Biochemistry of Skeletons from Ancient Rome

February 26, 2016

A new scientific study, and an older one it references, confirm that there were very few foreigners in Ancient Rome by chemically analyzing skeletons from three non-elite imperial-era cemeteries. The data show that non-locals were in the minority, and most came from other parts of Italy or nearby provinces in Southern/Central Europe. Only 1 individual definitely came from outside of Europe (North Africa), and another 2 possibly did, but results are inconclusive. Note that non-European "Romans" have been discovered as far away as the British Isles.

In order to assess migration to Rome within an updated contextual framework, strontium isotope analysis was performed on 105 individuals from two cemeteries associated with Imperial Rome—Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco—and oxygen and carbon isotope analyses were performed on a subset of 55 individuals. Statistical analysis and comparisons with expected local ranges found several outliers who likely immigrated to Rome from elsewhere.


Who immigrated to Rome?

Of the nonlocal sample (n = 4), there are three adult males and one adolescent of unknown sex. Two of the males fall in the Middle Adult category (35-50) and one into the Older Adult category (50+), while the Adolescent is between 11-15 years old. The other four individuals whose isotope ratios were different from local Roman expectations, although not statistically conclusive, include two Older Children (7-12 years old), one probably male older Adolescent (11-15 years old), and one older Adolescent female (16-20 years old).


It is also impossible to answer from the present data whether these individuals were voluntary or compulsory migrants. The status of slave was multifaceted and mutable during the Empire [130], and there is no indication in the archaeological information from Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco that any specific individual was a slave. There is, however, no evidence from isotopes that individuals buried in the mausoleum at Casal Bertone were nonlocal, whereas the necropoleis at Casal Bertone and Castellaccio Europarco both produced skeletons with nonlocal isotope ratios. Burial in a necropolis was customary for the lower classes, while burial in a mausoleum cost more [77]. These isotope data may be showing a form of economic, status-related migration, with more lower class individuals and possibly slaves moving to Rome compared to wealthier individuals. Additional testing would be needed, though, to confirm this hypothesis.


Where did immigrants come from?

Because migrants often came to Rome in diasporic waves resulting from slavery, attempting to identify a general geographic origin can be instructive. The combination of strontium and oxygen isotope analyses is particularly useful for this in western Europe, although only general predictions of homeland can be made. Oxygen isotopes on the continent vary roughly east-to-west, while strontium isotopes are higher in the older rock of mountains such as the Alps and lower in the younger rock of volcanic areas like most of peninsular Italy. From the perspective of Rome, oxygen isotope ratios will decrease as one moves into the Apennine range running along the spine of Italy, and strontium isotope ratios will increase to the north and decrease to the south.

The four individuals with clearly anomalous isotope ratios—T15, ET38, T24, and T36—fall into three distinct strontium and oxygen isotope combinations. T15 and ET38 have oxygen isotope ratios within range of Rome, but strontium isotope ratios that are significantly higher, suggesting a possible origin in a place with older geology, such as the Alps or one of the islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. As people arrived at Rome from all over the Empire, however, there are numerous locations in which these individuals could have been born.

Individual T24 has low strontium and low oxygen isotope ratios compared to Rome, suggesting an origin somewhere with a cool, wet climate and basalt or limestone substrate, such as the Apennines. Individual T36 has high oxygen and low strontium isotope ratios, suggesting an origin in a region of limestone or basalt with a hotter, drier climate than Rome, such as North Africa. For these individuals, however, a dietary explanation for the anomalous strontium isotope ratios, while much less likely owing to the concomitant δ18O values, cannot be completely ruled out. As Rome imported significant amounts of grain from north Africa during the Empire, and as human strontium isotope ratios from Egypt and the Nile Valley have been shown to be lower than those in Rome (around 0.707 to 0.708) [131], it is not impossible that T24 and T36 were consuming a significant amount of imported grain as children. Still, as shown further below, the dietary explanation is less likely than is an origin elsewhere.

