Europe’s first farmers

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I could have probably named the post: “Why the horse was domesticated earlier than 3500 BC,” but “Europe’s first farmers” conveys the overall theme of the post better.

War has always been an integral part of evolution of humanity. Until today, it has constituted the foremost expression of inter-group selection between humans, especially, as humans started aggregating into groups that consisted of more than a handful of clans. Azar Gat’s “War in human civilization” is a book that delves into this dynamics.

Obviously, the topic is extremely broad and deep, beyond the scope of a single post. But just how brutal the reality of war can be does not need to be ascertained from exploring deep history. Regions where modern conflict occurs — conflict that, if it were not strongly modulated by Western powers, exercising their “enlightened values,” would have been an example how such events could truly unfold in the ancient world. To illustrate: the still ongoing, internecine bloodbath between the Tutsi and other groups in Africa. In this case, the clearly militarily superior, but less populous pastoralist Tutsi, having lost about 800,000 of their kinsmen, pushed out of Rwanda, are able to extract toll on the less able but, actually, more barbaric and vicious, more numerous tribes of Eastern Congo. This is more impressive if one considers that they are faced by, albeit corrupt and disorganized, Congolese military supported by the West. It is only the involvement of the latter, via the UN, that prevents inter-group selection from taking hold and establishing a Tutsi dominion over Central Africa, a position they had held before Western colonial involvement.

How does this example relate to Europe and its farmer population? Simple: both involve killing on a mass-scale, killing based on tribal, ethnic affiliation.

Still, as an illustration of the possible worst-case magnitude that a genocide can take on, not much can parallel the extermination of European farmer population, especially that of the LBK culture. Per Greg Cochran, the annihilation of these people, including their entire way of life, was so utterly total, even local dog breeds were, essentially, gone.

To me, beyond the scale of the catastrophe, what makes this situation so fascinating are a few aspects. Firstly, unlike the case of Tutsi vs Hutu and the rest, the difference between the Cardium Pottery+LBK farmers and their enemies, a pastoralist, Samara culture people, was much more fundamental than just the pastoral/hunting vs farming/hunting economy: it also was the difference of mostly-nomadic vs sedentary lifestyle. Secondly, the LBK had thrived in some of their areas for many centuries before being wiped out. Thirdly, this was a case where the victims of extermination were, in actuality, far more sophisticated, more peaceful, more creative and, likely, individually more intelligent than their killers, whose advantage comprised of stronger cohesion, physical strength and superiority in a few key military skills and techniques, skills that were not easily accessible or learnable to people not adept at constantly practicing these since childhood, as way of life.

But let’s begin with understanding who were the LBK. As I don’t wish to re-state the information you can find in Wikipedia etc, I’ll just add here that it is most likely that the LBK were pushed out of Anatolia by changing climatic conditions of around 6000 BC. They are a Natuffian-culture descendant group, just like the later Sumerians, the Hurrites, the Hattites, and, possibly, many other peoples who were not agricultural but semi-nomadically pastoral, like the Kassites and Amorites (although for the latter ones, this is where I’m definitely speculating). There were also other groups that descended from the Natuffian culture, the settlers of Egypt (El-Badar/Fayum culture), the Harrappans, the Elamites. The difference between all the rest of them and LBK/Cardium is that the LBK/Cardium were the first to leave Anatolia and Levant. Also, not only were they the first to split off, they were unique in that they went West, into Europe, at first their journey hugging the Mediterranean north, and then (for LBK) ascending Northwest, up the Danube river.
As they were making their way into Europe they were founding sedentary settlements, successfully battling local hunter gatherers (and each other), practicing agriculture and advanced, for that time, house building. More fascinatingly, they were the first to invent metallurgy and, probably, also invented a primitive form of writing. Their metallurgy dates to approximately 5000 BC, which is considerably earlier than the approximately 4000 BC date that can be attributed to the metallurgy of Transcaucasia, attributable to the ancestors of the Hurrians and Yamnaya (I’ll post on the Hurrian-Yamnaya Transcaucasian connection sometime, too).
The Yamnaya (proto-Indo-European) warriors, who were descendant of the Samara culture people and came into Europe after circa 3500 BC, to “finish the conquest job,” additionally had metallurgical skills, though not as elaborate as LBK’s. Coincidentally, they obtained the metallurgic skills around 3800 BC, from their interaction with Transcaucasian farmers, via the Maykop farmer-kurgan (pastoralist) mixed culture. With the introduction of bronze-tipped weaponry, like javelins and battle axes, the Yamnaya warriors became even deadlier. But again it seems unlikely that the first wave of Yamnaya invasion into Europe happened before 3600 BC or so.

