Correlation does not mean causation: the damage of the ‘Yamnaya ancestral component’, and the ‘Future American’ hypothesis

america-languages-lowlandic

Human ancestry can only help solve anthropological questions by using all anthropological disciplines involved. I have said that many times in this blog.

Correlation does not mean causation

Really, it does not.

You might think the tenet ‘correlation does not mean causation‘ must be evident at this point in Statistics, and it must also be for all those using statistical methods in their research. But it is sadly not so. A lot of researchers just look for correlation, and derive conclusions – without even an initial sound hypothesis to be contrasted… You can judge for yourself, e.g. reading the many instances of this complaint in recent publications of Biomedical and Social Sciences, on the interesting blog Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science.

In anthropological questions regarding Indo-European studies there is an added handicap: not taking correlation to mean causation does also mean – to avoid at least the most obvious confounders – taking into account the multiple linguistic and archaeological data that are available right now, to explain the expansion of Indo-European languages.

You might also believe that international researchers in Human Evolutionary Biology – after all, this is essentially a biomedical discipline – are acquainted with statistical methods and their problems when applied to their field. And that scientific journals – and especially those with the highest impact factors, like Nature, Science, or PNAS – have professional, careful reviewers who would never accept papers that equal correlation with causation, especially when Social Sciences are involved (because this alone might make errors grow exponentially…). Sadly, this is obviously not so, either.

https://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/correlation.png

The ‘Yamnaya component’ concept and its damage

From Allentoft et al. (2015), emphasis is mine:

Both studies [Haak et al. (2015) and this one] found a genetic affinity between samples from a central European culture known as Corded Ware, which existed from around 2500 bc, and samples from the earlier Yamnaya steppe culture. This similarity between distant populations is best explained by a substantial westward expansion of the Yamnaya or their close relatives into central Europe (Fig. 1b). Such an expansion is consistent with the steppe hypothesis, which argues that Corded Ware cultures were a conduit for the dispersal of Indo-European languages into Europe.

More interesting than these vague words – and the short, almost invisible suggestion that Yamna may not be exactly the population behind Corded Ware peoples – are the maps that illustrated in Nature their risky hypothesis: they called it “steppe hypothesis“, like that (in general terms), as if everyone defending a steppe origin for Proto-Indo-European would support such a model, when they actually referred to the specific hypothesis of one of their authors (Kristiansen), one of the few archaeologists who keep Gimbutas’ concept of the ‘Kurgan peoples’ alive, based on the Corded Ware culture:

Allentoft Corded Ware
Allentoft et al. (2015): “They conclude that the Corded Ware culture of central Europe had ancestry from the Yamnaya. Allentoft et al. also show that the Afanasievo culture to the east is related to the Yamnaya, and that the Sintashta and Andronovo cultures had ancestry from the Corded Ware. Arrows indicate migrations — those from the Corded Ware reflect the evidence that people of this archaeological culture (or their relatives) were responsible for the spreading of Indo-European languages. All coloured boundaries are approximate.”

In many publications that followed, the trend has been to reproduce this graphical model, by asserting (or implying) that Bell Beaker peoples were the result of subsequent Corded Ware migrations, and indeed that Corded Ware peoples migrated from the Yamna culture, and were thus the vector of expansion for Indo-European languages in Europe.

All of this is being proven wrong, as I predicted: see Mathieson et al. (2017) and Olalde et al. (2017) for recently studied samples with ‘steppe component’, older than (and unrelated to) the Yamna culture. However, no retraction (or correction, whatever) has been published to date about the concept of the ‘Yamnaya ancestry expansion’, and its consequences.

We shall see then just a rather surreptitious shift in terminology from ‘Yamnaya’ to ‘steppe’ component, to adapt to the new data – i.e. some damage control while the ship of ‘Yamnaya ancestry’ capsizes – but little else. “Earlier ‘Yamnaya ancestry’, you say? Just, you know, let’s call it ‘steppe ancestry’ and shift the expansion of Indo-European languages to one or two thousand years earlier, and done!”