The four additional individuals whose isotopes may indicate they were immigrants—T8, T70, T39, and ET76—fall into the categories above. T8 and ET76 have higher-than-expected strontium isotope ratios, showing up as outliers in the box plot in Fig 3. They may have arrived at Rome from a region of older geology such as northern Italy. Individuals T70 and T39, while not statistical outliers in the oxygen isotope box plot in Fig 5, are nevertheless 0.6-0.7‰ higher than the next closest local, suggesting they may also be immigrants. They could have arrived at Rome from a drier climate like North Africa. These four individuals highlight the challenge of identifying immigrants to Rome from a vast geographical expanse.

Finally, the fact that there is a large spread in both the strontium and oxygen isotope data compared to results obtained from other archaeological populations could indicate that people were arriving at Rome from places not too far removed, in a form of centripetal migration, as Prowse and colleagues [76] suggest for Portus. Both the strontium and the oxygen isotope ratios from Rome are diverse, and it is not unreasonable to assume that these may reflect the diversity of the population as well. It is also possible that even more individuals are essentially isotopically invisible migrants, if they came to Rome from homelands with similar strontium and/or oxygen isotope values. Further isotopic and DNA work will be necessary to better understand origins and homelands from skeletal remains.

Killgrove and Montgomery. "All Roads Lead to Rome: Exploring Human Migration to the Eternal City through Biochemistry of Skeletons from Two Imperial-Era Cemeteries (1st-3rd c AD)". PLOS One, 2016.

Oxygen stable isotope ratios (δ18O) have been determined in carbonate in paired first and third molar teeth from individuals (N = 61) who lived in the town of Portus Romae ("Portus") and who were buried in the necropolis of Isola Sacra (First to Third centuries AD) near Rome, Italy. We compare these analyses with data for deciduous teeth of modern Roman children. Approximately one-third of the archaeological sample has first molar (M1) values outside the modern range, implying a large rate of population turnover at that time, consistent with historical data. Delta 18Oap values suggest that a group within the sample migrated to the area before the third molar (M3) crown had completely formed (i.e., between 10 and 17.5 years of age). This is the first quantitative assessment of population mobility in Classical antiquity. This study demonstrates that migration was not limited to predominantly single adult males, as suggested by historical sources, but rather a complex phenomenon involving families. We hypothesize that migrants most likely came from higher elevations to the East and North of Rome. One individual with a higher δ18O value may have come (as a child) from an area isotopically similar to North Africa.


Origins of the immigrants to Imperial Rome

There are several possible origins for the outsiders (at birth) buried in the cemetery of Isola Sacra who must have come from regions where δ18O of local precipitation is lower than in Rome by up to 2.6%. One possible region of origin is the Roman Imperial provinces lying to the North of the Italian landmass. In general, the δ18O of modern precipitation decreases northward, reaching values up to 3% less than found in Rome (Bowen and Wilkinson, 2002; Longinelli and Selmo, 2003), within the geographic range of the Roman Empire of 100 CE. Isotope ratios of average annual precipitation to the North of Italy would generally be lower than the values required to account for the outsiders’ values. Furthermore, seasonal variation in δ18O of precipitation in these more northern regions is larger than in Rome because the range between winter and summer temperature increases as average annual temperature decreases, and because δ18O varies linearly with temperature. Thus, an individual whose M1 teeth happened to mineralize through the winter months while consuming water largely derived from precipitation would display significantly lower δ18Oap values than "local" Romans.

As another possible locus for the outsiders, we note that δ18O values of modern meteoric water vary continuously to values up to 4% lower than those encountered in Rome at distances as close as 100 km in the foothills and heights of the Apennine Mountains (Longinelli and Selmo, 2003). Derivation of the outsiders principally from this region seems to be the most likely scenario. Other possible regions of origin of the outsiders might be the Iberian Peninsula or Greece, both of which were under Roman control at this time. Rain falling in these regions also displays δ18O values lower than those corresponding to the outsiders’ inferred drinking water, although coastal regions in both these provinces might have included such values.

The continuous gradation of δ18Oap between local and outsider δ18Oap values suggests that these individuals came from locations at gradually farther distances and gradually higher elevations than Rome. If the outsiders were from as far away as southern Gaul (where δ18O of rain is about 2% lighter than in Rome), we would expect to see a cluster of analyses at discretely lower δ18Oap values, rather than the continuum that we actually observe. However, we can not exclude the possibility that some of the outsiders came from further away to the north.



