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Archive for the ‘Ideas’ Category

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Southeast Corner of Pueblo Bonito

Today is the summer solstice, on which I typically make posts about archaeoastronomy, so I’m going to take a break from my very gradual series of posts on tracing the connections between ancient and modern Pueblos to speculate a bit about the role of astronomy at Chaco. Briefly, what I’m proposing is that the rise of Chaco as a regional center could have been due to it being the first place in the Southwest to develop detailed, precise knowledge of the movements of heavenly bodies (especially the sun and moon), which allowed Chacoan religious leaders to develop an elaborate ceremonial calendar with rituals that proved attractive enough to other groups in the region to give the canyon immense religious prestige. This would have drawn many people from the surrounding area to Chaco, either on short-term pilgrimages or permanently, which in turn would have given Chacoan political elites (who may or may not have been the same people as the religious leaders) the economic base to project political and/or military power throughout a large area, and cultural influence even further.

I don’t have any specific research papers to discuss on this topic because as far as I know no one has really looked at it quite this way. It’s similar in some respects to the theories of the Solstice Project, although I don’t buy that astronomical alignments were quite as important in the Chacoan system as they propose. There is also some overlap with the theories of various archaeologists, but none of them have put the pieces together in quite this way. This may be because it’s demonstrably wrong, but if it is I haven’t seen the evidence that disproves it yet (but would be very interesting in doing so).

This theory first occurred to me when I was reading about Tiwanaku in Bolivia, which was a prehistoric society that, like Chaco, left very impressive physical remains in a very isolated location with few obvious economic advantages. As I noted in my post on Tiwanaku, the similarities actually go well beyond that, extending also to the shifting interpretations by archaeologists and the evidence for astronomical alignments. Most relevant in this context is the theory of John Janusek at Vanderbilt, whose theory of Tiwanaku is the model for the theory I’m suggesting here for Chaco. As he wrote in one paper, which I also quoted in the earlier post:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the altiplano to develop the level of astronomical skill which allowed it to develop such a “powerfully predictive” religion, and my application of a similar theory to Chaco relies on it also being the first place that developed a comparable knowledge of astronomy in the Southwest. I hadn’t really thought about this before reading Janusek’s work, but as far as I can tell it does in fact seem to be the case. Ray Williamson’s somewhat dated but still very useful book on Native North American astronomy (which I reviewed here) doesn’t mention any evidence of Southwestern astronomical knowledge predating Chaco, and I haven’t seen any other publications that do either. Granted, some of the evidence for astronomical evidence comes from rock art which is difficult or impossible to date, but at least when it comes to building alignments, which are more securely datable, the Chacoan great houses seem to be the earliest manifestation of detailed astronomical knowledge. Some earlier sites do show general alignments to cardinal directions and so forth, but the precise alignments to solstices and lunar standstills that are characteristic of Chacoan buildings do really seem to be innovative. I’m not totally certain that there aren’t counterexamples out there, though, so if anyone knows of any I’m very interested in hearing about them.

If this is in fact the case, it opens up several additional lines of inquiry. First, if Chaco was in fact the first place in the (northern?) Southwest to attain detailed astronomical knowledge, where did that knowledge come from? Many discussions of Chacoan astronomy have assumed, implicitly or explicitly, that the answer is “Mexico,” but I’m not so sure. There is definitely extensive evidence of contact with Mesoamerica at Chaco, but it’s all fairly indirect and there are lots of important aspects of Mesoamerican culture that are noticeably lacking. Mesoamerican astronomical knowledge was certainly impressive, and certainly predates the rise of Chaco, but given the general context I think it’s still an open question whether the Chacoans got their knowledge from contacts to the south (either directly or via the Hohokam and/or Mogollon) or developed it independently. This is an area that would definitely benefit from further study.

Secondly, why Chaco rather than somewhere else in the region? This is sort of the key question hanging over everything about Chaco, and so far no one has come up with a broadly convincing answer. I don’t have one either; the astronomy theory I’m proposing here answers the “how” of Chaco but not the “why.” It could be that, as some archaeologists have proposed, the physical setting of the canyon had unique attributes within the region that contributed to its ritual importance from an early period, which from my perspective would have provided the impetus for the development and/or integration of new astronomical knowledge into existing belief systems. Alternatively, as other archaeologists have argued, there could have been economic advantages to the location, which are not obvious to modern eyes but were sufficient to give Chaco an important role in the region, which may have made it a promising place for new ideas to develop or be introduced. And finally, maybe it’s all just a matter of historical contingency: this was where people happened to figure this stuff out, and that’s what made it attractive to others for both religious and economic reasons.