Even before metal weaponry, what made the Samara culture dangerous was their pioneering use of horses. It is unlikely that the Samara people (just like the Yamnaya after them) rode horses into battle, due to lack of stirrups. However, horses still offered a huge advantage in terms of pre-battle mobility (including surprise of offense) and logistics, including providing food “on the go. If we also account for dog use, riding horses could have made them into very efficient hunters. But it is possible that Samara people did not ride horses, unlike Yamnaya. In this case, domesticated horses could still provide immense advantage for mobile hunters, like the Samara pastoralists. Hence, militarily they could overwhelm the farmers, even without possessing metallurgic skills. It is also likely that their warrior spirit was higher than that of the LBK, considering that nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists have historically made for most cohesive and deadly fighting units, via selecting for military cohesion (per Turchin). Per Greg Cochran, another advantage was the Samara/Yamnaya ability to, demographically, quickly recover from defeats, due to high-mobility of their populations (efficient retreat) and ability to digest of milk. Likely, most of their diet consisted of milk and meat (at least, if we judge by Roman records of Germanic tribes). While it is highly debatable whether lactose tolerance first appeared in the proto-Indo-European pastoralists, it appears likely that there was a strong selection for it among them. We can see even today that genes for lactose tolerance are more prevalent among the Germanic, Slavic, and Celtic people than people populating the Mediterranean, including the Eastern parts thereof.

LBK were married to agriculture. Any destruction of related infrastructure (such as by burning) or a change in ecological conditions would be ruinous for sedentary farmers like them. Hence, in times of trouble, it was much more hard, if not prohibitive for them, to just “pack up and leave” — something that the Samara or even Yamnaya could do with ease.

The destruction of the Central-European/North-European Plain residing LBK (though not their Balkan-LBK/Cardium Pottery/Butmir-culture relatives… yet!) took several centuries, past 4900 BC till 4100 BC, and was probably commenced by the Samara (likely, the western wing thereof) culture’s warriors. From the ancient skeletons and related DNA analysis, we know that the pastoralists were a merciless, brutal bunch. According to mtDNA analysis, it looks like they were not even keen on leaving women or children as concubines or slaves (which, tangentially, points to the fact that the institution of slavery is really an evolved, sedentary agriculture-based institution, not a pastoralist-based one, despite a much later adoption of it, with some caveats, by the more evolved pastoralists, like Genghis Khan’s Mongols).

It’s unlikely that any northerly LBK farmers were left after circa 4200, certainly by 4100 BC, all the way to what is today’s Belgium — all were killed by Samara culture pastoralists, who replaced the LBK in toto throughout the North-European Plain. The Samara-derived culture in those areas came to be known as Rossen and, a couple centuries later, Funnelbeaker culture. It is certain that, after conquest of the plains, it was no longer a pure hunter-pastoral economy, but whatever farming and animal husbandry there was (being taken from the massacred former inhabitants), was at a considerably more primitive level than LBK farmers’. It does not seem like the Rossen/Funnelbeaker pastoralists originally desired the land for anything more than grazing space for their horses and for hunting.

