Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Church in St. Petersburg built on the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was built in 1883 to 1907. Crazy, but sort of amazing.

Archaeology and Demography in Eastern North America

What does archaeology tell us about the past?

It's a question I ask myself all the time. Often when digging up artifacts of indeterminate date from soils of indeterminate origin I feel like the answer is, "not much." People were here, sure; they made pots or stone tools; they built fires and cooked things. What else?

My nagging sense of how little we sometimes learn from archaeology is what drew me to a 2010 paper in American Antiquity by George Milner and George Chaplin. They push the archaeological data to its limit in an attempt to answer an important questions about the past, and they may have discovered something of value.

There is a long-running, sometimes bitter debate about how many people lived in the Americas before Europeans arrived. The bitterness comes from a sense that the low count faction is somehow minimizing European crimes, the high count faction trying to play them up, hence everybody is playing politics in one way or another.

How would you count anyway? One way is to start from those Native polities that were encountered by Europeans when they were still strong and healthy -- the Aztecs, for example, or the Timucuans of Florida who welcomed De Soto's men. You look at how much the population of those areas fell by 1800 and then extrapolate to areas about which you have no data. Problems with this method include knowing how far to trust population estimates made by explorers and a sort of sampling error, in that explorers were drawn to the most populist and dynamic Native communities for trade or conquest.

How might one go about estimating the population of areas that no ethnographically-minded outsiders visited until after their populations had been decimated by disease? Well, how about archaeology?

Alas, archaeology is a bad way to estimate populations; all you can really do is excavate a village and then look at historical records and see how many people explorers thought lived in similar communities, which means you are back to worrying about the accuracy of those estimates anyway.

But maybe archaeology can make a contribution here. Because to archaeologists one striking thing about North America circa 1500 AD is how many vast areas had, so far as we can tell, no inhabitants at all. The record indicates that population was quite dense in certain areas -- for example, the Mohawk Valley of New York, around the Chesapeake Bay, in the southern Appalachians, on Florida's Gulf Coast -- while other areas that look at least as good for settlement to our eyes were empty. One of these is what archaeologist have taken to calling the "Empty Quarter" around the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, a place that a few hundred years earlier had been home to Cahokia and other major towns.

When Milner and Chaplin plotted the areas in eastern North America where archaeology indicates significant Native settlement in the early 1500s, they got the map above. The size of the blobs is not very important, because by and large the bigger the blob, the lower the population density. But anyway you can see that, based on archaeological data, vast stretches of North America were unsettled. This doesn't  mean that Native Americans didn't use these areas; they did, for hunting and the like. They just didn't build villages or plant corn there.

If you take those population estimates I mentioned before and apply them to this data set, taking account of all the area where it seems nobody lived, you get a radically smaller estimate of Native populations. Of course you have to consider that some villages were probably missed or mis-dated or what have you, but anyway this is the data we have.

Milner and Chaplin produce a range of estimates from their data, but their best figure for the population of the whole is eastern North America is between 800,000 and 1.6 million. This matches quite well with the lowest estimate anybody ever cites, Ubelaker's figure of 1 million, which was reached using a completely different method. Other estimates for the population of this area go as high as 5 to 8 million, so archaeology points to a figure on the low side of historical estimates.

As I said, I like this because it takes the archaeological data serious: this is what we have, so what does it tell us?

Monday, December 9, 2019

Population Decline in Rural Texas

From 1940 to 2010 the population of Texas grew by 392%. Even so the state has 37 counties where the population has fallen by more than 40%, including 10 that have shrunk by 70%. This even includes a couple of counties in the Permian Basin oil patch. Across north Texas hundreds of town have completely disappeared.

I pass this on because I have a strong sense that the ongoing emptying out of rural America and the concentration of more and more people in suburban agglomerations like Houston, Atlanta, and Washington, DC are driving our politics every bit as much as racial change.

Pottery Faces from Medieval Nottingham

These faces were applied to earthenware vessels in the potteries of medieval Nottingham, 1150 to 1250 AD. Nottingham remained a major center of pottery production for centuries thereafter.

This is a famous vessel called the 'Knight's Jug,' found under the old Moot Hall in 1995. These images come from an exhibit at the University of Nottingham Museum, via Museum Crush.

Delightful. The "face jugs" of contemporary Appalachia are a direct continuation of this tradition.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Leigh McCloskey’s "Grimoire"

Leigh McCloskey is a former television actor turned esoteric author and artist who lives in a "Malibu dream house" and publishes on kabbalah, theosophy, and the like. He has designed a set of tarot cards and created several books of images intended to convey spiritual guidance in artistic form.

