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Casting out the wolf in our midst
How shepherd and wolf remade Eurasia in their image (part 2)
Part 1: The wolf at history's door.
Our species is unique in that we are both extremely social, and incredibly diverse in our cultures. The eusocial insects are a match for us in gregariousness, with their colonies of millions, but their social structures are far less multifarious and hew closely to particular prescribed forms species by species. Army ants advance as columns in their millions, fungus-farming ants cultivate their “crops” peacefully, while bees swarm in colonies that split like clockwork upon reaching a predetermined population size. Human societies do not exhibit such fixed regularities and may morph within a single generation, or vary radically on opposite slopes of a mountain. Human culture is marvelously plastic, and it can be adaptive due to intense selection pressure, or simply buffeted by the winds of randomness and whimsy.
But despite the likely role of chance in our social evolution, the shape of human cultural phenomena always rests upon a bedrock of our inherited biology overlaid with environmental influences dictated by place and time. Our societies develop their characteristic outlines at the intersection of fixed eternal instincts and protean social innovations. Despite our cultural diversity, it is little surprise that under similar conditions, we often converge on similar outcomes. As James C. Scott articulates in Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, cereal-based agriculture reliably results in states that control and sequester surplus production, and then use it to support a military or cultural elite. Whether in ancient Mesopotamia, China or Mesoamerica, early cereal-based societies evolved progressively toward tighter social integration and class stratification, as well as achieving an increase in political scale.
Fully-fledged pastoral nomadism emerged far later than sedentary agriculture, and its social and political configuration is markedly different than cereal-based agricultural societies’. As I noted, pastoral nomads are patrilineal and patriarchal, in contrast to sedentary agriculturists who exhibit more variety in the expectations of their gender relations. And notably, nomadic pastoralists put a particular demographic in the driver’s seat: groups of young men shaped, bonded and tempered by their experiences both protecting their tribe’s wealth from enemies and plundering that of others. Collective acts of shocking and transgressive violence were traditionally the fires that kindled into existence these young men’s cohesion and ferocity, and thus the culture that they subsequently shaped. If a thousand platoons bound society together, these cadres of adolescents and young men drove their tribes forward at the literal tip of their spears.
The ancient patterns still persist down to the present. Today among East Africa’s Maasai, the institution of age-set cohorts of young men initiated into a warrior brotherhood still exists, albeit in attenuated form due to modernity’s constraints (lion-slaughter doesn’t fly anymore, for one). Groups of boys endure painful initiation rites like circumcision all at the same age, and then live communally as bachelors on the outskirts of Maasai settlements, learning how to make do for themselves without the support of their extended families and the broader community. In the past, they would have proved their manhood by hunting lions, raiding and making war on the tribe’s enemies. Only after nearly a decade of living in this fashion were they allowed to proudly reenter Maasai society as full-fledged warriors who had proven themselves worthy of respect and esteem.
Maasai practices may strike some in the industrialized world as strange, but they are eerily redolent of traditions that have been recorded by chroniclers and unearthed by archaeologists from many of our forebear societies across Eurasia. Anyone who has seen the 2007 film 300 knows that Spartan male citizens were initiated into age-sets to harden and train them. Their toughening rites of passage involved activities like being forced to steal food, as well as an autumn ritual where they were given license to kill agricultural slaves, and punished if they couldn’t bring themselves to do so. The Spartans here were clearly replicating the form of the Indo-European koryos.
The koryos were bands of unmarried men who lived on the edge of their communities, just as fledgling Maasai warriors do today. With no possessions or real wealth, these young men raided for much of the year to survive. Formally expelled from respectable society for a period of years, they stole, killed, and committed sexual assault as a matter of course, and their savagery was tolerated, so long as the brutality was directed outward, to victims beyond the community.