Another question is when this would have happened. Chaco was occupied for hundreds of years, but its florescence as a regional center was relatively brief, lasting roughly a century from AD 1030 to 1130 or so. One natural conclusion would be that the development of new astronomical knowledge happened at the start of this period, but I suspect it actually began earlier, probably during the period (roughly the late ninth and tenth centuries, or the late Pueblo I period) when Chaco was just one of several “proto-great-house” communities in the San Juan Basin that were more or less equal in size and influence. Over time, the advantages of the Chacoan rituals over the others would have become apparent, perhaps through fortuitous stretches of good weather and/or military successes by Chacoan warriors. This would have set the stage for Chacoan influence to expand on a vast scale during the eleventh century.

As the reference to military success in the previous paragraph suggests, I don’t see the expansion of Chacoan religious influence fueled by astronomical knowledge as having necessarily been entirely peaceful. Here again, the parallel to Tiwanaku is instructive. Note Janusek’s reference to Tiwanaku’s “very worldly imperial mission” in the quote above. I suspect what we would today see as “religious” and “secular” impulses were much more intertwined at Chaco, as indeed they have been shown to be in many societies.

All that said, I’m not totally convinced by this theory myself, and there are many strands of the Chacoan record that it doesn’t really seem to account for in an obvious way. I figured this was a good opportunity to toss it out there, though, to see whether it’s worth pursuing further.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, J. (2006). The changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku religion and the rise of an Andean state World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico

I’m currently in Albuquerque visiting my mom, and while I’m here I figured I read up on the archaeology of the Rio Grande Valley and do some posts on it. I’ve read some interesting articles from the journals I have access to, and I’ll have some substantive posts soon based on that, but one thing that has limited me so far is that so much of the early archaeological literature on this region was published in El Palacio, the magazine of the Museum of New Mexico (named after the Palace of the Governors, the original location of the museum). Today this is basically a glossy (but serious and substantive) magazine aimed at a popular audience, but in its first few decades it functioned more like a scholarly journal and was the primary venue for publication of research on the archaeology, anthropology, and history of northern New Mexico.

The problem with this for someone like me had been that, unlike other major publication venues for this kind of research that have evolved into (or been created as) peer-reviewed scholarly journals, El Palacio is not included in any of the major academic databases, and it could only be found on paper in libraries that happened to subscribe to it. This made it effectively impossible for me to access it, given geographic and time constraints, so I was at a distinct disadvantage in understanding the archaeology of this region.

That’s all changed, however. I discovered today that, apparently as part of the commemoration of the magazine’s centennial this year, El Palacio has put its entire archive online. The interface is a little clunky, and it looks like it’s only possible to download pdfs of entire issues rather than individual articles, but this is still a fantastic resource that has suddenly become vastly more accessible. Given my general interest in open access publishing and making data broadly available, I figured it was worth doing a post to point this out. I’ll have some more posts on the actual archaeology of the northern Rio Grande soon.

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Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

I was in Philadelphia for Thanksgiving, and the next day I went with my family to the quaint nearby town of Doylestown, where we visited two local museums: the Michener Museum (named after, yes, that Michener, who grew up in Doylestown and spent most of his life in the area) and the Mercer Museum. The Michener is basically a local art museum, and we went there to see an exhibit about Grace Kelly, who is a big deal in the Philadelphia area. Not really my kind of thing, but it was fine.

The Mercer, on the other hand, is a really unusual sort of museum. It was established by Henry Mercer, a Doylestown native who had a variety of interests and a good deal of money with which to pursue them. He studied law but never practiced it, instead going into archaeology in the 1890s. I haven’t found much information about his specific contributions to American archaeology, which was in its infancy at that time, except that he apparently supported the authenticity of the obviously forged Lenape Stone that allegedly contains an image of a mammoth and is now part of the Mercer Museum collections (though not on display).

In the late 1890s, however, Mercer came to the realization that the advancement of industrialization meant that most aspects of traditional life in the US were likely to disappear forever, and he began to collect what were then considered mundane objects for the museum of the Bucks County Historical Society. He collected huge numbers of things from all aspects of pre-industrial life, over time branching out to the US as a whole and eventually other parts of the world as well. His collection got so big that he built a new building to house it, using an innovative design and construction approach using poured concrete. He organized the collection thematically by the sorts of societal needs that objects served, and put together display cases by category.