These images are from a word simply called Grimoire. According to McCloskey's web site
Grimoire was originally created for his friend the director E.Elias Merhige and his film Shadow of the Vampire with Willam Defore and John Malkovitch. The Grimoire was not in the final edit of the film and through a rather magical course of creative connectivity ended up being used by the Rolling Stones on their Bigger Bang Tour instead.
I found the page shown at the top on a tumblr of alchemical images and had to track it down. I was slightly disappointed to discover it was done in 2006 but it still looks amazing.

More here.

Pocklington Shield

In 2018 a chariot burial was excavated at Pocklington in East Yorkshire, one of two chariot burials at the site of this car park, out of 27 ever found in Britain. The site is back in the news because conservationists have released this image of the bronze shield boss, a wonderful work of the Celtic La Tene style.

Against Expertise

Ross Douthat's latest column returns to one of the themes of American politics over the past decade, a distrust of experts. "One of the key forces in American politics right now," he says, is
the distrust of technocracy, the sense that the smartest guys in each political coalition can’t really be trusted, the feeling that the whole model of credentialed meritocracy is corrupt and self-dealing and doesn’t deliver on its promises.
I think this is absolutely correct. In the US we have always had a strong strain is distrust for egg-headed experts, and recent events have only made this more intense. The financial collapse and the great recession that followed destroyed respect for economists and business leaders, and the unfolding disaster in the Middle East has done the same for the foreign policy establishment. Zig-zagging over medicine and the environment has reduced the reputation of science; a feeling that science has little to offer us in facing many of our problems has spread even among technocrats like me. The press has hardly covered itself with glory. Underlying all of this is the broad economic slowdown since 2000, along with a sense that we cannot solve either our current problems (disappearance of factory jobs) or those looming in the future (artificial intelligence).

This explains why even a technocrat like me is not very impressed by Elizabeth Warren's long litany of plans. Even if they could get through Congress, which I doubt, I don't know if they would make much difference, and I am certain that they will fail to impress most Americans. People are tired of plans.

What they want, it seems to me, is something much more straightforward. As Douthat says about Bernie Sanders, his popularity comes from his moralism and his "politics of righteous struggle." Everybody knows what Sanders stands for, what he would do in almost any situation. But not everyone wants socialism, and even some of those who do think it's a political loser.

Which brings me to what really interested me about Douthat's piece, his take on Joe Biden:
This is clearly the appeal of the other non-technocrat in the Democratic field, the still-front-running Joseph Biden. Of course the former vice president also has plans and policy papers — no Democrat lacks them — but even more than Sanders he’s running as a non-wonk, an anti-technocrat, the guy who’ll shout “malarkey!” when the clever McKinsey guy shows up with the white paper. . . .

Despite his constant invocations of Obama, Biden no less than Sanders (and much more than Buttigieg and Warren) is running against the Obama governmental style, and especially the first-term Obamanaut confidence in intelligence and expertise as the essential oil of governance. If Sanders woos voters by saying, why not elect a moralist instead of an expert, Biden woos them by saying, how about we just elect a [expletive] politician?
I think that captures Biden's appeal. Ideologically he is close to the Democratic mainstream, in style he is closer to working and lower middle class voters than any other Democrat, and he has a "no bullshit" schtick that resonates in this moment. I think the main question about him is whether he has the dynamism to sustain a long campaign against Trump, and whether in the end he would just look old and tired compared to Trump's explosiveness.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Lumpy Pearls in Baroque Europe

Some pearls are round, but others are not. I don't know what happens to big, strangely shaped pearls these days, but in old Europe they were made into luxury figurines and jewelry. Above is a baby figurine made from a lumpy pearl for Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici in 1695. In the Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Another item from Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici's collection, a small dragon. Photo set showing several more here.

Pendant showing Neptune riding a sea monster, early 17th century. In the Met, which has several of these. I suspect one of their big Gilded Age donors must have collected them.

Pendant in the form of a swan, 16th century. In the Met.

Hercules raising the pillars, 16th century. The choice of image suggests this was made for a man, quite likely Francis I. In the Getty.

Crucifixion, 16th century. In the Met.

Hippocampus, 16th century, once belonged to the Rothschilds, now in the British Museum.

Camel and dwarf, early 18th century, part of a large collection of these in Dresden.

Triton, 16th century. In the Palazzo Pitti.

