1628 BCE, and later. There are two great stories in the Western tradition that stand somewhere between legend and history: The Flight from Egypt and the Trojan War. Both have been scholarly battlegrounds, dismissed as pure invention by some, accepted as at least partly historical by others. In the case of the exodus story, a great many archeologists nowadays are strong skeptics. Here I’ll summarize what I think is the best argument for the other side.

Barbara Sivertsen, in her book The Parting of the Sea, argues that the exodus story combines oral traditions arising from two different flights from Egypt. First, she suggests that some of the story reflects events around the time of a huge volcanic explosion, the largest in the last five thousand years, which destroyed most of the island of Thera (= Santorini) in 1628 BCE. Most of the Biblical plagues fit what would have been expected in northern Egypt at the time. A tsunami reaching the Nile delta would have contaminated water, and caused fish to die off. Frogs would have been driven from the water. Caustic ash would have stung human skin (in later recountings, “stinging like gnats” was remembered as “stinging gnats”). Insects affected by ash would have sought shelter in people’s houses. Livestock outdoors would have died from breathing ash, and humans and livestock would have developed blisters. Eventually dust in the atmosphere would have precipitated hailstorms. The arrival of the heaviest part of the dust cloud would have shrouded the land in darkness. (Locusts, however, don’t fit the volcano story, and may be an embellishment or a coincidental plague.) All these developments would have precipitated a panicked flight from Egypt on the part of Israelites, led by Moses. According to the archeological evidence, the Wadi Tumilat, an oasis/caravanserai east of the Nile commonly identified as the Biblical Land of Goshen, is abandoned at this time and left uninhabited for centuries.

Other authors have suggested that the Thera eruption had some role in the exodus, but Sivertsen thinks there was also a later flight. In the mid-1400s, Egypt had a significant population of prisoners of war employed as slaves at Tell el-Da’ba, a naval base on the Mediterranean. In Sivertsen’s account, a wave of deaths of Egyptian children led Pharaoh Tuthmose III, frightened of the Israelite god, to expel a group of Israelite slaves. The pharaoh changed his mind, however, and sent an army in pursuit of the slaves along the northern shore of the Sinai. We know that in the mid-1400s, another volcanic eruption, on the Aegean island of Yalli, sent a tsunami around the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. This tsumani caught up with the Egyptian army, but missed Israelites camped further inland. The event was spectacular enough to be melded with the earlier exodus story.

A major reason for skepticism about the exodus story is that it has been very hard to find evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan in the fourteenth or thirteenth century BCE, which is when many accounts place the exodus. But if we follow Sivertsen in putting the first exodus much earlier, and allow that the “forty years” in the wilderness was really eighty years, then there is plenty of evidence for massive invasion and destruction of cities in Canaan in the mid 1500s, at the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Israelites could have been among the invaders of Canaan. Around 1550 BCE, the city of Jericho suffered an earthquake that knocked down some of the city walls. The city then burned to the ground, and was largely abandoned subsequently.

We saw earlier on Logarithmic History that oral history can preserve detailed memories of natural catastrophes for long periods of time. At the same time information about numbers and absolute dates mostly gets lost. It will be interesting to see how Sivertsen’s work holds up in the face of further discoveries.

The Patriarchal Age

The time of the Biblical Patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is sometimes called the Patriarchal Age. If there is a kernel of truth to the Biblical stories, the Patriarchal Age probably goes back to the early third millennium. But the concept applies more broadly. A recent title says it: “A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.” This figure shows it.
The left panel shows effective population sizes based on Y chromosome DNA, transmitted down the male line. The right panel shows effective population sizes based mitochondrial DNA, transmitted down the female line. The dramatic dip on the left panel, where effective population sizes go way down in the last ten thousand years, means that there was a period, from the initial spread of major language families to near the dawn of history, where just a few men were leaving lots of descendants in the male line. This must reflect a time when polygyny – some men taking multiple wives, others not reproducing at all – was common. But this pattern probably reflects more than just polygyny. It probably also reflects a continuing advantage, carried over many generations, for some male lines of descent. In other words, back in the day, not just did Lord Y (or whoever) have many wives and many sons, but his sons, his sons’ sons. his son’s son’s sons, and so on, had many offspring. This probably implies some kind of long-term social memory, such that that the “Sons of Y” or the “House of Y” had a privileged position for many generations.

