Saturday, April 17, 2010

It itches....

(image from Wikipedia)

when I don't know something.  It itches worse when I can't find out.  Get a load of this map....

who are these people?  Where did they come from?  Where did they go?  Why didn't they leave me a nice, thick epic saga of their people (rather than endless, tedious records of commercial transactions)?  Who were the Huns?  Does the mitochondrial DNA from grave sites back up the theory that they were Xiongnu?  And get a load of this....

(image from

I guess the cartographer of this map doesn't like the Xiongnu theory of Hun origin...

I apologize for the quality of the maps; the ones in my historical atlases make this point much better than the ones I've found on the internet.

Suffice it to say that hundreds of different "ethnic groups", or "tribes" if you prefer, lived and died on the periphery of the more literate civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  The essential difference between these societies and the "civilized" societies was a matter of economics; many of them were more pastoralist and less agrarian than the Romans or the Greeks or the Persians, although others were completely agrarian.

They were less urbanized than Classical civilizations as well; even when they had towns and farms and property they were perfectly capable of packing up and migrating, abandoning their homes and land.  (See the march of the Helvetii in Book 1 of the Gallic War).

If you look at a map from 500 BC, and another from 500 AD, the names have all changed.  The Germanic tribes have edged out the Celts, the Huns have moved in and subsequently vanished without a trace and the Scythians (who probably never really existed as a unified ethnic group, except in the minds of their distant "civilized" chroniclers) are now Sarmatians, or Parthians, or Avars, or Alans.

The interesting question is the one of ethnic identity.  Our information about these groups is either archeological  or derived from non-members of the group in question.  It is "tainted" by the nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.  These movements intentionally constructed mythological histories to serve as cultural markers reinforcing the sense of national identity among their constituencies.

The tactic is an old one; Hesiod's Theogony legitimizes both a common Greek identity and the tribal sub-divisions within it by means of a mythical geneology.  Ethnic identity may require a sense of shared history, but that history can be completely fictitious.  And the entire concept of ethnic identity may be an artifact of modern Western culture. Roosens argues convincingly that this is the case, and also argues that ethnic identification is entirely "instrumental", i.e. a response to purely economic motivations.

And this brings us back to the question of the "barbarian" tribes.  The consensus seems to be that all of these so-called "tribes" were in fact large agglomerations of much smaller groups.  Identity is contextual; we all have multiple groups with which we identify, and the salient identity at the moment is determined by the social context in which we find ourselves.  Arguing politics, I am a Democrat.  Touring London, I'm an American.  In church, I'm a really uncomfortable atheist calculating the quickest way to the door.


there never were that many Huns, and they didn't go anywhere.  People called themselves Huns while raiding under Hun direction (economic motivation!), and called (and thought of) themselves as something else at other times.  With the death of Attila, they did their raiding as Magyars, or Alans, or Bulgars.

I am NOT submerging myself into the minutiae of Mitochondrial DNA analysis, and I am NOT going to undertake a comparative study of the Turkish roots of Bulgarian.  Instead, I'll reread Gellner's "Nations and Nationalism".

But, it still itches.