Your Folks, My Folks in Prehistory

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I got an inspiring question from Z at Enkla bloggen.

"Who made the rock carvings, hällristningar? Was it the Saami people?

Is this a sensitive matter? I've already asked several archaeologists but they haven't answered me."

Archaeology is fundamentally incapable of answering the question "who did this?" without the aid of written history. This is because everything we put into that question when we pose it is non-material, and the archaeological record is entirely material. This also holds when it comes to questions about peoples, questions of ethnicity, possibly nationalistic questions. Bear with me for a moment while I explain a few things.

In the American vernacular, "ethnicity" is just a polite way of saying "race". In academe, "ethnicity" means something else which is taken to reside entirely in people's heads. My ethnicity is Swedish. I'm also a white atheist whose mother tongue is Germanic. I could be a black Christian whose mother tongue was Fenno-Ugric, and still be Swedish. But the only way to know about my ethnicity is to talk to me or read something I wrote. Whack me hard in the head with a flint axe, and my ethnicity, religion and mother tongue disappear, leaving only my phenotype, my "race".

Ethnicities are mutable, inconstant and fluid: they're renegotiated and redefined every day. When I say that I'm Swedish, then this does not mean exactly what it meant when my great grandmother said she was Swedish. And it hardly has any connection to what someone meant in AD 1007 when they said they were Swedish. The words remain, but the content changes. There are no timeless nationalities. All culture is continually bastardised and mutated.

Now for the rock carvings. Swedish rock carvings come in two flavours. The country is shaped like a ski orientated N-S. In the northern two thirds of Sweden, the rock carvings are mainly from the Neolithic and tend to depict elks. In the southern third, they are mainly from the Bronze Age and tend to depict boats.

Sweden's earliest known inhabitants documented in written sources spoke languages belonging to two different language groups and were ethnically divided into innumerable tribes. The country's northern two thirds were home to hunter-gatherer-fishers who spoke Fenno-Ugric and had a very low population density. The southern third was home to farmers who spoke Germanic and had a higher population density. This was in the 1st Millennium AD, and from the earliest references on the farmers encroached upon the area of the hunter-gatherer-fishers until they had settled all the fertile land and Christianised the hunter-gatherer-fishers. Attempts were made into the 20th century to wipe out their language too.

So, who made the rock carvings? Impossible to tell. Centuries passed between the last boat rock-carving (about 300 BC?) and the first written mention of languages and tribes in Sweden (about AD 100), millennia between the last elk rock-carving (about 2000 BC?) and that date. There is no data, there can never be any data, on languages or ethnicities in Scandinavia around 2000 BC. Archaeologists can't answer that question, and neither can anyone else. Because the answer isn't hidden in the bones of those people, it isn't hidden in their pottery or lithics or meal remains. The data were in their minds, and those are forever lost.

This is not a controversial issue among archaeologists. But it may be among nationalists without archaeological training. Because they

  • a) believe in national essences that stay constant over long periods of time,
  • b) believe that such a nation may have the right to land,
  • c) believe that archaeologists produce the same kind of knowledge as historians do.

All these three beliefs are in my opinion false.

So if a Saami nationalist and a Swedish nationalist stop arguing long enough to ask me who carved the elks at Nämforsen, then I'll reply, "Guys, those elks were made long before the first Swede and Saami had even been born".

Here's something about my view on the rights of indigenous people.

More like this

Excellent Martin - a very good answer to a question that is notoriously difficult to answer without sounding either like A) it's 2 o'clock in the morning and you're very, very drunk; or B) you're talking to a 4-year old.

(PS - guess who)

Interesting, entertaining and informative analyses although I suggest that you over-generalize what Americans see as the meaning of "ethnicity." I suggest that the meaning in the States is in part dependent on who you ask and in what part of the country the question is asked. The U.S. is amazingingly heterogeneous, in a way never seen in the history of the planet although I suspect a case could be made for a similar phenomenon during the heyday of Rome. I also would suggest that with the rise of cladistical analyses, terms like "race" lose virtually any meaning.

By Donald Wolberg (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

And Canada is NOT "amazingly heterogenous", and we're still struggling with this issue in a very bad way. What Martin so nicely has outlined in this blog may not necessarily be the cause of our particular problem, but it has, so far, been the result of our trying to fix it without fundamentally understanding Martin's whole line of thinking. Without that understanding, everything Canada has done so far to alleviate the problem, has only served to reinforce it, becasue we're separating one "Canandian ethnicity" from another and placing value on which one is worth more. Now we have a huge, disgusting, sticky mess that is doing no one any good. The idea of not being able to define what it is to be Canadian has become the definition of being Canadian, as if it were impossible to come together as a nation.

