"I make my claim on thee...murderous mairyas, the sanctity-destroyers, profane apostate two-footed dogs…of the invading host…”
- Zoroastrian liturgy
Note: This is part 1. Casting out the wolf in our midst is part 2.
On June 25–26th of 1876, at Little Bighorn in Montana, a coalition of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse defeated General George Custer. The outcome shocked the world; the Plains tribes stared down the might of the modern world and then ably dispatched it. But theirs was a Pyrrhic victory. The US government just raised more troops, and all that elan and courage was eventually no match for raw numbers. Across the cold windswept plains of the Dakotas, the Sioux and their allies had denied the American armies outright victory from the 1850’s into the 1870’s. Meanwhile, to the south, in Texas, the Comanche “Empire of the Summer Moon” had been the bane of the Spaniards, and later the Mexicans, for over a century. They first battled the Spanish Empire to a draw in the 1700’s, and continued to periodically pillage Mexico after independence in the 1820’s. Only after the region’s annexation by the US in the 1840’s did the Comanche meet their match, as they were finally defeated in 1870 by American forces. If Americans today remember the Battle of Little Bighorn and the subjugation of the Comanche, it tends to be as the denouement of decades of warfare across the vast North American prairie. But if you zoom out a little, it also marks the end of a 5,000-year saga: the rise and fall of America’s steppe nomads, for that is what all those fearsome tribes of the Plains Indians had become.
Today Americans view these wars with ambivalence, as the expansionist US, seeking its “Manifest Destiny,” conquered the doomed underdog natives of the continent with wanton brutality. But the Plains Indians were themselves a people of conquest, hardened and cruel, and would have bridled at the mantle of the underdog. They espoused an ethos exemplified by their warrior braves who wasted no pity on their enemies and expected none in return. In S.C. Gwynne’s book, Empire of the Summer Moon, he notes that during Comanche raids all “the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.” Comanche brutality was not total; young boys and girls were captured and enslaved during these raids, but could eventually be adopted into the tribe if they survived a trial by fire: showing courage and toughness even in the face of ill-treatment as slaves. Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanche, was the son of a white woman who had been kidnapped when she was nine.
These tribes were warlike because the mobilization of cadres of violent young men was instrumental to the organization of their societies. They were all patrilineal and patriarchal, for though women were not chattel, tribal identity passed from the father to the son. A Sioux or Comanche was by definition the offspring of a Sioux or Comanche father. The birth of a Comanche boy warranted special congratulations for the father, reflecting the importance of sons genealogically for the line to continue. It was the sons who would grow up to feed the tribe through mass-scale horseback buffalo hunts. It was the sons who undertook daring raids and came home draped in plunder. The religion of these warriors was victory, and they stoically accepted that defeat meant death.
These mounted warrior societies of the Plains Indians were a recent product of the Columbian Exchange, forged by the same forces of globalization that birthed the hostile colonial nations hungrily encroaching ever further into their domains from both south and east. The early 1700’s had seen the adoption of horses from the Spaniards, along with the flourishing of rich colonial societies all along the continent’s rim, always ripe for raiding. Together, these catalyzed the rebirth of native nations that lived by the deeds of their predatory cavalry. The warriors of America’s prairies became such adept horsemen in a matter of generations that Comanche boys were reputed to learn riding almost before they learned to walk, echoing Roman observations about the Huns 1,500 years earlier. The introduction of Eurasian horses to their cultures transmuted the farmers and foragers of the Great Plains within a generation into fearsome centaur-like hordes that terrorized half a continent for 150 years, recapitulating the transformation wrought by their distant relatives on the Eurasian Steppe 5,000 years ago.
That this final chapter in the history of the planet’s mounted nomads played out in the full light of American history allows us to vividly imagine the lives of their prehistoric cultural forebears. Just as the Sioux and the Comanche were ruled by the passions of their fearless braves, who were driven to seek glory and everlasting fame on the battlefield, so bands of youth out of the great grassland between Hungary and Mongolia had long ago wreaked havoc on Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the tundra to the Indian ocean. These feral werewolves of the steppe resculpted the cultural topography of the known world three to five thousand years ago. Their ethos was an eagerly grasping pursuit not of what was theirs by right, but of anything they could grab by might. Where the Sioux and Commanche were crushed by the organized might of a future world power, their reign soon consigned to a historical footnote, the warriors of yore marched from victory to conquest. They remade the world in their brutal image, inadvertently laying the seedbeds for gentler ages to come, when roving bands of youth were recast as the barbarian enemy beyond the gates, when peace and tranquility, not a glorious death in battle, became the highest good.
