Dabrowski on Ulanowski, 'O powstawaniu Polaków'

Tomasz Ulanowski. O powstawaniu Polaków. Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2020. 240 pp. 34.90 ZL (paper), ISBN 978-83-8049-973-7

Reviewed by Patrice M. Dabrowski
Published on H-Poland (July, 2020)
Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55323

Iconoclastic, idiosyncratic, and informative, O powstawaniu Polaków (On the origins of the Poles) is not what you might expect from a book of that title. Tomasz Ulanowski traces the origins of said Poles not from the usual suspect, Mieszko (who figures in chapter 6, the final substantive chapter), but rather from the beginnings of life on earth—literally. Perhaps this should come as no surprise from this author, whose earlier book—written with human biologist Bogusław Pawłowski—is titled Nagi umysł: Dlaczego jesteśmy, jacy jesteśmy; Ludzka natura bez złudzeń (The naked mind: Why we are like we are; Human nature without delusions). The reader of this new book will gain a new appreciation for the scientific method as well as a sense of where the current scientific research—in paleontology, archaeology, biology, genetics, linguistics, and other sciences—on the origins of man has taken us. Yet that is not to say there is nothing here for the historian of Poland or indeed anyone interested in Poland and the Poles today. In many ways, the book is a timely corrective to the current obsession with national purity and the politics of history. Already the opening section of the book promises to put Poles in proper perspective: “Matters that to many of us seem important: God, Honor, Fatherland, Nation, Santa Claus, or Corporation, are merely a virtual reality that we create so as to deal somehow with the fact that we are not eternal, we don’t mean anything, and our life doesn’t make sense, although it has a goal. That when there won’t be any Poland and Poles, or even the species Homo sapiens, on our planet there will live something else” (pp. 14-15).

The first sign that this is not your typical book on the origins of the Poles comes in the five-page outline helpfully provided by the author “for lazy readers” (p. 8). It begins with the Big Bang, 13.8 billion years ago, and ends with two laconic entries: one for 1945 (“Yalta Conference”) and the other for the years 1945-2020 (“Nationalities residing in Poland: Poles—97 percent”). This last entry was a marked change from the interwar period 1918-39, with Poles comprising only 69 percent of the population, Ukrainians 14 percent, Jews 9 percent, Belarusians 3 percent, and Germans 2 percent (p. 12).

Ulanowski proves a genial guide to this extremely longue-durée history, taking us along on his trips to interview a range of scientists and scholars (many but not all Polish, and at various universities around the world), who in turn shed light on the origins of mankind, Europeans, and Poles. He also writes of places visited, foods consumed, and behaviors observed, which adds levity. Nor does he hesitate to analyze himself or comment on present-day phenomena. The science behind all the findings (a surprising amount of which, even from the earliest periods, has a Polish connection) is thankfully laid out in clear fashion for the layman.

The opening chapter, “Something begins,” introduces the reader to paleontologist Grzegorz Niedźwiedzki of Uppsala University, who in the Holy Cross Mountains discovered the oldest tetrapod prints ever found on earth, from 390 million years ago (early Devonian period), when life first exited the water and the Polish lands were part of the supercontinent Laurasia. The story of that find, with its implications for mankind, is in part narrated by the scientist in conversation with the author, a happy convention throughout the book that makes for easy reading yet providing ample information. An encounter with yet another Polish scientist brings the reader up to the rise of Homo sapiens (circa 315,000 years ago).

How human beings got to Europe is the story of chapter 1. Once again it turns out that Polish science is at the forefront: what are perhaps the oldest human remains, of a Neanderthal child, were discovered in a cave in Ojców National Park. It turns out that Poles (like other human beings) are the descendants of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Genetics tells us that the populations originally mixed 49,000 to 54,000 years ago, with 2 percent of our DNA coming from the former. Neanderthals died out, it appears, as a result of the impact and aftermath of a supervolcanic explosion in what is now Italy (the Phlegraean Fields). The author underscores that all living things descended from the same microorganisms: “from stardust we came and into stardust we will turn” (p. 84). The first wave of hunter-gatherers in Europe (45,000 years ago) Ulanowski compares to man in paradise—a paradise interrupted with the arrival of farming (the Neolithic agricultural revolution) in Europe circa 9,000 years ago. The subsequent invasion of Europe by mounted shepherds from the Eurasian steppes of the Pit Grave (Yamnaya) culture, with their wagons on wheels and Proto-Indo-European language, brought their Y chromosomes into contact with the X of the European women. Thus, man was from the outset the product of the mixing of populations; being a mutt turns out to be the natural order of things.

