The day has finally arrived: The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the West (a much better title than my first attempt) is now available for purchase in the medium of your choice.
I’m fond of the audiobook, which I read myself. You can listen to a sample on the Tides of Historypodcast feed. If you prefer to read, check out an excerpt hosted by the fine folks at Defector, a wonderful website created by the former staff of Deadspin, where I was lucky enough to write freelance pieces for a couple of years. I also wrote a fun tie-in piece for Defector (I’ll link to when it’s up) on Christopher Columbus as a replacement-level historical figure, so be sure to check that out as well.
Thanks to all of you for reading this newsletter, and for those of you reading the book, I hope you like it. Here’s one of Albrecht Dürer’s watercolors to send you on your way.
I’ve been beating it to death for some time now, but my book, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World, finally, officially comes out next Tuesday, July 20th.
It’s my first book, it’s been a long road to get here, and I’m pretty stoked about the whole thing. People I like and respect a great deal have said nice things about it:
So what is The Verge about, and why should you care? Read the first few pages and decide for yourself.
Put simply, The Verge is about a relatively brief but incredibly eventful period in the history of Europe, the decades between 1490 and 1530, and their role in laying the groundwork for Europe’s future role as the home of industrialization and global empires. The roots of those developments, I argue, can be found in the collision of incredibly disruptive processes at the beginning of the 16th century. Voyages of exploration, rising states, banking, gunpowder warfare, the printing press, the Reformation: all of these things tore the continent apart at the seams, while killing and immiserating untold numbers across the globe both then and in the centuries to come.
These things - exploration, states, printing presses, etc. - are usually understood as separate developments. I disagree: Finance linked them all together. All were expensive, capital-intensive processes that scaled exponentially as more money flowed into them, which it did in precisely this period. At the beginning of the 16th century, Europeans figured out that there was money to be made in long-distance sea voyages, financing rising states’ yen for gunpowder warfare, and investing in printing presses. The result was intense disruption in the short term and long-term shifts that eventually, many centuries down the road, led to European global hegemony.
These things can seem like impersonal, abstract processes, things that we discuss in grand terms over the span of decades and centuries. But they were real and tangible, and real people were involved in them, drove them forward, and suffered as a result. To avoid this depersonalization, I’ve told the story of this period through the lives of a series of historical figures. Some of them, like Christopher Columbus, Queen Isabella of Castile, and the banker Jakob Fugger, you might have heard of; others, like the one-armed German mercenary Goetz von Berlichingen, are a bit more obscure, but no less illustrative.
My hope is that I’ve written an entertaining book that nevertheless engages with the latest scholarship on this period while addressing a big, important question about the history of the last half millennium.
The Verge comes out on Tuesday, but you can preorder it now on the platform of your choice. I read the audiobook, which will be available on Audible and everywhere else you get your audiobooks; it was a cool experience, especially because the booth where I did it was exactly where Lil Wayne recorded much of Tha Carter III. If you’ve already preordered the book, thank you for the support!
(Perspectives will return to not-book-related-content shortly.)
A construction laborer working in the city of Harbin discovered the skull way back in 1933, but reportedly hid it in a well to keep it out of the hands of the Japanese, who then occupied northeastern China. It remained unknown to scholars until just before the man’s death in 2018, when he revealed its existence to his family. They retrieved the skull and gave it to researchers at the Geoscience Museum of Hebei GEO University. The skull, which is incredibly well preserved for a specimen of that age (and among the best preserved for any , obviously belonged to an archaic human: It is large and robust, and quite unlike that of our particular species.
This is a pretty big deal. If the researchers who published the discovery are correct, then the skull from Harbin represents a brand-new lineage of our human family. Moreover, they argue that this newly discovered lineage, rather than that of the Neanderthals, is actually the closest relative to modern humans.
So how should we understand this new and incredibly exciting discovery? And where does Dragon Man fit into our current grasp of the deep human past? Have we found humanity’s closest ancient relative?
Let’s answer that last question first: I don’t think so.
The reason for that answer is based on the kind of analysis contained in these newly published papers. They make their arguments on the basis of skeletal morphology: basically, how the skull looks in comparison to the other fossil samples we have from the genus Homo. To be clear, it’s not like holding up a picture of the Harbin cranium next to others and making impressionistic guesses about which one it most closely resembles; instead, scholars take a variety of precise measurements and create statistical models, which then phylogenetically group the skeletal remains together. This method assumes, on a basic level, that similar skeletal measurements reflect similarity in ancestry.
