Several people have been asking me about a recent study in molecular genetics by David Reich, Nick Patterson, Desmond Campbell, et al. (2012) arguing that the initial peopling of the Americas was accomplished through three migration streams, basing their analysis on multiple DNA sites. The results—though richer in their data than earlier research– are not terribly surprising for anyone who has followed the discussion of the peopling of the Americas: There are three genetic groupings, one corresponding to Eskimo-Aleut peoples, one to Athabaskans, and then a residual category for everyone else (whom the authors call “First Americans”) The “First American” category is a geographic cline in Latin America from North to South, with suggestions of three geographically-based subgroupings in Mesoamerica and South America: Mesoamerica, highland South America, and lowland South America. (A substantial part of the Americas therefore is off their radar.)
Nicholas Wade’s reported the Reich et al. research in the New York Times (July 11, 2012). Wade treats it as a vindication of a three-way genetic (historical linguistic) distinction among languages of the Americas proposed in Joseph Greenberg’s (1987) book of the same name, although Reich et al. do not cite it in their paper in Nature. (The only reference to Greenberg by Reich et al. is to a paper coauthored with Turner and Zegura and published in 1986 as one of the proponents of the three-way split.) The “vindication” here is entirely Wade’s. The bottom line is that this three-way distinction was known linguistically since the 1920s (for example, Sapir 1921). Basically, it’s a division among the Eskimo-Aleut languages, which straddle the Bering Straits even today, the Athabaskan languages (which were discovered to be related to a small Siberian language family only within the last few years, not by Greenberg as Wade suggested), and everything else. That’s essentially the three-way distinction that is constantly credited to Greenberg. We know of many major linguistic families among the “everything else”, worked out painstakingly through well-established methods, but don’t know how the “everything else” language families are connected to each other on a large-scale level.
I’ll add that I am irritated seeing this attributed to Greenberg because Greenberg was a great scholar who made important, long-lasting discoveries about how human language is structured in general. In the key paper presented to the Dobbs Ferry conference on linguistic universals in 1961 Greenberg (1963) demonstrated—with a fairly small sample of languages—that basic word order—whether a verb precedes an object, as in English or follows an object, as in Turkish, determines a host of other morphological and syntactic properties of the language, for example whether relative clauses precede or follow the noun that they modify, whether the language has a mix of prefixes and suffixes or is exclusively suffixing, and so forth. Language—for Greenberg—was law-governed. Though his methodology and findings were not universally adopted initially, for reasons that had more to do with the sociology of the discipline than their inherent intellectual method, they turned out to be extraordinarily productive, forming the basis of research by scholars such as Jackendoff, Hawkins, and Croft—and giving birth to a subdiscipline of linguistics dedicated to typological research. His very real, and very important contributions to understanding the nature of language in the very different field of linguistic typology are now overshadowed by his classification of languages of the Americas, which on serious, peer investigation did not pan out. So: If you wish to honor a great scholar, please honor him for his very real accomplishments, not for his lesser work.
Let me add that I am skeptical when someone says that a biological genetic grouping corroborates a historical linguistic grouping or vice versa for a simple reason: genetic material and language are transmitted by different mechanisms (I’ll skip my usual joke about this), so in principle a one-to-one correspondence should be surprising.
Note: Much of this was written on the fly in a discussion on Facebook with the linguist Susan Schmerling. I have edited and extended it here. Thanks to Jon Marks for a critical reading.
Bruce Mannheim, Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan, is a leading linguistic anthropologist, specializing in Quechua, once the language of the Inka and now the most widespread Native American language family. He is author of The language of the Inka since the European invasion (1991) and editor of The dialogic emergence of culture (1995) and is completing books on Quechua poetry and narrative. His most recent research is a historical study of Quechua texts as indices of national formation. Professor Mannheim is a past Guggenheim fellow, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, and was twice a fellow of the Institute for the Humanities at Michigan. He was director of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Michigan from 1997-1999, and is currently President of the Society for Latin American Anthropology.
Editors of Language and Culture Column: Leila Monaghan, leila.monaghan (at) gmail.com; Jacqueline Messing, jmessing (at) usf.edu; Richard Senghas, richard.senghas (at) sonoma.edu