The museum is still much as he designed it, although there have been various changes over the years. It’s a fascinating place, idiosyncratic and full of extremely detailed information. What I found especially interesting, however, was the way the museum’s own self-descriptions explicitly tied Mercer’s collecting of what most people considered “junk” to his earlier interest in archaeology. That is, one way to see what Mercer was doing was taking an archaeological approach to studying and preserving the material culture of the present and recent past, to ensure it would be understood in the future. This approach was quite ahead of its time for both history and archaeology, and the museum that resulted is fascinating and well worth a visit.

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Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

Visitor Center and Fajada Butte from Una Vida

I often read articles on the archaeology of other parts of the world to gain a better understanding of the context for Chaco. The areas I focus on for this are primarily those that had interesting things going on contemporaneous with the Chacoan era, but I also look to some extent on archaeological phenomena in other places that are comparable to the Chaco Phenomenon itself to see if there are any lessons for understanding Chaco to be drawn from them.

Recently I’ve been reading a bit about the archaeology of Tiwanaku, Bolivia, which falls into both categories. The period of Tiwanaku’s florescence overlaps with Chaco’s to some extent, although it falls most earlier, but more importantly the history of research there has some intriguing parallels to the history of Chacoan studies and may hold some useful lessons. My account of Tiwanaku here is drawn mainly from John Janusek’s 2004 review article, as well as some other papers by Janusek and others who seem to share his general perspective.

Tiwanaku itself is a major site located on the Bolivian altiplano near Lake Titicaca. It is in a very stark and desolate-seeming location, which makes its monumental architecture seem incongruous (sound familiar?). Early explorers noted that the site pre-dated the Inka empire, and some considered it the oldest site in the whole Andean region. Archaeological investigations in the early twentieth century showed that the latter characterization was definitely not accurate, but they also found little evidence of domestic occupation, and the idea arose that Tiwanaku was a vacant ceremonial center and pilgrimage destination, which some interpreted as the center for a religious movement that was spread by the expansionary state centered at the site of Wari further north in Peru.

Starting in the 1950s, however, a new archaeological program sponsored by the nationalist government of Bolivia and led by Carlos Ponce Sanginés conducted extensive excavations at the site and concluded instead that Tiwanaku was the urban capital of an expansionist state, which rivaled Wari and eventually even conquered it. By the 1980s researchers from the US were invited to work in the area as well, and their research has generally supported this reconstruction of Tiwanaku rather than the “vacant ceremonial center” hypothesis, although the idea that Tiwanaku actually conquered Wari didn’t hold up. Janusek is part of this research tradition, which is why the fact that my information on the site comes mainly from him is important. There are apparently still other archaeologists who still hold to the older interpretation, but there don’t seem to be many.

Anyone who is familiar with the history of research at Chaco should see the similarities here. One important difference, of course, is that the early research at Chaco assumed that it was a residential rather than a ceremonial center. It was not until the work of the Chaco Project in the 1970s that it began to seem like the great houses in the canyon were something other than “pueblos” in the traditional sense. While the idea of Chaco as a vacant ceremonial center was never universal, and it arose rather recently in the history of Chacoan research, it has been quite influential in recent years. Recent research, such as that of Chip Wills, Steve Plog, and Steve Lekson, has been moving away from this idea, however, and back to the idea of a substantial population in the canyon. In parallel with Tiwanaku, however, many of these recent interpretations have seen Chaco as more of a complex, hierarchical society than a set of autonomous, egalitarian villages. This makes the monumental architecture that is a hallmark of the Chaco Phenomenon seem like more of an expression of hierarchical than spiritual ideals.

One important lesson of Tiwanaku, however, is that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The monumental architecture and art at the main site and other sites considered to be regional centers of the same polity (“outliers” in Chacoan terminology?) is generally interpreted as reflecting a religious ideology that supported the hierarchical structure of the Tiwanaku state. This is hardly unusual in early states, of course, but the fact that Tiwanaku was not originally considered to be such a state makes it more relevant to the case of Chaco, which is in the same situation.

