The Hyborian Age

I was contemplating Conan the Barbarian, and remembered the essay that Robert E. Howard wrote about the  background of those stories – The Hyborian Age.  I think that the flavor of Howard’s pseudo-history is a lot more realistic than the picture of the human past academics preferred over the past few decades.

In Conan’s world, it’s never surprising to find a people that once mixed with some ancient prehuman race.  Happens all the time.  Until very recently, the vast majority of workers in human genetics and paleontology were sure that this never occurred – and only changed their minds when presented with evidence that was both strong (ancient DNA)  and too mathematically sophisticated for them to understand or challenge (D-statistics).

Conan’s history  was shaped by the occasional catastrophe.  Most academics (particularly geologists) don’t like catastrophes, but they have grudgingly come to admit their importance – things like the Thera and Toba eruptions, or the K/T asteroid strike and the Permo-Triassic crisis.

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, evolution seems to have run pretty briskly, but without any pronounced direction.  Men devolved into ape-men when the environment pushed in that direction (Flores ?)  and shifted right back when the environment favored speech and tools.  Culture shaped evolution, and evolution shaped culture.  An endogamous caste of snake-worshiping priests evolved in a strange direction.  Although their IQs were considerably higher than average, they remained surprisingly vulnerable to sword-bearing barbarians.

In this world, evolution could happen on a time scale of thousands of years, and there was no magic rule that ensured that the outcome would be the same in every group.  It may not be PC to say it, but Cimmerians were smarter than Picts.

Above all, people in Conan’s world fought. They migrated: they invaded.  There was war before, during, and after civilization.  Völkerwanderungs were a dime a dozen. Conquerors spread.  Sometimes they mixed with the locals, sometimes they replaced them – as when the once dominant Hyborians, overrun by Picts, vanished from the earth, leaving scarcely a trace of their blood in the veins of their conquerors. They must have been U5b.

To be fair,  real physical anthropologists in Howard’s day thought that there had been significant population movements and replacements in Europe, judging from changes in skeletons and skulls that accompanied archeological shifts, as when people turned taller, heavier boned , and brachycephalic just as the Bell-Beaker artifacts show up. But those physical anthropologists lost out to people like Boas – liars.

Given the chance (sufficient lack of information), American anthropologists assumed that the Mayans were peaceful astronomers. Howard would have assumed that they were just another blood-drenched snake cult: who came closer?

Now I’m not saying that Howard got every single tiny little syllable of prehistory right.  Not likely: so far, we haven’t seen any signs of Cthulhu-like visitors, which abound in the Conan stories.  So far. But Howard’s priors were more accurate than those of the pots-not-people archeologists: more accurate than people like Excoffier and  Currat, who assume that there hasn’t been any population replacement in Europe since moderns displaced Neanderthals. More accurate than Chris Stringer,  more accurate than Brian Ferguson.

Most important, Conan, unlike the typical professor, knew what was best in life.

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26 Responses to The Hyborian Age

  1. Matt says:

    I got the impression that part of the reason the Migrationists who inspired Howard lost out was not just because of Boas’ theories of secular change, but also their intransigence or ignorance on selection.

    From John Hawks’ – 3:50 onwards

    “In the olden days, 150, 100 years ago, this was the logic of human race differences. Why did people care about the longheads? Because it was the invasion of the longheads that explained the superiority of the Nordic races. We don’t talk about the Nordic races any more. We don’t talk about the invasion of the longheads anyone. This didn’t happen. It’s completely fictitious. But the measurements are still there.”

    Although, given that anthropology as a whole does not seem that big on selection, perhaps this played no role.

  2. dave chamberlin says:

    Conan could use a little updating. The muscular Cimmerian, (people of the far north with extraordinary physical prowess) could be really touchy about his large brow ridge.

  3. Peter Frost says:

    How would you respond to Dienekes’ argument that Neanderthal admixture in Eurasians is overstated because sub-Saharan Africans also have archaic admixture?

    In other words, it isn’t just a matter of Eurasians being pulled closer to the Neanderthal genome through Neanderthal admixture. Sub-Saharan Africans have also been pulled farther away from the Neanderthal genome through their own admixture with other archaic groups.