A whirlwind of wagons
This eruption of warrior ferocity five thousand years ago was triggered by an economic revolution that swept across Eurasia, the advent of an unbeatable new cultural toolkit that finally harnessed the full productive potential of the cattle, sheep and goats that had long been viewed as simply mobile meat lockers in agricultural societies. Though these animals had already been domesticated by 8500 BC, it took millennia to perfect milk, cheese and wool production, and the harnessing of oxen as beasts of burden. North of the Black Sea, this revolution arrived around 3500 BC, as small groups of farmers huddling on river banks shifted from a mixed agro-pastoralist production system eking out a living cultivating wheat in an unforgivingly short growing season, to one of pure pastoral nomadism that turned over the vast grasslands around them to massive herds of animals.
Within a few generations, these people, known as the Yamnaya to archaeologists, were both grazing their cattle in the heart of Europe and driving their sheep up to the higher pastures of the Mongolian Altai uplands. This 5,000-mile distance (8,000 km) was spanned in just a few generations by the former farmers. Mobility was the first result of the switch to nomadism, as fleets of wagons began to roll across the steppe, like swarms of lumbering migratory villages, eternally bound for greener pastures. But far beyond a simple shift in aggregate economic production, many later knock-on effects were to reshape the culture of Eurasian societies, some of which continue to impact us down to the present.
Foremostly, the status and power of males rose within these cultures, in tandem with the shift to nomadism. Almost all contemporary nomadic pastoralists are patrilineal and patriarchal, so identity and wealth are passed from father to son, just as with the Plains Indians. Men occupy all of the de jure political leadership positions, if not all de facto ones. This is in contrast to rooted farming cultures, which exhibit more diversity in social arrangements, from the patriarchal Eurasian river-valley civilizations to the matrilineal horticultural societies of tropical Africa and Asia. Even within India, the cultures of the wheat-based northern plains were strongly patrilineal, with wives being totally unrelated to their husbands, and always moving to the households of the men they were to marry. In contrast, in tropical Kerala far to the south many groups cultivating rice, bananas and coconuts were matrilineal, with husbands moving to the villages of their wives, and the primary male figure in some boys’ lives even routinely being their maternal uncle.
For nomads though, the switch to livestock as the primary source of wealth and status increased male clout and importance to universally high levels. Whether they are Asian Mongols or African Maasai, herder societies are dominated by male kindreds that control the movable wealth in the form of livestock, and it is their role to on the one hand protect the herds and drive them to more fertile pastures, and on the other steal animals from neighbors. In nomadic societies, paternal kin groups provided exclusively for their women and children. It was senior men in these groups that accumulated wealth and status they could pass on to sons, resulting in a very strong concern over paternity, so as to avoid investing in the offspring of men outside of their lineage. After all, these men strived for wealth and status in the first place to produce sons who would continue their legacy. And just as they were fixated on their sons, nomadic societies were also punctilious in revering the memories of their forefathers. The Bible’s older books are littered with “begats” a dozen deep, Norse sagas begin with a recitation of half a dozen steps of descent from father to son, and the earliest Indian texts are fixated on royal genealogies.
These ancient nomadic obsessions continue down to the present. The kingdom of Jordan is still ruled today by a direct paternal descendent of Hashim ibn Abd Manaf, Muhammad’s great-grandfather and the progenitor of the Ban Hashim clan to which he belonged, 1,525 years after he died. The lineage of Bodonchar Munkhag, Genghis Khan's ancestor who founded the world conqueror’s clan two centuries before his conquests, still ruled Mongolia as late as 1920, nearly 700 years after Munkhag’s time.
But steppe patriarchy was reflected in more than just age-old customs and long-standing genealogies. It was more than an empire of ideas. Steppe patriarchy expressed itself in a material fashion. The Yamnaya nomads constructed massive burial mounds, kurgans, wherever they went. Within these vast mounds, they inhumed individuals of high status and greater power. The remains found skew heavily male. It is no surprise that just as they preferentially buried their honored male rulers under enormous mounds, these people worshiped male sky-gods. These male deities were culturally important, as from their perch in the heavens they could witness solemn oaths between the men of the steppe.
