Wind, Earth and Fire — where our temperaments come from

The most fascinating thing about us humans as compared to other animals is our vast range of temperaments and personalities. While variation is common among all species, none shows the rainbow-like colours of ours. Psychologists have reduced this variety to five (or six) statistical dimensions: the Big 5 (or HEXACO). However, these are not universal, and say, African hunter-gatherers or Amazonian farmers typically only show two dimensions: a provisioning (more male) and a prosocial (more female) one, the Yin and Yang of Chinese philosophy. However, Chinese philosophy also recognizes five personality types, based on elements. The Chinese water element contains a lot of Yin (female) qualities, like nurturing ones. So, where do Wind, Earth and Fire come from?

In Who We Are and How We Got Here (2018) David Reich tells the parallel stories of two subcontinents: Europe and India. Both originally inhabited by foragers (hunter-gatherers), then settled by farmers and finally conquered by Indoeuropean steppe pastoralists (Yamnaya).

After the invasion of the steppe pastoralists, the Vedic texts were written in Sanskrit (Indo-European). Ayurveda recognizes three doshas.

Vata : dark-skinned people. Most likely the original forager population

Pitta : light-skinned people. Most likely invading Indoeuropean pastoralists from the North

Kapha : intermediate. Most likely Iranian farmers that had expanded to India

What’s more, the original Indian caste system was probably based on these “tribes”, as the word for caste is “varna” (Sanskrit: “colour”). The Ayurvedic system does not only describe complexion, however but also body types as well as psychological and psychological traits. We can expect such different traits to have evolved through these ancestral modes of subsistence. E.g. Kapha types show regular eating patterns whereas Vata types eat irregularly. This is exactly what we could have inferred from farming vs foraging.

Something similar happened in Europe, where first Anatolian farmers moved into Greece and then were invaded by steppe pastoralists. The Greeks used the famous four temperaments found in many personality systems:

The fourth element, Water, as mentioned above is a more “female” temperament. We, therefore, get the following temperaments (including Myers-Briggs and Helen Fisher)

Helen Fisher’s research is focused on assortative mating and she derives three groups that tend to mate among themselves: Directors-Negotiators (hunter-gatherers), Builders (farmers) and explorers (Pastoralists).

Of course, we are all a bit mixed. However, assortative mating (psychological), endogamy and social stratification (cultural) prevented a lot of mixing.

Check out my latest book on how these three tribes have shaped history:

Originally published at on May 8, 2021.