By Christina (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

Thanks, you're right ebout ethnicity

My Ugric mother tongue is related to Sami. Actually, some, i do even understand (after some hard work),
but the Sami claim that they are not at all genetically related to others who speak finno-ugric languages.
They say they adopted this Sami tongue a few thousand years ago.
So, ethnicity, language and culture can mean many things.

Rock carvings look fantastic :)

Thanks everyone!

Åsa, great to see you here! I look forward to checking your blog out.

Z, that stuff about the Saami adopting languages several thousand years ago is, of course, mythology.

In the late 90s, the Finnish Heritage Board's web site still proudly proclaimed that Finnic had been spoken in the area since 4000 BC!

I might be completely wrong here, but just thinking off the top of my head, is this not perhaps a little definate:

"Archaeology is fundamentally incapable of answering the question "who did this?" without the aid of written history."

Here's a hypothetical; say we know, from written sources, that the Rundkvist tribe had a strong cultural tradition of drinking premium 6.5% Belgian lager. Archaeological excavations then reveal geographically consistent finds of premium 6.5% Belgian lager. Would it not then be reasonable to infer that the Rundkvist tribe was present. We would never know for sure, but we could make a reasonable hypothesis.

I guess my argument, in the real world, depends on whether such reasonably simple (though obviously a bit more complex) scenarios do in fact exist, or whether things really are too messy. I guess it also depends on what scale you define "tribe".

The way we put it:
The only way an archaeologist gets into the heads of his informants is thru the misuse of a shovel.

so you don't "believe" in glottochonology?

By nmaryevelynstarr (not verified) on 31 May 2007 #permalink

Z, that stuff about the Saami adopting languages several thousand years ago is, of course, mythology.

I'm not sure it is mythology as opposed to a misunderstanding of scientific results. I don't think Saami myths are quite as mundane as that? :)

The Saami are a genetic outlier in Europe and hypotheses about how this relates to their language are not restricted to mythology. Of course, the naive interpretation that some tribe must have adopted another's language ignores the fact that peoples mix.

Steve, we get that all the time. Concentrations of lager cans from 3000 BC, as it were. The problem is that in prehistoric archaeology we can't in fact ever assume that the Rundkvist tribe a) existed, b) was characterised by that custom. We just have the cans, and there is any number of ways they can be interpreted. It might as well be a question of the SteveF tribe making the beer and drinking some of it, the neighbouring Rundkvist tribe buying a lot of it from the SteveF tribe, and the Windy tribe making a half-misunderstood version of the beer out of blueberries and putting it in used cans because they admired the Rundkvist and SteveF people and wanted to appropriate their symbolism.

Mary, glottochronology has two big drawbacks: a) it can't say much about where a language group has been, b) it disregards all the language groups that became extinct before the first written sources. It's history written by the survivors/victors, assuming that they were alone on the map from the start.

Windy, scientific hypotheses are characterised by testability. Therefore, the prehistoric linguistic situation is not a domain of scientific inquiry, unlike the genetic situation. And, as you point out, genes and language are free to vary independently of each other.

...prehistoric linguistic situation is not a domain of scientific inquiry, unlike the genetic situation.

I would not put it that bluntly, since both situations can only be examined probabilistically. We can't "know" the genetic characteristics of prehistoric people aside from the occasional Ötzi or DNA-containing fossil. It's just that linguistic change is a lot less predictable than genetic change.

...genes and language are free to vary independently of each other.

But often they don't, and that can create interesting patterns. And this cuts the other way too - often people make all sorts of pronouncements based on nothing but a small bit of mitochondrial DNA, although that might vary independently of everything else.

I'd be quite willing to follow you in probabilistic arguments up to, say, two centuries back from the earliest linguistic evidence for southern Scandinavia, preserved in the Germania of Tacitus. This places us around 100 BC. Before that, I'd say any hypotheses about linguistics in that area are speculation.

Remember the age of those elks.

We can't know the genetic profile of the exact people who did the rock carvings any more than we can know their language. However, we can say that a population with such and such characteristics likely existed somewhere around that time, and ask, where were they likely to be? Perhaps several likely candidates for carvers were present and some of them might have spoken an extinct language - but the situation is the same for genetics!

So I am not arguing that we should be able to identify the elk carvers, but that in principle there is no difference between languages and genes (since the question of "exactly what were these people like" is not the right one to ask in either case). For example, the spread of Proto-Indo-European seems pretty well-attested, although the necessary timeframe stretches back much more than the couple of centuries you allow.