Australian Aborigines, subjects of our last two posts, often have high frequencies of polygyny, but mostly don’t keep track of genealogies over the long term. Men can tell you what kin terms they apply to other people, but they mostly don’t know their ancestry past a few generations. If I’m an Aborigine, it’s enough to know that my father called some other man “brother,” to know that that I call that man’s children my “siblings.” I don’t have to know the actual genealogy. But many Eurasian societies have been different. People can give you a line of begats stretching back many generations. For example, Kirghiz boys from a young age were expected to be able to tell you their “seven fathers”, i.e. their father, their father’s father, and so on, for seven generations. Having prominent ancestors inthe male line is a form of social capital. Even very large groups may claim descent from ancestors going way back. These stories – the tribes of Israel going back to the sons of Jacob, Greek patrilineages going back to the sons of Hellen (a guy, no relation to Helen of Troy), Indian Brahmins belonging to different ancestral gotras (patrilineal clans) going back to Vedic times – must have been heavily fictionalized. But maybe not completely.

Eurasian history is often told as the story the rise of states and empires. But it’s also the story of the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and the heavy policing of female sexuality to make sure of paternity in the male line). One thing we’ll see in posts to come is how the relationship between State and Clan played out differently in different civilizations.

It’s not just a good idea, it’s the Law

I’m an anthropologist, and I like inflicting kinship on people. Last post was Australian language history; here’s Australian kinship. (If you want even more, the AustKin database and website provide access to kinship terminologies and social category systems from published and archival sources for over 607 Australian Aboriginal languages.)

Claude Lévi-Strauss called Australian Aborigines the “intellectual aristocrats” of the primitive world, having in mind their complex symbolic life and social organization. Australian Aboriginal systems of kinship and marriage are famously recondite. Generations of anthropology teachers have dragged students through these systems, as earlier generations of Latin teachers dragged their pupils through “amo, amas, amat.” Working out all the details can indeed be tricky. The natives themselves have been known to sketch diagrams, and argue about the correct answers.

Here are two general principles that help understand what’s going on. Both principles are found widely, but not universally, in Australia. Outside Australia, the first principle is widespread (but not familiar to most Westerners), the second is rare (but found a few other places, like western Amazonia).

1) Most Aborigines, when they label their kin, and divide them into marriageable and non-marriageable, follow a version of so-called Dravidian rules. (As the name suggests, these are common in southern India, but this isn’t strong evidence for an Australia-India historical connection, because Dravidian rules are found all over the place.) According to the rules, Father’s Brother = Father (i.e. Father’s Brother is called by the same term as Father), but Mother’s Brother gets a different term, which we could translate “uncle”. Mother’s Sister = Mother (i.e. Mother’s Sister is called by the same term as Mother), but Father’s Sister gets a different term, which we could translate “aunt”. With perfect consistency, these equations are carried over to their children. Father’s Brother’s Child = Father’s Child = Sibling, and Mother’s Sister’s Child = Mother’s Child = Sibling. (There may be further distinctions, like breaking down Sibling into Brother and Sister, but I ignore these here.) On the other hand, Mother’s Brother’s Child and Father’s Sister’s Child are not equated with siblings. Very commonly, these principles are used to determine who can marry whom. Parallel cousins (those classified as Sibling, related through parents who are same-sex siblings) are covered by the incest taboo, and off limits for marriage. Cross cousins (those not classified as Sibling, related through parents who are opposite-sex siblings) aren’t covered by the taboo, and may be preferred spouses.

2) Aborigines do something unusual with Dravidian rules in the children’s generation. Fathers and mothers generally classify their children differently. There are usually one or more terms covering Man’s Child and one or more different terms covering Woman’s Child. So a woman and her husband use different kin terms for their kids. We could call these kin types “fatherling” (the children to whom one is father) and “motherling” (the children to whom was is mother.) These terms are commonly extended to other kin. Ask a man who his fatherlings are and he will name his own children, then his brothers’ children (after all, they call him father). Ask a woman who her motherlings are and she will label her own children, then her sisters’ children (after all, they call her mother). But … this is the tricky bit … Ask a man who his motherlings are, and he will name his sister’s children (the children to whom he is Mother’s Brother). Ask a woman who her fatherlings are, and she will name her brother’s children (the children to whom she is Father’s Sister).