The striking ubiquity of the young-warrior tradition among Indo-European peoples (and the similarities of the institution across them) is preserved in disparate mythologies and customs. Warriors of the descendant variants of the koryos often enter into battle nude or without armor, in berserker fury, perhaps inebriated, intoxicated or drugged. The Romans repeatedly describe this phenomenon among the Celtic and Germanic tribes they battled, while Norse berserkers and Indian Vedic youth are known to have entered battle wearing wolf skins. The legend of Norwegian king Harald Fairhair’s wolf-skin-clad warrior bodyguard corps still lives on more than a millennium after his 9th-century reign.
Because of modern Hinduism's continuity with the early Vedic Indo-European religion, the ways of the Bronze Age koryos are most clearly detailed in that tradition. During the Vedic age 3,000 years ago, adolescent males went through a ritual that saw them reborn as “dogs of war,” and for four years they lived the disreputable lifestyle of the koryos. At the end of these four years, they were ritually purified and literally shed their old clothes and heterodox habits, reintegrating themselves into their communities to attain the next stage in their lives as respectable warriors, in a fashion identical to the Maasai.
The association between the koryos and canids, dogs and wolves, is a recurring motif. Vedic boys were initiated into the koryos by dog-priests, while in ancient Iranian tradition these warriors were described as evil “two-footed dogs.” The Irish Achilles, Cuchulainn, named himself the “hound of Cullen,” while frenzied Scandinavian warriors might wear wolf-skins during their anti-hero’s journey (vividly depicted in the contemporary film The Northman). Meanwhile, in glorious Athens, the ephebos, an institution that trained young men to be soldiers and citizens, was under the patronage of Apollo, who curiously was also associated with wolves in Greek mythology.
The idea that these young men were the prototypes for the idea of werewolves is fitting because they clearly transformed themselves to temporarily assume the predatory characteristics of their pastoral people’s ancestral enemies, before returning to become men bound by normal conventions. But why dogs, why wolves? For nomadic pastoralist cultures, wolves and dogs pervaded mythology and figured centrally in their everyday calculations. Wolves skulked around in small packs; they were snarling menaces, subverting order, destroying the wealth of early Indo-European societies, culling their herds. They were the ancient enemy, feared and loathed, and only to be casually dismissed or disrespected at great risk.
But the loyal dog, man’s best friend? Here, our intimacy with contemporary domesticated dog breeds risks leading us to a misapprehension of the nomadic context millennia ago; the dogs of that period would be far closer behaviorally to their wolf ancestors. Perhaps here we see the peak fit of the dog/wolf trope to wayward, unrestrained bands of males on the precipice of adulthood. Their potential to coalesce into a powerfully disciplined, loyal and hierarchical pack is undeniable. But until they are fully tamed, trained and their wild impulses fully curbed, they are for all intents and purposes as actual wolves in the midst of society’s hen house. Little wonder then that pastoralist societies conventionally exiled them en masse as far from the center of civilization as possible until that developmental period of peak danger safely passed. Or that they referred to them as dogs and wolves. Often the greatest threat to the stability of society was literally in its midst. Male adolescence was… an inexhaustible reservoir of dogs.
Wolf motifs post-date the high noon of the Indo-European steppe too, as the Turks who swept across the heart of the continent in the last few thousand years also held the wolf to be their totem animal. Meanwhile, the dog in Indo-European tradition is associated with the underworld, guarding the gates of the lower realm, as Cerebrus did for the Greeks or Garm for the Norse. Yama, the Hindu god of death and justice, also has two reddish-brown dogs that guide the dead to his realm.
It is important to note that the human relationship with dogs long predates pastoralism, as they are the only animal whose domestication occurred during the Pleistocene. Dogs likely began to be associated with our species thousands of years before the peak of the last Ice Age, at least 23,000 years ago. A dog guarding the underworld is a commonplace in pan-Eurasian myth that has persisted over tens of thousands of years. Indeed, it is even present among some North American peoples, who share ancient 25,000-year-old Ancient North Eurasian (ANE) Paleo-Siberian heritage with the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans. The common genetic origins of the human populations 25,000 years ago, along with the domestication of the dog in Northern Eurasia at this time, is strong circumstantial evidence for the shared roots of the similar myths about dogs from the European Atlantic all the way to the heart of North America. In fact, portions of the koryos’ enduring canid mythology might then even date to modern humans’ first settlement of northern Eurasia, nearly 40,000 years ago, when our ancestors first faced off against Siberian wolves.