Well, archaeology deals neither in languages nor genes. We deal in material culture which is determined neither by language nor genes, and vice versa.

As for the Indo-Europeanisation of Scandinavia, we can really only say that it occurred before Tacitus's day. A number of events in the material record have been pointed out as correlating with the IE introduction, but in the absence of linguistic evidence the issue can't be settled.

Hear, hear! Or read, read I guess. The burgeoning "Who were here first?"-debates in Sweden should be nipped in the bud. We don´t know, won´t ever know and is not for either courts or archaeologists to decide.

Thanks again for all the explanations and answers. From this i conclude one thing:

In alla fairness:

If we can not say that saami did rock carvings,
then we cannot say white folks made anything (tools n stuff) from the stone ages, bronze ages etc, it could have been just anybody/ any tribes.

Most Saami are as white as myself. And none of today's cultures existed in recognisable shape during prehistory. But perhaps you mean that we can't say that prehistoric people in, say, Scania were genetic ancestors of today's Swedes or Saami. Well, actually, with well-preserved bones we probably could using DNA analysis. But that would tell us nothing about the prehistoric people's language or ethnicity.

Ancestry is a web, not a ladder. Six generations back, c. 1850, I have 64 ancestors. If I could check back all the way to the Bronze Age, I'm sure I'd find ancestors of mine speaking all major languages, praying to all major gods and belonging to all major racial groups. Sweden used to import loads of slaves and so has a lot of genetic diversity.

....and back in the day.... say the year 80, i have billions of ancestors.... ;)
(2 to the power of generations back....)
Like you said about webbs, I guess we all share ancestors and are related, closer or further, inbread or not inbread.....

Thank You for the explanation, Martin! Well-put into words, easy to understand. A kind of my text, he-he.

By Denis Vlasov (not verified) on 01 Jun 2007 #permalink

Ancestry is a web, not a ladder. Six generations back, c. 1850, I have 64 ancestors. If I could check back all the way to the Bronze Age, I'm sure I'd find ancestors of mine speaking all major languages, praying to all major gods and belonging to all major racial groups.

Some models even suggest that the most recent common ancestor of *all humanity* might have lived sometime in the last few millennia. People only look different because of various degrees of inbreeding. :)

(However, this model assumes that the genes of European explorers have reached every single person in Australia and the Americas, and countered the previous geographic near-isolation.)

And what, if there still is a people who have legends of a heavenly moose, hunted by a heavenly hunter, and if that people had the oldest type of explanation of life and death in a type of shamanism,( and they had, their drums were still active during late time) which is regarded as very, very old, why is it necessary to deny them?

To be or not to be, is not the question!

Oh, forget the pills, I had a dream last night. I´m not sure I was dreaming, but a beatiful black arctic fox stood beside my bed, looking at me with eyes like black shiny stars. He talked to me, and said: Our families, your and mine have been walking side by side, now many thousands of years, you killed prey and left for us to eat, and we allowed you to kill us now and then for fur and meat. And now , where are you, we starve, you must help us, we belong together. We are YOUR helpers.

Of course the arctic fox is also a "coldhardy" animal like the human bones from Åland, Öland and Gotland from "Gropkeramiska gravar", have been shown to be by Torbjörn Ahlström, "Pitted-Ware Skeletons and Boreal Temperatures. Lund Archaelogical Review 3 (1997) pp 37-48.

Uh, do you mean like my lover? The Y-chromosome?

Yes, right it is a hard question to answer. I do not agree that archaeology does not deal with gene: It does. Some cued comments to your post.

·People came to Scandinavia after the last ice age from the south (Hamburgian and somewhat later Ahrensburgian), those have parallels in Scandinavia and along a Lithuanian, Estonian and west Russian culture migrations.

·These areas have been sparsely populated for a very long time, not the most attractive areas on the planet. Therefore very few remains in the earliest periods.

The mentioned factors is a good reason for the lack of mixing of people in the much larger than present pre-Saami areas (defining pre-Saami as the ancestors of the present Saami with these old genes and from the continuous and similar archaeological findings from Germany to the sea shores of the arctic in the Saami areas).

