Post-Neolithic revenge of the foragers

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMar 31, 2012 8:18 PM


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If I have something to share, why not share it? Over the past few weeks I've been ruminating on some of the possible intersections between historical population genetics and anthropology, especially in light of the discussion that I've had in the past with Robin Hanson about 'farmers vs. foragers'. Entering into the record that such a dichotomy is too stark, and only marginally useful (i.e., I think it is important to separate farmers and foragers in to their own sub-classes, as some farmer types may share more with some forager types, and so forth), it may be that after the first wave of the Neolithic expansion the descendants of the foragers "bounced back" in many regions of the world. It does seem that ancient European hunter-gatherers have left modern descendants. They were not totally swamped out. Using autosomal patterns some genome bloggers have inferred the same pattern, and perhaps even a counter-reaction by "Mesolithic" populations which adopted some aspects of the "Neolithic" cultural toolkit. But here let me come back to the Turks. Are they the descendants of farmers who expanded out of the valleys of eastern Asia? In fact, the historical and oral record indicates that many of these populations still engage, or engaged in, hunting & gathering until relatively recently (this was a slur against the early Mongol tribe, that they were "hunters of rats"). Keeping in mind that populations may shift cultural strategy depending on ecological opportunities (i.e., there are some attested "hunter-gatherers" who seem to be no more than marginalized agriculturalists which engage in hunting & gathering facultatively), one might posit that the Turks derive from Siberian populations which were shielded by Neolithic expansions due to reasons of ecology. You can't farm very well north of the Yellow river plain. So what happened? Some time between 1000 BC and 0 AD nomadism spread from the western end of the great Eurasian plain to the eastern end. Between 0 AD and 1000 AD these new nomands exploded out of their sub-Siberian ur-heimat. With Southeast Asia, the British Isles, and Japan excepted, horse nomads have influenced almost all Eurasian societies over the past 2,000 years, if not directly, at least via the menace which they presented over the horizon. Related to this, a few years ago I read a history of Australian Aborigines. This population of hunter-gatherers is not very well suited to modern life, and attempts to turn them into agriculturalists on mission stations generally failed. But, Aborigines did take to a role as labor in the pastoral economy of the Murray-Darling basin. The same may be true to some extent of the hunter-gatherer populations of northern Eurasia. With the 'invention' of pastoralism, which was contingent only upon other aspects of a cultural toolkit introduced by farming populations, the hunter-gatherers, foragers in Robin Hanson's formulation, found a purchase upon survival in the new landscape. In the case of the Turks they bounced back. But are the Turks sui generis? I think not. I believe that the prehistory of Europe has been deeply shaped by this dynamic between farmers and foragers, where the latter came into their own only after being enriched by the novel innovations introduced by the former.

Image credit:Dbachman

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