Intelligence: It's In The Genes


April 11, 2012: Over a decade of warfare in Afghanistan has brought in a lot of foreign experts to scrutinize the place for useful information. One of the lesser known efforts has been carried out by medical researchers and anthropologists. Before September 11, 2001, not a lot of research had been done on the peoples of Afghanistan. But new technology (inexpensive genome analysis) and lots of medical people in the area has made it possible to get a good view of the genetic makeup of the peoples of Afghanistan. The genetic analysis shows that people have lived in the area since before the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago. The current cultures began developing over 3,000 years ago, as the Indo-European tribes spread a common language and culture into Iran, Europe, and South Asia. Since Afghanistan lay astride the easiest route into modern-day Pakistan and India, many conquerors passed through, leaving behind an interesting mélange of genetic history. The Mongol (Hazara) and Turk genes in the north represent the most recent major invasions, while the Iranian influence in the majority of Afghans represents the first and most lasting invasion. In addition, there has been a lot more genetic information collected from nations throughout the region. This indicates where cultural influences came from and when they arrived. Currently, Afghanistan is 42 percent Pushtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 9 percent Hazara, 9 percent Uzbeks, 4 percent Aimaqs, 3 percent Turkmen, 2 percent Baluchi, and 4 percent of several other minorities.

The Pushtuns are dominant in southern Afghanistan and are closely related to the Iranians. The Pushtun language is also similar to Farsi (the main language of Iran). The Tajiks are dominant in the north and are also ethnic and linguistic cousins of the Iranians. The Hazara are the remainders of the Mongols who conquered the area 800 years ago. The Hazara now speak a Farsi type language, with a lot of Mongolian words. Some of the Hazara tribes are named after famous Mongolian generals from the ancient times when the Mongols ruled what is now Afghanistan. That conquest was particularly brutal, and the Hazara are still disliked because of this, particularly by the Pushtuns. The Aimaqs are considered closely related to the Tajiks, but distinct. The Baluchi are also an Iranian people. The Uzbeks and Turkmen are Turkish. The Pushtuns and Tajiks have been in the region the longest, probably for thousands of years. Because the majority of Afghans (Pushtuns, Tajiks, and Aimaqs) are related to the Iranians (and, more distantly, to other Indo-Europeans from Ireland to India), the common second language in Afghanistan is Dari, which is a dialect of Farsi.

The political history of Afghanistan is more complicated than the genetic one. For thousands of years the area now known as Afghanistan was actually divided into tribal areas and each tribe considered itself a "nation" (with borders, laws, and an armed force of adult males ready to fight). Parts of Afghanistan often came under the control of nearby empires. Western Afghanistan was subject to Iranian control, eastern Afghanistan to Indian rule, while the north saw Chinese and Turks holding valuable trade routes (the Silk Road) between East Asia and the Middle East. Two centuries ago "Afghanistan" appeared as British controlled India established borders that defined the extent of eastern and southern Afghanistan. The Iranian (or "Persian") empire shrank, leaving us with the current western border of Afghanistan. In the north the Mongol and Turkic empires disappeared, replaced by Russian conquests in Central Asia, giving us the northern border. Within Afghanistan there were dozens of tribes, dominated by those speaking Pushtun. In the south it was almost all Pushtun but there were Pushtun tribes in the north as well, where they were surrounded by more numerous Tajik, Turkish (mainly Uzbek), and Mongol (Hazara) tribes. Hemmed in like this these tribes, in the middle of nowhere, formed a loose alliance, nominally led by a Pushtun king. The king really just presided over the tribes helping to settle disputes and deal with outsiders (mainly the British controlled Indians, Russians, and Iranians).

The introduction of Western technology (more productive agricultural methods, medicine, and better sanitation) eventually caused a population explosion. For over a thousand years Afghanistan had supported no more than about 2.5 million people. But in the 19th century that changed and by 1900 population had doubled to five million. Fifty years later it had more than tripled, to 16 million. It has since doubled again. Even with more productive agricultural methods there was eventually a land and water shortage and more disputes between the tribes over scarce resources. Communism and other Western political ideas had come to Afghanistan as well, and the Russian invasion in 1979, was triggered by a tribal rebellion against urban Afghans trying to impose a central governmen, and more alien ideas on a still very medieval mindset in the countryside. While the Russians left (more because of impatience than military defeat) in 1989, that war between the traditional tribes and the urban reformers continues.