The damage of this post-truth genetics is already done: we will see the unending distribution on the Internet in general, and on social networks in particular, of these grandiose conclusions, of far-fetched Indo-European migration models that include the Corded Ware culture, of simplistic maps with apparently harmless ‘arrows of migration’ (like the above) representing fictional population movements suggesting nonexistent dialectal branches.

You might be one of those sceptics wary of so many boring statistical rules: “But it’s a safe reasoning: Yamanaya samples have an ‘ancestral component’ that is found elevated in Corded Ware samples, and less so in Bell Beaker samples, and PCA showed a similar result…so the migration model Yamnaya -> Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker is a priori correct, right?”

The ‘Future American’ hypothesis

Let me illustrate this attractive “Correlation = Causation” argument, using it to solve the problem of Future American languages.

Suppose we live in a future post-apocalyptic world ca. 3500 AD, with no surviving historical records before 3000 AD. None. Just investigation of cultures and their relationship by Archaeology, proto-languages reconstructed and language families identified by Linguistics, etc.

We have thus Future Germanic and Future Romance as the only language families spoken in Future Western Europe and in the Future Americas, in a distribution similar to the present day*, and we have certain somehow related archaeologically-defined cultures on both sides of the Atlantic, like Briton, Iberian, Norman, or Lowlandish, although their distribution remains partly undefined in time and space.

* If you are really curious about this scenario, you can read about the potential evolution of a Future North-American language.

But what languages did the ancestors of Future Americans speak, and who spread them? That question remains far from being settled by our future researchers, in spite of the solidest linguistic and migration models (talking mainly about Briton and Iberian cultures): too many authorities out there questioning them, fighting to impose their own pet theories.

Suddenly, the newly developed field of Human Ancestry comes to save the day. So let’s say we have this map of ancient samples recovered (dated from, say, the 6th to the 18th century AD), and our study is centered on the newly described “Western European” component (a precise combination of, say, WHG+steppe), which peaks in early samples from the Low Lands – hence we call it, quite daringly, “Lowlandic component“.

Our group is keen to demonstrate that the ancient Lowlandic culture described in Archaeology (marked especially by the worldwide distribution of tulips among other traits) is the origin of Western European and American languages… Now, let’s reach conclusions about migrations in the Middle Ages!

america-languages-lowlandic
‘Future American’ hypothesis. Migration routes in Western Europe and the Americas during the Middle Ages, based on the ‘Lowlandic component’ (Click to open higher quality version).

PCA shows that South-West European samples cluster closely to some North-West European samples, and that some late South American samples available cluster at some distance from North American samples – nearer to a native component represented by two individuals with 0% Lowlandic ancestry and a different cluster in PCA. And some North-American samples cluster quite closely to North-West European samples.

Based on the decrease in ‘Lowlandic component’ in the different samples and on PCA, we conclude that Lowlandic peoples (“or their close relatives”) must have migrated at the same time to North America, South America (or potentially from North America to South America?) as well as western, central, and northern Europe. Both migration events must have happened roughly at the same time, in part because both distinct language families appear in a north-south distribution, and Proto-Lowlandic must be (according to Genetics) the ancestor of both, Proto-Future-Germanic and Proto-Future-Romance.

That makes a lot of sense! A huge Lowlandic pressure for migration, you see. Push-pull mechanisms and stuff. A Lowlandic Empire probably (scattered remains are found everywhere)! And, judging by the presence of the ‘Lowlandic component’ in Future East Europe from the Elbe to the Vistula, maybe Lowlandic peoples spread Proto-Slavic, too! We can even date the common Lowlandic-Slavic proto-language this way! So many groundbreaking conclusions!

Future scholars supporting the Lowlandic homeland are on fire; they can’t get enough of publishing papers on the subject. “Two different Future American language families with cultural origins in Britain and Iberia, my ass! Because genetics.”