·Findings of archaeological remains that are about 10000 years old in the northernmost Scandinavia (Norway).
·Findings trace the early Germanic Ahrensburgian culture all the way to the arctic of Norway to the Barents Sea. These are somewhat younger.
·No archaeological traces of important changes in ways of living particularly in the northern areas for thousands of years, and in the south until the end of the Bronze Age particularly with the spread of agriculture.
·The dating of genes in the present Saami that has very old Palaeolithic genes about 15000 to 10000 years old (Dig for the many articles to support this findin).
·These genes are found in much lower frequencies down south and in Karelia and Russia.
·The term Haplogroup (both y chromosomal and mitochondrial) is in fact defined by archaeologists. (Dig it!)

·Ethnicity is much more than race. Shortcut: Ethnicity is also dependent on natural resources and climate factors, development of culture that is adapted to e.g. the particular areas, people and technology. What ethnicity that has to do with race is looks, skull measures, tooth size and other highly variable measures within every population. Scientists spoke of race when most people were immobile and therefore generally more isolated compared with present millennia. Race is a matter of look, ethnicity also includes culture adaptations and identity (besides the simple notion of similar looks are a race). Ethnicity is changeable today, but very slow changing in earlier time.
·The concept of haplogroups does in fact undermine the concept of race races.
·Languages change faster than culture. There are minority people such as the Arabs (genetically) in North Africa that have defined the majority peoples languages and religion.

By the way, it is interesting that the Saami with their very old genes are starting to get a history (Have heard that the Saami genes also are observed in high frequencies in Skäne and that the haplogroups are similar on a nuclear level interesting indeed). I mean 15000-year-old genes and how many history books? How much do we know? May be they have had invisible capes in all these years these old Germanic people I mean genetically Not via their language.

First (with all due respect to the fact you are an athiest) the Bible states that man was created in our (not his) image. This statement indicates there is more than one god and more than one race at the time when man was created. Second, the rock art (pictograph [it appears to be painted])shown in your article was created by early man to record life as he saw it. At that time the races were pure and each race developed it own rock art. Third, I have written many essays about Native American rock art in the southwest, USA. I have found the symbols of each panel of the rock to interelated as one would find in an advertising storyboard. Therfore, the rock art panels tell stories. You mentioned your Swedish rock art was divided between animals, fish and boats. I looked at picture of the rock art in your article and I thing the pictograph indicates that ealy man in Sweden had domesticated animals (moose?) and record this fact in his rock art. P.S. I am an old man and I do not know what ULR is. Please forgive me. In addition I have no formal training in archaeology.

By Harold Cohn (not verified) on 15 Jan 2008 #permalink

The moose in the rock carving panel were probably not domesticated, but represent hunting game. Pretty much like the many aurochs and wild horses in the cave paintings of far earlier times! Hunting magic...

Interesting all. Here is my input, although from a physicists point of view.

I am born in a small village near the arctic circle in northern Sweden, (Lappland). I am a resident of California � USA since 1956. I speak fluent English with a western US �drawl�.
Recent genealogy has reveled that I have Saami � Swedish � Belgian (Valloon) and German ethnicity.
My daughter � born in California has inherited my genes as well as the ones of her mother. Her mother, my wife, is born in Savolaks, Finland. My wife has Swedish � German and Russian ethnicity. So, in what cubbyhole are we now going to place my daughter.
Well, I asked her at lunch earlier today.
Her answer was, �I�m an American! Red � White and Blue!!! She is proud, don�t blame her.

In a couple of weeks we will find the answer from a friend of ours, working at the Jonas Salk institute in La Jolla. He will be able to tell us of what mysterious and exotic mix we are. Genetically that is.

Interesting indeed.


By Stig Lundberg (not verified) on 10 Feb 2008 #permalink

Good to know that you guys are unlikely to suffer any genetic diseases caused by homozygosity of rare recessive alleles! My kids are also gloriously cosmopolitan. I'm the only one in my family that would pass a Nazi Aryan race test.

Hi Stig,
we might be relatives. I´m born north of the polar circle. We were hunters and fishers mostly and we had a reindeer herd when I was a small girl. My grandfather (fathers side) used to tell about his forefather, a noaidi (shaman) in a village close to Karesuando. My mother comes from a village near the polarcircle. Her relatives had been there so long time so they didn´t now of anything else. They were said to have been very rich because Malmberget, lay on their land.(But they did not get any money, from those who took their land.
Your daughter is an american of course, because you must have tought her that. My sisters son is a boy from Stockholm, because my sister did not teach him anything else.