Tokyo Drone Wars

The latest from Japan:
Reportedly, in Tokyo, local gangs have started using drones to transport drugs across the city. In response, the police are using net-carrying drones to try to capture these packets mid-air. The gangs are counter-attacking with their own net-drones to try and drop police drones. A police spokesman said they "Haven't had this much fun in years"

Friday, December 6, 2019

White Van Hysteria

CNN Reports on the latest viral panic:
Terrifying rumors initially propelled by Facebook's algorithms have sparked fears that men driving white vans are kidnapping women all across the United States for sex trafficking and to sell their body parts. While there is no evidence to suggest this is happening, much less on a national, coordinated scale, a series of viral Facebook posts created a domino effect that led to the mayor of a major American city issuing a warning based on the unsubstantiated claims.

The latest online-induced panic shows how viral Facebook posts can stoke paranoia and make people believe that spotting something as common as a white van, can be deemed suspicious and connected to a nationwide cabal.

"Don't park near a white van," Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young said in a TV interview on Monday. "Make sure you keep your cellphone in case somebody tries to abduct you."

The mayor said he had not been told of the apparent threat by Baltimore Police but said it was "all over Facebook." . . .

Indeed, while there is no hard evidence of any such phenomenon in Baltimore, unconfirmed reports of suspicious white vans in Baltimore and other cities across the US have been shared hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook in recent weeks and have been seen by potentially millions of Facebook users. At least one person who drives a white van has reported being harassed for it as a result of the rumors.
Let's feed the fire by all posting that we're seeing suspicious white vans driven by tall, slender men in black. That ought to shake things up.

Links 6 December 2019

A baptismal font from Sweden, 12th century

Tech writer Gwern's list of open questions, from "Would adding lithium to the drinking water make us happier?" to "Why does the catnip response vary so much?" to "Why furries?" I recommend skipping the math section at the beginning; it isn't all like that.

Short, pretty good history of iron and steel.

The number of people in the Arab world who identify as "not religious" is rapidly increasing, to more than 40% in a recent survey of Tunisia and 35% in in Libya.

Bret Stephens lauds the courage of contemporary dissidents.

Engineering E. coli to absorb atmospheric CO2.

The NY Times looks at all the ways Amazon operates in Baltimore.

Being first isn't everything: scientists who publish major findings second still end up with substantial recognition.

The Optometry Racket. (Americans have to see an optometrist and get a prescription to get a new pair of glasses or contacts, whereas many Europeans can buy them from vending machines.)

"The Tribunal’s members are certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims." Report here.

Faith and digital technology: the rosary that logs how often it is used and other wonders.

Long review by a Libertarian ideologue of a book about China's Cultural Revolution that blames everything on Maoist ideology. Interesting but, I think it over-emphasized ideology as opposed to old-fashioned narcissism and struggles for power.

Atomic gardening was the practice of placing plants around a gamma ray source and seeing if this produced beneficial mutations; among others, Ruby Red grapefruit was created this way. "Atoms for peace," as they said.

Ross Douthat reviews the ideology of marriage from the 1960s to the present.

I don't really recommend this article, but I wanted to note its conclusion: a century of neuroscience has produced zero progress in explaining consciousness.

Ancient Egyptians left millions of mummified ibises as temple offerings. Where did they get them?

Scholarly paper arguing that Justinian's Plague (c 541-545 AD) was not a catastrophic event on par with the Black Death of 1348-1349. My own impression is that nobody ever found the direct evidence for a disastrous plague very convincing, but it was played up as a possible explanation for the undoubted population decline in parts of the Empire. The problem, as this paper makes clear, is that the best evidence for population decline is mostly from remote areas like Wales and northern Greece, while the most urbanized areas (Syria, Egypt) suffered least, hardly what you would expect from disease.

A Question about Paracosms

From tech writer Gwern's list of open questions:
How common are, and what is going on psychologically, in the occasional eruption of large shared fantasy worlds (“paracosms”) among children and adolescents?

There are many cases of a (typically pubescent, typically female) child or adolescent building such an intense fantasy-world that they wind up sucking in and convincing friends/classmates. They typically go unreported except in extreme cases (such as the Parker–Hulme murder case, the Slender Man stabbing, the Manchester stabbing), often reported only in passing or via anecdotes—I have been told of 3 cases (2 from acquaintances, one indirectly), all of which follow the same pattern of a young female teenager building up a fantasy world (with heavy input from dreams) and engrossing friends/classmates.