The δ18Oap values show that approximately one-third of the individuals in our sample were not born in the region around Rome, but migrated to this area from regions where local drinking water has somewhat lower δ18Oap values. It has further been shown that a significant minority of the sample as a whole were individuals who migrated as children, so that migration to Portus was not a predominantly single adult male activity. Migrants to Portus were families, most obviously as children accompanying the parents.

The data support historical demographic estimates of high mortality rates in the Roman urban region, and the consequent need for high rates of population replacement to maintain the size of the Roman population in this era. Although such isotopic data suggest a method of quantitative assessment of this steady population replacement, a detailed numerical estimate is beyond the scope of this paper. The individuals with low δ18Oap values could have been from as close as 100 km to Rome, in the hills surrounding the Apennine Mountains. It is also possible that they came from the transalpine provinces of the Roman Empire much further to the north, where low δ18Oap precipitation falls even at low elevations. However, due to the observed scatter of the δ18Oap data around the "local" Roman range, we conclude that this latter explanation seems less likely. Only one individual was found to have a conspicuously high δ18Oap value; the observed value is consistent with an origin in a region with higher δ18Oap in drinking water, like the Nile Delta, although it is impossible to exclude possible origins in southern Italy. Further Sr isotopic analyses of these teeth might help to resolve this issue. Analyses of δ18Oap in bones of these same people may also show further evidence of population movement during adulthood.

Prowse et al. "Isotopic Evidence for Age-Related Immigration to Imperial Rome". Am J Phys Anthropol, 2007.

Italian Clustering vs. German Clustering

September 14, 2015

Some people with a Nordicist agenda will use the fact that Northern Italians are a little bit closer than Southern Italians to Northern Europeans as evidence supporting the myth of racial differences between Northern and Southern Italy resulting from Germanic and Arab/African invasions. But there's no reason to expect all Italians to form a tight cluster. Genetic distance is largely a product of geographic distance, and Italy is long and curved, stretching from the Western Alps in the North to the Eastern Mediterranean in the South. So it's normal that Italians would be spread out in a broad cluster that mimics the shape of the country. Tian et al. (2009), which sampled Lombards, Tuscans, Southern Italians and Sardinians, noted exactly this pattern:

To further explore the relationship among European population groups and examine population substructure, PCA was performed using the genotype results from a set of ~300,000 autosomal SNPs that was common to each of the populations examined. For most individuals with self-reported ethnic identities, there was a general correspondence with the geographical location of origin (Figure 1A). For example, the relationship of Italian groups and the subjects from the island country of Sardinia shows a striking resemblance to maps of Europe. In addition, genotypes from the same or related population groups typed in different laboratories showed similar PCA results (for example, north Italian and Tuscan groups genotyped as part of HGDP overlapped with Italian American subjects).

The same thing can be seen in other large countries, like Germany for example. Below is a detail of Figure S2 from Nelis et al. (2009). The Germans are spread out over an even greater area than the Italians, with Northern Germans (from Schleswig-Holstein) tending to the right and Southern Germans (from Bavaria) tending to the left, similar to the pattern observed with the Northern Italians (from Piedmont) and Southern Italians (from Puglia):

The distance between the Northern and Southern locations in each country is about 430 miles (690 km), and accordingly, the median values of PCs for the corresponding sample sets are about the same genetic distance:

In addition, Germany has East-West differences that seem to be even more prominent. The cities of Munich and Dresden are only 223 miles (359 km) apart, yet according to Heath et al. (2008), their populations form two distinct genetic clusters connecting Eastern and Western Europeans, just like on the map:

All of this is ultimately related to the clinal distribution of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and Neolithic farmer ancestry, which shifts Northern and Eastern Europeans slightly toward Siberia, and Southern and Western Europeans slightly toward the Middle East, and can also have an effect within nations. Indeed, even smaller and less populous Germanic nations have noticeable population structure that follows the same pattern seen in Italy, Germany and Europe as a whole.