And don’t forget the future people of haplogroup R1b-U106 and high Lowlandic component: Wow, they are the heirs of those who expanded Future Germanic and Future Romance languages everywhere, aren’t they? How proud they must be. And who wouldn’t want to have these tall, blond, blue-eyed Lowlanders as their forefathers? Personalised genetic analysis is selling like crazy: “let’s know our Lowlandic percentage!”. Everyone is happy, colourful maps with lots of arrows and shit…

But – your future you might ask in awe, seeing that this doesn’t sound quite right, based on your basic archaeological and linguistic knowledge:

  • What about specific models of migration proposed to date? The solidest ones, not just anyone that seems to fit?
  • What about the dialectal classification of languages? The mainstream ones, not those that are compatible with this interpretation?
  • What about archaeological cultures to which individual samples belonged?
  • What about the actual dates of each sample? And how this date relates to the state of the culture to which it belongs?
  • What about the haplogroups, and the actual subclade of each haplogroup?
  • What about the territories, cultures, and dates not sampled, could they change this interpretation in light of known archaeological models?
  • And what about the actual origin of that ancestral component they so frivolously named? Dit it really appear ex nihilo in the Low Lands, and expanded from it?

“Who cares! This new data is sooo coool… And it proves what we wanted, what a coincidence! And it’s numbers, mate! Numbers don’t lie.”

 
No, numbers don’t lie. But people do.

Correlation is fun, isn’t it?

 

Related:

Indo-European demic diffusion model, 3rd Ed. – Revised October 2017

pca-yamna-corded-ware

I have just uploaded a new working draft of the third version of the Indo-European demic diffusion model.

In this new version I have added more information published recently, I have updated the maps – especially the one on Palaeolithic migrations -, I have added information on Sredni Stog and its potential role in developing the Corded Ware culture and most likely language, and I have corrected certain parts that have become obsolete, especially after the latest version (19 Sept. 2017) of Mathieson et al. (2017).

It can be read or downloaded at:

Included is my first sketch of the genetic history of Europe, as I interpret it in light of Genetic research (especially from outputs of qpGraph published to date), but also Archaeology (and, to some extent, Linguistics).

genetic-history-europe-eurasia
Tentative sketch modelling the genetic history of Europe and West Eurasia from ancient populations up to the Bronze Age, according to results in recent Genetic papers and archaeological models of known migrations.

I have also taken this opportunity to upload some drafts I had been preparing in September while working on the Third Edition, that I have sadly not been able to complete as I would have wanted to. The drafts are posted in the section Human Ancestry. I post them as they are, in the hope that they can help others.

Something is very wrong with models based on the so-called ‘steppe admixture’ – and archaeologists are catching up

steppe-admixture

Russian archaeologist Leo Klejn has published an article Discussion: Are the Origins of Indo-European Languages Explained by the Migration of the Yamnaya Culture to the West?, which includes the criticism received from Wolfgang Haak, Iosif Lazaridis, Nick Patterson, and David Reich (mainly on the genetic aspect), and from Kristian Kristiansen, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Morten Allentoft, Martin Sikora, and Eske Willerslev (mainly on the archaeological aspect).

I will not post details of Klejn’s model of North-South Proto-Indo-European expansion – which is explained in the article, and relies on the north-south cline of ‘steppe admixture’ in the modern European population -, since it is based on marginal anthropological methods and theories, including glottochronological dates, and archaeological theories from the Russian school (mainly Zalyzniak), which are obviously not mainstream in the field of Indo-European Studies, and (paradoxically) on the modern distribution of ‘steppe admixture’…

The most interesting aspects of the article are the reactions to the criticism, some of which can be used from the point of view of the Indo-European demic diffusion model, too. It is sad, however, that they didn’t choose to answer earlier to Heyd’s criticism (or to Heyd’s model, which is essentially also that of Mallory and Anthony), instead of just waiting for proponents of the least interesting models to react…

The answer by Haak et al.:

Klejn mischaracterizes our paper as claiming that practitioners of the Corded Ware culture spoke a language ancestral to all European Indo-European languages, including Greek and Celtic. This is incorrect: we never claim that the ancestor of Greek is the language spoken by people of the Corded Ware culture. In fact, we explicitly state that the expansion of steppe ancestry might account for only a subset of Indo-European languages in Europe. Klejn asserts that ‘a source in the north’ is a better candidate for the new ancestry manifested in the Corded Ware than the Yamnaya. While it is indeed the case that the present-day people with the greatest affinity to the Corded Ware are distributed in north-eastern Europe, a major part of the new ancestry of the Corded Ware derives from a population most closely related to Armenians (Haak et al., 2015) and hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus (Jones et al., 2015). This ancestry has not been detected in any European huntergatherers analysed to date (Lazaridis et al., 2014; Skoglund et al., 2014; Haak et al., 2015; Fu et al., 2016), but made up some fifty per cent of the ancestry of the Yamnaya. The fact that the Corded Ware traced some of its ancestry to the southern Caucasus makes a source in the north less parsimonious.

In our study, we did not speculate about the date of Proto-Indo-European and the locations of its speakers, as these questions are unresolved by our data, although we do think the genetic data impose constraints on what occurred. We are enthusiastic about the potential of genetics to contribute to a resolution of this longstanding issue, but this is likely to require DNA from multiple, as yet unsampled, ancient populations.

Klejn response to that:

Allegedly, I had accused the authors of tracing all Indo-European languages back to Yamnaya, whereas they did not trace all of them but only a portion! Well, I shall not reproach the authors for their ambiguous language: it remains the case that (beginning with the title of the first article) their qualifications are lost and their readers have understood them as presenting the solution to the whole question of the origins of Indo-European languages.

(…) they had in view not the Proto-Indo-European before the separation of the Hittites, but the language that was left after the separation. Yet, this was still the language ancestral to all the remaining Indo-European languages, and the followers of Sturtevan and Kluckhorst call only this language Proto-Indo-European (while they call the initial one Indo-Hittite). The majority of linguists (specialists in Indo-European languages) is now inclined to this view. True, the breakup of this younger language is several hundred years more recent (nearly a thousand years later according to some glottochronologies) than the separation of Anatolian languages, but it is still around a thousand years earlier than the birth of cultures derived from Yamnaya.
More than that, I analysed in my criticism both possibilities — the case for all Indo-European languages spreading from Yamnaya and the case for only some of them spreading from Yamnaya. In the latter case, it is argued that only the languages of the steppes, the Aryan (Indo- Iranian) are descended from Yamnaya, not the languages of northern Europe. Together with many scholars, I am in agreement with the last possibility. But, then, what sense can the proposed migration of the Yamnaya culture to the Baltic region have? It would bring the Indo-Iranian proto-language to that region! Yet, there are no traces of this language on the coasts of the Baltic!

My main concern is that, to my mind, one should not directly apply conclusions from genetics to events in the development of language because there is no direct and inevitable dependence between events in the life of languages, culture, and physical structure (both anthropological and genetic). They can coincide, but often they all follow divergent paths. In each case the supposed coincidence should be proved separately.

The authors’ third objection concerns the increase of the genetic similarity of European population with that of the Yamnaya culture. This increases in the north of Europe and is weak in the south, in the places adjacent to the Yamnaya area, i.e. in Hungary. This gradient is clearly expressed in the modern population, but was present already in the Bronze Age, and hence cannot be explained by shifts that occurred in the Early Iron Age and in medieval times. However, the supposed migration of the Yamnaya culture to the west and north should imply a gradient in just the opposite direction!

Regarding the arguments of Kristiansen and colleagues:

[They argue that] in two early burials of the Corded Ware culture (one in Germany, the other in Poland) some single attributes of Yamnaya origin have been found.

(…) if this is the full extent of Yamnaya infiltration into central Europe—two burials (one for each country) from several thousands (and from several hundreds of early burials)—then it hardly amounts to large-scale migration.

Quite recently we have witnessed the success of a group of geneticists from Stanford University and elsewhere (Poznik et al., 2016). They succeeded in revealing varieties of Y-chromosome connected with demographic expansions in the Bronze Age. Such expansion can give rise to migration. Among the variants connected with this expansion is R1b, and this haplogroup is typical for the Yamnaya culture. But what bad luck! This haplogroup connected with expansion is indicated by the clade L11, while the Yamnaya burials are associated with a different clade, Z2103, that is not marked by expansion. It is now time to think about how else the remarkable results reached by both teams of experienced and bright geneticists may be interpreted.