The problem, as ancient DNA has shown us repeatedly in the last couple of decades, is that skeletal morphology is an inconsistent and unreliable guide to actual ancestry. Just because two things look similar doesn’t mean they’re actually related all that closely. Adaptation to conditions drives changes in skeletal morphology far more than immediately shared ancestry. Under the right circumstances - small populations under heavy pressure, which then expand rapidly afterward, for example - new adaptations can spread with incredible rapidity.
As Razib Khan points out in his excellent Substack on this topic, Neanderthals were quite wonderfully adapted for the cold conditions of northern Eurasia. Much of what looks “archaic” about them was actually a fairly recent adaptation (over a couple of hundred thousand years) in a small and often extremely inbred population facing brutal selection pressures in a harsh environment.
Just because the Harbin cranium has some more modern-human-like features than Neanderthals doesn’t mean it’s closer to us in ancestry. In essence, the family tree the researchers create on the basis of their skeletal measurements doesn’t hold up in the face of the ancient DNA evidence. DNA is a direct window into ancestry, not an assumed proxy for it. Until we have DNA from the Harbin cranium, we won’t be able to answer this question, but I strongly lean toward “no.”
So if not an entirely new species, who was Dragon Man? I think (and so do a bunch of actual experts quoted in the New York Times article on the topic) that he was what we call a “Denisovan.”
The Denisovans are an archaic human group we know almost entirely from DNA, first from a tiny finger bone found in Siberia’s Denisova Cave. Additional fossils from that cave, including a first-generation Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrid, have added to our understanding of Denisovan ancestry. So too have the traces Denisovans left in the DNA of modern human populations, like the ancestors of today’s Papuans and indigenous Australians.
We know that Denisovans existed, but we know almost nothing about them. That includes what they looked like. The most solid physical evidence for their existence is a very large and robust jawbone found in a Tibetan cave, which proteomic analysis groups with the Denisovans. A variety of archaic-looking skulls and other bits of skeletal evidence have shown up across East Asia in the past few decades, including one that looks almost exactly like Dragon Man, but precisely where they fit in the human family tree hasn’t been clear.
The best explanation for this, on the basis of the current evidence, is that these skulls - like that of Dragon Man - belong to the mysterious Denisovans. The Harbin cranium is large and robust, like that of the jawbone from the Tibetan cave. It dates to roughly the same period when we know Denisovans were living in the Altai Mountains 2,000 miles to the west. But it’s a little more complicated than that: We know that there was not one but several distinct groups of what we call Denisovans. This is because there were multiple interbreeding events between modern humans and these varied populations of Denisovans, who presumably lived all over what is today East and maybe Southeast Asia as well. These different Denisovan populations were quite diverged from one another, in genetic terms, enough that we can tell the difference between them in the traces they left in modern humans of the past and present. These groups were in turn quite distinct from the original Denisovans found in Denisova Cave.
So to me, this is the most parsimonious explanation: that the Harbin cranium, and Dragon Man, belonged to a member of one of these various Denisovan lineages that perhaps later interbred with modern humans.
But as we continue to discover, parsimonious explanations aren’t necessarily best when it comes to the complexity of the deep past. Two other things deserve mention. First, we can now be fairly certain that our modern human ancestors who left Africa weren’t the first Homo sapiens to do so. Others had come before them, interbred with the archaic humans living outside Africa - namely Neanderthals - and then disappeared. It’s possible that Dragon Man belonged to a group, perhaps a Denisovan group, that had interbred with one of these modern human populations at some point in the past.
Second, and more profound, is the series of questions raised repeatedly by Professor John Hawks over the years. Are we even right to think in terms of species? How much utility do names like Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, or Denisovans really have?
What we’re talking about are populations, lineages, some of which were more closely related to each other than others over immense periods of time and geographic scales. As we get more evidence, both genetic and skeletal, we need to start thinking differently about our subjects, and about the human past more generally. (I interviewed Professor Hawks on Tides of History last August, and we spoke at length about this, if you’d like to check it out.) Some of what we call Denisovans - whose bones we haven’t yet found - probably had Neanderthal ancestors. Others may have had ancestors who were closely related to modern humans, like some Siberian Neanderthals 120,000 years ago did. Trying to force them into neat species boxes on a chart misses the actual messiness of the deep past.
