Monday, November 19, 2018

Why Is Knowing About The Maykop Culture And Other Early Caucasus Cultures Important?

Eurogenes writes in his latest post about the fall and possible demic and cultural impacts that the Maykop culture may have had on the Indo-Europeans. Another archaeological culture close in time and place to the Maykop culture is the Kura-Araxes culture. Wikipedia places these cultures in time and space:
In the south it borders the approximately contemporaneous Kura-Araxes culture (3500—2200 BC), which extends into eastern Anatolia and apparently influenced it. To the north is the Yamna culture, including the Novotitorovka culture (3300—2700), which it overlaps in territorial extent. It is contemporaneous with the late Uruk period in Mesopotamia
The Kuban River is navigable for much of its length and provides an easy water-passage via the Sea of Azov to the territory of the Yamna culture, along the Don and Donets River systems. The Maykop culture was thus well-situated to exploit the trading possibilities with the central Ukraine area. 
New data revealed the similarity of artifacts from the Maykop culture with those found recently in the course of excavations of the ancient city of Tell Khazneh in northern Syria, the construction of which dates back to 4000 BC. 
Radiocarbon dates for various monuments of the Maykop culture are from 3950 - 3650 - 3610 - 2980 calBC. 
After the discovery of the Leyla-Tepe culture in the 1980s, some links were noted with the Maykop culture.The Leyla-Tepe culture is a culture of archaeological interest from the Chalcolithic era. Its population was distributed on the southern slopes of the Central Caucasus (modern Azerbaijan, Agdam District), from 4350 until 4000 B.C. Similar amphora burials in the South Caucasus are found in the Western Georgian Jar-Burial Culture. 
The culture has also been linked to the north Ubaid period monuments, in particular, with the settlements in the Eastern Anatolia Region. The settlement is of a typical Western-Asian variety, with the dwellings packed closely together and made of mud bricks with smoke outlets. 
It has been suggested that the Leyla-Tepe were the founders of the Maykop culture. An expedition to Syria by the Russian Academy of Sciences revealed the similarity of the Maykop and Leyla-Tepe artifacts with those found recently while excavating the ancient city of Tel Khazneh I, from the 4th millennium BC.
Why are these cultures important?

Overwhelming genetic, archaeological and linguistic evidence establishes that people whose ancestors spoke a common language, called proto-Indo-European (PIE for short), on the Pontic-Caspian steppe of Europe (more or less where the Ukraine is today), dramatically expanded from this region in pretty much all directions sometime in the Late Neolithic era to the Bronze Age.

Indo-European Linguistic Impact

While there are details that are legitimately subject to debate, there is no doubt that all of the languages of Europe except Basque, Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish and the language of the Saami (as well as some relict groups in Russia), are derived from PIE.

So are all of the currently extant languages of Iran, many of the languages of Afghanistan, and all of the languages of South Asia that are derived from Sanskrit, the most prominent of which is Hindi. All but a couple of the languages of India and its vicinity that are not Indo-European are either part of the Dravidian language family (found only in South Asia and among its expatriates) and the Munda language family (related to the Austro-Asiatic language family, the most famous member of which is Vietnamese).

Indo-Europeans speaking languages known as Tocharian in the Tarim Basin has a civilization that existed from about 2000 BCE to 600 CE, until it was overrun by the ancestors of the modern Uyghur people who are now an oppressed minority in the interior highlands of China.

Indo-European Religious Impact

The Indo-Europeans also had a common polytheistic religion which forms of common basis for the core of the pre-Christian religions of Scandinavians (e.g. the god Thor), the pre-Christian religions of the classical Greeks and Romans, and aspects of the Hindu and Zoroastrian religions.

Indo-European Population Genetic Impact

The influx of Indo-Europeans into Europe, West Asia, the Levant, and South Asia significantly influenced the genetic makeup of both regions because this was a mass migration, and by the time that this influx ran its course, most of these regions reached a population genetic mix quite similar to the one we see today. This was the last big wave of major demographic change in Europe and South Asia. (In Turkey and much of Central Asia, Turkish populations made a subsequent impact of the population genetic makeup, and the Levant's genetic history is complicated.)

Why Did The Indo-Europeans Have So Much Of An Impact?

Despite their identifying name, almost no credible academics think that anything inherent in the nature of the Indo-European languages had much, if anything, to do with their great impact of Europe and South Asia.

Instead, there are two main factors that are seen as influential.

