Monday, April 23, 2018

Genetically Tatars and Bashkirs are More Different than Their Cultures and Identities Are

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 23 – Many people in Western countries have been bombarded with advertisements for genetic testing so that they can learn their “real” ethnicity, and many in Eurasia have been told by Moscow that various groups of Tatars can’t be related because they are genetically different -- as if ethnicity was defined by genetics rather than history and culture.

            The Moscow effort to suggest ethnicity “proves” that Siberian Tatars, Kazan Tatars and Crimean Tatars can’t be one people ( has been sharply criticized by Tatar scholars like Damir Iskhakov who say “the definition of a nation [by genetics]  leads to mistaken conclusions” about national identities.

            Nonetheless, genetic testing can provide important clues about the early history and development of various ethnic groups even if it can’t supplant studies of culture or politics or psychology, but as Iskhakov says, it must be used carefully lest it “biologize” and thereby “reify” nations and national identities.

            A new genetic study by BioMed Central of 30 groups living between the Baltic Sea and Lake Baikal ( provides some intriguing clues about the history of various nations, none more intriguing than about some important differences in the bases of the Tatar and Bashkir nations. 

            In an essay for the IdealReal portal, analyst Ramazan Alpaut reviews the BntnioMed Central findings about the Bashkirs and Tatars and concludes that the Bashkirs are closely related to the Hanty and thus likely have their origins in Finno-Ugric communities (башкиры-ближе-к-хантам-и-венграм-татары-к-европейцам/29177069.html).

            “The Idel Ural region,” Alpaut writes, “are populated as is well known by three groups of peoples: the Uralic, the Turkic and the Slavic.” The Bashkirs and Tatars are the chief representatives of the Turkic group, but despite their linguistic closeness, “generically they are significantly different from one another.”

                “The Tatars have much in common with the genetics of neighboring countries while the Bashkirs have more in common with those who live in other regions.”  That suggests, the Idel-Ural writer says, that “the Bashkirs initially were not Turkic but an ethnic group which subsequently adopted a Turkic language.”

            At the same time, Alpaut continues, “the Volga Tatars represent at the genetic level a mixture of Bulgars who had a significant Finno-Ugric component, the Pechenets, the Kumans, the Khazars, local Finno-Ugric peoples and the Alans.” Thus, the Tatars, but not the Bashkirs, “are essentially a European people with an insignificant East Asian component.”

            Alpaut points out that “analysis on the basis of the principle of genetic similarity is insufficient to categorically assert that the Bashkirs were of Finno-Ugric origin.” But it does suggest that the history of their formation as a nation was more complicated and drew on more sources than many have thought. 

            But such information must be treated with extreme care not only because genetics doesn’t define ethnicity but also because genetic measures used for such comparisons are far from perfect: the percentages often treated as absolutes are in fact relative to sample size and to the total of all genes, making any final conclusions highly problematic.

            Unfortunately, as genetic measurement becomes more common and accessible, ever more people are going to use it without these caveats; and thus such “research” becomes dangerously political especially because it is offered in the guise of science, something it is but only if it is used with the kind of care many simply refuse to devote. 

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