Groups lived, came into contact with one another, interbred, and diverged again. Some of them died out; others met again, thousands and thousands of years later, and interbred once again. All of us today are the product of an unfathomable number of these interactions, spread out over hundreds of thousands of years. Dragon Man is simply a new addition to that complex, twisting, and perennially surprising series of stories.
(Note: I’m trying something a little more organic and closer to historical fiction, like the openings of my Tides of History episodes, to start this week’s newsletter. Hope you find it interesting.)
The faces stared upward out the shallow pit, illuminated by the last rays of the evening sun. Tiny fragments of bone stood out from their skulls, stark white against the brown of drying blood and dark hair. The men and boys gathered around the grave’s opening could barely stand to look down at what remained of their family: their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and children, infants and the elderly. Fifteen people lay in the grave, all with their skulls crushed and mangled by a cascade of vicious blows, most of them children and women. They hadn’t even been able to fight back.
Most of the men had been away, watering their cattle at the river or hunting deer in the nearby forest, when the attackers had come. They returned to the cluster of temporary square houses of timber and earth to find a scene of bloody carnage amid the still-smoking cookfires they had left behind. Their family group and their world was gone, utterly destroyed.
All that was left was to bury the dead. An older man placed his elderly wife with their two adult sons. A young father, his wife dead in childbirth two years before, carefully positioned his young son next to the boy’s aunt, his sister. A mother lay on her side next to her teenaged daughter, arranged together in death by the woman’s husband, the girl’s father. He carefully placed a small clay pot next to his daughter’s head, one of many items that accompanied the dead on their next journey: flint axes, the tusks of boars, bone pendants, amber jewelry, tools of stone and bone.
As the sun set and darkness fell on the pit, the small group covered the bodies with dirt, the freshly turned earth marking the spot just north of the Carpathian Mountains where they left their families behind for all eternity, nearly 5,000 years ago.
Some time around 2800 BC - the probabilities provided by radiocarbon dates span the years from 2880 to 2776 BC - this extended family was brutally murdered near the village of Koszyce, about 30 miles east of Krakow in what is now southern Poland. They stayed there for almost 5,000 years, until archaeologists discovered and excavated the mass grave in 2011.
Over the past decade, researchers have applied the most advanced tools available to understand these Neolithic people buried near Koszyce: their ancestry, the populations to which they were genetically closest, how they were related to one another, the place where they lived, the precise manner of their deaths, and even what they looked like.
But who were these people? Who killed them? And why?
We can answer the first question in a few different ways. Based on the grave goods, the burial rite, and the date, the occupants of the mass grave were representatives of what’s known as the “Globular Amphora Culture.” These people lived in what’s now central and eastern Europe in the centuries around 3000 BC. They were farmers and herders, descended mostly from the Neolithic farmers who populated most of Europe at that time. Their ancestors had come from the Near East around 4,000 years before, bringing farming techniques with them across the Aegean to Greece and then north and west throughout the continent, occasionally mixing with the hunter-gatherers who already made Europe their home. The Globular Amphora Culture is known for a particular kind of decorated pottery vessel called, obviously enough, the globular amphora:
The people buried in the grave near Koszyce belonged to an extended family group. The men were all closely related to one another, bearing the Y-chromosome haplogroup I2a-L801. The women, by contrast, had a variety of different mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, six in total. In essence, the grave contains a patrilineal kinship group, one organized around a specific male lineage. It was also patrilocal, meaning that women left their kin behind and joined their husband’s group when they married.
This family was highly mobile, moving from place to place over the course of the year with their livestock. We know this because the isotopes in their tooth enamel, particularly strontium isotopes, have a wide array of values: There’s no consistent signature that would suggest some members of the group were local to anywhere, Koszyce or someplace else, while other people had moved there from elsewhere. This is often the case with patrilineal and patrilocal kinship systems: The men tend to be local, but the women come from somewhere else, what we would call female exogamy. The best way to explain the isotope values is that the group moved from place to place over the course of the year, spending a few months over the summer at one temporary settlement adjacent to rich pastures, then perhaps taking their livestock to a safe, sheltered spot to graze during the harsh winters.
Given this information, we can surmise that the group interred in the mass grave at Koszyce was a kinship unit, presumably the basic unit of social organization among the Globular Amphora people. Yet only a couple of adult men were found in the grave. Most of the victims were infants, adolescents, and women of varying ages. The best explanation for this disparity in age and gender is that the adult men were away from the settlement when it was attacked, but returned home to bury their dead with care and respect. (It’s pretty doubtful that the killers who had spent frenzied moments murdering these people took the time to inter them with their close kin and a series of significant grave offerings.)