Using evidence from the shared mythologies of the ancient Greeks, Indians and Germans, it is clear that the early Indo-Europeans revered Deywós, the progenitor of the Greek Zeus, Sanskrit Dayus and Germanic Týr, the sky-father. These early steppe gods were sometimes addressed as "king", or "shepherd,” reflecting the social stratification of the cultures, as well as the centrality of herding in their lives. Later, the Turks and Mongols who burst forth out of the eastern steppe during the Common Era worshiped Tengri, also a sky-god, whose similarity to Deywós has to be more than coincidental. Long after the original Indo-Europeans spread far beyond their homeland, the ecology of the steppe continued to shape the mythology of all its varied peoples. In contrast, many of the goddesses revered in settled Indo-European societies, from Greek Athena to Indian Kali and Iranian Anahita, seem to have been adopted from the indigenous agricultural people they conquered and absorbed. The descendants of the steppe Indo-Europeans that spread to Europe and South Asia were synthetic people, fusing their ancestral heritage with indigenous folkways.
It is unlikely that this male-focused society was the result of an ideological revolution, as occurred in many Greek city-states before 500 BC, where legendary lawgivers like Solon in Athens and Lycurgus in Sparta imposed new rational systems of government upon a barbaric people. Rather, the most violent and impulsive cohort of humans, males in their teens and early twenties, simply became central to the dynamism and strength of pastoralist societies. They were indispensable labor in the herding economy, and as they rose through the ranks of the tribe’s status hierarchy, taking on leadership roles and settling down to raise families, these men relied on the bonds that they had forged as youths to collectively dictate the cultural direction of their societies and its moral tenor. The primacy of livestock as the economic currency of pastoralists meant that they controlled the productive engine of their societies. It is no surprise then that the early Indo-Europeans seem to have developed a caste system in response to these changing dynamics where males engaged in artisanal or service labor were rendered socially inferior. In their youth, as ruthless packs of raiders and brigands, the warriors were the sharp cutting edge of the nomadic way of life, the motive force behind the expansion of Indo-Europeans across all of Eurasia. As they matured and became chieftains, they set the terms for a reformation of morals and values that valorized war, conquest and expansion.
This facility for organized violence did not emerge from a vacuum. Rather, the newly freeing nomadic lifestyle found a unique outlet for the innate impulses and passions of these young men that had stood their forager ancestors in good stead for millions of years, from the African savanna to the Siberian tundra. Brutality had been bred into them by the natural history of our species, red in tooth and claw. Ancient instincts that had been restrained were now cultivated anew, nurtured and channeled into striking and often cruel new forms. The Paleolithic foragers who had survived the brutal cold of the Ice Age had to balance their instinct for cooperation with hard, calculating competitiveness. They could also kill without remorse; we know that hunter-gatherers raided and slaughtered each other long before the emergence of agriculture. Though the farming societies that succeeded the hunter-gatherers were not peaceful idylls, the rhythms of the season and the limitations of settled village life served as a check on the instinct to wreak havoc on one’s enemies, narrowing the horizons of brutality in both time and space. Nomadism freed Neolithic humans from these constraints, giving free rein to the well-honed ancient instincts of young men who were emerging into the fullness of their strength and ferocity.
Ferocity as biology
Murder is a crime committed by young men, from the US to Japan, and worldwide generally. The reason for this universality in age (and sex) distribution of offenders is at its root human nature, and not due to contingent material or ideological conditions, even if the latter may exacerbate the tendency toward violence. The violent and amoral behavior of Bronze Age nomadic warriors is ultimately a downstream consequence of human sexual dimorphism, not something concocted out of whole cloth by a malign sage of the steppe.
A male bent toward aggression is not simply a function of environmental incentives and culturally driven socialization. It is rooted in impulses that can bubble up out of our biology. Carole Hooven in T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us observes that testosterone levels in men peak in their early 20’s, and studies have consistently shown a correlation between testosterone and violence, as well as a correlation between the hormone and competitive drive. These phenomena have an evolutionary basis; young men must scramble for limited resources to obtain mates, a dynamic that long predates humanity itself. While women are constrained to at most 30-some gestations in their lifetime (assuming an extreme of near-continuous pregnancy from menarche to menopause), men can potentially father a far larger number of offspring. The founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, had 45 sons and approximately 65 daughters (daughters never being as punctiliously accounted for in the patriarchal kingdom). But if Ibn Saud had so many sons, then there must have been many men in his kingdom who fathered no children at all. In the American Mormon polygamous subculture, the term “lost boys” refers to young men expelled from the community on pretexts to pave the way for higher-status men to accrue harems.
