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 just 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.

pama nyungan

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.


“The Aryans”

2995-2721 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 Logarithmic History 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. (Hereand 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. If you want to delve deeply into the latest DNA news, on Indo-European origins and related topics, here’s a blog for you.)

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. As a result, Islamic states didn’t have to put as much effort into road building as earlier states, and the narrow streets of Islamic cities were made for camels, not carts, to traverse. 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.

Write and wrongs

Here’s one account of the origin of the first system of writing in Mesopotamia:

The immediate precursor of cuneiform writing was a system of tokens. These small clay objects of many shapes – cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. – served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting about 8000 B.C. … The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership, and coming to a climax with state formation. Also, corresponding to the increase of bureaucracy, methods of storing tokens in archives were devised. One of these storage methods employed … simple hollow clay balls in which the tokens were placed and sealed. … Accountants eventually [turned to] imprinting the shapes of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes [balls] prior to enclosing them. An envelope containing seven ovoids, for example, bore seven oval markings. The substitution of signs for tokens was a first step toward writing. Fourth millennium accountants soon realized that the tokens within the envelopes were made unnecessary by the presence of markings on the outer surface. As a result tablets … replaced the hollow envelopes filled with tokens.

Schmandt-Besserac How Writing Came about

(Hat tip to commenter Eric for the reference.)

Examples of tokens and corresponding pictographs below:

tokens : writing

And here is Claude Lévi-Strauss (Tristes Tropiques) on the original function of writing:

Writing is a strange invention. One might suppose that its emergence could not fail to bring about profound changes in the conditions of human existence, and that these transformations must of necessity be of an intellectual nature. The possession of writing vastly increases man’s ability to preserve knowledge. It can be thought of as an artificial memory, the development of which ought to lead to a clearer awareness of the past, and hence to a greater ability to organize both present and future. After eliminating all other criteria which have been put forward to distinguish between barbarism and civilization, it is tempting to retain this one at least: there are peoples with, or without, writing; the former are able to store up their past achievements and to move with ever-increasing rapidity towards the goals they have set themselves, whereas the latter, being incapable of remembering the past beyond the narrow margin of individual memory, seem bound to remain imprisoned in a fluctuating history which will always lack both a beginning and any lasting awareness of an aim.

Yet nothing we know about writing and the part it has played in man’s evolution justifies this view. … If we ask ourselves what great innovation writing was linked to, there is little we can suggest on a technical level apart from architecture. … To establish a correlation between the emergence of writing and certain characteristic features of civilization, we must look in quite a different direction. The only phenomenon with writing has always been concomitant is … the integration of large numbers of individuals into a political system and their grading into castes or classes. … At the time when writing first emerged, it seems to have favored the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment. This exploitation, which made it possible to assemble thousands of workers and force them to carry out exhausting tasks, is a … likely explanation of the birth of architecture. My hypothesis, if correct, would oblige us to recognize the fact that the primary function of writing is to facilitate slavery.

(To follow up on the preceding post about empires before history: Lévi-Strauss acknowledges that there have been empires without writing, but argues that the lack of writing kept them from enduring long.)


Uruk and the empires before history

3592-3286 BCE

The story of the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia used to go like this. As people settled the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, from the late fifth millennium BCE on they organized themselves around temples that controlled irrigation and distributed rations. From the late fourth millennium, when the written historical record begins, temples were consolidated into city states that warred with one another, until eventually they were united by Sargon of Akkad (in northern Mesopotamia), who founded the first empire in the region around 2300.

But lately it’s been looking like there might have been a whole cycle of empire formation before the invention of writing. The archeological evidence shows that one city, Uruk (home of the legendary Gilgamesh, and probably the same as the Biblical Erech) in southern Mesopotamia had grown to dwarf others in the region by the mid fourth millennium. We find Uruk artifacts over a wide area, from western Iran to northern Syria and southeast Anatolia. These might reflect trade, and probably also settlement, with the establishment of Uruk trading colonies. But at one site at least, something else was going on. Homoukar, in northern Syria, is the site of a city contemporaneous with early Uruk. In 3500 the city was destroyed by hostile forces armed with slings and clay bullets. (The attackers also wiped out what looks like an Uruk trading settlement at Hamoukar, who maybe picked the wrong side to fight on.) The evidence points to Hamoukar having been subsequently occupied by forces from Uruk. We don’t know what kind of administrative control Uruk established, if any, but this does look like long-distance imperialism. Hamoukar is more than 400 miles north of Uruk.