But there doesn’t seem to be any recognized name for this pattern (“Tlön syndrome”? “Terabithia complex”? folie à plusieurs) or discussion of epidemiology. Is it an expansion of maladaptive daydreaming? Is prevalence underestimated due to childhood amnesia (similar to how imaginary friends are not anomalous but may be had by the majority of children, though they forget as adults)? Are the dynamics the same as proto-religions (the ways in which the paracosms are extended, particularly by dreaming, bear a great deal of resemblance to the origins of religions like Christianity)?
I am also fascinated by the question of belief and how it is shared, and in the relationship between beliefs that strike us as insane – e.g., if we stab this other girl Slender Man will appear and bless us – and those that seem more normal.

Williams Syndrome and Self-Domestication

Williams Syndrome is a strange and rare psychological condition marked by a complete inability to distrust, a sort of anti-paranoia. If you clicked on a link I posted a few weeks ago (Nothing makes sense except in light of inter-individual variation) you may have read a little bit about it. NPR has an interesting article here:
Jessica's daughter, Isabelle, has Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder with a number of symptoms. Children with Williams are often physically small and frequently have developmental delays. But also, kids and adults with Williams love people, and they are literally pathologically trusting. They have no social fear. Researchers theorize that this is probably because of a problem in their limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. There appears to be a disregulation in one of the chemicals (oxytocin) that signals when to trust and when to distrust. . . .

When Isabelle was younger, she was chronically happy. She smiled at anything. She loved everyone: family, friends, strangers. She reached for them all, and, in return, everyone loved her. Strangers would stop Jessica to tell about how adorably loving Isabelle was.

But as Isabelle got older, the negative side of her trusting nature began to play a larger role. A typical example happened a couple of years ago, when Jessica and her family were spending the day at the beach. Isabelle had been begging Jessica to go to Dairy Queen, and Jessica had been putting her off. Then Isabelle overheard a lady just down the beach.

"She was telling her kids, 'OK, let's go to the Dairy Queen,' " Jessica says. "And so Isabelle went over and got into the lady's van, got in the back seat, buckled up and was waiting to be taken to Dairy Queen with that family."

Jessica had no idea what had happened to Isabelle and was frantically searching for her when the driver of the van approached her and explained that she had been starting her car when she looked up and saw Isabelle's face in the rearview mirror.

The woman, Jessica says, was incredibly angry.

"She said, 'I am a stranger, you know!' " Jessica says. Essentially, the woman blamed Jessica for not keeping closer watch on her daughter -- for neglecting to teach her the importance of not getting into a car with someone she didn’t know. But the reality could not be more different. "It's like, 'My friend, you have no idea,' " Jessica says.
"Self-Domestication" is a theory about why we are different from our Paleolithic ancestors. Those differences include: our heads are less massive and bony, our faces are smaller, our teeth are less robust. There are three main theories about how this happened. Some people say it was climate change at the end of the Ice Age, others changes in diet related to the origin of agriculture and a general increase in plant foods, but right now the hottest idea is self-domestication. The idea comes from the Belyaev Fox Experiment, in which Russian biologist Dmitry Belyaev showed that he could produce all the changes that we see in domesticated animals (shorter faces, floppy ears, spotted coats, etc.) by breeding for one trait, the willingness to be approached and touched by humans.

The differences between us and Paleolithic humans closely parallel those between dogs and wolves; this can be shown mathematically using skull measurement ratios and so on.

Now comes genetic evidence that the genes implicated in Williams Syndrome may also be involved in the changes that make us "anatomically fully modern humans," and that Williams Syndrome can be seen as a sort of "hyper domestication." These are technical articles in genetics, but if you are really curious see here, here, and here.

Besides being trusting, many Williams Syndrome sufferers are retarded, and I've never heard of one being a genius. So if self-domestication is mild Williams Syndrome, does that mean we have gotten less intelligent? It seems possible. Our heads have gotten smaller, and brain size is correlated with intelligence, albeit weakly. Many domesticated animals are stupider than their wild cousins, including cows and horses. But it isn't always true; domestic pigs are still pretty smart and when they go wild they do perfectly fine, even outcompeting truly wild pigs. Border collies are in some ways much smarter than wolves, for example in their ability to understand human language. And this points to one of the more positive findings of this research: the same genetic changes that make us more like Williams Syndrome kids may have increased our linguistic ability.

And even if we have gotten individually a little less smart, that is of course a lot less important than our increased ability to pool our mental resources.

