Genes and Myths: Ancient Mal’ta DNA and the Earth-Diver Mythological Motif
Earth-Diver is one of the most widely-distributed and well-studied cosmological myths. Found in mostly Uralic-speaking Eastern Europe, in Siberia, in Munda-speaking Northeast India and North America, its action is set in post-diluvial times when a demiurge sends various creatures to bring a piece of mud from the bottom of the ocean. The first creature fails, but the second one succeeds. Importantly, it’s the least likely creature that succeeds, while the more obvious favorite fails. A loon is a much better diver than a duck but it’s the duck that succeeds. In the end, the demiurge blows the earth out of the tiny piece of mud and restores life on it. Depending on the region, the diving creatures are different – in Eurasia it’s waterfowl birds – loon and duck, in North America it’s amphibians such as turtle or frog, animals such as otter or beaver or waterbirds, in Northeast India and the American Southwest – it’s arthropods.
Population folklorists such as Vladimir Napol’skikh (Древнейшие этапы происхождения народов уральской языковой семьи: данные мифологической реконструкции (прауральский космогонический миф)/The Initial Stages of Evolution of Uralic-Speakers: Evidence from a Mythological Reconstruction (Proto-Uralic Cosmogonic Myth). Moscow, 1991) have suggested that the Earth-Diver motif is the folkloric manifestation of a more comprehensive system of beliefs related to the experiences of a shamanic flight in Northern Eurasian and Amerindian cultures. Siberian shamans liken themselves to waterfowl birds flying between worlds in search of the soul of their patient and they manipulate waterfowl figurines during their shamanic seances.
Remarkably, very similar figurines are found at the 24,000-year-old Mal’ta archaeological site in South Siberia (see one on the left made out of a mammoth tusk), and Napol’skikh, in his 1991 book as well as in a recent talk (see video in Russian, roughly from 11:40 on) proposed that the Mal’ta people possessed the “cult of a waterfowl” and told the Earth-Diver myth. This means that the Earth-Diver motif may go back to pre-LGM times.
Mal’ta has recently made headlines thanks to the sequencing of the genome of a 4-year-old boy found at this site. The DNA sample fell in-between West Eurasians and Amerindians, without any special connection to East Asians, and showed typical West Eurasian mtDNA and Y-DNA haplogroups, namely U and R, respectively. They are sister lineages of widely distributed in the Americas hg B (mtDNA) and hg Q (Y-DNA). It appears that, in pre-LGM times, Amerindians and West Eurasians formed a genetic continuum and that modern East Asians did not yet emerge as a distinct population.
This finding may put the distribution of the Earth-Diver myth into a new perspective. Per Davidski’s request, I adduce the map of the distribution of the Earth-Diver motif in Eurasia and North America (see the shaded areas on the left). One should not expect a perfect fit between the distribution of myths and genes but the Earth-Diver distribution is rather clearly demarcated on a worldwide scale and does show continuity between West Eurasia and North America. The motif is notably absent from Western Europe – precisely the area that was covered with the glacier from 25,000 to 14,000 years ago – and from Beringia (Paleoasiatic peoples such as Chukchees and Koryaks as well as Eskimos don’t tell earth-diver stories), which may have been blocked by ice as well. Its presence in the Balkans is a due to relatively recent events such as Turkic and Avar migrations across the southern European steppe.
According to Napol’skikh’s motif phylogeny (on the left), the Earth-Diver myth has gone through 3 evolutionary stages – MNP-0, MNP-1 and MNP-2. At MNP-0, any creature (and any number of creatures) could become the demiurge’s helper as long as the least likely creature succeeded. At MNP-1, the plot crystallized around a pair of waterfowls in Siberia and Western North America and a pair of animals in Eastern North America. At MNP-3, one of the creatures dropped off and the demiurge used the help of only one helper. The “cladistics” of the myth is, therefore, rather simple: the dynamic and variable ancestral forms crystallize into progressively fewer characters.
As the detailed maps of motif and submotif distribution (see above, from Napol’skikh 2011) show, North America and Northern Eurasia share MNP-2 but then the rest of the variation is continent-specific. Eurasia has a number of clearly derived variants that are missing from the Americas, while America has a number variants not seen in Eurasia. Napol’skikh observes that stage MNP-0 is better represented in North America – the region that tends to have more archaic versions of the motif and more basal motif diversity (not just waterfowls, but animals, too; not just two creatures but many, etc.). Remarkably, the use of arthropods by the demiurge is a trait shared by Munda-speaking Northeast Indians (see the Berezkin map of Eurasia above) and the Muskogean-speaking Amerindians from the Southeast, both areas being the southernmost extremes of the Earth-Diver distribution.
As the Mal’ta boy is re-writing the prehistory of Eurasia, opportunities are growing for cross-disciplinary integration that would tie together genes and culture into a coherent story.