Of Genes, Battle Axes, and How Cultures Spread

Of Genes, Battle Axes, and How Cultures Spread April 23, 2021

I have a long standing interest in archaeology, dating back to the late 1960s. I am happy to report that I have now lived long enough to live through a revolution in thinking of which I disapproved thoroughly, and to have come out the other side, being proved right. Smugness apart, the matters at hand have implications for a great many fields of historical research, certainly including the ancient Near East.

Let me spell out some terms and issues in a very simple way. A century or more ago, when archaeologists were describing changes in culture in particular areas, they freely imagined waves of new populations, usually armed invaders, who carried culture with them from advanced centers of civilization out to the distant boonies. If that looked very much like the self image that Europeans had of themselves during the great age of empire, that was no coincidence. These ideas of culture spread emphasized diffusion, and hence we speak of diffusionism.

In the 1960s, a reaction grew against this, which emphasized continuity of populations. When cultures and patterns of life changed, that was because new ways and habits changed through peaceful transmission and benevolent social contact. Ideas and objects moved, but people largely didn’t. This isolationism was a massive over-reaction to older views, and it created some absurdities. Even when literary evidence flagrantly portrayed invasion, as in the case of the destruction of Roman Britain by barbarian invasion, you still somehow had to emphasize peaceful contact, and culture transmission. (Um, maybe all those Celtic Britons suddenly started speaking Germanic languages because all the cool kids were doing it, so they all had to do it too). This view had its own political agenda, in rejecting any violent or conquering images of new invaders, which might have ugly implications for contemporary debates over immigration. Isolationism held the field for some decades.

I spent years protesting against the isolationist shift, and said that yes, however unpopular the idea was, diffusionism really did happen. You can imagine how I feel when I read two recent books on the science of archaeogenetics, which are essential for anyone interested in ancient history (among other topics). These are David Reich, Who We Are and How We Got Here Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (2018) and Johannes Krause and Thomas Trappe, A Short History of Humanity: A New History of Old Europe (2021). Reich’s book is much more ambitious in scope and has a global range while the other focuses on Europe, but their lessons are very similar. Both make nonsense of isolationist arguments, and both stress the significance of massive population shifts as the explanation for the sudden arrivals of cultural patterns, and languages.

Both books are very broad, as I say, but let me take one example. In European history, Krause and Trappe say that, basically, there were two demographic revolutions that made European population, and everything else was a footnote. These two revolutions constituted most of the European populations that existed in later eras (there was also an older hunter-gatherer element). One revolution occurred 8,000 years when agriculture spread across Europe from Anatolia. It did not happen because people acquired the technology from neighbors, but because Anatolians brought it and settled, and made up a very large share of the resulting population. It all resulted from diffusion, and a population shift. Ideas did not move – people did.

But the real surprise was another revolutionary shift around 2,800 BC. In the old radical diffusionist view, the spread of new cultures across Europe was the work of hairy barbarians on horses, clutching battle axes (the barbarians, I mean, not the horses). According to taste, these were the mighty Aryans who brought in the appropriate languages. The Nazis loved this stuff, and subsequent generations struggled to resist it as a crude mythology. So what do the genetics say? Krause and Trappe are very modern and liberal people, and they don’t want to be misunderstood, but what they show beyond question is that around 2,800 BC, new populations swept across Europe, and these groups were marked by, um, horses and riding cultures and, um, ahem, by the use of battleaxes. (Their hairiness can be assumed).

If I am treating this finding with some humor, then the consequences of this event were horrible beyond belief. These new arrivals caused a massive replacement of older populations – in Britain, they displaced 90 percent of the older stock, and elsewhere, by 50 or 60 percent. They could make up so large a share of Europe’s population because so many of the older residents were dead. It is a horrific picture, and it also demands explanation. How on earth could even the world’s nastiest barbarians inflict a genocide on that scale? The answer of course is “by accident.” Not only did they import those horses and axes, but they also brought in plague germs, to which they evidently had greater immunity than did the inhabitants of Old Europe. It would have been a first draft of the Black Death, possibly worse on a local scale. In fact, if you are looking for an analogy, think of the incredible mass deaths of Native Americans when they encountered much later generations of Europeans, with all their germs. If you are of European stock, then you are certainly descended from those incoming barbarians of 2,800 BC, those unintentional genocides. It is a stunning case study of the role of disease in reshaping human history. And again, it was not the cultures that spread, it was the people bearing them.

Europe since that catastrophe was made up of descendants of three groups – the hunter gatherers, the Anatolian farmers, and the people riding in from the steppes.

We’ll take decades to absorb the implications of the new archaeogenetics represented by such works, but one lesson does stand out. However dubious their politics, the diffusionists had a lot of the truth on their side. In some instances, maybe they understated their case.  Welcome to the revolution.

Next step – so what can we learn about the Biblical narratives of ancient Israel?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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