From what I’ve researched, it seems that first evidence of more evolved husbandry reappears around 3600 BC, via the Globular Amphora and Baden cultures. It looks like these, too, are of early (proto-) Indo-European origin, although of a much more developed character (at least, the Baden culture is), and Baden incorporates farming at good level. Based on material finds, I think, Baden/Lengyel, due to its more sedentary farming nature, is kind of like the earlier (3800 BC) Maykop culture — complete domination of proto-IE, but genetic preservation of a farmer strata (which was lucky to survive south of the Carpathian range) — while Globular Amphora, which became Corded Ware, seems to be more like a set of steppe-based cultural transmissions on top of the existing semi-nomadic Rossen/Funnelbeaker culture. We also see a spread of earliest Indo-Europeans into Anatolia itself, via Maykop culture — they emerge in history as Luwians and Palaics, with their forefathers establishing Anatolian presence possibly as early as 3000 BC.

Curiously, the Funnelbeaker culture transformed into the Bell Beaker culture when it reached the Iberian peninsula, due to influence from seafaring and trading Cardium Pottery farming culture. The Bell Beaker, being a “reflux culture” then spread northward and back, eastward, where it eventually collided and was subsumed into the oncoming Corded Ware wave.

After introduction of metallurgy via the Maykop, along with carrying a farming deme strata, the proto-Indo-European invasion took on a more sedentary focus, as the Yamnaya, via the Corded Ware culture, were now a mixed pastoralist-farmer people. Eventually, they proceeded to eradicate or, otherwise, take over and mix with almost all the other remaining Anatolian-derived European settlers — we are now talking about an invasion eventually going as far as Italy and Spain (previously represented by Cardium Pottery culture), taking the entire land into their ownership, and mostly finishing the job started by their Samara ancestors, by killing off/elite-replacing most of the Cardium Pottery culture groups, as well as seriously subsuming whatever remained of the LBK in the Balkans, effectively ending the more southerly, Mediterranean branches of the Anatolian-derived farmers. By the time they break through to Mycenae it was 2100 BC, the Early Helladic III period. Luckily for the farming and sea-faring people residing there, the Yamnaya descended conquerors had already become fairly farming-friendly, seeking mostly power and wealth, which was what allowed a considerable chunk of the Minoan cultural and genetic strata, minus their religion and ruling elite, to survive. The pre-Italic Etruscans fared relatively OK, too.

However, the only more-or-less pure descendants we have now of these original European farmers from 6000 BC are the Basques and Sardinians, who survived in the hard-to-access, mountainous regions in Southern Europe.

(By the way, having had the opportunity to visit Bilbao, Spain, I am still impressed that the Basques have been able to survive and prosper in that region.)

Ironically, the sedentary-agricultural way of life is still more advantageous for supporting larger sizes of populations. Hence, although more warlike, the agricultural society, slowly but surely, eventually re-emerged and even spread father than ever, in Europe, including its more extreme northerly lands, e.g. Scandinavia, as the Yamnaya people were settling up the territory.

The post-Yamnaya steppe people expansion into Europe was actually a two part expansion: the first one took place after 3600 BC or so, known as Globular Amphora and Baden, these became Corded Ware, which merged with Bell Beaker by 2300 BC. I don’t know how much of it was cultural vs deme replacement, but it could have been both. Either way, all groups involved were Pontic steppe-derived. It seems that many of these groups developed in situ, forming their distinct identities. Hence, the other expansion consists of two pulses, of tribe groups that we can attach a name to. First pulse, “centum,” of what consisted of Celts, Italics, and Germanics, commenced after 1200 BC, around Bronze Age collapse (possibly, the Dorians were pushed into Peloponnese because of that). The last, “satem” sub-wave consisted of Balts and Slavs, who became established in their European territories many centuries later (with Slavs all the way in the AD). And, of course, I am not even delving into Yamnaya and parallel-to-Yamnaya branches that ended up in Asia.

Concluding note: in this post I make a bold speculation. I speculate that domestication of horses did not, as some suppose, happen during the Botai culture (3500 BC), but that instead it happened much earlier, by as early as 4900, and 4500 BC the latest. I am forced to make this speculation, and it is based on three items: 1) Gimbutas’s archaeology-based speculation; 2), the fact that it’s extremely hard to reconcile the disappearance of the LBK with anything other than an invasion around 4900/4500 BC, at least a full millennium earlier than Yamnaya’s intrusion; and 3), without horse domestication the invading tribes would have been nothing more than just another set of hunter gatherers, just much more nomadic and focused more on hunting horses.

