In our genes


With the U.S. more bitterly divided than any time since the Vietnam War, is it better or worse to know that archeologists digging in northern Spain have concluded that the divisive tribalism plaguing us now appears to date back to at least the Stone Age?


While studying isotopes tracking the diets and mobility of 35 people buried there more than 10,000 years ago, the researchers found that people living only a few miles apart “show significant differences in infant- and child-rearing practices, in subsistence strategies, and in landscape use between burial locations.

“From this, we posit that the presence of communities with distinct lifestyles and cultural backgrounds is a primary reason for Late Neolithic variability in burial location in Western Europe and provides evidence of an early ‘them and us’ scenario. We argue that this differentiation could have played a role in the building of lasting structures of socioeconomic inequality and, occasionally, violent conflict.”

And humans have yet to shake free from those latter failings.

The peer-reviewed study led by T. Fernández-Crespo from the School of Archeology at Oxford University was published earlier this week at Science Advances.

The Late Neolithic period began 10,000 to 12,000 years ago and marked the start of the transition from subsistence to farming cultures. It is most notable as the start of the planet’s first  Green Revolution.

“Australian archaeologist V. Gordon Childe coined the term ‘Neolithic Revolution’ in 1935 to describe the radical and important period of change in which humans began cultivating plants, breeding animals for food and forming permanent settlements,” notes “The advent of agriculture separated Neolithic people from their Paleolithic ancestors.”

These prehistoric populations have generally been viewed as regionally similar across large parts of the globe, but what the archeologists found in a small area in the Rioja region of Spain were distinct but overlapping cultures well defined by the different ways in which they treated their dead.

“In Rioja Alavesa, caves were exclusively used as burial sites during the Late Neolithic while the use of megalithic tombs extends both earlier and later by some centuries,” they wrote. “Such a spatiotemporal setting (essential to avoid confounding environmental and diachronic variables) is exceptional in the European record, where few opportunities exist to make a detailed comparison between those buried in megalithic and nonmegalithic graves. Evidence of regular interpersonal conflict makes the region even a better ‘laboratory’ for the study of the entangled socioeconomic, cultural, and, perhaps, ethnic relations grounded in communities performing different burial practices.”

When the scientists looked at the isotopes in the bones of the dead, the fingerprints of their diets revealed two different groups pursuing distinctly different survival strategies in a small area.

The data “suggests that the relationship between both burial locations is neither the result of an individual’s acquired position nor of economic specialization within a single community, making use of both the valley and the mountain zones. Rather, distinct communities using different burial locations appear to have practiced different subsistence strategies and landscape use within a highly restricted region,” the scientists wrote.

They paint a picture of a valley full of farmers with hunter-gatherers roaming the hills around.

Their bones, the scientist says, suggest “that despite some interaction between the groups…a considerable degree of physical separation nevertheless existed between the two. Mobility and individual freedom can be curtailed by territorial tensions. Evidence for restricted landscape use and fixed territoriality may reflect both a preoccupation with protecting economic resources in a context of demographic pressure and territorial circumscription and reduced intergroup interaction due to perceived danger and insecurity.

“While the available data do not support the arrival of new people to the region, the chronological coincidence between evidence of population growth, the advent of the use of caves as burial places, and evidence of recurrent violence suggests a pattern of conflict between culturally distinct groups.”

War the norm?

Though there is a modern tendency to view prehistoric life, especially in North America, as idyllic, there is a growing volume of evidence suggesting that though we might think the world troubled it today is was much more so in the times of our ancestors.

In Alaska, anthropologist Caroline Funk a decade ago used oral histories to compile a portrait of “The Bow and Arrow War Days on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska.”

They were brutal, murderous times.

Scottish archeologist Rick Knecht from the University of Aberdeen has since suggested that new evidence from a massacre site indicates food shortages tied to the Little Ice Age from 1400 to 1750 could have sparked these prehistoric wars that raged for 200 or 300 years.

The wars appear to have ended with the Alaska arrival of the Russians who imposed their own bloody hierarchy in the north. The Aleut people took the brunt of the attack.

Russian traders after the skins of sea otters, foxes and fur seals “forced Aleut hunters to do the work,” records a history compiled by the Alaska Humanities Forum. “Often the Russians took Aleut women and children as hostages while the hunters gathered pelts. While not all the encounters between the fur traders and the Natives were hostile, many were, and the Russians often brutalized Aleuts who resisted their demands. In addition, the Russians, like other Europeans wherever they encountered Native Americans, brought diseases not known to the Natives, who did not have or had lost traditional immunities.”

The Natives, however, sometimes gave as good as they got. The Tlingits in 1802 destroyed the Russian outpost of  Redoubt Saint Michael and killed nearly everyone there. The fur-hungry Russians wouldn’t return for two years.

“For the Russians, the loss of Old Sitka effectively removed their foothold in Southeast Alaska. (Alexander) Baranov and the Russian American Company were trying to move the colonial capital from Kodiak further south along the coast to fend off their European rivals in the fur trade,” records the official history at Sitka Historical Park. “Losing their colony in Sitka put those hopes in jeopardy and undermined Russian power in the region. Planning to re-establish the colony and take revenge on the Sitka clans, Baranov gathered his sailors and his Aleut and Alutiiq hunters. His plans were delayed for over a year, until the fall of 1804.”