Regarding the work of Heyd,

(…) with regard to the barrow burials of the third millennium BC in the basin of the Danube, although they have been assigned to the Yamnaya culture, I would consider them as also belonging to
another, separate culture, perhaps a mixed culture: its burial custom is typical of the Yamnaya, but its pottery is absolutely not Yamnaya, but local Balkan with imports of distinctive corded beakers (Schnurbecher). I would not be surprised if
Y-chromosome haplogroups of this population were somewhat similar to those of the Yamnaya, while mitochondrial groups were indigenous. As yet, geneticists deal with great blocks of populations and prefer to match them to very large and generalized cultural blocks, while archaeology now analyses more concrete and smaller cultures, each of which had its own fate.

Iosif Lazaridis shares more thoughts on the discussion in his Twitter account:

As we mentioned in Haak, Lazaridis et al. (2015), the Yamnaya are the best proximate source for the new ancestry that first appears with the Corded Ware in central Europe, as it has the right mix of both ANE (related to Native Americans, MA1, and EHG), but also Armenian/Caucasus/Iran-like southern component of ancestry. The Yamnaya is a westward expansive culture that bears exactly the two new ancestral components (EHG + Caucasus/Iran/Armenian-like).
As for the Y-chromosome, it was already noted in Haak, Lazaridis et al. (2015) that the Yamnaya from Samara had Y-chromosomes which belonged to R-M269 but did not belong to the clade common in Western Europe (p. 46 of supplement). Also, not a single R1a in Yamnaya unlike Corded Ware (R1a-dominated). But Yamnaya samples = elite burials from eastern part of the Yamnaya range. Both R1a/R1b found in Eneolithic Samara and EHG, so in conclusion Yamnaya expansion still the best proximate source for the post-3,000 BCE population change in central Europe. And since 2015 steppe expansion detected elsewhere (Cassidy et al. 16, Martiniano et al. 17, Mittnik et al. 17, Mathieson et al. 17, Lazaridis et al. 2016 (South Asia) and …?…

I love the smell of new wording in the morning… viz. Yamnaya best proximate source for Corded Ware, Corded Ware might account for only a subset of Indo-European languages, Corded Ware representing Aryan languages (probably Klejn misinterprets what the authors mean, i.e. some kind of Indo-Slavonic or Germano-Balto-Slavic group)…

We shall expect more and more ambiguous rewording and more adjustments of previous conclusions as new papers and new criticisms appear.

Related:

Featured image from the article: Distribution of the ‘Yamnaya’ genetic component in the populations of Europe (data taken from Haak et al., 2015). The intensity of the colour corresponds to the contribution of this component in various modern populations

Indo-European demic diffusion model, 2nd edition, revised and updated

It has been three months since I published the first paper on the Indo-European demic diffusion model.

In the meantime, important pre-print papers with samples of Bell Beaker and South-Eastern European cultures compel me to add new data in support of the model. I have taken this opportunity to revise the whole text in a new paper, Indo-European demic diffusion model, 2nd edition, and also some of the maps of Indo-European migrations, which are now hosted in this blog.

I have made changes to some of the old blogs I had, like this one, and I have merged two of them (from carlosquiles.com and indo-european.info) in this domain, indo-european.eu, to begin blogging about anthropological questions regarding Proto-Indo-Europeans and their language.

This blog was used years ago as my personal dialectic training site in English, mostly filled with controversial topics, and while I hope to keep some form of discussion, I want to turn it into a more pragmatic blog for news and reports on Indo-European studies.

Indo-European.info will be used as a collaborative Wiki website for this model to include supplementary information from published papers – such as results of individual and group’s admixture analyses, archaeological information of individual samples, and also mtDNA. To collaborate, users will have to request an account first (it will be a closed community), and those with important contributions will be added as authors of the following editions of the paper.