Though the structure of prehistoric social systems can be gleaned, at least foggily, through an analysis of myth, myths are prone to evolve and change through retelling, mutating across the generations, accumulating elements that inject narrative flair rather than solely maintaining fidelity to the societies they first depicted. The Homeric epics harken back to Bronze Age Greece, circa 1200 BC, but references to horse-riding, iron and mighty rulers like Odysseus engaging in shepherding and farming are clear indications that they take inspiration from the meaner world of 800 BC, as well. This was on the precipice of Classical Antiquity, long after the collapse of the civilization of the Bronze Age.
And yet there is abundant truth in Homer as well, though this conclusion was reached with a very different intellectual toolkit, that of archaeologists rather than philologists and folklorists. The mythic prominence of cities like Agamemnon's Mycenae and Nestor’s Pylos, or the verisimilitude of helmets ornamented with boar’s-tusk in Homer, were confirmed by archaeologists in the early 20th century, as they excavated massive Bronze Age citadels and unearthed representations of warriors with boar’s-tusk helmets. Reconstruction of early Indo-European society from myth and legend is even more difficult than of Bronze Age Greece because the early steppe world is much farther in the past and its homeland lay at a far remove from centers of later civilization. Egypt and Babylon never observed the early Indo-Europeans; the nomads were offstage, far to the north when the world of the pyramids and ziggurats flourished to the south.
Material evidence reflecting the nature of the early koryos would allow scholars to confirm the insights from these myths, and establish independent sources to add to the credibility of the oral histories. This seems to have happened in 2019, when Dorcas Brown and David Anthony published a paper arguing they had discovered the site of an early koryos initiation. In Late Bronze Age midwinter dog sacrifices and warrior initiations at Krasnosamarskoe, Russia they document a coming-of-age ritual of the Srubna Culture, an ancient Iranian people that occupied the Pontic–Caspian steppe for five centuries after 2000 BC.
At the Krasnosamarskoe site near what is today Samarra, Russia, Brown and Anthony record that in approximately 1800 BC, 51 dogs and seven wolves were killed. They were older dogs and did not seem to have struggled or undergone trauma, suggesting trust and familiarity towards the humans who slaughtered them. All those that could be analyzed genetically were male. Additionally, they were skinned and dismembered in a deliberate and regular manner that indicates they were eaten for ritualistic purposes. The butchering was standardized across individuals, the heads were cut into four parts, the mandibles were cut off and chopped in half and the trunks were cut into many pieces. According to Brown and Anthony, all these parts were roasted, despite many having little meat, indicating the consumption was not driven by nutritional considerations. Finally, this all seems to have occurred at midwinter, suggesting a rite timed for the solstice. Brown and Anthony contend that an:
“initiation ritual is suggested by the repeated inversion of normal dietary customs represented by killing and consuming dogs, particularly old dogs that must have been familiar pets, and an additional inversion was the consumption of dogs and wolves together. The male orientation of the initiation is indicated by the intentional selection of male dogs.”
The circumstantial evidence was always there in the cross-cultural myth and text, but these scholars have now delivered us concrete evidence of the gruesome aftermath of an ancient initiation rite, whereby boys shed any childhood scruples and entered the hard years of young steppe bachelorhood. Krasnosamarskoe is a site where the “murderous mairyas” (warriors) and the “two-footed dogs” alluded to in the Zoroastrian scriptures were initiated and unleashed upon the world.