I don't know how seriously to take this. Williams Syndrome has lots of symptoms, some of which are physical, for example weaker hearts and shorter life expectancies. Just because the same genes are involved doesn't mean the processes are really that similar. This research is very new and experimental, flagged as such in the journals.

But this is just so suggestive that I can't resist passing it on. It provides another way to think about how we have changed and are changing and opens up all sorts of questions.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Socialism and Utopia

The first half of this article by Brett Heinz might be the most appealing description of socialism I have ever read. He focuses mainly on all the ways we already use government ownership and cooperative ownership to manage big parts of the economy:
Because of its Cold War connotations, most Americans think of socialism solely as inefficient and bureaucratic public ownership through a powerful central government. But actual public ownership need not be either centralized or wasteful. The state of North Dakota owns both a public bank and the nation’s largest flour mill, each providing reliable services to state residents while also being accountable to and returning their profits to the state government rather than to private shareholders. Indeed, in order to ensure that everyone had access to basic banking services, the U.S. ran a highly successful basic public banking program through the post office from 1911 to 1967 (139 countries still offer at least some financial services through their post office).

While private internet service providers ignore rural consumers and systematically overcharge the customers they do have, more than 500 cities across 40 states have established cable internet networks owned and operated by municipal governments, with great results: The municipal networks for Longmont, CO and Chattanooga, TN are both among the 10 fastest internet service providers in the nation.

As private utilities have been busy starting wildfires and poisoning rivers to protect their profits, 16 percent of Americans already get their electricity from public utilities (and another 13 percent from cooperatives). Nebraska, the only state to exclusively use public and cooperative energy utilities, has some of the cheapest and greenest energy in the country, and sends most of its excess revenue into state coffers. Every citizen can elect the members of their utility’s board and attend public meetings to provide direct input. In one of the most conservative states in the country, socialism is already thriving in one sector. . . .
All of which is true; there are lots of publicly owned enterprises in America and western Europe, and some of them are quite productive and efficient. We even have one publicly-owned football team, and it has an above-average record. I'm all for public ownership or cooperative ownership when it seems to work. When capitalists cry "Socialism!' at the sight of any government run or heavily regulated activity, I just shrug; the word holds no fear for me.

But then Heinz starts dreaming utopian dreams:
Democratic socialism means waking up in the morning without worrying about rent, making breakfast with ingredients you grew alongside your neighbors, and taking clean and free public transit for your short commute to the job where you and your co-workers elected your own management. It means having your share of the profits you help produce direct deposited into your local credit union, going on a long walk through your vibrant and diverse neighborhood in the late afternoon, watching a movie over high-speed public broadband, and then going to sleep in your warm bed without worrying about energy bills. You don’t have to call your insurance agency to argue over a deductible, you don’t have to have your allergies exacerbated by dirty air, and you won’t be stopped and arbitrarily questioned by an aggressively militarized police force. We know that this world is possible; the only matter now is to fight for it.
Why does democratic socialism mean not worrying about rent? Every public housing program I know of across the whole world charges rent. Soviet citizens all paid rent. If we don't pay rent, how would we build new housing or maintain what we have? If there are no utility bills, who pays for the solar farms and wind farms and high-voltage power lines? Who is going to upgrade all those old lines that spark fires? – because it is aging infrastructure, not perfidious capitalists, that makes the lines dangerous. Soviet citizens all paid to ride the subway, too. Why would cooperative firms mean shorter commutes? Without knowing anything about it I would be willing to bet that some of those North Dakotans who work at the state-owned flour mill have very long drives. Why is socialism going to improve policing, when all the police already work for the public? (Come to think of it, there's an excellent case of a situation where democratic control does not in itself solve the problem.) Why is socialism going to reduce allergies, when by far the most harmful allergen in the US is pollen? Are we going to create jobs by paying people to uproot all the ragweed plants? Why is it going to reduce air pollution? Publicly-owned firms have historically prioritized jobs over the environment, not the other way around. And spare me raising my own breakfast alongside my neighbors; I love to garden but grain farming is a job for agribusiness.

Heinz rants about big, hierarchical companies, which I absolutely agree can be as maddeningly bureaucratic as governments; but without huge, hierarchical companies, who is going to build airplanes? Without huge banks, who is going to provide the financing for state-of-the-art minimally polluting factories? Without stock markets or investment firms, where is the money going to come from for start-up companies? Small cooperatives are great at making butter and cheese, but some things just can't be done that way.

