Tag Archives: language history


11.6-11.1 thousand years ago.

Luzia, an adult female Homo sapiens fossil from central Brazil, died about 11.5 thousand years ago. Her skeleton narrowly missed being destroyed in last year’s fire in the 200 year old National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Here’s a story about the fire.

Luzia is named after Lucy, the famous Australopithecus afarensis from Laetoli, but she’s no relation, or at least no more relation than the rest of us. When Luzia was discovered (1975) she presented quite a puzzle. She’s one of the earliest known South American human fossils. Her skull, well-preserved, looks nothing in particular like the skulls of later Indians. It’s more similar to the skulls of modern Australian aborigines and Africans. She’s also short, under five feet.


There hasn’t been any analysis of Luzia’s DNA but we now may have a better idea who her relations are. Southeast Asia was occupied for tens of millennia by hunter-gatherers of the Hoabinhian culture, which persisted through melting ice caps and rising sea levels, up to the arrival of farmers originally from South China. Scattered groups of foragers in the region are remnants of this population. It is likely that the Hoabinhians, or nearby Melanesians, or related folk, traveled up the Pacific coast and were the first human arrivals in the New World. (A direct trip across the Pacific is another possibility, but seems less likely.) These early Americans were largely replaced (they may never have been very numerous) by the ancestors of modern Indians, making a modest contribution to the DNA of the latter.

We noted earlier that there seem to be linguistic traces of this early migration in some of the languages of South America. It’s also worth mentioning that early twentieth century anthropologists thought Melanesia and native Amazonia show some striking cultural similarities, especially relating to men’s houses, all-male cults, myths of matriarchy, and sacred flutes. Some anthropologists have coined the term “Melazonia” to capture the similarities in social systems in the two places. Here’s from a recent book.

One of the great riddles of cultural history is the remarkable parallel that exists between the peoples of Amazonia and those of Melanesia. Although the two regions are separated by half a world in distance and at least 40,000 years of history, their cultures nonetheless reveal striking similarities in the areas of sex and gender. In both Amazonia and Melanesia, male-female differences infuse social organization and self-conception. They are the core of religion, symbolism, and cosmology, and they permeate ideas about body imagery, procreation, growth, men’s cults, and rituals of initiation.

Note that “40,000 years” may be too big by a factor of 3. The usual assumption has been that these similarities result from parallel cultural evolution  – easier to imagine for cultural evolution than for language history – but maybe there is an ancient historical connection too.

Clovis and before

13.8-13.1 thousand years ago

For a long time the Clovis culture, associated with these spear points found across North America, looked like the earliest evidence of human occupation of the Americas. Clovis people are often thought to have entered the continent through an ice-free corridor that opened up between glaciers in Western Canada (although there are other possibilities).


But we now know that there were people in the Americas before Clovis. The Monte Verde site in Chile, dating more than a thousand years earlier (tweeted earlier) is the best evidence. And just in the past few years, we’ve learned something about the genetics involved. Modern Amerindians are overwhelmingly a mixture of East Asian and Ancestral North Eurasian ancestry. But a small fraction of their ancestry is something else: it connects them with some relict populations in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. (In current Southeast Asia these populations have been pushed aside by later arrivals.) The best current explanation for this pattern is that an early population traveled along the Pacific Coast all the way from Southeast Asia to Chile by 15 thousand years ago, when the inland route was still blocked by ice. When Clovis and related peoples made their way to the New World, these early migrants were largely replaced, but left behind a trace of their ancestry.

There’s actually some linguistic work that’s consistent with the genetics. Johanna Nichols is a linguist who has identified various linguistic strata in the New World. These are not the same as language families. Think of it this way: the Khoi-San languages of Africa are famous for their click sounds. These languages, spoken by Bushmen and other isolated hunting and gathering groups, may be extinct before the century is out. But click sounds have been borrowed by some of the Bantu neighbors of these groups. While these non-Khoi-San click speakers do not constitute a language family, they do tell us something about pre-Bantu language history.

Nichols finds a far-flung linguistic stratum distinguished by a large number of otherwise rare features, in both Melanesia and southern South America. We might compare Nichols work on linguistic strata with Greenberg’s work on Eurasiatic. The two use different methods. Both are intensely controversial within linguistics. But in both cases, it looks like distant geographical affinities proposed by linguists get support from the latest genetic research. (We’ll be getting to more generally accepted language families later this month on Logarithmic History.)


14.6-13.8 thousand years ago (posted a day late).

The last glacial phase looks like it’s coming to an end, and people in the Natufian culture of the Levant look like they’re gearing up to invent agriculture. They’ve settled in villages, and are harvesting and storing grain, but not yet sowing it. Possibly they’re brewing beer for feasts. This turns out to be a false start though. In a thousand years or so the glaciers will come back for a final hurrah (the Younger Dryas event), and only after this will farming actually get going.