Chapter 2 focuses on the culture of these Europeans, while (among other things) exploring the contents of the Kraków Archaeological Museum, with its vase from Bronocice depicting wagons on wheels from 5,500 years ago. Reportedly on the territory of today’s Poland, mammoths were once hunted, according to radiocarbon dating of an incision in a fragment of a mammoth’s rib from Kraków Spadzista. Until the end of the Pleistocene the continental ice shelf to the north meant that prehistoric man could settle only in southern Poland. With the Holocene warming and the northern retreat of the continental ice shelf, tundra and steppe gave way to forests and new animals. Now under threat, the Białowieża Primeval Forest has existed for nearly 12,000 years. Primitive man ate honey, made cheese, baked bread, and brewed alcohol—leading the author to posit that perhaps it was the last of these that encouraged the hunter-gatherers to settle down. The type of sexuality of a society apparently determines the type of religion (from the sexually explicit Venuses to more patriarchal forms), while new research has determined the size of family groups, villages, clans, and tribes, the last reaching no more than 2,500. How even ancient behavior can rankle today is shown by the reaction of many Poles to a recent (May 2019) speculation regarding a particular gravesite: a mass murder of Globular Amphora culture people may have been committed by “emigrant” Corded Ware culture people.

Chapter 3 considers when the Slavs appeared in the Vistula and Odra regions. It presents competing hypotheses (autochton versus allochton), while suggesting that the Slavic ethnos likely predated the fall of the West Roman Empire. There is an excursus into the recent controversy over the sex of Kazimierz Pułaski, whose oval-shaped pelvis suggests that he was a woman or at best androgynous. Chapter 4 continues with archaeogenetics, which has concluded that an African Adam some 150,000 to 300,000 years ago provided the common Y chromosome, and the Mitochondrial Eve (giving mitochrondrial DNA that all inherit from their mother) lived, also in Africa, some 180,000 years ago. Over one-quarter of Poles had a common ancestor 2,000 to 3,000 years ago (R1a gene), although they were not Sarmatians, who shared the R1b gene with Germans: so is the Sarmatian myth of noble ancestry true? Still, Mieszko may have had the Y I1 haplogroup (Nordic-Scandinavian), as does the author, who jokes that he is not a “real” Pole. At any rate, Slavic and Germanic peoples had a common ancestor 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. All this shows that no inhabitant of Poland is a “real” (read: pure) Pole. They are all mutts. As the author emphasizes, “Poland—and Poles—are not a biological fact, but a purely cultural construct, virtual reality, imagined community” (pp. 280-81).

Chapter 5 moves from genetics to linguistics. Polish is an Indo-European language (which is discussed in more detail) as well as a Western Slavic one. Jadwiga Waniakowa states that the Slavic languages were once closer: Mieszko should have easily understood his Czech wife Dubravka. Even the South Slavic Cyril and Methodius, who brought Christianity as well as an alphabet to many Slavs, should have been comprehensible. The author calls out the current (on the internet) idea of a Great Lechia (Wielka Lechia) as but a “tale of the existence of a pre-Christian proto-Polish power” that has nothing to do with reality (p. 314). The question of whether the farmers or the steppe people (or some combination of the two) brought the word to Europe has not been resolved. Old Polish—at least as presented in its earliest extant appearance, in the Henrician Book of the thirteenth century—proves not so easily comprehensible to a modern Pole. While according to Waniakowa (phonetic) Cyrillic would match Polish better, the choice of Western Christianity with its Latin alphabet was politically motivated.