Lao et al. (2013) observed it in the Netherlands:

We detected a subtle but clearly noticeable genomic population substructure in the Dutch population, allowing differentiation of a north-eastern, central-western, central-northern and a southern group. Furthermore, we observed a statistically significant southeast to northwest cline in the distribution of genomic diversity across the Netherlands, similar to earlier findings from across Europe. [...] This genetic diversity cline is traditionally explained by several major prehistoric demographic events in Europe: the first colonization of Europe by anatomically modern humans together with a postglacial re-expansion from the southern European refugee areas in Palaeolithic times, and the introduction of the Neolithic agricultural lifestyle by people from the Near East.

And Humphreys et al. (2011) observed it in Sweden:

In a comparison of extended homozygous segments, we detected a clear divide between southern and northern Sweden with small differences between the southern counties and considerably more segments in northern Sweden. [...] The first principal component showed the presence of a north-south genetic gradient that was mainly driven by each northern county being different from other counties. Systematic variation was present in the south of Sweden although to a markedly smaller degree than in the north of Sweden. [...] The overall North-South axis of variation is consistent with previous studies that have shown axes of variation on a European scale that closely line up with geographical axes.

Anti-Minority Sentiment

September 4, 2015

This new Global Attitudes Survey shows that Italians have the least favorable opinions in Europe of Gypsies (Roma) and Muslims, and that their opinion of Jews is the second lowest, but still fairly high. This makes sense, as Jews are a smaller, more assimilated minority who don't cause too many problems, but Gypsies are known for crime and squalor, and Muslims are flooding Europe with an often hostile religion.

Bruce Stokes. "Faith in European Project Reviving". Pew Research Center, 2015.

Related: Anti-Immigration and Pro-Italy

Italians Aren't That Emotional

July 11, 2015

Italians are often stereotyped as overly emotional (always yelling, sobbing or singing), but a recent Gallup poll that surveyed people around the world about their emotions found that Italian levels are about average and don't stand out as unusual. An article in the Washington Post added a color-coded map to better visualize the results (click here for the original data).

Gallup measures daily emotions in more than 150 countries and areas by asking residents whether they experienced five positive and five negative emotions a lot the previous day. Negative experiences include anger, stress, sadness, physical pain, and worry. Positive emotions include feeling well-rested, being treated with respect, enjoyment, smiling and laughing a lot, and learning or doing something interesting.

To measure the presence or absence of emotions, Gallup averaged together the percentage of residents in each country who said they experienced each of the 10 positive and negative emotions.


Results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults, aged 15 and older, in each country each year between 2009 and 2011.

Rudolph Valentino's Alleged "Otherness"

March 22, 2015

There are a lot of annoying things in the new PBS documentary "The Italian Americans", like the claim that Sacco and Vanzetti faced anti-Italian prejudice, which I've argued against before. Another is this similar claim that silent movie icon Rudolph Valentino faced prejudice in Hollywood because there were no Italian roles and he was too much of a dark "other" to get any "mainstream" roles, so he was forced to play only "exotic" non-European characters.

To make this questionable argument, the writers and "experts" get a lot of information wrong — maybe on purpose. First of all, Valentino was only half Italian. He had a French mother, so his looks were not only Italian. And he didn't play an Arab in The Sheik either. It was revealed at the end of the movie that the sheik was in fact a European of British and Spanish descent, which was meant to erase the character's exotic "otherness" so that his forbidden romance with the English heiress would become socially acceptable. It's true he was supposed to "pass" for Arab until that reveal, but the other Arabs in the film were played by American actors of Northern European descent. That wasn't at all unusual.

If you look at his filmography, contrary to what the documentary implies, he played mostly Europeans like himself: Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, a Russian Cossack, and even several "all-American" characters with Anglo/Celtic names. He also played some Latin Americans, but they can be fully Spanish. As far as I can tell, the only clearly non-European he ever played was an Indian Rajah, but in that movie, as in The Sheik and its sequel, as well as the movies with Latinos, the other "exotic" characters were also played by white actors, mostly of Northern European descent.