The Tlingits had fortified their positions and were ready. They repulsed 400 enslaved Natives the Russians sent to charge the fort and then pounced on a Russian flanking attack.

K‘alyáan and an elite group of Tlingit warriors crushed the Russian’s right flank,” the history record. “The Russian advance crumbled and Baranov himself was shot in the chest, dragged from the battlefield, and ferried back to the (warship) Neva. Cannon fire from the Neva was the only thing that stopped the destruction of the entire Russian landing party. The Tlingit had defeated the Russians again, but the battle wasn’t over.”

Short on gun powder, the Tlingits would eventually retreat and then wage a guerilla war against the Russian intruders before abruptly returning to Sitka in 1822 to live in uneasy harmony with their old enemies and later the Americans who bought Alaska.

Thanks largely to geography and climate, Alaska largely avoided the Indian Wars of the Lower 48. A cold, faraway place, the Territory of Alaska never attracted enough people to spark significant territorial wars with the local Native population.

And the Native population, which battled early discrimination, quickly figured out it was better to fight with words than weapons. They’ve now done it with considerable success. Discrimination still exists in the north, but the biggest, most successful businesses in the state are today Native-owned.

Alaskans might not always get along, but we seem to be significantly better off than the Neolithic Iberians or, for that matter, those Yupiit of less than 200 years ago who thought the way to end problems was to go kill the neighbors.











11 replies »

  1. Humans are “obligate” sexual organisms. They hit puberty and the sex-drive kicks in, period.

    Humans are “facultative” on religion. Some go for it, some don’t. It’s natural for some, but it doesn’t ‘happen’, for many.

    Violence, aggression, hostility appear to be facultative. Some do develop a persistent drive or impulse for it, but many go their whole life and never miss it. In fact, the strong majority get along fine without it, even if one does occasionally feel provoked to rip someone’s head off & spit down the hole.

  2. Violence in the Western world shows steep declines in violence, interpersonal and international, coincident with, ironically enough, the proliferation of firearms. (I’m not claiming causality, though there are arguments to be made.)

    • The saying goes, “An armed society is a polite society”.

      Again not claiming causality … Chicago, Baltimore, etc.

      But there is certainly no dodging the fact that violence is in heavy decline, in the modern world. Assorted Chicken Littles and hysterics notwithstanding.

  3. While there can be little doubt that strife and discord are inherent in human behavior, we have much more in common or at the very least much more common goals than most even recognize. We all want to be safe and comfortable, we want to be well fed and cared for, we want security, we want to be prosperous, we want for our children to have an easier go of it than we had…or most of us do. Some would prefer we were back in neolithic or even paleolithic times.

    The common theme when dealing with advances in our human ancestry is that cold climates kept humanity in check while warm climates lead to advancement in knowledge and intelligence, growth and expansion of where we lived, a furtherance of our species. While the little ice age lead to bloody wars and starvation among the Native Alaskans a few hundred years ago the relatively warm climate we enjoy today has lead to peace. Even if there is still a small measure of bickering and discord amongst those who now call Alaska home.

  4. Mankind’s oldest source of conflict is disputes over fish and game resources (and, eventually, fertile cropland as well). Everyone wants “the good spots”, and the farther back you go, the more violent the conflict is. From modern humans displacing the Neanderthals (50-40,000 BC), Siberian Inuit invading and displacing the Athebaskans (1200 AD), or Russian, American, and British fur interests displacing the Spanish colonialists in the Pacific Northwest (1790 AD, the “Nootka Sound Incident”), the our present fight for allocation of Cook Inlet salmon is just more of the same.

    Commercial fur trapping in North America drove the frontier expansion of the European (or European-American) colonial powers for almost 250 years. The Russians quit the party because of the scarcity of the sea otters; they had trapped out almost all of the cute little monsters.

  5. Surprise! Not. Tribalism beats any other form of rule (government) when it comes to personal abuse. The record is well documented on that account.
    Maybe that’s just what’s needed to save the earth from too many humans. Interesting.

  6. Read “Constant Battles, The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage” Steven LeBlanc
    LeBlanc, an archaeologist, examines bones from digs worldwide and finds evidence of warfare in all.

  7. It is simply Evolution and some of the more intelligent of the species are quicker to Evolve with education while a majority of the species just reproduce and pass along their antiquated (Neolithic) ways to their offspring in the form of modeling.

    • Seems the more evolved and intelligent of the species relied on more heavily on animal protein. That is those with a plentiful supply of animal protein were able to expend more energy on evolving, becoming more intelligent, and building megalithic graves instead of using caves. From the study linked above “approaches have generally relied on purported differences in “invested energy” with those interred in megalithic tombs being drawn from a more privileged segment of the community compared to those in caves…which has been essentially understood as reflecting higher lifetime amounts of animal protein.”

      • “While 70 percent of the protein in the average Western diet comes from animals, only 7 percent of Chinese protein does.
        While most Chinese suffer very little from the major killer diseases of the West, those affluent Chinese who consume similar amounts of animal protein to Westerners also have the highest rates of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.”
        (Mad Cowboy) Howard F. Lyman

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