This is explained in the final numbered chapter, which turns to the “father of the nation,” Mieszko, and Przemysław Urbańczyk’s commonsensical—if controversial—findings, which undermine many cherished stories of the past. The medieval historian reminds the reader that there are no written sources on pre-Christian beliefs from that period and that history can be thought of as “tales told on the basis of other tales, often based on still earlier tales” (p. 352). The Polish Sejm’s 2019 declaration that April 14, 966, was the date of Mieszko’s baptism or the equating of his baptism with the baptism of (a yet nonexistent) Poland are hardly justified, given that the first was conjuncture (we know neither the year nor the date) and the second patently false. More likely Poznań, as opposed to Gniezno, was the early capital—and could not Mieszko have been already baptized, since there was a mid-tenth-century chapel attached to the palace on Ostrów Tumski there (its door dated by dendrochronology)? The Piasts may well have come from Great Moravia, after the Hungarians destroyed that state in 906. The creation and early years of the nascent state were far from peaceful: the Piasts were continually fighting wars and likely enriched themselves by selling slaves, as had Great Moravia, trading them via Prague or Pomerania. Christianity helped with centralization and hierarchization in the young state.

The state became “Poland” only under Bolesław the Brave, who appears to have been a master of politics (in all senses of how that was, and is, practiced)—and this only after the visit by Otto II in the year 1000. Until that time the Piasts were simply considered to hail from Sklavia/Sklavinia/Sklavonia (the Slavic lands). Yet soon others would label him Prince of the Palans (999), his polity Polania (1001), Polonia and Polenia (1002). In 1003 Bolesław is called a Polian, and in 1004 and 1005 prince of the Polans—all etymologically referring to the fields of farmland regained from the primeval forests that covered the territory of today’s Poland. The ruler clearly decided to go along with that name, which furthermore differentiated him from the Boleslav ruling at that time in the Czech lands: witness his coin from 1005-10 with the (misspelled) Latin inscription PRINCES POLONIE.

As to the connection between state and nation, the author maintains that states create nations, and not vice versa. The idea of Poland was political, not national (the idea of a nation-state dating from the nineteenth century), and a nationally homogeneous Poland has existed only since Yalta. According to Urbańczyk, “We will feel Poles as long as we speak Polish and recall Mieszko I and Bolesław the Brave. However, what we will be depends on us. Ethnicity is a conviction. Once cannot decree it” (p. 395).

The final chapter, “Something ends, something begins,” looks at today’s Poland. A total of 6.6 percent of the country’s population of 38.5 million has emigrated, replaced by half as many Ukrainians. It considers the question, is there still a Poland where Poles live? While only 10 million attend Sunday Mass, the country currently favors a patriarchal/religious vision of Poland, one that Ulanowski has difficulty identifying with: he would prefer a more scientific/rational vision represented by Maria Skłodowska-Curie. Now that there are no more wars in Europe, war has become more “civil,” dividing those who wear hussar, “Fighting Poland,” or accursed soldier T-shirts from those who do not. The author wonders whether the country must be threatened from without for its people to unite. Yet what is Poland, what are the Poles, in the larger scheme of things, during what seems to be the sixth great extinction of species? Here is Ulanowski’s answer: “We are the children of a process that has been taking place for 4 billion years. Our clothing, our nationalities, all that seeming, imagined world that we regard as so important doesn’t mean anything. Today it’s here, and tomorrow it won’t be, because we will replace it with something else. But we—the biology and chemistry of our organisms, and also the physics and mathematics that govern them—will be here to the end of the world. And only this counts. The rest are histories that we tell ourselves around the campfire and in which we very much want to believe” (pp. 393-94).

This eminently scientific approach presents the reader with a very different view of Poland and the Poles than is current. Well worth the read, O powstawaniu Polaków should occasion a lively discussion of the Polish past, present, and future.

Citation: Patrice M. Dabrowski. Review of Ulanowski, Tomasz, O powstawaniu Polaków. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55323

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