If you plug different frequencies of different genes from a bunch of populations into a computer and ask it to generate a tree where genetically similar populations share closer branches, you get something like this:

cavalli-sforza tree

This is from the pioneering synthesis of genetics by Cavali-Sforza and co-workers, back in 1994. This looks like a nice diagram of humans spreading out of Africa, maybe some taking a southern route (the Southeast Asian branch), and others a northern route (North Eurasian), and I used to teach it this way in anthropology classes. But as we look at ancient DNA, we’re finding that things are more complicated. Even 14,000 years ago, the structure of populations is different from what we’re used to today. We’ve already mentioned the Ancestral North Eurasians earlier, who just maybe could have spoken a language ancestral to Greenberg’s Eurasiatic family.

In the Near East, too, things were complicated. A paper out recently shows that there were three very different hunting and gathering populations in Anatolia, Western Iran, and the Levant. Folks in Iran and the Levant were as genetically distinct as modern Europeans and Chinese! Either the Near East during this period had just been settled by migrants from widely separated places, or there had been strong barriers to gene flow in place for some time. Since then people in the area have mixed a lot.

Each of these populations of hunters and gatherers will give rise to its own set of farmers. The Natufians will contribute a lot to the ancestry of later farmers in the Levant. And apparently each set of farmers will send migrants off in a different direction: the Anatolians to Europe, the Iranians (or some Caucasian relatives) to the Eurasian steppe, and the Levantines to East Africa. It’s possible that the Natufians were speakers of a language ancestral to the Afro-Asiatic family, one of the oldest widely accepted language families, including Arabic and Hebrew, Somali and Oromo.


15.4 -14.6 thousand years ago

Only in the last half century or so, with the discovery of the Big Bang, has it been possible to do something like Logarithmic History. But human beings have been speculating for far longer than that on the origins of the universe, and we’ll have plenty of occasions here to pay tribute to earlier prescientific cosmologies. (The early chapters of the book of Genesis are probably most familiar to modern readers, but there are lots of others.)

Strikingly, it may be possible to reconstruct a very early interconnected set of myths concerning the world’s origin, which date back to long before the invention of writing (or farming, for that matter). This is the argument of Michael Witzel and some of his associates, set forth at length in Witzel’s ambitious recent book, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Witzel is an expert on the Vedas (Hindu sacred texts)* who has grown interested in wider comparisons. He argues that there are striking parallels in myths told in traditional societies across a wide expanse of the Earth. These parallels are not the product ancient archetypes welling out of the collective unconscious, but are survivals of a coherent narrative of the origins and destiny of the universe, the gods, and humans, which was told tens of thousands of years ago. This mythological narrative includes the following:

In the beginning: primordial waters / darkness / chaos / ‘nonbeing’

A primordial egg / giant

A primordial hill / island / floating earth

Father Sky and Mother Earth and their children, for four generations, defining Four Ages of creation

The Sky is raised up and severed from the Earth

The Sky and his daughter commit incest, and the hidden sun’s light is revealed

The current generation of gods defeat or kill their predecessors.

A dragon is slain by a culture hero

The Sun becomes the father of humans (later on, of chieftains), and establishes their rituals

The first humans, whose evil deeds lead to the origin of death and the great Flood

A generation of heroes and the bringing of fire / food / culture by a culture hero

The spread of humans / emergence of local nobility: local history begins

In the future: final destruction of humans, the world, the gods

A new heaven and a new earth / eternal bliss

Some elements of the myth seem to have an astronomical significance. The revelation of the sun seems to be especially associated with the winter solstice, and the slaying of a dragon, bringing rain, with the summer solstice. The Greek version of the Four Ages (and its Near Eastern antecedents) is clearly related to the movements of stars and planets.

Witzel labels the resulting mythic narrative “Laurasian mythology,” because its major elements are found mostly in Eurasia, the Pacific, and the New World. It contrasts with a Gondwanan mythology found Africa, New Guinea and Australia. (These two mythologies happen, by chance, to correspond roughly to the ancient supercontinents of Laurasia and Gondwana.) Laurasian and Gondwanan mythology overlap to some extent. Stories of a great Flood sent to punish unruly or sinful mankind, leaving only scattered mountaintop survivors to repopulate the world, are found in both.**

Witzel proposes that Laurasian mythology dates all the way back to an Out Of Africa expansion 40 thousand years ago. I have chosen fairly arbitrarily to introduce it instead at a later date. But it can’t date any later than the main settlement of the Americas by the ancestors of Amerindians.

* Witzel’s work on the Vedas has led to his being dogged by a lot of Hindu nationalists who are outraged that he thinks Indo-European languages came from outside India: an occupational hazard for the Indo-Europeanist scholar.

** When I did fieldwork several decades ago among the Ache Indians in Paraguay, they were curious about the way the story of Noah seemed to fit with their own flood story.