The age of the wolf
The ranging of these human “wolf-packs” across Eurasia 5,000 years ago altered the course of history, triggering a cascade of changes that reconfigured the Bronze Age world. To get a sense of the magnitude of this cataclysmic overhaul, perhaps we should consider a well-known example of change and transformation temporally closer to us, in the early historical period. Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization documents the material realities of the Roman Empire’s collapse in the 4th to 6th centuries AD. Rather than spin out extended textually-based arguments, as historians often do, Ward-Perkins, an archaeologist by training, simply points out that pollution deposits left by industry did not regain Roman levels in British ponds for another 1,400 years. The end of the Roman Empire was not just a political collapse; it was a cultural, economic and social catastrophe, recorded and reflected in the material remains. The term “Dark Age” to describe what followed wasn’t hyperbolic, it was dead honest.
I thought of this when J. P. Mallory told me last year that one reason archaeologists studying early Indo-Europeans in Northern Europe rely almost exclusively upon grave goods in their investigations is that for roughly 1,000 years, that is all the material record offers. Mallory, trained as an archaeologist, had an intuitive feel for this issue that I naturally lacked, and it was at that moment that I realized the collapse of the great European Neolithic societies around 3000 BC was a prehistoric “end of civilization.” And despite the catalytic role likely played by cultural decline and climate change, the appearance of aggressive Indo-European agro-pastoralists was responsible for the ultimate extinction of Europe’s Neolithic civilizations. The post-Neolithic Indo-European Bell Beaker and Corded Ware cultures known to us by their distinctive, but indisputably humble vessels, never constructed anything as grand as what had been wrought by the megalith builders of Western Europe, nor did they craft richly vibrant pottery like the Cucuteni–Trypillia of Eastern Europe had. They were among Stonehenge’s inheritors, not its creators. Likewise, in the Indian subcontinent, the Indo-Aryans would not replicate the material accomplishments of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC) for over a millennium after their arrival around 1800 BC. The IVC at its peak, around 2100 BC, boasted a network of vast cities with public sanitation and hydraulic works that spanned 25% of South Asia. But after its decline and collapse, urbanism only regained its footing in the subcontinent after 500 BC. Like the Anglo-Saxons in post-Roman Britain, the early Indo-Europeans ruled over a fallen world. But their reign of barbarity lasted more than a millennium, rather than the century of Anglo-Saxon darkness.
The Red Hands
How barbaric were these early people exactly? In 2019, the Danish archaeologist Kristian Kristiansen made waves when he hypothesized about the possible genocidal behavior of the Yamnaya Indo-European invaders of Europe in Denmark and Germany. Kristiansen knows whereof he speaks; he was an author on papers that reported on massive demographic shifts in the paleogenomic record. To his consternation, this argument elicited predictably sensational media representations, but Kristiansen was simply articulating a theory to explain genetic and archaeological patterns that were becoming undeniable. For example, he notes that burials in early Indo-European sites in Germany and elsewhere indicate they were exogamous, patrilocal, patrilineal and patriarchal (quite similar in fact to the custom of gotra among high-caste Indian Hindus today). To further get a sense of sex dynamics in these early Indo-European communities, Kristiansen notes that the children these early Indo-Europeans viewed as worthy of a reverential burial tended to be male, while isotope analysis indicated that adult females in their early settlements were raised elsewhere. Patrilineality is confirmed in that all the males at a site had the same Y chromosomes. Finally, Kristiansen reports that men and women in these early communities may have had different diets, with the women subsisting more on a Neolithic vegetarian fare in their youth, while men tended to consume meat. This is strong evidence that these women were outsiders, imported daughters of Neolithic locals.
Kristiansen, in short, is presenting a theory that argues the koryos, the ‘black youth’ (black was the color associated with Indo-European koryos across many societies) were instrumental in expanding the range of Indo-European culture through aggressive raiding and eventually conquest. Like the early Romans under Romulus and Remus, they procured mates through means violent and foul. This may have been a general Indo-European trend. Sociolinguist Peggy Mohan argues in Wanderers, Kings and Merchants that the Vedas leave open the possibility that the wives of Indo-Aryan warriors and priests did not themselves speak Sanskrit, but a native Indian language. The expansion and conquests spearheaded by the koryos may have been unplanned, but it’s also easy to see their inevitability in the face of a massive social reorganization triggered by steppe nomadism. Just as water flows downhill, the crystallization of the koryos with the rise of steppe nomadism may have rendered conquest of the supercontinent's rich western and southern flanks by nomads nearly inevitable.
