Since the 1970s molecular biology has revolutionized the study of human evolution and migration. Practitioners of traditional approaches to prehistory in archaeology and paleo-anthropology have largely seen themselves subsumed into the role as ancillary disciplines to evolutionary genetics.
Psychologist Quentin Atkinson seems to have made it his goal to bring the genetic revolution to the study of the prehistory of human culture and language. New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade has been lending him a hand by widely publicizing his work. A couple of prominent and linguistically controversial studies have been published by Atkinson and a number of co-authors in prominent journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS (Atkinson 2011, Bouckaert, Lemy, Dunn et al. 2012, Gray & Atkinson 2003, Pagel, Atkinson & Meade 2007, Atkinson & Gray 2006). These studies have attracted a mixture of murmurs and mild amusement among anthropologists and culturally oriented linguists. But perhaps what we have seen so far is just the beginning. Atkinson seems to have set his eyes on solving the great questions of human prehistory.
The application of the quantitative genetic worldview to problems that have traditionally been approached by looking at culture and meaning raises the question of how to weigh conclusions based on quantitative data against those arrived at through interpretative deliberation. In this particular case the conclusions arrived at by the two approaches seems to be entirely contradictory.
Hypotheses of origin
After much fighting through the 19th and 20th century, for the past couple of decades historical linguists and archaeologists have generally agreed on the so-called Kurgan hypothesis of Indo-European origins. According to this school of thought, Indo-Europeans arrived in Europe as recently as 3000 years BCE. Indo-Europeans came racing in from the Pontian steppes in horse-drawn war chariots terrorizing the sedentary agriculturalists who already lived in Europe and about whose languages we know nothing (Anthony 2007).
But according to Nicholas Wade, Atkinson and his colleagues have now finally resolved the century old debate about the Urheimat of Indo-European in favor of the alternative Anatolian hypothesis, generally considered unconvincing by linguists and archaeologists. In the narrative of the Anatolian hypothesis Indo-Europeans originated in Anatolia around 10,000 years BCE and were the driving force in the neolithic agricultural revolution. In this story PIE speakers were peaceful farmers and expanded slowly and steadily into Europe and the Near Orient replacing earlier hunter gatherer populations.
The cultural-political implications of the two hypotheses are interesting: one sees the IE ancestors as Barbarians, the other as the driving force of civilization. Marija Gimbutas (1989) who introduced the Kurgan hypothesis gave her narrative a first-wave feminist spin. She saw the IE expansion as the origin of a male centered violent culture that exterminated an earlier sedentary and gynocentric indigenous culture. Renfrew and Bellwood’s hypothesis in contrasts casts the IE ancestors as the first movers of the process that led to the UN, space flight and penicillin (Renfrew 1987, Bellwood 2001, 2004, Bellwood & Renfrew 2002).
From the beginning the evidence for the Anatolian hypothesis has been of the kind that material scientists like: Population genetics supports the theory of a migration from Anatolia into Europe during the neolithic, archaeology suggests that these neolithic migrants brought agriculture into Europe and replaced previous hunter gatherers. From there it is simply logical to assume that they were speakers of the PIE language and that their genetic descendants are also linguistic descendants of these first European farmers.
In contrast the evidence for the Kurgan hypothesis rests starts from cultural-linguistic evidence: there are no linguistic indications that the earliest Indo-Europeans practiced agriculture, it is not possible to reconstruct many words related to agriculture to the earliest stages of PIE, but plenty of words related to pastoralism, horses, wheels and chariot based warfare. From there it is only logical to relate the expansion of PIE to the archaeologically documented incursions of the chariot-riding Pontic warriors of the Kurgan culture and date the arrival of PIE in Europe around 3000 years ago. So this is one of those cases where starting from different sets of evidence and assumptions leads to entirely different, yet reasonable conclusions.
Language, Culture and Genes
Statistical Indo-European studies rests on three basic assumptions that are directly contrary to the Boasian tradition of focusing on particular cultural-historical trajectories as understood through analysis of cultural meaning in Aboriginal American Culture (e.g., Sapir 1916 in “Time Perspective”). These assumptions are:
1. That histories of language contact can be “corrected for” simply by eliminating borrowings – and that these histories themselves are not meaningful in understanding language and culture contact in the past. This assumption is contradicted in a 2012 study by Hunley, Bowern & Healy which debunks the conclusions of another recent Atkinson paper tracing human migrations through “phonemic diversity”.
2. That evidence about cultural processes and concepts based on the semantic evidence from “culture words” can be safely ignored or overridden by statistical parsimony. This is necessary for Atkinson to explain away that the oldest layers of Indo-European vocabulary has words related to pastoralism, horse riding and warfare, but not agriculture.
3. That genes and languages travel together. This is assumption is true in theory – people do tend to teach their own language to their children. But in practice languages frequently travel across genetic barriers. For example much of the population of Latin America is “genetically indigenous” but linguistically Indo-European. There is no reason to assume that something similar could not have happened in Ancient Europe – history does not is not necessarily follow the most parsimonious trajectory, and sometimes there is good reason to think that it didn’t.
In short, I believe that we as linguistic anthropologists who are historically inclined need to do a better job explaining the case for the independence of culture and language in the larger public arena. Key facts that we need to emphasize are that culture changes are:
1. Transmitted along social and not genetic channels.
2. Cumulative and systemic.
3. Semiotic and meaningful.
Perhaps we should prove this by taking some lessons in the language of public relations from geneticists?
Wade’s previous articles on language and prehistory
Comments on Gray and Atkinson’s 2003 paper in the Languagelog
Comments on the 2012 paper:
Bruce Mannheims’ blog on Wade’s previous article:
Jon Marks blogs about the problems with genetic phylogenies studies of Primate evolution.
Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press.
Atkinson, Q. D. (2011). Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa. Science, 332: 346-9.
Atkinson, Q. D. & Gray, R. D. (2006). How old is the Indo-European language family? Illumination or more moths to the flame? Pages 91-109 in Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages Eds. J. Clackson, P. Forster and C. Renfrew. MacDonald Institute (Cambridge).
Bellwood, Peter. (2004). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. Blackwell Publishers.
Bellwood, Peter (2001). “Early Agriculturalist Population Diasporas? Farming, Languages, and Genes”. Annual Review of Anthropology 30: 181–207.
Bellwood, Peter S. & Colin Renfrew. (2002), Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.
Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., Gray, R. D., Suchard, M. A., & Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337:957-960. DOI: 10.1126/science.337.6097.989-b .
Gimbutas, Marija. (1989). The Language of the Goddess. Harper & Row.
Gray, R. D. and Atkinson, Q. D. (2003). Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin. Nature, 426: 435-9.
Hunley, Keith; Claire Bowern, and Meghan Healy. (2012). “Rejection of a serial founder effects model of genetic and linguistic coevolution”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2/1 .
Pagel, M., Atkinson, Q. D. and Meade, A. (2007). Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history. Nature, 449: 717-20.
Renfrew, Colin. (1987). Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, London: Pimlico.
Sapir, Edward. (1916). Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture, A Study in Method. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.
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