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Digging ever deeper for human roots

Source: PNAS

There were many stories in the news this week about sequencing the DNA of a boy buried in Siberia 24,000 years ago and how the boy’s DNA links early Europeans to Native Americans. None of these stories mentioned that linguists have been looking for — and may have found — the same connection. This research by linguists is new and remains controversial.

All this is fascinating, and though I’ve read a good many articles on the linguistics involved here, much of it is too technical for me to understand. Here is a less technical article on how linguists have been able to trace languages back as far as 15,000 years.

The important thing to a generalist, though, is that DNA, language, and culture always migrate together. Culture, however, is fragile and can be stamped out almost overnight, while DNA and language (except when genocide is involved) are much tougher and change slowly at statistically predictable rates.

We grieve for lost languages, though languages are tougher than cultures. We also grieve for lost cultures, as I have been grieving for lost Celtic culture. This new genetic and linguistic evidence shows that the Native American cultures and Celtic culture have common roots if you go back far enough.

It seems to be an axiom of human history that, when cultures collide, the shittiest culture tends to win, and more gentle, naive, or nature-oriented cultures tend to lose. Take a look, for example, at a cultural element that Celtic culture and many Native American cultures had in common — the belief in reincarnation. Julius Caesar, who wrote extensively about his war against the Celtic Gauls, was very interested in the military advantages of a belief in reincarnation:

“They [the Druids] wish above all to convince their pupils that souls do not perish but pass after death from one body into another, and this they see as an inducement to valor, for the dread of death is thereby negated.”

This belief in reincarnation is found all over the world, particularly in gentler cultures. In reincarnation, it is assumed that people themselves work through their foibles and destinies, over time. It is chiefly the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which frankly I regard as inferior religions — that abhor the idea of reincarnation and prefer to let their often angry and vindictive sky god sort people out after death and reward them or punish them appropriately.

It is very hard for me to understand that many people celebrate, rather than grieve for, lost cultures. Here is a chilling quote from Theodore Roosevelt, from Hunting Expeditions of a Ranchman:

Above all, the extermination of the buffalo was the only way of solving the Indian question. As long as this large animal of the chase existed, the Indians simply could not be kept on reservations, and always had an ample supply of meat on hand to support them in the event of a war; and its disappearance was the only method of forcing them to at least partially abandon their savage mode of life. From the standpoint of humanity at large, the extermination of the buffalo has been a blessing.

A blessing for whom, and for which god?

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