Saturday, April 07, 2018


“Who We Are and How We Got Here:  Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past” by David Reich is a book meant to be read and left, not treasured, because it admits within that it will soon be out of date.  It is a compendium of what we know, are learning, guessing, bound to be wrong, or a transforming revelation about the analysis of DNA.  Not the popular “who was your grandmother —was she a queen?” sort of thing, but the millions of years of data swapping that built our species, temporary and provisional though it is.  Surprising, provoking and mysterious.

For instance: 

A recurring DNA similarity crops up between Native Americans and the French.  (You always suspected that, right?)  WTF?

Agriculture is only a little over eleven thousand years old and began in Turkey and Syria.  Wouldn’t a person expect their culture to be leading instead of still stuck back there so long ago?  Or will we all be knocked back to that level if electricity disappears?

The center of the action in analysis is in Eurasia which takes the position that what is now “EU” is really a big peninsula.  Most of the scientists in this book have “brown” and “black” names — no Smith and Jones.  The important labs are likewise much closer to the center of Eurasia.

One rather terrifying concept is that of “ghost” populations.  We are reconciled to the idea that some lines of hominin and even "modern" humans simply fizzled out.  Neanderthals and Denisovians for instance, who have left DNA code in us.  Among the reasons for the demise of the “pure” and pre-existing neanderthals has been a proposed mutation in the testes of the males  (females don’t have testes, Moronica) that either sterilized their sperm or the resulting conceptus.  

There is another fascinating puzzle here that involves a subgroup that was evidently violently warlike, using huge hammer mauls to destroy each other.  No one wept much when they died out, except maybe the boys down at the pub on a Saturday night when their football team lost.

That’s not what “ghost populations” are.  If you can glance aside to the theologians, those who studied the original Bible manuscripts (once it was figured out which were actually to become the Bible) was that there was a body of Gospels (there are many more than the four we know) that referred to a document that couldn’t be found.  The references agreed on what it was and they quoted it quite a bit — it was a standard reference for these people — but either by fluke or design, it is missing.  Many look for it.  It is a “ghost” document.  They call it “Q”, a term picked up by “Star Trek” to use for the name of a powerful but unknown entity.  A Question.

In terms of DNA, it was discovered that the evidence provided by DNA of established but not modern code could only be explained by the existence of another people who left no other traces.  In fact, it has become established and accepted that whole cultures with vigorous commerce, pleasing ways, and successful ecologies have gone extinct.  Some of them seem indirectly “better” than us, with bigger brains for instance.  Maybe there was a volcano or a plague.  Or invaders.

For those of us who have always seen everything in terms of process, it is clear that human identity is always in process with the people going somewhere, changing into something new — hopefully better adapted.  There is no such thing as race because it is always transforming one way or another.  It’s just that physical barriers — seas and mountains — have encouraged the concentration of certain qualities and the bodies coded them, included them.

Even more active than geological cleavage is that imposed by cultural difference, habits of maintenance.  The idea that the children of gay men might take over the world is silly, but their culture (which is itself a complexity) is so vital and reinforced by success that it has become a potent rival for more conventional and habit bound men who have physical children, some of which are bound to be gay.  (How can Suits compete with Speedos?)  Coded mutations may or may not account for desiring the same sex.  Probably they are only part of the story.

These studies of human DNA come back again and again to the people of the central northern Eurasian steppes.  “In physical geography, a steppe is an ecoregion, in the montane grasslands and shrublands and temperate grasslands, savannas and shrublands biomes, characterized by grassland plains without trees apart from those near rivers and lakes.” (Wikipedia)  Valier is on a steppe.  Around here a steppe is called “prairie.”  It is one historical source of what we now accuse of being dominant and white.

Wealth and cultural progress in these places come through animals.  At first, along with many other places over the last ten thousand years, including here, the domestic animal development was pastoral, nomadic: the herding of goats and sheep.  The Conrad brothers and Paris Gibson, early residents of the east slope, raised sheep.

In Eurasia the horse allowed a warrior class to dominate those around them.  (Classic prairie Indians.) And then again there are very early depictions of oxen and wagons, so potent a way to travel while carrying the physical accoutrements of settlement that they became basic to many ways of life, including the American Metis, half-indigenous/half-voyager.  

It is their DNA that drew together and carried along the roots of European work with metal and fuels that became industrialization and technology.  That was about five thousand years ago.  The people carried language so the similarity of wagon terms (wheel, tongue) echoes among today’s national languages.  Today’s RV cultures — mostly retired folk following the climate — echo those strategies.  (The impact of travel is much lessened by media and, of course, retired people don’t have babies so not much impact on DNA.)

Many of the settled Eurasian subcultures had names drawn from their materials, esp constructions like houses.  One people impressed twine into their clay to make patterns.  They’re called the “Corded Ware” people and people still make patterns in their pottery that way.  But I sort of fell in love with the “Bell Beaker” people whose cups had round bottoms.  That means they would roll over and away unless they were upside down.

Now why would that be?  My theory is that the culture had just discovered yeast-based food (bread and beer) and never put their cups down until they were empty.  All beer was to be drunk to the dregs.  Even though I’m not an anthro or DNA expert, this seems so logical that it might already have been explored by someone.  Google suggests it has.  If language, DNA, traces in material culture, geography, misty accounts of early life, all overlap and interlink, then it seems irrefutable.  And fascinating.

What remains unread so far is the material about the indigenous people of the Americas and projections into a possible future.  Stand by.

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