The fact that Rudolph Valentino was openly loved by women all over America, and imitated by a lot of jealous men, argues against any kind of extreme "otherness" or anti-Italian prejudice. That could never have happened if he was really considered so dark and foreign, or if there was such a stigma to being Italian. He was "exotic" as an ethnic non-British European and a "Latin Lover", which American audiences weren't used to seeing, but not so exotic that he wasn't still seen simply as a white man.

White on Arrival

February 24, 2015

There's a claim by "whiteness studies" enthusiasts that when Italians first immigrated to America they were considered "non-white" or "in-between black and white" and denied privileges as a result. American historian Thomas Guglielmo disproves this by showing that whatever ethnic prejudice Italians faced was based on their "race" (e.g. South Italian, Latin, Mediterranean etc.) but not their "color", which was always classified as white/Caucasian, even by anti-immigrant racialists.

In January 1942, Ed Peterson, an African American from Chicago, wrote a letter to the Chicago Defender. With America's wartime propaganda machine glorifying the nation's past, Peterson was irritated that this past so often ignored African Americans. Instead, thrifty, hard-working European immigrants supposedly made America—settling its untamed wilderness, laboring in its factories, and farming and peopling its vast frontier. "One would imagine," wrote Peterson, "that the colored race never did any thing to build up the country." Moreover, he argued, European immigrants arrived in the United States with privileges that most African Americans could only dream of.


All of this said, however, Ed Peterson's remarks contained more than a kernel of truth. In the end, Italians' many perceived racial inadequacies aside, they were still largely accepted as white by the widest variety of people and institutions—naturalization laws and courts, the U.S. census, race science, anti-immigrant racialisms, newspapers, unions, employers, neighbors, realtors, settlement houses, politicians, and political parties. This widespread acceptance was reflected most concretely in Italians' ability to naturalize as U.S. citizens, apply for certain jobs, live in certain neighborhoods, marry certain partners, and patronize certain movie theaters, restaurants, saloons, hospitals, summer camps, parks, beaches, and settlement houses. In so many of these situations, as Peterson and the Defender well recognized, one color line existed separating "whites" from the "colored races"—groups such as "Negroes," "Orientals," and sometimes "Mexicans." And from the moment they arrived in Chicago—and forever after—Italians were consistently and unambiguously placed on the side of the former. If Italians were racially undesirable in the eyes of many Americans, they were white just the same.

They were so securely white, in fact, that Italians themselves rarely had to aggressively assert the point. Indeed, not until World War II did many Italians identify openly and mobilize politically as white. After the early years of migration and settlement, when Italy remained merely an abstraction to many newcomers, their strongest allegiance was to the Italian race, not the white one. Indeed, one of the central concerns of this book is to understand how Italianita', as both a racial and national consciousness, came to occupy such a central part of many Italians' self-understandings. For much of the turn-of-the-century and interwar years, then, Italians were white on arrival not so much because of the way they viewed themselves, but because of the way others viewed and treated them.


To understand fully these consequences, one more conceptual tool is critical: the distinction between race and color. Initially, I conceived of my project as a "wop to white" study, an Italian version of Noel Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White. I quickly realized, however, that Italians did not need to become white; they always were in numerous, critical ways. Furthermore, race was more than black and white. If Italians' status as whites was relatively secure, they still suffered, as noted above, from extensive racial discrimination and prejudice as Italians, South Italians, Latins, and so on. [...] I argue that between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries there were primarily two ways of categorizing people based on supposedly inborn physical, mental, moral, and cultural traits. The first is color (which roughly coincides with today's census categories): the black, brown, red, white, and yellow races. Color, as I use it, is a social category and not a physical description. "White" Italians, for instance, could be darker than "black" Americans. Second is race, which could mean many things: large groups like Nordics and Mediterraneans, medium-sized ones like the Celts and Hebrews, or smaller ones like the North or South Italians. [...] For example, the federal government's naturalization applications throughout much of the early twentieth century asked applicants to provide their race and color. For Italians, the only acceptable answers were North or South Italian for [race] and white for [color].