But who killed them, and why?
Those are much harder questions to answer. The murderers left behind no smoking gun to identify themselves, not even a diagnostic type of arrowhead buried in the bone of one of the victims. We can start, however, by coming to grips with the precise manner in which the killings were carried out.
This wasn’t a fight; it was a mass execution. Only one of the dead, Individual 5 - one of the two adult men in the collective grave - had any injuries that look like they might have been sustained in the course of combat: He had fractures to his right arm, what look like defensive wounds called “parry fractures”: When somebody tries to hit you in the head, your instinctual reaction is to raise your dominant arm to protect yourself, resulting in injuries to that arm.
Every other injury suffered by a person in the grave, from infants under the age of 2 to adults, was to the head. Moreover, all of those injuries - with the exception of one jaw fracture, suffered by the only other adult male in the grave - were to the cranial vault, the top of the head, rather than the face. All of them appear to have been inflicted by the same kind of weapon, probably a stone axe, that left rectangular and oval-shaped holes in the skulls of the victims.
It’s impossible to overstate how brutal this attack was. Most of the dead were struck at least twice. The researchers who analyzed the injuries suggested that in a few cases, the killers might actually have used a chisel to carry out the final blow, hammering the implement into the victim’s head with their axes or a mace. One of the skulls, the badly damaged cranium belonging to Individual 12, has extensive evidence of charring.
The most likely explanation for all of this involves a mass execution. The people in the grave were captured, mostly without a fight, and then systematically murdered. I’m not a forensic expert, but from the location of the injuries on the skulls, I’d guess the victims were probably seated or kneeling, or perhaps restrained, when they were killed.
Who could do this? Who would kill children and adolescents with so little compunction? And why would they do it?
Perhaps it was another group of Globular Amphora people, a rival male lineage fighting for prime pasture land along the Vistula River. Or maybe the killers were newcomers, maybe Indo-European-speaking herders moving west from the open grasslands of the Eurasian steppe, representatives of what archaeologists call the Corded Ware Culture. Whoever the killers were, they weren’t trying to frighten or run off their adversaries. Viewed in cross-cultural perspective, raiders often capture children and women, taking them as slaves. That wasn’t the case here; the attackers were trying to exterminate their adversaries. Were they rivals for resources? Was there a cultural barrier or set of taboos marking the two groups off from one another? What process of dehumanization was necessary to make this act possible?
We’ll never know the answers. The dead have their story to tell, but on these questions, they remain silent.
I wrote a book! It's called The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World, and it’s about how finance and credit shaped the early modern world in ways that still resonate today. The book comes out in July, but you can pre-order it here.
Schroeder, Hannes, et al. "Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.22 (2019): 10705-10710. Linked here.
Konopka, Tomasz, et al. "Evidence of interpersonal violence or a special funeral rite in the Neolithic multiple burial from Koszyce in southern Poland: a forensic analysis." Anthropological Review 79.1 (2016).
Around 5,000 years ago, ox-drawn wagons rumbled out of the Eurasian grasslands and into the Danube Valley of eastern Europe. Led by scouts on horseback and accompanied by herds of sheep and cattle, they went west through what’s now Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria. They passed the curving arc of the Carpathian Mountains and left the Balkans behind, eventually traveling all the way to the Great Hungarian Plain. This little island of grassland in the middle of Europe became their new home.
These migrants from the steppe filled the Hungarian Plain with earthen burial mounds called kurgans, permanent markers of their otherwise ephemeral presence. Hundreds of these kurgans survive today, breadcrumbs leading us back in time on the trail of the people who brought into Europe the Indo-European languages so many millions of people speak today. Archaeologists call the people who built these mounds representatives of the Yamnaya Culture, transplanted more than 800 miles from their homeland on the steppe to the Pannonian Basin in central Europe.
Migration is a tricky thing. It carries a great deal of baggage in the present, and that baggage weighs down our understanding of migration in the distant past as well. We know it happened: People move now, they’ve moved at every stage of the past for which we have reliable information, and they’ve often done so over long distances with the intention of permanently finding a new home.