This means that the classification of kin in the children’s generation is a mirror image of classification in the parents’ generation. And at some point some clever Aborigine noticed that under this system all relatives fall into just four super-classes – anthropologists call them sections – and everyone can agree on where to draw the boundaries between them. (This is not the case in more standard Dravidian systems, which, like most Western systems, don’t distinguish Man’s Child from Woman’s Child.) So you can go ahead and assign names to these sections, give them totemic animals, and so on. For any individual there will be

a) his or her own section (which also includes Siblings, and some grandkin: Fathers’ Fathers, Mothers’ Mothers, Fatherlings’ Fatherlings, and Motherlings’ Motherlings),

b) a section for his/her Fathers (and Fathers’ Sisters, and Fatherlings), a

c) a section for his/her Mothers (and Mothers’ Brothers, and Motherlings), and

d) a section for his/her potential Spouses (and Siblings-in-law, and some grandkin: Fathers’ Mothers, Mothers’ Fathers, Fatherlings’ Motherlings, and Motherlings’ Fatherlings)

There’s a lot of variation on basic themes across Australia (e.g. systems with eight subsections). It’s likely the labels came first, and the division into recognized sections came later. Not everybody does sections. And some groups have adopted the section system even thought they don’t have the corresponding terms.

If you just skimmed through the part above (that’s OK, it’s not on the exam) here’s an analogy. We (at least most readers of this blog) aren’t used to sorting out kin the way Aborigines do, but we’re used to the idea of voting for candidates supported by different political parties. And we’re also used to the idea that different voting rules have different consequences: a first-past-the-post rule favors a two party system; proportional representation favors many parties. To anyone not used to voting at all, this might seem very confusing, but it’s the stuff of politics in democratic societies. By the same token, odd quirks in the way people categorize kin can have important consequences. Human beings, even in technologically simple societies, are not just adapting to their natural environment, but also navigating a universe of social rules – what Aborigines call “the Law”.

Small tools, and dingoes, and Oz

Australia can seem like the Land That Time Forgot. Australian marsupials were largely isolated from competition with placental mammals from other continents. (Although humans seem to have done in a lot of the megafauna when they arrived.) And many discussions of human prehistory assume that outside contact had little effect on Australia from the time of first settlement, before forty thousand years ago, and the English settlement of 1788. Populations rose and fell with changes in climate and home-grown innovations in technology.

But there have always been hints that the story was more complicated. Some of the evidence comes from language distributions. The distribution of Australian languages is extremely lopsided. There are a lot of language families in and around the northern peninsula of Arnhemland. Then just one family, Pama-Nyungan, (distantly related to some or all of the others) covers about 80% of the continent.

This sort of distribution is seen with other language families, where it looks like the signature of population spreads. For example, three of four major branches of the Austronesian language family are found only on Taiwan. The fourth branch, Malayo-Polynesian, spans the world from Madagascar, to island Southeast Asia, to Easter Island. The explanation, supported by many lines of evidence, and almost universally accepted, is that Proto-Austronesian first diverged into separate languages on Taiwan. One bunch of Austronesian speakers then sailed to the Philippines, and thence to farther isles, their languages diverging along the way … and the rest is history (actually prehistory). A similar argument roots the Bantu expansion in the Nigeria-Cameroon border area.

So it looks like there was a similar expansion in Australia. Language change is hard to date, but it’s very hard to believe the expansion happened forty thousand years ago. There is other evidence suggesting a recent date. Some time before 2000 BCE, a new archeological culture, the Small Tool Tradition, swept over Australia. At the same time, natives began exploiting a far wider range of habitats and food sources than previously. And – strikingly – a new animal makes its appearance – the dingo, which must have been introduced from overseas. All of this makes it look like some outside contact, jump-started a continent-scale cultural expansion with new technology, and maybe new forms of social organization.