Some of the readers could question my theory by asserting that no kurgan burials have been discovered to date in Eastern/Central/Western Europe that can be attributed to around 4500 BC. Interestingly, it is easy to refute. Kurgan burials appear closer to Yamnaya time (after 4000 BC), when social stratification emerges, especially when intensified by the emergence of Maykop-derived farming strata. However, Samara culture did not feature kurgan burials. Samara’s graves, at most, feature a non-tall set of stones on top of buried body, making finding and distinguishing such graves from European hunter-gatherers’ a challenge. I hope that eventually we will be able to ascertain this, however.

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Trade as enabler of civilization

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JD Unwin made the case that civilizations collapsed when their internal cultural frameworks were no longer fit to sustain cohesion and fertility. Typically, it would be because of deviation from the pattern of, what he termed, “absolute monogamy” and sexual restraint. Most often, more rights to women would precede such a collapse.

Of course, in the particular case of Mycenaean civilization’s collapse, it is more likely that natural, exogenous factors were the real culprit (part of the Bronze Age pattern of collapse).

But it is natural to ask the question: what enabled more advanced civilization in the first place? One of the answers is intelligence. Another is cooperation.

Let me state for the record that I am not one to deny the importance of individual intelligence, especially, in the context of group, or “hive” intelligence. But this post is not about that.

Let’s discuss cooperation per se. It can be internal or external. Internal cooperation, per Turchin’s “Ultrasociety,” is what enabled people to work together, to better to compete against other groups. Through millennia of this process, groups that were better at cooperating, won out. (And yes, since a lot of winning was done by warfare, necessitating fulfillment of logistics and efficient population growth and density, it is natural to recognize that this type of cooperation was most likely mediated by religion and that it also put upward pressure on IQ. As I’ve mentioned, we’ll postpone the religion and IQ topics to another post.

But that is not the full story: cooperation can also be external.

No, I am not talking about a modern-ish liberal utopia of peoples all over the world “joining hands” and helping each other altruistically. I’m talking about something more prosaic, yet more fundamental: trade.

Broadly put, trade was instrumental when it came to expanding the overall carrying capacity of civilizations. What I think bears mention here, is that not all trade is created equal, and this fact may be ascertained from Findlay and O’Rourke’s “Power of Plenty.”

Historically, if we concentrate on the post-Roman Empire period, before the emergence of Hanseatic League and Venice after the end of Dark Ages, most trade was about supplying elites with status-granting items. However, the Mycenaeans were the first people who were able to exploit their proximity to sea to build advanced technology (for the time), to transport items and people (slaves, warriors) in a very cheap manner, in higher volume, and across huge distances. This trade was fundamentally higher scale and quality than what could be accomplished through more conventional, non-maritime routes. It also required great skill to sustain and expand it, along with various tangential enterprises endeavored by status-seekers of the polities that comprised Mycenae.

This trade on mass scale enabled more labor specialization, helping to free up the talents of increasingly more citizens of the polities along the Aegean, for value-added endeavors, including intellectual ones. It is known, for instance, that Athens of 5th century BC imported grain, so it is not unreasonable to imagine that Athenians faced pressure to export people (set up colonies) and import food during Bronze Age as well. This labor specialization via trade, in my opinion, is the main reason we know of Ionian Greeks as the intellectual and literary paragons that they were.

Not to discount it, of course: not only trade, but technologically involved, well-organized warfare, including plundering incursions, played a huge part, too.

I am not as convinced as some people, however, that Mycenaean Greeks, on an individual basis, were more special, IQ-wise, than the preceding Minoans. It’s just that the conditions were ripe for the Mycenaean/Ionian international acclaim. Genetically, the Mycenaeans, most likely, were just an Indo-Europeanized, more warfare oriented, version of Minoans. The Minoans were likely Anatolian derived, like the LBK, and were very adept at building things, including agrarian-based civilization. As explained above, we need to invoke group-competition based arguments to understand Mycenaean fame, as opposed to focusing on the individuals that comprised those civilizations.