One is climate. Some of the most important Indo-European expansions happened when climate conditions for farming temporarily deteriorated in Europe, West Asia, South Asia and North Africa (at least), causing existing advanced civilizations based upon farming in these regions to collapse, into which people from the European steppe, more suited to these conditions and associated with herding economies rather than settled farming economies surged in.

Another is technology. The Indo-Europeans were some of the first people to make practical use of horses for transportation and doing work, were some of the first people to use the wheeled transportation like chariots and charts and wagons, and were early users of metal tools and weapons at a time when many advanced civilizations managed with little metal and inferior metallurgy technology.

If you bring a stone club and a wooden spear to a sword fight, you are probably going to lose.

Where Did The Indo-European's Technological Edge Come From?

Horses and Wheels Were Home Grown

No one seriously doubts that the Indo-Europeans developed their mastery of horses (and probably wheels as well) independently and originally.

Their Metallurgy Probably Originated In The Caucasus Mountains

But, the archaeological record suggests that the advanced metallurgy technology that allowed Indo-Europeans to have widely used metal tools and weapons of a quality superior to those of the people whose land they conquered was not something that they invented themselves.

Instead, the breakthrough metallurgy technologies that the Indo-Europeans subsequently adopted and leveraged into domination of a large part of the world, probably originates in one or more of the cultures of the Caucasus Mountains in the 3000s BCE (basically the Copper Age and early Bronze Age of the region).

So, the question is, how was this technological advantage in metallurgy transferred to the Caucasus Mountains cultures to the Indo-Europeans of the steppe, and what other cultural legacies were part of the package of ideas that were transferred between the cultures?

Kurgans Probably Originated In The Caucasus Mountains

For example, one of the litmus tests used to distinguish Indo-Europeans from other cultures in the days when ancient DNA analysis (or even taking genotypes of modern people) was a glint in a mad scientist's eye, was the practice of burying at least some people in elaborate grave mounds called "kurgans."

And, it turns out, kurgans were also used at around the same time by the cultures of the Caucasus mountains who were among the first to invent advanced metallurgy, and that those cultures may have actually invented the Kurgan burial practice and then transmitted it to the Indo-Europeans as another part of a cultural package that was transmitted from the Caucasus mountain cultures to the Indo-Europeans.

Usually, moreover, anthropologists assume that burial practices go hand in hand with religious ideas about souls and the afterlife. 

So, there is some strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Indo-Europeans received not only metallurgy, but also some major religious beliefs that became widespread among them from these Caucasus mountain cultures.

Models Of Cultural Expansion - Demic Transition v. Cultural Diffusion

From roughly the 1970s to the 1990s, the watchword in anthropology was that "pots are not people."

This meant that cultural and technological transformations could spread from one ethnically and physiologically distinct (and as we would later learn, genetically distinguishable) group of people to another by means of "cultural diffusion" distributed through trade, by missionaries, and by wandering wise men. 

Now, almost everyone around this time was illiterate, because full fledged writing had only been invented in a few places (and certainly hadn't reached the cultures of the Caucasus mountains or the steppe), so cultural diffusion had to involve some person to person interaction (or at least imitation at a distance or reverse engineering of discovered items). But, no one disputes that it is possible to transfer culture with only a minimal exchange of, and interactions of people who live near each other.

Starting sometime in the 2000s as mass genotyping of modern populations and then ancient DNA data began to inform our understanding of prehistory, however, this view began to shift. This view shifted back in the direction of the model that anthropologists prior to the late 20th century which had adopted the "pots are people" paradigm that archaeological cultures could usually be associated with particular linguistic and ethnic groups.

Most of the time, it turns out, dramatic changes in archaeological cultures characterized by relics of physically expressed culture such as their pottery designs, corresponded quite closing with populations having distinct genetic makeups.

While the modern point of view isn't quite as quick to attribute cultural change to genocidal population replacement, it soon became clear that massive demographic change, often male dominated, was common enough that the default assumption was that major changes in culture, language and technology were usually the result of mass migration of members of a superstrate culture overwhelming an autochthonous substrate culture.

We see this in Greece. We see this in Germany and Poland. We see this in England. We see this in South Asia. We see this when Anatolia went from being linguistically Indo-European to Turkish speaking.

There are exceptions. 

For example, a very thin elite of invading Magyar warrior herders who conquered Hungary, in the century or two leading up to 1000 CE, caused a linguistically Indo-European population to experience language shift to the language that we now call Hungarian which is part of the Uralic language family whose members also include Estonian, Finnish and the language of the Saami (as well as some relict groups in Russia), that has its origins in the vicinity of the Ural Mountains that geographers consider the dividing line between Europe and North Asia, in what is currently known as Russia.