Just published work on Australian genetics suggests a complicated picture. Northeastern and southwestern Australia, separated by the interior desert, are also strongly genetically differentiated, reflecting a split probably going back sometime between 32 and 10 thousand years ago, i.e. well after initial colonization, but well before the spread of the Small Tool Tradition. But there is also evidence that the last 10 thousand years saw a population expansion in the northeast, a population bottleneck in the southwest, and some gene flow between the two. A scenario that fits the data would be Pama-Nyungan speakers expanding in northeast, and then some northeasterners migrating to the southwest, spreading their language and culture, but not arriving in such large numbers as to replace local populations.

On the other hand a story about gene flow from India (or an India-like population) that I blogged about last year may not hold up.

We can expect that the picture will grow clearer as more data accumulate.

Think like an Egyptian

houdin2560 BCE. You might think that with the Egyptian pyramids being famous for thousands of years (they’re the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing) there wouldn’t be much new to say about them. But you’d be wrong. The Egyptians wrote down virtually nothing about their architectural methods; they may have worked with some kind of 3-D models – the Bronze Age version of Computer-Aided Design – rather than anything like blueprints. So we haven’t really known much about how the pyramids were built. In particular, it’s been a real puzzle how they moved building blocks to near the top of the pyramid in the later stages of construction. If blocks were moved along a straight ramp up the side of the pyramid, the ramp in the last stages would have had to be a mile long, and contained as much material as the pyramid itself. It also wouldn’t have fit on the Giza plateau. Recently, Jean-Pierre Houdin, a French architect, may have figured out how the problem was solved in the case of the largest pyramid, the Great Pyramid built for King Khufu (Cheops). According to Houdin, the builders used an external ramp for the early stages of construction. But they also built a vaulted internal ramp, spiraling around inside the pyramid, and moved blocks up it for the later stages. (And the builders economized by dismantling the external ramp and using it for construction material.) Houdin revealed his theory in 2005. Both before and since then he has put a huge amount of work into understanding how the Great Pyramid was built. For example, he may also have come up with an explanation for the 150 foot-long, narrow, slanting Grand Gallery in the pyramid: it looks like it was used to run counterweights on a trolley that helped to bring up some of the heaviest stones, the granite blocks used to reinforce the King’s Chamber.

Here’s a short video on the latest.

“The Aryans”

2800 BCE. For more than two centuries scholars have known that most of the languages of Europe, Iran and Northern India, and assorted other places, are sprung from a common source, from an extinct language, never written down, that came to be dubbed Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It’s been a matter of speculation where and when PIE was spoken. Now, just in the last few years, it looks like the major questions about Indo-European origins are being answered. Research on ancient DNA has overturned an earlier view (which seemed viable to many researchers even a few years ago) that there were just two major waves of migration into Europe: hunter-gatherers 40 thousand years ago, and farmers from Anatolia starting 7000 years ago. But it turns out that there was also a later massive wave of immigration, coming from the grasslands north of the Black Sea, about 2800 BCE. This migration replaced much of the population of northern Europe, and contributed substantially to southern Europe as well. (See here and here for blog posts on the possible pre-Indo-European roots of Indo-Europeans.) The migration is a perfect fit for what historical linguists have been saying for a long time. For example, the newcomers brought ox-drawn wagons and wheels with them, matching vocabulary in PIE. (Here and here are some news reports, and here’s one of the best books on the subject, by archeologist David Anthony, written even before the latest DNA evidence came in.)

The intellectual history of the Indo-European question has not just been about pure and objective scholarship; it’s been bound up with the bloody history of the twentieth century.

In 1926, V. Gordon Childe, in his day probably the preeminent prehistoric archeologist in the English-speaking world, wrote a book addressing the topic of Indo-European origins. Synthesizing linguistic and archeological evidence, he named a likely place – the steppes of Ukraine and Southern Russia – and a time – the late Neolithic or Copper age, well after the advent of agriculture, but before the Bronze Age. (The corresponding archeological culture is now called the Yamnaya. However the very earliest split in the IE tree, bringing Hittite ancestors to Anatolia, comes earlier.) He argued that Indo-European speakers had migrated west to conquer big swathes of territory in Europe (Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures), and, later, east and south into Iran and India. In other words, he defended what now looks like the correct theory. This wasn’t just a luck guess. He got it right mostly because he took historical linguistics seriously, as a hard science in its own right.