There were other examples of civilizations that benefited from trade, with citizens who were unlikely smarter, individually, than those of societies that existed roughly contemporaneously and who practiced similar way of life.

Let’s take Sumerians. Individually, they were probably as “special” as the Elamites and the Harappans, who probably were very much related to them. Just, again, more access to productive land (enabling higher population capacity and more intense inter-group competition), water for irrigation and rivers, somewhat better trade, including via said rivers, and thus, again, labor specialization.

All of these groups are, ultimately, descendants of Natufian people who acquired farming capability and evolved better intelligence as a result.

If we look at our more modern times, examples abound of huge political conglomerations based on trade: colonial empires (like England, Portugal, Spain) and confederacies of related kingdoms (Hanseatic League, German kingdoms) are something that comes to mind. There may be others, too.

I do not dispute that societies evolve and expand via inter-group competition. What I think is important to notice, however, is that there are situations that, given a certain threshold of efficiency in technology of food and goods production, in order for said groups to expand, require making a choice between the familiar zero-sum strategy of warfare and a positive-sum strategy of between-group exchange, conditional upon interest in mutual survival and trust.

I’ll even further speculate that, sometimes, inter-group competition necessitates building closer, if initially loose, coalitions. At the beginning, it is trade which allows those coalitions and confederations to become more than just a collection of united parts, to be part of something holistically bigger. But by further stimulating new type of cohesion, via blood-alliances, if they are further united by common culturo-linguistic framework, these coalitions may serve as springboard to formation of even more integrated super-entities, whose parts are indelible. This super-entity, as a super-organism, can be more competitive against foreign other groups and states.

The United States is a prime example of an initial confederacy united by trade, blood-ties, and common language that became something bigger when it became a holistic political entity. It certainly has not always been a smooth sailing (recall the Civil War), and it remains to be proven whether the current internal social and fiscal arrangements of this super-entity makes it survivable in the long term (to be posted on later). However, it remains the case that the US provides the most striking illustration of trade enabling both greater population carrying capacity and competitiveness of a coalition of states vs the hypothetical carrying capacity of non-trading, competing individual parts.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 3]

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This post is the final post on Jewish matrilineality, continuing from previous post (part 2).

Let’s summarize:

Based on the described dynamic, the matrilineal arrangement, as it was practiced among the Jews all the way till present time, was a necessary (but not sufficient just by itself) precondition for Jewish communities to further themselves in the physical sense. As I’ve described it, the matrilineal arrangement was a well-defined protocol (in the context of a society living by Jewish identity and custom) that helped Jewish communities to grow and, especially important in trying times, to survive. It served as a guard both against diffusion of other identities into Judaism and against assimilation of Jews into surrounding host societies.

Of course, matrilineality was only one of many Halakhic  arrangements and dictates which, when all combined, was what made Jewish communities into a kind of super-organism, with the wealthy Jews being pivotal in providing infrastructure for inter-communal Jewish connection (the veins) and as main sources of economic input to sustain the community materially (the mouth and all non-nerve organs, plus the extremities), while the Rabbis and related Talmudic scholars and teachers were the keepers of the Jewish tradition (the nerves, which effected the flesh and conveyed the senses) and the providers of communal direction via adjudication of communal matters and disputes (the brain, to which all nerves were connected).

Fascinatingly, said super-organism is not only community-based, but also a distributed entity. The Jews (or rather, Jewish exilarchs, rabbis, scholars) have been in touch with one another over millennia, both temporally and spatially, since the times of Babylonian exile till this very day and across communities divided by warring empires and tribes, as well as significant natural obstacles. Hence, although the nerves and brains were many, all have functioned, effectively, as one.

