November 24, 2010
Lord Collin Renfrew

Dear Lord Renfrew:
I sent you a fan letter decades ago.  I believe the issue then at hand was Neolithic Britain.  Since childhood I had read everything I could lay my hands on that dealt with the subject and yours was the voice I liked the best.  I think you had written an article for Scientific American.  There was a picture of you standing in an a excavation trench.  You seemed to be descending slowly though time. 

I do not recall what was on my mind.  Perhaps I was speculating that survivors of Neolithic days had descendants surviving in substantial numbers, most likely in the north.  I believe that question has now been addressed. 

Once again it seems to me that we ponder the same issue, now that of “collapse,” whatever that means.  You say they may be more apparent than real, but something is apparent.  Among the issues you mention in a recent article (Collapse?  What collapse?  Societal Change Revisited, Andrew Lawler SCIENCE vol. 330 no. 6006 November 12, 2010 page 907) is the disappearance of an elite.  I think you have hit the nail squarely on the head. 

I will limit myself to a single graph.
Here is southern Mesopotamia. 

Information taken from R. H. Carling THE WORLD HISTORY CHART International Timeline Inc. Vienna, VA 1985.  The experience of Southern Mesopotamia.  The vertical axis is the chance of an empire of any age continuing to rule locally for another 50 years.  The horizontal axis is the ages of the empires.  I broke the Ottoman Empire into two, because their Janissary elite came from two different sources during the early and late empire.

At a stroke this dismisses theories of climate change or anything external to a civilization (which would give a horizontal line) and form of government or anything internal to the civilization (which would give an ascending line) as significant causes of collapse.  One is left with the simple fact of civilization.  The people didn’t all starve.  Mesopotamia has always been fertile.  But something happened.  I think the elite died out and did so according to a rigid timetable. 

The cause has to be inheritable.  It takes a few generations to work itself out.  If you are interested, go to and search for The Dance of the Chromosomes.  That will direct you to my web log.  There you can find the log of the same name and follow links to the lecture at which the dance was performed (only the first part is relevant) and to a poster I did for a genetics convention in Albuquerque.  If you go over that material you will see why I believe that infertility among the elite (and for the richest countries we are all “elite” by ancient standards) has been such a problem. 

I would ask you for a favor.  You mention the disappearance, and I am quite sure it is there.  I can produce some anecdotes but I suspect you have far more substantial evidence.  Could you tell me where it is published?  And if you like, what do you think about the evidence I have put together.

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