Western European archaeology is largely a humanistic tradition where many scholars have little knowledge of the natural sciences. For instance, I myself haven’t studied natural sciences in any organised way since high school. Still, in my field, I’m known as an unusually science-orientated guy. (Just look at me now, merrily blogging away at Sb.) I believe that human societies are to a fairly large extent shaped by human nature, which has long been controversial in anthro circles. I also favour stringent methods of data collection and analysis: archaeology should study and interpret its object in basically the same way as a palaeontologist does, not in the way a lit-crit scholar studies and interprets a body of fiction. Because the archaeological record ain’t fiction.
Being seen as such a hard-nosed science type at home, I’m amused to find that I often come across as this fuzzy humanities person here on Sb. Most recently, I’ve disagreed with Razib’s interpretation of some interesting genetic studies over at Gene Expression.
My objections to Razib’s thinking start already with his entry’s headline: “From where came the Slavs?“. BEEP goes my humanistic b-s detector. What is a Slav? Is that a well-defined and relevant category? As it turns out, Razib has stepped squarely into a trap where many other smart people have also gotten stuck through the ages. Razib believes that Slavs are people who speak Slavic languages and/or share certain genetic traits and/or share certain traits of material culture. His Slavs all belong together somehow, wherever they are and at whatever point in time. This model is called ethnic essentialism and has been abandoned in archaeology and social anthropology long ago.
My point is that ethnicity does not map 1:1 with either language, genetic ancestry, religion nor political organisation. It is possible for a bunch of people to be genetically and linguistically close, and still not be a single ethnic or political unit. This means that even if you can establish genetic and linguistic grouping, you may not have caught the grouping that was seen as most important by the people themselves.
Take, for instance, today’s Croatians and Serbs. They are, in Razib’s terminology, all Slavs. But they sure wouldn’t be happy if you told them they’re basically the same guys. Take, on the other hand, today’s speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese in China. They’re entirely distinct, yet cultivate the millennia-old Imperial fiction that they are the same guys.
Evidence was recently published (and discussed on Gene Expression) that suggests the ancient Etruscans may have had genetic origins in Asia Minor. Yet the Etruscans’ ideas about where they came from and who they were related to may not have been very similar to the actual origins documented in that study. Only Herodotus says so, and his writings on foreign people are not a good historical source in the technical sense. I’m fine with the Etruscans having a significant Lydian element in their ancestry. I just don’t find it very interesting that this confirms statements in a poor historical source. My job isn’t to evaluate proto-historic written sources.
But Razib, in my opinion, takes his reasoning one further step in the wrong direction: he discusses his Slavs in evolutionary terms.
“… assume that they had a better cultural toolkit for the far north. people can often be quite conservative so i would imagine that gave the slavic cultures a leg enough so that they could absorb a bunch of finns before the finns changed their practices enough so that they were at competitive parity in terms of exploitation of resources” [link]
Razib apparently believes not only that a Slav is a Slav is a Slav, but that the expansions and regressions of Slavic territory across the map have been directed by the adaptive fitness of “Slavic culture”. This model was abandoned by archaeologists and ethnographers in the 1940s.
When Razib looks at a distribution map of “Slavic culture” in, say, AD 1000, I imagine that he interprets the blob on the map as if it represented a biological species. “This is the distribution of the lynx / Slav. There is some variation in this population, but for most purposes all lynxes / Slavs are alike. One end of the blob represents the same thing as the other end. The shared characteristics of the blob’s members determine the blob’s evolutionary fate.” (Those are all my words put into Razib’s mouth.)
Archaeological cultures and linguistic areas are not like biological species. One end of a culture blob often hates the guts of the other end, insisting that although the two have similar languages and pottery styles, they are in fact not related at all. One end will happily join forces with part of an adjoining blob to annihilate the other end of the home blob. As a result, a third blob may be born, consisting of ten sub-blobs that fight constantly among themselves while exchanging wives and porphyry axe-preforms with the two parent blobs.
Most anthropologists these days reckon that there are several parameters in a person’s identity that can and often do vary independently of each other, and which can vary over the course of that person’s life, even situationally on a scale of days. Some of the most important ones are:
- Ethnic self-identification: “I am a Swede”
- Linguistic group: “I speak Swedish”
- Genetic/phenetic type, i.e. “race”: “I am blue-eyed and pale-skinned”
- Religion: “I was brought up a Protestant”
- Material culture group: “I wear denim jeans and an Elvis T-shirt”
- Political allegiance: “I am a citizen of the Kingdom of Sweden”
Razib and I both agree that genetic studies of modern and archaeological human populations can tell us a lot of interesting things. It seems to me, however, that they are not able to tell us quite what Razib thinks they can. Because a person’s self-reported identity cannot be read off anything material or genetic. And any group that appears tightly knit in material, linguistic and genetic terms may in fact consist of several groups that don’t want anything to do with each other.
But discussion may be futile. Says Razib, “i don’t really care what archeologists think about things non-artifactual”.