It is why I will repeat that becoming matrilineal denotes a kind of demarcation line between Jews being a nation living on their land, united and ruled by King but still identified via a tribal imprint from their agro-pastoralist past, and Jews becoming a nation living in exile, distributed among other assimilating nations, an urban society. To use the old tribal analogy, Rabbis were not just the priests of their communities, but also the community’s judges. If one views humans and human societies via cultural evolution, as one should, it was a new, but luckily beneficial mutation that allowed Jews to not only persist (survive), but thrive (grow) within their novel circumstance, a circumstance that required being culturally portable and resilient.

Now that Jews finally have Israel back, the main threat to their identity is coming from breaking of the communities and secularization from within, a double whammy from Haskalah and, later, Shoah. New realities possibly entail a need for some new mutation to preserve the Jews: leaving aspects of the shtetl-derived way but possibly going beyond old-style Rabbinic communities by resurrecting and re-applying some the rules of Halakhah from the days of Judean Kingdom or even creating new ones. Innovation in Halakhah, as we now see, has precedent, and it may be needed again, given the context of additional requirements of surviving and growing as part of a modern, technologically advanced nation-state, a state threatened from many directions, economically and militarily.

Indeed, when one thinks of it all in any real depth, it is boggling the mind – it is amazing to be Jewish. But that’s a story to be continued and expanded on for yet another day or, rather, days.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 2]

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I’m continuing from where I left off, in the previous post.

For the second point, we know that even in our modern times, it is still the men who initiate courtship in virtually all instances leading to family formation. If one refers to how things happened historically, the institution of marriage was usually in the hands of either the groom-to-be or the parents (most often, fathers) of both the groom and the bride. It has never been the case, until women’s emancipation of the last century or so, that brides exercised any significant control in such matters.

Continuing the second point’s explanation, we can now pose the question: if the Rabbinical authorities wished to preserve their communities in exile, what would be the best route to positively affect the likelihood of Jewish identity preservation? Obviously, the best route would be to keep the pillars of the community, i.e. the families, Jewish. But to keep the families Jewish, it is important to keep the members thereof, beginning with the parents, but especially the fathers, given the patriarchal and patrilocal nature of most societies until recently, Jewish.

Given the Rabbinical need for keeping tabs on the Jewishness of family life, how to ascertain that fathers are Jewish? Since the brides never (till recently) controlled the outcome, the channels of influence were via fathers and grooms-to-be. In other words, the males of the community ought to be restricted in their choice of marriage partners for themselves or their sons vis-a-vis their ability to stay in the Jewish community. Put differently, the grooms and their fathers are likely to decide in favor of marrying a Jewish bride, if the arrangement is such that if they do otherwise, they or their descendants don’t stay in the community.

Before I commence unraveling how matrilineality in the Jewish communal context helped to preserve the Rabbinic control of Jewish family, we need to better address what that context was, beyond the mere fact of Jews being patriarchal and patrilocal, like most of the surrounding gentiles.

Most prominently, it needs to be noted here that being steeped in Jewish learning has always been not just a historic requirement but a marker of high status of men in Jewish communities, most of which were likely either established or, at the very least, glued by Talmudically learned men. Not just that, but also the fact that many Jews were involved in trading and finance, both of which required being connected to high-trust networks — all of these reasons clearly pushed Jewish males into finding themselves Jewish wives and de facto leaving bride fathers no choice but to marry their daughters into a Jewish, or more desirably, a learned or connected Jewish family.

Also, historically, many Jewish communities lived in Christian Europe, where Jews, since 5th century AD on, were explicitly forbidden from converting Christians to Jewish faith. Hence, the Jews had to be extremely cautions to when it came to accepting converts: an elaborate, lengthy process (called “giur”) was set up. Before 5th century, Roman Jews were quite open to proselytizing, and conversion was merely a formality.

For a rich Jewish man to marry out of Jewish community would often be an unwise decision. More often than not, the security, if not the very viability of their business depended on being integrated in high-trust financial and trade networks. Being a part of family whose Jewishness was questionable if at all real, jeopardized such arrangements — if not for the groom, then for his descendants, who would not be considered Jewish.