Childe’s book was entitled “The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins,” and this suggests a problem. Childe acknowledged that the title was a misnomer. Strictly speaking “Aryan” applies only to speakers of Indo-European languages in Iran and India; Childe called PIE speakers “Aryans” simply because it made a better book title. But the title alone was not really the problem. Childe knew that Indo-European prehistory, and the Aryan label, were popular with the nationalist German Right. Childe had no sympathy for German nationalism. He was an Australian who lived most of his life in England. He was also a lifelong socialist and a man of the Left. In fact his book aimed at deflating nationalist claims. He located the Indo-European homeland in Eastern Europe, not Germany or Scandinavia, as some claimed. And he denied that the “Aryans” had any special racial genius. He did think that Indo-European languages (not a racial character) were “exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought” that facilitated later intellectual developments. (This one probably won’t fly. Linguists nowadays mostly don’t think grammar has that much effect on cognition.) And he speculated that “Aryans” might have had an advantage over other folk simply by virtue of being large and well-fed. (This one isn’t totally crazy. Indo-Europeans were apparently big guys, like the Nilotic cattle herders of East Africa to whom they show some interesting convergent cultural similarities.) Nonetheless, the whole subject grew increasingly uncomfortable as the 1920s moved into the 30s. Childe let the book go out of print, and scarcely referred to it in the course of a long productive career.

Beyond killing tens of millions of people, Nazism also had a long lasting deforming effect on intellectual life. For most of the later twentieth century Anglo-American archeologists went out of their way to avoid topics like migration, barbarian invasions, and population replacements. These were, in today’s jargon, problematic. For example, it was clear that something dramatic happened over a huge stretch of Europe, from Poland to the Netherlands, in the early third millennium BCE: settled life gave way to nomadism, farming to cattle raising. But this was written off as a technological shift, the Secondary Products Revolution. (To be fair, there were some exceptions among archeologists, like David Anthony and Marija Gimbutas, and many exceptions among linguists. Jared Diamond also got it right.) In some ways, then, we’re just beginning to recover, intellectually, from the Second World War.

Little deuce coupe, a prehistory


Wheels probably started being used by copper miners in southeastern Europe, in the Carpathians, in the 4th millennium BC. The early wheels were wheelsets, with the wheel fixed solidly to an axle, and the axle rotating. For miners, any alternative to carrying loads of ore on their backs must have been welcome. Miners can smooth a path for their carts, so the problem of moving wheels on uneven terrain is reduced.

Several centuries later, somewhere between the Carpathians and the steppe country north of the Black Sea, another kind of wheel was developed, with the wheel rotating freely around a fixed axle. The new wheel was perfectly suited to a new way of life that developed on the steppes, where nomads followed herds of livestock. Horses might have been the flashiest part of the new lifestyle, but oxcarts, carrying family belongings from one grazing site to another, may have been just as important.

Judging by their reconstructed vocabulary, speakers of Proto-Indo-European – the ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and Northern India – were among those adopting the new technology.


(Actually, looking at the reconstructions, it looks like the adoption of the wheel may have come after Proto-Anatolian – ancestor to Hittite – had branched off from other Indo-European languages.)

Some cultures got into wheels more than others. Sub-Saharan African societies, even including cattle nomads, never adopted the wheel. In the Middle East, wheeled vehicles gave way pack camels sometime between Roman times and the Islamic period. Wheeled transportation was limited in Japan. And in the New World, wheels are known only from children’s toys.


Things were different in Europe and its cultural offshoots, where wheeled vehicles have exercised a hold on the imagination – especially the male imagination – right up to the present. This is from Richard Bulliet’s recent book, The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions (p. 33):

Not only is the world racing fraternity composed almost entirely of men, but it has historically recruited very few drivers from East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. …[T]he five-thousand-year history of wheels in Indo-European societies – specifically in Europe, including its former colonies, and North America – testifies to an affinity between vehicle driving and male identity in cultures that descend from the Proto-Indo-European linguistic tradition. Since the earliest days of wagon nomads and chariots, through the carriage revolution of the sixteenth century, and down to the automobile era, men brought up in European (and Euro-American) societies have repeatedly linked their manhood to their vehicles.