Though most human cultures are not polygamous, in almost every society, more females in a given generation reproduce than males. Even in the US, with norms of monogamy that mean most adults are married at some point (two-thirds of American adults are married or cohabitating with a partner at any given moment), 18% of men over 55 do not have children, as opposed to 15% of women at that age. If variation in reproductive success in males is due to genetic differences, then one major pressure on natural selection will be driven by this sex imbalance.
This skew in reproduction by sex is a consistent pattern across many species caused by evolutionary-genetic forces. This presents a paradox, as organisms divided into specialized male and female sexes like ours are subject to a two-fold cost. All things equal, a population of asexually reproducing females would double their growth rate compared to a sexual population, where half the individuals are males and can’t bear young. So how do we explain the existence of males, this superfluous sex? The most likely explanation is that the existence of males promotes long-term viability for the population by driving adaptation to unpredictably changing selection pressures. Competition between males results in winners and losers, and if the losers carry more mutations, this process becomes an evolutionary sieve that increases fitness by sweeping harmful genes from the population. Conversely, the fitter males also drive the spread of beneficient genes more rapidly by fathering more offspring. In organisms like fish, ants and worms, where we observe both closely related asexual and sexual species, the asexual species are often numerous, but evolutionarily young, indicating that despite their short-term reproductive advantage they go extinct much faster than the sexual lineages. When you see an asexual success story, you’re usually catching a one-hit-wonder pre-flameout, not a robust dynasty enjoying a long-term steady record of success.
But humans are not invertebrates or fish, we’re a behaviorally flexible and social mammal, and our cultural patterns are labile and protean. Our societies are not described by some simple mechanistic formula, but exhibit a shocking level of diversity, from egalitarian foragers to agricultural despotisms where rulers are treated like gods on earth. Unlike gorillas, we do not habitually exist in a fixed state where alpha males violently fight one other to maintain their harems, nor are we so universally monogamous as our relatives the gibbons. We are polygynous, polyandrous and monogamous to various degrees, society by society. Economic and ecological considerations are also critical in influencing cultural norms. Hunter-gatherer societies skew egalitarian, so the reproductive consequences from games of male-male competition would have been modest in these contexts. The richest and most successful hunter would not be able to support a massive harem at the expense of other men in his tribe. In contrast, Genghis Khan likely sired hundreds of times more children than the average Mongol man during his lifetime, a reproductive advantage that persisted among his male-line descendants for generations due to the wealth and power of the Pax Mongolica.
But human culture is diverse and varied, and the past history of a society can be as critical as the current environmental conditions in determining its character. Nearly 2,000 years ago, the originally Jewish sect of Christianity adopted the pagan Greco-Roman norm of obligate legal monogamy even for high-status men. Julius Caesar’s son by Cleopatra, Caesarion, was illegitimate, so Caesar had to adopt his grandnephew, Octavian, as his son and heir. This constraint on powerful men continues down to the present in Western societies. Elon Musk, the richest man in the world, is seen as prolific, with six sons and one daughter, but his fertility is lower than that of the median woman in Massachusetts in the late 1600’s. At that time family sizes of over ten children were common in New England. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, who combined have more wealth than the poorest half of Americans combined, only have three children each.
Over five thousand years ago, a few simple changes in the role of domestic animals in Eurasian societies resulted in the emergence of nomadism on the Pontic steppe and triggered a cultural and social revolution across the supercontinent. In the millennia since, our cultural mores, values and religions have changed immensely. It can be hard to comprehend the ramifications of the nomadic revolution from our vantage point because it colors so many background conditions in our civilizations. Bill Gates's net worth is on the order of one million times that of the average American man, while his advantage in numbers of offspring is only 50% greater. While Gates deploys his wealth to acquire a $127 million house and transform American education, the newfound livestock moguls of the Pontic steppe had different values and different options. In a world before advanced technology and the status symbol of a palatial estate (nomads were, literally, homeless), the men of the steppe invested their wealth and power in their descendants. They raised massive broods that would eventually overflow the steppe and wash across the civilized world, transforming human society as they went.
I found it interesting that Gwynne’s portrait of young, Comanche men flows seamlessly from descriptions of total barbarity to the almost axiomatic conclusion that they were the “most free” young men who ever lived.
Very Interesting. Am really enjoying your big picture articles!