    • gcochran says:

      The reports of archaic admixture in Africans so far apply to the Bushmen and Pygmies, not the large populations of sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, the estimate is that the amount of such admixture was small. But maybe we’ll hear more.

      If shared sequences between Europeans and Neanderthals come from ancient shared ancestry (surely more than 300,000 years ago) and a long-subdivided African population, the chunks shared with Neanderthals would be pretty short, whittled down by recombination. And they would not be incredibly close to modern sequences.. But you find more really close (close to the european part of the reference sequence) segments in Neanderthals than in Bushmen, as John Hawks has pointed out. And I have the impression that the chunks shared with Neanderthals aren’t short enough to look 300k years old: 100k or less, I think. Reich and Patterson are working on roloff, a method aimed at estimating time of admixture using the distribution of haplotype lengths. it must aimed at this problem.

  4. harpend says:


    There is recent literature, esoteric population genetics, claiming that Africans underwent archaic admixture with something that was neither Neanderthal nor Denisovan.

  5. TWS says:

    – “What is it that a man may call the greatest things in life?”
    – “Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.”

  6. billswift says:

    >and shoft lavatory paper.

    Wrong. My father claimed, and I agree, that the most important quality of toilet paper is that your finger doesn’t penetrate when you are using it.

  7. j says:

    Cimmerians may have be good with the sword but they were dying out already in Conan’s time. The scarcity of children (and old people) in their villages resembles contemporary urban gay neighborhoods. When Conan’s village is raided and the children kidnapped into slavery, only eight were seen walking the line. Conan may be a parody of Cohn the Barbarian (you know, the old warrior who took over the Chinese Empire and did not know what to do with it.)

    • Al Harron says:

      That’s the film, which has next to nothing to do with the original literature, which is the subject of this post. In the original literature, little is known about the Cimmerians, but they were clearly thriving all through the Hyborian Age, and survived into modern times, where they became the ancestors of the Scottish Gaels, as well as contributing their genomes to the Celts and the historical Cimmerians. Making any sort of comment on Howard using the films is like commenting on Nathaniel Hawthorne using the 1995 “adaptation” of The Scarlet Letter. Or on Scottish History using Braveheart.

  8. j says:

    Sorry, I mispelled Ghenghiz Cohen’s name, known as Cohen the Barbarian, the man who introduced the world to the concept of “wholesale” destruction,

  9. BG says:

    What a fantastic topic! The real work of REH (particularly Conan and the hodgepodge of times, places and cultures which he compressed into the Hyborian Age) when seperated from the comics, movies and bad pastiches which have all but overwhelmed it, does have some interesting points in it to be sure. Sure, we can pick things apart and point out errors and foolishness so easily 80 years later on with our much better knowledge instantly available to us on the internet. However, Howard and Lovecraft in particular corresponded (great, long letters typed on those primitive typewriters and sent back and forth so slowly by mail) a great deal on what was cutting edge stuff back in those days. Howard was the only one in his clique of writers who had actually graduated high school and his “college” education was for stenography and bookkeeping.

  10. Bruce says:

    Conan’s “crush your enemies, see them driven before you …..” is supposed to be a paraphrase of something Ghengis Khan said. Or so I read.

    As a teen, I purchased a compilation of Howard’s Bran Mac Morn stories.

  11. Gorbachev says:

    Human’s aren’t supposed to be subject to the Blood and Genes aspects of animal life, Didn’t you know?

    We’re all happy flowers and smiles.

  12. uuu says:

    What the field of anthropology looks like to me:

  13. And rainbows and unicorns, too, Gorbachev. This is a wonderful blog post. I enjoy unexpected juxtapositions like this, especially when they lead to insights. I’ve linked to this and commented on it a little here:

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  18. dearieme says:

    The Best in Life: careful what you wish for.

    In the early 80s I was invited to a college feast at King’s Cambridge. At one point we were poured a ’45 claret. The chap next to me said “I’m on the college wine committee and I really want to know what you think of this.”

    Cautious swirl. Sip. Breathe in. Slosh gently about in mouth. “It’s not ready.”

    Him, wistfully “No and it probably never will be.”

  19. Dividualist says:

    Platos timing of the end of Antlantis coincides well with the end of the last ice age – water coming up instead of the land going down, same result. But. How the heck would people during those 9K years between that and Plato would keep retelling an old story? No way. Hence, myth.

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