Similarly, the amount of demic change in population make up that caused people in England and the rest of the British Isles to speak English rather than the pre-existing Celtic languages, while it involved some demic shifts in some places, mostly involved culturally driven language shifts.

In parallel with the rise of English, in Egypt and the Levant, Arabic started to replace other languages of the region at around the same time without a lot of change in the population genetics of these regions.

Half the world away, a kind of yam native to South America called the kumara of something similar, became widespread in Polynesia, even bringing its South American name with it, while leaving very little genetic trace in South America or in Polynesia beyond Easter Island.

In Italy, the Etruscans would have been hard to distinguish from Romance language speakers from the physical remains that they left behind, had both cultures not been literate leaving written documents behind, and had contemporaneous Latin histories not told us otherwise, but while they shared many technological innovations with the Romance language speakers who surrounded them, they were genetically somewhat distinct as are many of their descendants in Tuscany who now speak Italian (the Etruscan language went extinct ca. 100-200 CE). The technology that the Etruscans shared with the Italic language speakers around them had to have been transmitted substantially with cultural diffusion rather than major population replacement.

And, in one of the oldest examples, many of the core crops that allowed the Dravidian peoples of Southern India in the South Asian Neolithic revolution around 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE to transition from hunting and gathering to farming were originally domesticated in the African Sahel and Ethiopian highlands before they appeared in India, with little obvious African genetic influx from the regions where these crops were domesticated.

But, these are exceptions, and they naively, except for the South Asian Neolithic, seem to be concentrated mostly in the last 3000 years or so, after the Bronze and Neolithic eras had ended.

The Indo-Europeans and the People of the Caucasus Mountains

There has been a breakthrough discovery this year using ancient DNA, presaged by earlier discoveries a few years older, that Eurogenes is touting in the post that I link above and some earlier ones, that demonstrates quite convincingly that the amount of genetic contribution that people from one of the key Caucasus mountains cultures that was probably a source of technology and other cultural ideas for the Indo-Europeans, the Maykop culture, was very small. Perhaps not zero, but far smaller than would be expected, for example, in the "go to" model of modern prehistorians of cultural and technological transitions usually being mediated by male dominated mass population shifts that the Indo-Europeans themselves would later reenact again and again across West Eurasia.

So, question of how the Indo-Europeans got their metallurgy technology and kurgan burial practices and probably other parts of a Caucasus mountains sourced cultural package appears now to very likely have been predominantly through cultural diffusion rather than a demic shift.

This means that the attention now shifts to the question of what was included in the cultural package that was transmitted from cultures like the Maykop culture and Kura-Araxes culture in the Caucasus mountains to the steppe people at the time, at least some of whom were probably early Indo-Europeans.

Looking At Pots

This is both harder to know and easier to determine. 

We have been able to accurately date objects discovered by archaeologists and determine by reliable means including chemical analysis of the materials in them, where objects and practices of various types were first invented and when objects they find arrived where we found them via trade rather than by being made locally. And, all of this much more mature area of inquiry is now relevant again, but is now informed by insights influencing which hypotheses about prehistory are most plausible from ancient DNA.

The more we know archaeologically about these less studied early cultures of the Caucasus mountains, the more we can discern what elements of early Indo-European culture had their source there, and what elements were home grown or were borrowed from some other source.

But, while metallurgy technology and burial practices and food sources and pottery designs leave lots of remains behind that archaeologists can analyze and use as clues, lots of other aspects of culture, most notably, the languages of the illiterate peoples of prehistory, are much more ephemeral and have to be deduced through less direct means like analyzing the kinds of geographically distinctive words that exist in the oldest available documents from various languages known to descend from proto-Indo-European languages (and the likely linguistic descendants of languages of the Caucasus mountains at the time) several thousand years after the cultural diffusion and technology transfers we are trying to understand happened.


The several language families of the Caucasus mountains today seem very distinct indeed from the Indo-European languages, even though we can point to some linguistic clues like loan words of some isolated evidence of language contact between these several language families. But, the linguistic data strongly discourages the notion that one of these language families was a source of or major contributor to the other. So, if these Copper Age and early Bronze Age cultures of the Caucasus mountains had a major linguistic impact on the Indo-Europeans back then, they must have spoken a language very different than the ones spoken in this region today, or in any other region we can connect with archaeology to these cultures and reliably assign a language to from the earliest known historical records.