The thesis then is that a migration of males drove the cultural shift is supported by copious genetic evidence. Data from both Europe and India indicate that steppe ancestry was brought by males and that the maternal lineage (mtDNA) of modern Europeans and Indians is predominantly indigenous. More concretely, the expansion of Indo-Europeans is associated with the spread of two paternal lineages, haplogroup R1b and R1a. Haplogroup R1b appears mostly in Central and Western Europe, while haplogroup R1a is today found in Eastern Europe, and across the Indo-Iranian world. The genetic separation between European and Indo-Iranian R1a lineages dates to about 3500 BC, suspiciously close to when the Yamnaya seem to have adopted nomadism.
But perhaps the most striking thing about R1a and R1b is that these lineages found throughout Indo-European-speaking populations are characterized by a massive demographic expansion that occurred so fast the mutations we usually count on to differentiate the branching structure of a phylogeny had no time to accumulate. As you can see below, R1b and R1a exhibit very broad “rake” topologies on a cladogram. The demographic process that drove this was an incredible population explosion of men carrying these Y haplogroups. A 2015 paper comparing genetic diversity between Y chromosomes and mitochondrial (maternal) lineages, found that over 4,000 years ago, for dozens of generations, more than ten women had children for every man in the regions characterized by expansionary Yamnaya. These genetic data make the case for massive levels of de facto polygamy among these early elite Indo-European kindreds.
To the victors go the spoils, indeed.
In describing what they documented at the midwinter dog and wolf sacrifice site, Brown and Anthony refer to the young members of the koryos entering an “anti-culture,” because the savage behavior of the koryos was not normative for the societies that incubated them. Rather, their brutal youthful energies were tolerated with the understanding that it was a passing stage in life, and their viciousness would be channeled outward onto foes. But even their host communities could be ambivalent at best toward these bestial youth (a difference mostly in degree to adults today rolling their eyes at clusters of teen males egging one another on, being too loud, too brash, too abrasive in public). The Vedic Maruts of Lord Indira, young warriors who are a sort of divine koryos, were often depicted as capricious and fickle, while the Iranian Zoroastrians labeled the dog-warriors evil. Finally, the 19th-century folklorist Jacob Grimm formulated the concept of the antinomian ‘wild hunt’ from preexistent Northern Europe folklore and practices that involved young men reenacting supernatural rites where Odin rides a menacing black horse and is accompanied by fearsome dogs. Despite over a thousand years of Christianity, a substratum of Indo-European paganism persisted in Northern European folklore and rustic practice.
What precipitated the explosion and dominance of the early Indo-Europeans 5,000 years ago? The switch from farming to nomadism more than five millennia ago inadvertently shifted the balance between culture and anti-culture toward the latter. When conceptualizing the rise and evolution of societies, Marxists refer to an economic “base” influencing an ideological “superstructure,” and here it is clear that the movement away from a cereal-based economic base had massive knock-on effects on the ideological superstructure. The most feral elements that had lain latent in these ancient communities were unleashed upon the world. Whereas their ancestors’ canvas for coming-of-age transgressions and black acts had been perhaps a neighboring glen or a valley, the black youth, the dogs of war now painted their bloody legacy across the length and breadth of Eurasia.