I would prefer a world with more publicly owned utilities and more cooperative businesses, and I would love to see a public option for health care. I would be happy to bring back government banking, I suppose this time on the Internet. But it is a fantasy to think that re-arranging ownership will solve the basic problems of modern life. Some of our problems reflect the basic technological and social structure of our civilization, and some of them, like the torture of trying to get any group of neighbors to agree on anything, are just part of life.

Despite Appearances, Racism is Still Declining

The reaction of many liberals to the Trump era has been to decry that racism is rising, becoming a terrible scourge again. But polls show that this is not so, and racism continues to decline slowly in both the US and Europe. The connection between racist sentiments and right-wing populism is complicated:
Empirically, there is little cross-national correlation between levels of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment and [right-wing] populist success. Swedes score extremely low on measures of racism and anti-immigrant views, yet the right-wing Sweden Democrats are the country’s third-largest party. The Irish and the Spanish, meanwhile, score relatively high on such measures, yet right-wing populism has not been particularly potent in either country. Populists have become more politically successful over time, but racist and anti-immigrant sentiments have actually decreased over time in Europe and the United States over the same period.
(One should note that right-wing populists have been very successful in Austria, which is among the most racist countries in Europe. But anyway the correlation is not very strong.)

I suppose one thing you can say about Trump's success is that while Americans may be less racist, they are still willing to vote for candidates who appeal for racist support. Maybe that means their anti-racism is shallow, but maybe it means they just don't care much about race one way or the other. Remember, Trump got more black votes than Romney, and the same share of those with strong views about racial differences.

Vladimir Tsisaryk

Ukrainian sculptor, born 1978, educated in Lviv, St. Petersburg, and Florence. Obviously very interested in the ancient Greeks. Lots of work at his web site, including monumental portraits that look too socialist-realist for me. But I love these. Above, Helios.




Jason and the Golden Fleece, perhaps betraying a misapprehension as to what a fleece is.

Chariot Race.


Monday, December 2, 2019

Teacher Effectiveness and Student Achievement

The Gates Foundation put up tens of millions for a major experiment in whether a focus on teacher effectiveness could boost student achievement. They enrolled three large school districts and four networks of charter schools. They got their measurement schemes in place, evaluated teachers, made interventions. They ran the program for five years. The result:
Overall, however, the initiative did not achieve its goals for student achievement or graduation.
This was especially true for low-income minority students, who did not benefit at all.

The smartest observers predicted this result, e.g., California Governor Jerry Brown:
“The question you have to ask yourself is, if teacher accountability is really the whole key, how can it be that from Comenius”—a 17th-century European pioneer in education—“through John Dewey and Horace Mann, and going back to the Greeks, every­body missed this secret, and we figured it out just now? I’m skeptical of that.”

Mikko Lagerstedt, Finnish Light

Young Finnish photographer. Lots more at his web site.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Everything is Plundered

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses –
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.

–Anna Akhmatova

The Genes of Viking-Age Iceland

Studies of the DNA of modern Icelanders show that they are a mix of Scandinavians and people from the British Isles, and also that the sources are skewed by sex:
Studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosomes from contemporary Icelanders indicate that 62% of their matrilineal ancestry stems from Scotland and Ireland and 75% of their patrilineal ancestry is Scandinavian
This matches up perfectly with the sagas, which are full of Irish slave women. But experience shows that studies based on modern DNA can be a faulty guide to the past, so this is not unimpeachable evidence about the actual settlement.

In 2018 Sunna Ebenesersdóttir and colleagues published 27 genomes of varying quality from Iceland, all dating to between 900 and 1150 AD. These included people who seemed to be entirely Norse, others who were entirely Celtic, and still others who were a mix of the two, generally confirming the picture from modern DNA. On the graph, squares are male and circles are female, solid color indicates pre-Christian migrants, shading is pre-Christian non-migrant, and fully open is post Christian. (Ireland converted to Christianity in AD 1000.)

More recently the Eurogenes blogger has taken a look at the five highest quality samples and got the results shown above. The big surprise here is the presence of people who look Swedish rather than Norwegian. I am not sure what to make of this, because the written sources having nothing to say about Swedish Vikings in Britain or Ireland. Does it represent movement back and forth between Sweden and Norway, so that some people who came to Ireland from Norway were ethnically Swedish? Or did news about the land to be had for the taking in Ireland reach noble families in Sweden and inspire some of them to load up a ship and make the voyage? Interesting either way.