We can't rule out that possibility, and indeed, the Maykop culture itself collapsed rather abruptly, and may have left little linguistic trace of itself. But, the weight of the evidence tends to favor a scenario in which a language used by the average person was not a component of the cultural package that the Indo-Europeans acquired from the mountains that provided an important part of the technological edge that allowed them to conquer people for thousands of miles in all directions from their original homeland.

Other Open Questions About Cultural Exchanges Between The Steppe And The Mountains

Of course, while the evidence points very strongly to cultural diffusion as the means by which this technology transfer took place, we still don't know precisely what vector was involved in that cultural diffusion. Did Indo-European men go to the mountains to learn their trades like foreign exchange students and then return to the steppe? Did it involve merchant traders? Did it involve missionaries? 

Most tantalizingly (because more ancient DNA can tell us if we are right and the evidence is too subtle and unclear at this point to reach a definitive conclusion on this point is it happened at only a low level), did it involve women from the mountains who were exchanged in small numbers as brides who had an outsized cultural influence in the steppe communities they joined?

We do know from ancient DNA that patrilocal families that exchange brides between communities were common in many early Indo-European communities in Europe. But, we have less clear evidence about how much of this exchange happened between the mountains and the steppe.

These are the questions that remain open and that we want to understand better with future research.

Looking In Other Directions

We also care about the Caucasus mountain cultures of this era because of their connections to the South and that region itself, going both forward and backward in time from the time when these cultures thrived.

Going back in time, the main open question is the extent to which these cultures derived from or were significantly influenced by the cultures of Mesopotamia and the adjacent highlands of Iran and Anatolia.

Likewise, how are these cultures connected to the earliest hunter-gathers and the earliest farmers of the Caucasus? Ancient DNA suggests that the first farmers in this region seem to be derived from the earliest hunter-gathers of the region, rather than being migrants like the first farmers in most of Europe. And, those hunter-gathers could have ancient roots indeed, because the Caucasus were one of the few refugia in Europe where modern human could survive during the Last Glacial Maximum.

And, looking forward in time, while these cultures in the Caucasus do not seem to have been involved in a mass migration to the steppe, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest that they may have been a pivotal source for a mass migration into somewhat more similar and nearby highlands of Anatolia and perhaps on to what would become Minoan Crete. This mass migration came after the Neolithic revolution in Anatolia whose descendants were the primary source of the first farmers of Europe (and have their closest modern genetic match in the people of Sardinia today), and resulted in a significant genetic change, but also lacked that steppe ancestry, which is usually considered diagnostic of Indo-European origins, that would become common place in Anatolia around the time of the Bronze Age Hittite empire.

Of course, much, much later, roughly a thousand years ago, give or take a couple of centuries, Anatolia received an infusion of Turkic ancestry that originated in a migration from the general vicinity of Northern China and Mongolia, which obscured earlier layers of the gene pool of Anatolia and neighboring regions today.

Likewise, linguistic divisions involving language families separated by great time depth, in different parts of the modern Caucasus region, which is linguistically extremely Balkanized, despite being very close to each other geographically, also make it necessary to trace back each linguistically community separately and simultaneously to figure out how this came to be. Some of these language families appear to trace back to the earliest days of farming in the region if not earlier. Others are obviously recent arrivals by comparison, but figuring out just how recent is important as one strips away recent history so as to understand more ancient history. Some of the modern residents in the region, meanwhile, may indeed have ancient ancestry in the region and even some of those who speak more recently arrived languages may be due to either migration (leaving the question of what happened to the people they replaced), or language shift, or a mix of both.


Guy said...

Hi Andrew,

Excellent summary, thanx for the effort you put into these postings.

Are there any examples of female transmission of a new language?

Have a excellent Thanksgiving.


andrew said...

I am not. In modern examples, usually, the children of brides brought into a community speaking another language speak the language of the community and not of the mother. There is some tendency, however, to think that different components of language are more mother influenced and father influences respectively, and the anthropological data might not apply in a matriarchal society which is also matrilocal, meaning that men relocate to their wive's communities. But, it is very well established that the candidates for PIE societies were organized on a patrilineal, patrilocal basis.

andrew said...

"Are there any examples of female transmission of a new language?:

On further reflection there are at least three conjectural examples.

One is the language shift of pre-Chadc men to a language influenced by the language of their Cushitic language wives.

A second is the Basque language in which male dominated migrants may have adopted the local first wave farmer language derived language of their wives.

Arguably the transition of Roman conquerers in the Eastern Roman Empire to being Greek speaking could also be an example.