The advent of writing (coming up tomorrow on Logarithmic History) marks a watershed in our knowledge of the past, but we might get a distorted view of social evolution if we assume that the only empires are the ones we know about because people wrote about them. Here are other possible Empires-Before-History, supported by varying levels of evidence or speculation, that we may consider as we continue:

Horse clans

3917-3593 BCE

The Botai culture (3700 – 3100 BCE), in present-day Kazakhstan, represents an uncommon mode of subsistence: equestrian hunting. The fact that the Botai folk have domesticated horses makes them different from most hunters and gatherers, while the fact that they depend heavily on hunting makes them different from later herders in the region.

The most famous equestrian hunters are the American Plains Indians of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. These were a varied assortment of tribes, with origins among more settled Indian groups, who took up riding after Spaniards reintroduced the horse (which had gone extinct in North America, along with other megafauna, twelve thousand years earlier). Plains Indians depended on hunting bison for most of their diet. The Botai folk were not hunting bison of course, but wild horses. Horses supplied the overwhelming part of their diet; 90% of animal bones in their settlements come from horses. There was an argument for a while about whether the Botai folk really had domesticated horses. However, this has been settled by the discovery of pottery containing residues of mare’s milk; obviously no one is arguing that they were milking wild horses. So unlike American Indians, Botai folk milked their horses.  It is also likely that they were riding horses and using them for traction. There is evidence for bit wear on the teeth of some of their horses, and it’s hard to see how they could have gotten whole wild horse carcasses back home (as they did) without having tame horses to pull the carcasses, probably on sledges.

The fact that the Botai folk had horse milk in their diet, along with lots of horse meat, is interesting. Horse milk is sweet (6.3% lactose vs. 1.3% fat, close to human milk), sweeter than cow’s milk (4.6% lactose vs. 3.4% fat). Any Botai individual who carried the lactase persistence allele, which allows carriers to digest lactose (milk sugar) past infancy and into adulthood, would presumably have had a strong fitness advantage. The ability to digest lactose might have been particularly important for kids making the transition from mother’s milk to horse meat. However, it took a long time – millennia – for the lactase gene to get really frequent.

Horses and horse riding and horse traction play an enormous role in Eurasian history. They are probably a major factor in the expansion of speakers of Indo-European languages. The Botai folk were almost certainly not the original Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers – the PIE vocabulary doesn’t fit – but they or people like them might have played some role in Indo-European origins, even if their language didn’t prevail.

In the beginning…

… specifically 4004 BCE, God created the heavens and the earth. At least that’s the conclusion of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, in 1650. Ussher’s method – counting backward from the genealogies of Biblical characters – was quite precise. Others using the same method got very similar dates. Newton, for example, calculated 4000 BCE for Genesis 1:1. Kepler came up with 3992 BCE. And according to the current Jewish calendar, Anno Mundi (AM) 1 falls on 3761 BCE, 6 October, at sunset. However precision is not the same as accuracy. Ussher’s figure missed the correct date for the Big Bang by a factor of 2.4 million.

Traditional Indian thinkers got closer. According to the Law of Manu, different orders of beings have different natural time scales. For humans, the natural scale is given by the alternation between day and night. For the ancestors, one ancestral day-and-night equals one human month. For the gods, one divine day-and-night equals one human year. For Brahma, one Brahmanical day-and-night is a pair of kalpas, where a kalpa equals 1000 Great Ages (mahayugas) of the gods. A Great Age of the gods equals 12,000 divine years, which also equals four human Ages (of different lengths). A divine year equals 360 human years. So a kalpa comes to 4.32 billion (human) years,* very close to the true age of the Earth. A pair of kalpas misses the date for the Big Bang by a factor of just 1.6.

Further calculations show that a Great Age lasts 4.32 million years. We’re now most of the way through the present Great Age. At the beginning of a Great Age, Righteousness and Truth walk on four legs, but they have progressively fewer legs to stand on as the Great Age rolls along and everything goes to pot. So maybe the message is that the whole bipedalism thing hasn’t been such a great idea; we’ve got another 426,884 years (by one reckoning) of things going downhill until the next Great Age begins, and we return to quadrupedal righteousness.

Nonetheless, in honor of Ussher, from here on dates will be given as BCE / CE, rather than “years ago.”

* Or 30.24 billion dog years.