the latter has nothing to contribute to the former.
Continue reading

What Giraffe Taught Me About Skepticism

i-7003db10ceca9707402285a60e34329b-Giraffe_standing.jpgIn my recent blog entry “Skepticism and Informed Consensus“, I pointed out that a real member of the skeptical movement is not universally skeptical (as may seem evident when you first think of it), but follows scientific consensus. The entry has spun off a lot of side effects: a long supportive reply by Orac, loads of comments at both our blogs, a blog entry of mine about the discredited idea that gays are nuts, and the first troll banned from commenting on Aard (not because he was one of several people who disagreed with me, but because he was being obstinately rude to myself and one of his fellow disagreeing commenters).

In the following is a further clarification in response to a comment by Dear Reader Rob Koepp. Quoth Rob:

“You’re correct that creationists and neo-Nazis are not the sort of company I enjoy, but so what? When did the term ‘skeptic’ come to mean ‘someone who travels in the same social circles as I do’?

If creationists are skeptical about evolution, and neo-Nazis are skeptical about the holocaust, well, then they’re skeptics (of a sort). So from their perspective, I suppose members in good standing of your ‘skeptical movement’ aren’t ‘real’ skeptics. This talk of ‘real skeptics’ becomes just a matter of which club one belongs to, and the term has lost it’s connection to concerns about what sort of epistemic warrant attaches to knowledge claims.”

My original blog entry was in fact entirely intended as a statement about which club can call itself the real skeptics. It’s not about epistemology in the abstract, how “society knows things” or how “science progresses” — it’s about how individual amateurs in the skeptical movement should relate to factual claims without ending up with the denialists. Hands-on skepticism.

To explain what I mean, Dear Reader, let me tell you about the event that opened my eyes to the primacy of informed consensus.

I’m a co-editor of Folkvett, the quarterly journal of the Swedish Skeptics Society. It’s sort of a Swedish-language Skeptic Magazine. A few years ago we received a manuscript from a member of our society — I’ll call him Giraffe. The paper he had written was a thoughtful and reasonable-seeming piece of strong global warming skepticism, which was by this time already a highly controversial standpoint. Giraffe was no climatologist. Nor was any of us co-editors.

One or two of my co-editors said, “It’s crap, just tell him we’re not taking it.” But at the time I found this (as have many Aard and Insolence commentators) to be a profoundly unskeptical attitude: basically just argument from authority. So I replied, “Hey, I can’t actually find anything wrong in this guy’s reasoning. Shouldn’t we find out what’s wrong with it before we junk the piece?”.

And then the others explained to me, patiently, in approximately the following terms.

“We’re the Society for Science and Popular Enlightenment, OK? The first paragraph of our statutes says that we’re very strongly pro-science. So when an amateur like Giraffe writes something in a field that us editors don’t know much about, and he challenges the scientific consensus, then we don’t need to understand exactly what’s wrong with his work to know that it’s not for us. All we need to know is that our journal is not a forum for amateurs to challenge informed consensus in.

And why? Because that’s the only really good argument we have for not accepting Holocaust denialism, creationism etc. in our pages. None of us is either a 20th century historian nor a biologist, but we know that knowledgeable historians and biologists call those positions pseudoscience. If Giraffe has somehow made a big breakthrough in climatology (and let’s be fair, none of us is equipped to judge that), then he shouldn’t try to publish his work in an amateur journal put out in a minority language by a 2000-member skeptical society. He should send it to a respected peer-reviewed international academic climatology journal. If it’s accepted and published, then we can look closer at his manuscript.”

I found this convincing, and that’s where my thinking is still at on these matters today, a few years down the line.

(Incidentally, Giraffe soon decided that he did not in fact wish to remain our kind of skeptic: he left the society when we turned his manuscript down. A global warming denialist paper of his from 2002/03 is still on-line at his web site.)

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Rock of Ages

Field archaeology has its perks, one of which is the interaction with the public. Most site visitors are simply full of polite interest. A few tend to be local patriots who wish to reaffirm that their neck of the woods was once enormously important. And then there are those who, well, possess more curiosity than knowledge, shall we say.

A colleague at the Stockholm Town Museum told me a story about this latter group. He was digging in the Old Town once, when a person approached his trench and looked intently at his spoil dumps. After a while this person stooped and picked a small stone out of a dump. “Excuse me”, they asked, “is this stone from the Middle Ages?”.

Replied my colleague, straight-facedly, “As a matter of fact, that stone is actually a bit older even than the Middle Ages”.

Jonathan Lindström Enlightener of the Year

i-35e22911d66ee45cc3f77c238678a591-jonathan_lindstrom.jpgThe Swedish Skeptics Society (VoF) has just announced its annual awards. The Popular Enlightener for 2007 is none other than my friend Jonathan Lindström, the guy with the Neolithic kids’ book! (I abstained from voting, being heavily biased in his favour.)

States the press release, “He receives the award for his pop-sci books where he relays, in words and images and with endless curiosity and stellar pedagogics, the latest advances in astronomy, cosmology, natural history and archaeology. Jonathan Lindström’s books are a pure pop-sci pleasure for all ages to gather around.”

The 2007 Obscurantist of the Year anti-award goes to a group within the Kronoberg landsting medical administration, for its repeated willingness to organise in-house training seminars with pseudoscientific quacks as the speakers.

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