Finally, this study is deeply indebted to whiteness historiography and the indispensable work of David Roediger, James Barrett, Theodore Allen,
Alexander Saxton, and many others. Nonetheless, I challenge several key arguments in much (though not all) of this historiography, especially the claim that European immigrants arrived in the United States as "inbetween peoples" and only became fully white over time and after a great deal of struggle. Numerous scholars in a wide range of disciplines have uncritically accepted this argument. I contend that challenges to Italian immigrants' color status were never sustained or systematic and, therefore, Italians never occupied a social position "in between" "colored" and "white." Often failing to understand the distinctions between race and color, some scholars have assumed that challenges to a group's racial desirability as, say, Latins or Alpines, necessarily called into question their color status as whites. This was not the case. Italians, for instance, could be considered racially inferior "Dagoes" and privileged whites simultaneously. This point is vividly apparent when one compares their experiences with those of groups whose whiteness was either really in question (e.g., Mexican Americans) or entirely out of the question (e.g., African Americans and Asian Americans).


Rising [anti-immigrant racialism and restriction], however, never challenged Italians' whiteness in any consequential way. According to virtually all racialists at both the national and local Chicago levels, if Italians were a national peril, they were a "white peril" just the same. [...] Taken together, whether one spoke about physical stature, intellectual endowments, social customs, or other hereditary characteristics, one thing was certain to racialists: southern Italians (and sometimes northern ones as well) were racially inferior to the Nordic, "the white man par excellence." Interestingly, this racialist assault on Italians and other "new" immigrants stopped well short of questioning their color status as whites. It seems that most racialists—even as they did their best to emphasize racial difference—took the whiteness of "new" European immigrants for granted. As Henry Pratt Fairchild explained casually in his book Immigration, "the new immigration is made up from people of a very different racial stock, representing the Slavic and Mediterranean branches of the Caucasian race." Madison Grant included southern and eastern Europeans within the white/Caucasian category, even while questioning its overall usefulness: "The term 'Caucasian race' has ceased to have any meaning except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols. It is, however, a convenient term to include the three European subspecies [Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean] when considered as divisions of one of the primary branches or species of mankind." Racialists, then, like many other Americans, made an important distinction between race and color—even if they failed to use these exact terms.


Scientific racialists, then, placed Italians (and other "new" European immigrants) in an ambiguous social position. After devoting years of research and writing to "demonstrating" the racial inferiority of southern and eastern Europeans, they still viewed these groups as white. The message seemed to be that "new" European immigrants were inferior—but not that inferior. For all their dangerous inadequacies, they still occupied a place within the "superior" color division of mankind, even if they were relegated to an "inferior" racial branch.

Thomas A. Guglielmo. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2003.

Organized Crime and Upward Mobility

January 20, 2015

"A Family Business" was the real-life version of "The Godfather," the movie adaptation of which was released the same year. But [anthropologist Francis] Ianni's portrait was markedly different from the romanticized accounts of Mafia life that have subsequently dominated popular culture. There were no blood oaths in Ianni's account, or national commissions or dark conspiracies. There was no splashy gunplay. No one downed sambuca shots at Jilly's, on West Fifty-second Street, with Frank Sinatra. The Lupollos lived modestly. Ianni gives little evidence, in fact, that the four families had any grand criminal ambitions beyond the illicit operations they ran out of storefronts in Brooklyn. Instead, from Giuseppe's earliest days in Little Italy, the Lupollo clan was engaged in a quiet and determined push toward respectability.

By 1970, Ianni calculated, there were forty-two fourth-generation members of the Lupollo-Salemi-Alcamo-Tucci family—of which only four were involved in the family's crime businesses. The rest were firmly planted in the American upper middle class. A handful of the younger members of that generation were in private schools or in college. One was married to a judge's son, another to a dentist. One was completing a master's degree in psychology; another was a member of the English department at a liberal-arts college. There were several lawyers, a physician, and a stockbroker. Uncle Phil's son Basil was an accountant, who lived on an estate in the posh Old Westbury section of Long Island's North Shore. "His daughter rides and shows her own horses," Ianni wrote, "and his son has some reputation as an up-and-coming young yachtsman." Uncle Phil, meanwhile, lived in Manhattan, collected art, and frequented the opera. "The Lupollos love to tell of old Giuseppe's wife Annunziata visiting Phil's apartment," Ianni wrote. "Her comment on the lavish collection of paintings was 'manga nu Santa' ('not even one saint's picture')."