Of course, there surely were sometimes political, if not economic, reasons to marry out of faith and out of community for a even a rich Jewish man or his family (his parents desiring to make a new alliance via their son’s marriage, for instance, or maybe sheer absence of Jewish brides in the area). And technically yes, one could, for example, marry a gentile woman, but in order to preserve offsprings’ Jewishness, the matrilineality requirement necessitated converting their gentile brides or wives to Judaism, the non-trivial “giur.” A giur is very involved  technically, requiring stringent Rabbinical oversight, and can last a year or so, thereby both putting a serious obstacle for a Jewish man with aspiration to marry a woman not from Jewish community and putting such decisions into discretion of Rabbinic authority. Obviously, women who were either not capable or serious about adopting Jewish way of life as it was mediated by Rabbis would not get accepted.

Most problematic was, of course, the situation of poor Jewish men, who, even when desiring a Jewish wife, could possibly be not as attractive to a potential bride’s parents as a wealthier groom. Quite possibly, some of the poorest, unlearned Jewish men would marry out of faith, thereby “dropping out” or, to use, Greg Cochran’s expression “boiled off.” That was the case, as historic evidence clearly attests, unless the faith and Jewish learning of the poor Jewish groom were so strong that they could command respect of the entire Jewish community that this man was part. In that case, many parents of said community’s brides, including the the wealthy, were quite willing. Marrying one’s daughter to an esteemed Talmudic scholar was a prestigious thing to do. This social dynamic, by the way, likely contributed to selection for cultural cohesion among Jews, a cohesion based around values espoused by Rabbis.

The situation of poor Jewish brides was better. Firstly, until around 1000 AD,  preceding the contrary change introduced by Rabbeinu Gershom of the Ashkenazim, even early Roman proto-Ashkenazi communities, not to mention Sephardim/Mizrahim, could practice polygyny*, albeit the practice was very much on the wane among Ashkenazim a long time before Gershom ben Judah. Thus, a more wealthy member of the community could, at least in theory, take and support two wives. Secondly, and more importantly, the Talmudic scholar respect argument I posited above also applied to brides, but in a slightly different way: a bride coming from a poor Jewish family would be valued much more if her father was a Rabbi or a scholar or a teacher. Lastly, a poor bride marrying a poor, of an “am ha-aretz” (common) provenance Jew could get a bit of community’s support, especially later, with expansion of Jewish numbers and emergence of shtetls (self-contained Jewish towns). Said newly formed poor family would probably be on the margins of existence, but would still be able to survive with one or two children during tough times. I don’t have the information right now, but I am sure that any community support to the poor would be predicated on the entire family being Jewish, so in the very unlikely case when parents of a Jewish woman made the decision to marry her out of community, or if the woman on her own volition rebelled into doing so, she would be automatically dropped from the community.

A Jewish bride, poor or wealthy, could, rather only in theory, marry a wealthy gentile, with her children being counted as Jewish. Nonetheless, because of stigmas of gentile societies against Jews, especially, pre-Industrialization, such cases were extraordinarily rare. In gentile societies surrounding the Jewish communities in exile, historically, rich or powerful men would almost always marry into other rich or powerful families.  For a gentile, crucially, given patrilocality of both Jews and gentiles, to “marry a bride” meant also “bring the bride into home/community.” To marry an explicitly Jewish woman, not to mention a poor Jewish woman, would have been a very bad idea, if not an anathema, in those types of arrangements. And either way, again, due to patrilocality, even if such cases did happen, for all practical purposes (until Reform Jewish emancipation), said Jewish woman would de facto drop out of her Jewish community, along with her children, even if they could be qualified as technically Jewish.

I want to reiterate the important point: since being a learned Talmudic scholar or a Rabbi or a teacher** was always considered high status, independently of wealth, cohesion among Jews was centered around their faith and knowledge of the tenets thereof, with Rabbis being intimately involved in the day-to-day workings and drive of this process.

In the next, final post, I will summarize on matrilineality in Judaism.

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*I will later post on how monogamy evolved both among Jews and gentiles. How it arose in the first place is still not clear and worth exploring.