Archaeologists and historians have struggled with migration for a long time. A century ago, it was a catch-all explanation for any change in the material record. If the pottery and arrowheads changed, well, that was probably because new people moved in from elsewhere. If a text told you that people moved, that must have been a massive human wave. In more recent decades, archaeologists turned dramatically away from migration. Changes in material style were much more likely to be the result of organic developments, they thought, as the social order shifted, elites emerged and fell, and new ideas about organizing society took hold.
The advent of ancient DNA, especially in the last decade, has shifted the paradigm once more. Migration is again growing popular as a cause of historical change. That’s mostly because it has the obvious benefit of being a pretty good explanation for how people with a specific kind of ancestry, which shows up earliest in one place, shows up later in others. It’s pretty obvious that these people, or individuals and groups related to them, moved.
But knowing this must have happened is one thing; identifying the precise ways it happened, when, who moved, and for what reasons is much more difficult. It’s also infinitely more meaningful, and gives us a great deal more insight into the past than simply pointing at the data and hollering, “Migration!”
There are lots of different kinds of migrations. Refugees fleeing oppression or an environmental disaster look quite a bit different than a group of elite warriors seeking to conquer territory and impose themselves on the current inhabitants. Some migrations are heavily biased toward young, unattached men; others consist of entire family units. People often hop just a few miles down the road to make a new life, but sometimes they leap hundreds of miles, crossing mountains and oceans to reach their new homes.
Material culture - what archaeologists pull out of the ground - isn’t the most straightforward guide to understanding how people in the distant past migrated. Sherds of pottery and stone tools don’t tell easily accessible stories. Neither do bones. Even ancient DNA, and the patterns of ancestry it reveals, doesn’t speak for itself.
The Yamnaya migration is one of the most straightforward examples we find in the distant human past. Artifacts, genes, and even a reconstructed language - Proto-Indo-European - all seem to match up. We see styles of artifact and burial that are intrusive (meaning unlike older practices) to the new area, in this case the Hungarian Plain and to a lesser extent the Danube Valley. People on the steppe buried their exalted dead in kurgans; kurgans show up later in the Hungarian Plain than on the steppe, accompanied by the same kinds of artifacts we find in burials on the steppe. It’s not exactly counterintuitive to guess that people from the steppe, whom we identify with the Yamnaya Culture, moved from one place to the other. When we add the genetic evidence, the migration becomes even clearer: People buried in kurgans on the Hungarian Plain derived most or all of their ancestry from people who had lived on the steppe a few centuries (at most) before.
Even more striking, the archaeological and genetic evidence of this migration match up almost perfectly with the society we can reconstruct for the original speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language, the language ancestral to the entire Proto-Indo-European family. That family includes English, Latin and its descendants, Russian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, and dozens of others, spoken by billions of people around the world today.
This was a world of mobile herders who took their cattle and sheep from place to place, using horses to do so. They were hierarchical and extremely patriarchal, organized around bonds of male kinship, and far from averse to a bit of raiding and fighting. All of that seems to match the Yamnaya both on the steppe and in their new home in the Hungarian Plain.
Even in the case of the Yamnaya, where the material culture seems to fit so nicely with the genetic and linguistic evidence, things aren’t entirely straightforward. Some of the people buried in kurgans in Hungary, even those with typically steppe-style artifacts, have exactly zero genetic ancestry from the steppe. They must have adopted the ways of the migrants through acculturation, and if we’ve found one in a kurgan - the highest-status form of burial available at that place and time - then there were almost certainly many others who didn’t receive that treatment. This wasn’t just a mass population replacement, but a longer-term series of cultural interactions and changes. There were already people living in the Hungarian Plain, and at least some of them found the Yamnaya lifestyle attractive enough to emulate and adopt.
We don’t really why these migrants moved hundreds of miles from their ancestral grasslands into the heart of Europe. It wasn’t a one-time wave of migration, but an ongoing flow of people. Migrants seem to have kept coming for centuries. Whether that was because of population pressures, cultural imperatives, or something else altogether is impossible to say. This fact also tells us that the stream of movement went in both directions. Every significant migration produces a group of returning migrants, and these would have been the people telling the folks back home what they could find over the horizon. Migrants almost never leap blindly into a new land; they operate on the basis of information flows about what they can find, and existing connections to help them along their way. Brothers follow brothers, nieces follow aunts, and cousins follow cousins. This is a neat explanation for precisely how the Yamnaya migration might have happened.
We still have a great many questions about the Yamnaya migration, but it’s one of the most intensively studied and clearest examples of long-distance population movement from any period of the human past. We’re rarely so lucky.