What language the Mal’ta boy spoke

What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

Thomas Browne. Urn burial

24,000 years ago

In the mid-twentieth century, Soviet archeologists excavated a site at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal that included the remains of of a 3-4 year old boy. Recent ancient DNA tests on the boy are one piece of evidence that is shaking up our understanding of how populations differentiated once Homo sapiens left Africa. (News story here.) It now looks like, back in the day, there was a widespread ancient population – people have been calling them Ancestral North Eurasians or ANE – that was already clearly differentiated from East Asians, and from populations in Southwest Asia. This population would eventually make a significant contribution to the ancestry of both American Indians and Europeans. American Indians seem to get most of their ancestry from a population ancestral to modern East Asians, but a large minority (about 25%) from ANE. And we’ll see when we get to Indo-European origins and the Indo-European expansion that ANE is a significant factor there as well.

These genetic findings dovetail neatly with work on historical linguistics by Joseph Greenberg. In Indo-European and its closest relatives: The Eurasiatic language family, Greenberg argued for a Eurasiatic language family, ancestral to more generally accepted families including Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Japanese-Korean-Ainu, Gilyak, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut. He argued that the closest relative of this macrofamily was another macrofamily, dubbed “Amerind,” embracing most American Indian languages.

Greenberg’s proposal has not met with universal acceptance. One linguist (Don Ringe, a heavyweight in Indo-European studies) wrote “One is seldom asked to review a book that contains nothing of value, but that is unfortunately true of this volume.” The gold standard for historical linguists is being able to reconstruct an ancestral language, and the systematic sound changes leading to its descendants. Instead of this, Greenberg could only offer a mass of suggestive similarities. But the close correspondence between Greenberg’s farflung Eurasiatic family (and its Amerind sister) and the recent genetic results suggest that he was onto something. Either that, or he made a surprisingly lucky guess.

We see another remarkable fit between alleged distant language affinities (Melanesia and southern South America) and recent genetic results in September, when we get to the earliest human settlement of the Americas.



Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.



1555-1360 BCE

The Lapita culture (defined based on pottery) starts showing up on the islands of Melanesia around this time. The culture was almost certainly brought from outside, by mariners speaking an Austronesian language (Proto-Oceanic), who traced their roots back (immediately) to island Southeast Asia, and (earlier) to Taiwan. The nearer islands of Melanesia were already inhabited when the Lapitans arrived, by people similar to modern New Guineans, whose ancestors had been there for tens of thousands of years.

The Lapitans had advanced sailing skills, and also introduced some domesticated animals – pigs and chickens. But they don’t seem to have had a huge demographic edge over the earlier inhabitants, who had already developed agriculture on their own, and may have had more resistance to local diseases like malaria. The Lapitans mostly settled smaller, harder-to-reach islands, and established enclaves on larger islands. And one scholar calls the Austronesian expansion “an agricultural revolution that failed” because the pioneers abandoned the rice cultivation that their ancestors had been doing, although they quickly picked up local crops like taro and breadfruit. (In another part of the Austronesian world, island Southeast Asia, they gave up on agriculture altogether to become “fisher-foragers.”)

Curiously, Polynesians today get more than half of their patrilineally transmitted Y-chromosome DNA from Melanesia, while most of their matrilineally transmitted mitochondrial DNA, and even their bilaterally transmitted autosomal DNA, is from Taiwan/Southeast Asia.

There is good reason to think that ancestral Austronesians had a matrilineal social organization, with kin groups emphasizing descent through the female line. This might reflect a history in which men spent lots of time away from home, sailing, raiding, and trading, and chose to leave their households in charge of their sisters. In Micronesia, settled in a separate phase of the Austronesian expansion, matrilineal descent is the rule right up the present – a chief’s heir is his sister’s son, not his wife’s son. Matrilineal societies are often not very intense about policing female sexual behavior (compare the Middle East) and it seemed plausible that when the Lapita folk were passing through Melanesia, the women might have picked up some Melanesian Y chromosomes while their menfolk were off sailing.

But it now looks like the story is different. Ancient DNA from the very earliest Polynesian settlers in Tonga and Vanuatu shows no trace of Melanesian ancestry. Melanesian ancestry apparently came to Polynesia sometime after this initial settlement, perhaps as a result of conquest. And this fits with another aspect of Polynesian kinship: our best reconstructions suggest that Polynesians switched from matrilineal to patrilineal descent early in their history. The recent evidence suggests that a group of Melanesians, arriving later, perhaps as conquerors, may have been responsible for the shift, by setting themselves up as chiefs (in an already rank conscious society) and passing their privileged position on to their sons and their son’s sons – a story already familiar from other parts of the Old World.

(I learned a lot of what I know about kinship in Pacific island societies from my colleague at the University of Utah, the late Per Hage.)