It is our biological legacy as a species that boys in late adolescence, on the cusp of manhood, are prone to impulsive violence and aggression in the course of proving their fitness and establishing their position within their status hierarchy. But bound together in age-set cohorts tasked to range across vast territories as they tended to flocks and defended herds, the koryos tapped into that synergy and cohesion that emerges naturally among bands of young men. They leveraged their newly formed brotherhood toward an explosive outward expansion, enabled by the adoption of nomadism so that their ambitions were born out on a scale never before seen. Separate, they were thin reeds easily snapped, but bundled together, they were deadly and undeniable. Wandering the vast open spaces of Eurasia, the koryos discarded any attachments of family, community or morality and grasped the possibilities of conquest without reservation. From the verdant forests of Western Europe to the pastures of Western Mongolia and the monsoon jungles of India, all was to become their dominion. If the aspiration of a mature society is to inculcate virtue and maintain order, the dream of youth is to be awesome and fearsome.
The evidence from genetics makes it clear that these young men conquered the world for their people, from the Atlantic to the Indian ocean, taking whatever they could grasp without compunction. Myth and language both pointed to the likelihood that the early Indo-European cultures were patrilineal and patriarchal, but genetics and archaeology confirm these facts. The extremely rapid demographic increase of a select few male lineages 4,000 years ago tells us that koryos were not just any members of the community, but the elite, the elect from the families of the warrior caste. From India to Germany, these young wolves established exogamous and patrilocal communities, and just like Comanche Indian braves 4,000 years later, they abducted local women to bear their sons whenever they wished.
These brutal early forefathers of the modern world propagated the anti-culture and destroyed what little was left of Europe’s and India’s earlier civilizations (already in decline due to ecological degradation). They ushered in a dark age that would last a millennium. Whereas later steppe nomads learned to extract rents from their subjects, the koryos viewed their game as one of animal competition and elimination, a dance with death fit for the brief season of youth, beyond childhood but before full manhood. They were products of a savage interregnum beyond our comprehension. They herded and hunted under the limitless sky, their aspirations denominated in herds of cattle and the thrill of the wild hunt, rather than heads of toiling peasants underwriting some quiet life of leisure. They embraced a thrill-seeking culture of the now, their short-term pursuits leaving a void in their wake that would persist for uncounted generations.
Evolution may need the vigor and violence of youth to sift the strong from the weak, but early Eurasian nomads took the Darwinian logic to its natural conclusion as they cut a broad path across the world. These ungoverned young men were an absolute scourge on the continent; they almost destroyed the possibility of a civilizational renewal when Neolithic Europe and India’s Indus Valley Civilization suffered climatic and sociological shocks; the first chapter of the story of the Eurasian nomads unleashed dark destructive forces that no one saw coming. But wantonly as they might destroy, they did not kill civilization; indeed they might even deserve credit for unknowingly laying its new foundations, fertilizing the ground with the ashes of the world they burned, ashes that would nourish the great cultures of antiquity when they rose again phoenix-like, from Rome all the way to India.
To a great extent, we all live in the end result of that millennia-long renewal of civilization from the ashes of the anti-culture. Eventually, short-term thinking and violence, living in the moment for fleeting glory and dreams of everlasting fame, gave way to the hard labors of peace, investing in a future of tranquility and justice. The ungoverned wildness of youth mellowed into the sagacity and deliberation of advanced age. The wild hunt of the wolves, defined by wily improvisation, that manchild mix of dares and daring, of untamed impulses balanced with brutal execution, gave way to a more domesticated cosmic order. Societies came to eschew merely pursuing one’s own crass interests in favor of plodding deliberation, the straightjacket of law and custom and unwavering loyalty to the body politic.
In the new age after the dark receded, the brutal barbarism wrought by the koryos would be reined in, channeled in the service of the polis, undeniable strength wedded to justice, and the warrior caste, the kshatriya, for example, charged with protecting the weak rather than preying upon them. Impersonal material forces transformed the prehistoric world, unleashing the anti-culture. But after this interregnum of waste and destruction, it was force of mind, it was new ethical religions and philosophies that ultimately banished our terrifying, innate wolf energy back to the periphery of polite society. And from there, it has haunted our dreams and pervaded our myths ever since.