The moral of the "Godfather" movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. "Just when I thought I was out," Michael Corleone says, "they pull me back in." The moral of "A Family Business" was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O'Kane put it, the "crooked ladder" of social mobility.

Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was "conformity": accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was "ritualism": accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That's the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society. There was also "retreatism" and "rebellion"—rejecting both the goal and the means. It was the fourth adaptation, however, that Merton found most interesting: "innovation." Many Americans—particularly those at the bottom of the heap—believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn't want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn't conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.

All three of the great waves of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants to America innovated. Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians' turn. They were among the poorest and the least skilled of the immigrants of that era. Crime was one of the few options available for advancement. The point of the crooked-ladder argument and "A Family Business" was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn't a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.


Ianni didn't romanticize what he saw. He didn't pretend that the crooked ladder was the principal means of economic mobility in America, or the most efficient. It was simply a fact of American life. He saw the pattern being repeated in New York City during the nineteen-seventies, as the city's demographics changed. [...] The newcomers, he predicted, would climb the ladder to respectability just as their predecessors had done. "It was toward the end of the Lupollo study that I became convinced that organized crime was a functional part of the American social system and should be viewed as one end of a continuum of business enterprises with legitimate business at the other end," Ianni wrote.


That's why the crooked ladder worked as well as it did. The granddaughter could end up riding horses because the law—whether from indifference, incompetence, or corruption—left her gangster grandfather alone.

The idea that, in the course of a few generations, the gangster can give way to an equestrian is perhaps the hardest part of the innovation argument to accept. We have become convinced of the opposite trajectory: the benign low-level drug dealer becomes the malignant distributor and then the brutal drug lord. [...] The crooked-ladder theorists looked at the Mafia's evolution during the course of the twentieth century, however, and reached the opposite conclusion: that, over time, the criminal vocation was inevitably domesticated.

Malcolm Gladwell. "The Crooked Ladder: The criminal's guide to upward mobility". The New Yorker | Urban Chronicles | August 11, 2014 Issue.

Geological Origins of Italy

December 11, 2014

Italy broke off of the French Alps 30 million years ago, emerged from the sea 5-10 million years ago when it collided with the Adriatic Plate, and might end up joining the Balkans in 50-70 million years.

"Italy's Mystery Mountains". PBS International, 2014.

Italian Food Voted Best in Two Surveys

November 17, 2014

One in the U.S. and the other in the U.K.

A new survey commissioned by Intrepid Travel has found that Italian is the favorite foreign cuisine for most Americans, with one in five (21%) saying it's their top choice.

The poll was conducted for the small group adventure travel specialist by YouGov and queried Americans about their food preferences and eating habits while traveling. The survey found Italian food is the most popular cuisine among 18-34-year-olds (21%), and 35-54-year-olds (21%), while the 55+ age group is more patriotic in their choice of meal and most likely to favor American cuisine (28%).

"Italian Cuisine Voted Americans' Favorite Foreign Food". Marketwired, Feb 08, 2012.

British people think Italian food is the best in Europe, which reflects the popularity of pizza and pasta as well as famous Italian gourmet products, according to latest Holiday Hypermarket's poll. British food was second-most popular, followed by French and Spanish cuisines.


The online poll of 2,068 people in the UK asked the question: "Which European country do you think has the best national cuisine?" Italy was the most popular with 30 per cent, followed by the UK with 22 per cent, France with 12 per cent, Spain with six per cent and Greece with three per cent.

Age also played a big role in people's preferences: respondents over 55 are more likely to think British food is the best (26 per cent of those 55+, vs. 14 per cent of those 18-34), while younger respondents prefer easy Italian food (41 per cent of those 18-34 vs. 22 per cent of those 55+). While both men and women prefer Italian food over British overall, more men chose hardy British food than women (25 per cent vs. 19 per cent), while Italian food is more popular with women than men (33 per cent vs. 27 per cent).

"Brit poll: Italian cuisine the best in Europe". eTurboNews, May 10, 2012.