**Teachers’ job was inculcating knowledge of Tahakh and basics of Halakhah in Jewish children.

Matrilineality of Jews [Part 1]

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Ever wondered why Jewishness gets passed via mother? No? Even despite the fact that the Tanakh (Bible) has virtually always cared only about paternal lineage? Per Shaye Cohen, a Jewish historian of Near Eastern Studies at Harvard, the author of “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties,” this is an innovation of early Mishnaic Period, a borrowing from Roman law.

His detailed article is one of the most well-reasoned pieces I have seen in a long time.

To  me, it marks the emergence of Jewishness as a post-tribal national concept  – of Jewishness as that of a communal identity, beyond that of a set of related tribes and clans. The adoption of matrilineality, in fact, is also an accident of history.

While Cohen didn’t go into actually explaining the reason for the switch, but merely elucidating on the most likely inspiration source(s), it must be further clarified that, in my opinion, given all presented evidence, the Roman law is the likeliest origin for the practice.

In light of the inward-looking nature of the Halakhah, the “forbidden mixtures” argument that he cites as a potential source for matrilienality seems like a convenient, if abstruse and rather forced justification. The need for such a justification becomes clear if we account for the fact that Roman culture, from which such rule sprang, was viewed as highly antithetical to Jews, hence anything to arise from it, both due to preceding and forthcoming events, would have been viewed as an undesired, if not outright unacceptable, innovation. Hence, “forbidden mixture” seems more of a veneer to conceal the de facto nature of the foreign influence.

Given the drastic changes entailed by the emergence of Jewish diaspora, whether on willing basis via Hellenization (e.g. the Alexandrian community established around 300 BC) or galut (exile, e.g. in Babylon and, subsequently, Roman domain), the pressure to assimilate and, thus, culturally disappear, became hard to ignore. Hence the need to define and delineate Jewish identity, as well as come up and follow the actual mechanisms to achieve the above. It is important to keep in mind that before one can even speak of Jewishness, one needs to define it. This exact process was in full swing around the time of the Babylonean exile, and picked up even more during Alexander the Great’s conquest. Shaye Cohen describes this in his book, “The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties.”

The first step, one of delineation of polity and ethnos, of divorcing culture from ethnicity, was achieved by the Hasmonean revolt. It was a reaction to Greeks’ same differentiation, which made Jews, the ethnic majority and citizens of a Hellenic state, feel the need to explicitly define and, therefore, re-assert the identity of their polity, its non-Hellenic cultural character, instead of remaining content as being just one of the ethne inhabiting Judea. In doing so they established the Jewish state not merely as a state of Judeans, descendants of Moses’s Israelites, but a state of explicitly Jewish character, where other ethnics (like Edomites/Idumeans) could exist, provided they accepted the overall Jewish-Judean cultural character of the polity (Hasmoneans went even further in that they forcefully culturally converted the other minor ethnicities into Judaism.)

The next step, the emergence of Pharisees, as priests of the people, the righteous ones, was instrumental in preparing the ground to achieve the cohesion and portability of the Jewish culture — especially, as the Judean Jewish polity went through being re-conquered by Romans, experienced attempts at imperial assimilation, and finally, after resistance and bloodshed, gone.

But I’d like to concentrate here on the matrilineal principle, its usefulness in helping Jews to culturally and genetically survive in exile. It is hard to say with absolute confidence, but we can reason, based on at least two arguments, about how it actually became the established practice:

1. Empirical evidence: the relative fecundity and spread of Jewish groups practicing matrilineal vs patrilineal descent.
2. Cultural evolution modeling insight: performing a thought experiment to understand Jewish family-communal interactive dynamics based on current and historical practices of courtship and marriage.

To illustrate the first point, we know that the only surviving patrilineal Jewish group that is older than a few hundred years is Karaite Judaism. The numbers of Karaite Jews is in the tens of thousands — a pittance, as compared to size of worldwide Jewelry, represented by Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, etc. communities, which, until secularism and Reform Judaism’s relatively very recent emergence, numbered in millions.

I will delve into second argument in the next post.