We are all relatives. We are part of the great circle with the fire in the middle. Yes, i live in California. But i still remember what renskav tasted like.
I went to Alaska. I met the Klinquit people near Yakutat up there. They showed me marks on a stone wall. It was exactly the same as the one i have seen near Njallo Loukta. I asked the man what it meant. He said it is our God of the wind.
I told him that we call it Biegg Olmai and that it has the same meaning. He showed me another one. It was a circle with a dot in the middle. I said it connotes an egg or the beginning of a human. He just stared at me and said to me that we are perhaps the same people. I said yes we are.
15,000 years apart but still the same.
I don't have to be an archeologist to understand that.
That evening i had smoked sarveh the elk in the long house.
We listened to the kobda the troll drum. That night i traveled in my dreams to places that had been long before they took our land away.
Savon! Live well and long. Tell them all the following words.
See me I am alive.

I am delighted to find this blog because I love this sort of stuff.
If there are 5 generations per 100 years and you go 600 years back (2**30)and no ancester married another ancestor, we would be descended from more than a billion people, more that was on the earth at the time.
Obviously there was a lot of intermarrieage as well as local selection for traits that suited the local environment the best. For example if there was a lot of malaria in an area, a trait that protected you from it would enable the keeper to survive and pass on that trait.

By Mary Cowmeadow (not verified) on 12 Mar 2009 #permalink

Ve och fasa.

By Mörkerman (not verified) on 16 Sep 2009 #permalink

Hej Martin,

Hú gæþ hit? Understód ic rihte ðæt þú mid dohtrum þÃnum nú in Californian búas? Gemanst þú mec, wit (1stP.Pl.dual.nom, we-two) 'spræcon' þurh 'email' siððan 4 oððe (eller) 5 geárum. Hú lenge eartu hér in CA gewesen and hwær, gyf ic fregnan mæg, búastu? Ic, self, hafu in Californian 'BayArean (the -an endings are not def. art. as in NGmc but singular-oblique 'weak' or n-stem-noun casemarkers as in hochdeutsch, der Name, des Namen, etc, e.g, California hæfþ mongigu fægeru beorgu, "CA har mÃ¥nga vackra berg", se heafodstæd Californian is Sacramento. se nama ðæs mannes (or) ðæs mannes nama is Offa. Offan wÃfes nama is Ãlle, Ãllan twegen suna hafaþ ðá naman (pl.acc) Wanwine, se ieldra sunu, Anláf.)
Als spræcwÃtscipamann,wát ic mýcel (mycket) on germaniscum spræcum, núdaga- and fyrndaga-spræc. In ðissum felda, leorneþ man ym oðere felda swá als mannawætscipa (anthro), stær (history)ierfaláflÃfeswitschipa (genetics),sæmhælwÃscÃpa, and æfen ym ðá wÃtscipa ðe (som) nánþing mid mannum, déorum, ne mid lÃfe. In NE healdu mid lárungum (doctrine) þæs 'wÃtscipamannes' Franz Boas. Hé openlice sægde ofer and ofer ðæt hé lysenkoism fylgde, ðæt it wæs 'ethical' ne ánlice for wÃtscipamannum tó leogenne, ác (but,men) sceolden leogan and æfen unwærháde (lögner) scæpian and sprædian ym communistice lárunga tó fræmienne, oðer unrihtnessa (injustices) tó rihtsetienne. I believe that science and more importantly that scientist should be totally apolitical (opolitiska) or at least either admit/preface any political beliefs when showing, evidence, findings, data, etc. It is possible for people to do that. I, personally read the into to a book "Homer in the Balitc" (1995) Vinci, Felice. He's a nuclear engineer by training (as Boas had no training in phys. anthro but physics, just because one is well-trained in one field means NOT nödvänditvis that he/she is competent in other field. Well, the he states in his book, that the "blond" Achaeans had previously lived in the Baltic before migrating down to Hellas and adopting Hellenic speech. That Homer merely wrote down a centuries-old tale, sung in poetic style by bards before writing's advent to the area. Homer wrote the Iliad and Odyssey c. 850 BC/BCE. The war was said to have taken place around 1300 BCE/BC. Vinci points out the inconsistencies with Aegean/Ionian Sea-geography, many real places are not where they were mentioned, or simply existed NOT or in existing places, the geographical descriptions were totally inconsistant with reality, and the interceding 5 centuries were not enough time and no island, describe as a "plain" but in reality was very bergsrik. There were to many incosistencies, spread over a wide enough area that no single natural cataclysmic event, such as the Black-Sea flood or
any massive volcanic erruption/s, etc, could account for these errors.These inconsistencies might exists because the story was fictional, belnding real, known places with fictional places, etc., or that the Trojan war took place elsewhere. (I am sure there are other reasons but I am writing too much already). I will be back.