Another important similarity between the two systems is in the presence of astronomical alignments in the monumental buildings, and the resultant implication that astronomical observation and the maintenance of a calendar were important elements in the societal system. Tiwanaku was apparently the first society in the region to show this astronomical focus, and Janusek, in a paper on Tiwanaku religion, links this explicitly to its success as a state. In that paper he argues that the changes in monumental construction at Tiwanaku proper were linked to changes in the religious ideology of the site, which over time came to incorporate diverse regional traditions as well as cosmic cycles into a complex, syncretic religion that supported and justified the spiritual and material power of the Tiwanaku elites. As Janusek concludes:

Tiwanaku’s long rise to power in the Andean altiplano was predicated on the integration of diverse local ritual cults and various symbolic dimensions of the natural environment into a reasonably coherent, supremely elegant and powerfully predictive religion. The shifting physicality of Tiwanaku’s religious monuments attests the construction and ongoing transformation of an urban landscape that not only visually expressed the altiplano’s ‘natural’ forces and cycles, but, via recurring construction and ritual, simultaneously shaped new social practices and Tiwanaku’s ever-increasing political influence and productive coordination, intensification and expansion. Tiwanaku was an imperfect and potentially volatile integration of religious cults, productive enterprises and societies. The material objectification of a seductive religious ideology that infused the monumental centre with numinous natural forces and simultaneously projected those forces across distant Andean realms helped drive Tiwanaku’s very worldly imperial mission.

I haven’t seen this same argument applied explicitly to Chaco, but I think it may apply there as well. The part about incorporating diverse cultural traditions seems to match pretty closely with the well-known diversity of material culture at Chaco, with different sites within the canyon, and even different parts of some of the larger sites, showing ties to different parts of the region. I don’t know of any pre-Chacoan sites in the Southwest that show obvious astronomical alignments the way Chaco does, so it seems probable that the Chacoans were the first to figure out these alignments, and they may have also been the first to develop the rigorous calendrical knowledge that such mastery of astronomy implies. I hadn’t really thought about that as a source of Chacoan power before reading about Tiwanaku, but it certainly makes sense. This is a good example of the way reading about these far-flung places has practical advantages for understanding Chaco.
ResearchBlogging.org
Janusek, John W. (2004). Tiwanaku and Its Precursors: Recent Research and Emerging Perspectives Journal of Archaeological Research, 12 (2), 121-183 DOI: 10.1023/B:JARE.0000023711.96664.1b

Janusek, John W. (2006). The Changing ‘nature’ of Tiwanaku Religion and the Rise of an Andean State World Archaeology, 38 (3), 469-492 DOI: 10.1080/00438240600813541

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The Value of Blogging

Entrance to Library and Social Sciences Building, University of Alaska Anchorage

Entrance to Library and Social Sciences Building, University of Alaska Anchorage

Maria Konnikova has a good post explaining how blogging, along with other “popular” writing such as journalism, is very good practice for the sort of work involved in academic scholarship. I’m not an academic myself and have no interest in becoming one, but I definitely agree with her that blogging helps develop skills in analyzing, synthesizing, and (especially) explaining complicated information compiled from diverse sources, which is what good scholarship in any discipline should do.

I also found her comments on disciplinary isolation within academia interesting, since I’ve found a lot of the same things to be true in archaeology that she found in psychology. I tend to dig deep and look broadly for research that might relate in some way to Chaco, and in doing so I’ve found interesting and relevant publications in very unlikely places. Some of my early posts on subjects such as the ancient Maya and the European Reformation are good examples of how these connections can be found. I haven’t done as much of this lately, it’s true; I’ve increasingly begun doing posts that are either narrowly about Chaco or about something else entirely that also happens to interest me. My recent decision to devote this blog to Chaco and to find somewhere else to put the other stuff may lead me to do more to relate the various things I read to Chacoan issues, or maybe not. We’ll see.

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Richard Wetherill’s Grave

Today is Wetherill Day, the anniversary of Richard Wetherill’s death in 1910, and as such I would like to continue my tradition of marking the occasion by discussing the complicated and often misunderstood legacy of Wetherill, the pioneering amateur archaeologist who excavated many sites in the Southwest, including most famously Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. I’ve talked about the general story and context in previous posts, so this time I’d like to note one specific example of how, in contrast to his popular image as a simple pot-hunter focused on collecting artifacts, Wetherill made some quite perceptive (though not necessarily correct) deductions about cultural history based on his excavations.

After his early work in the 1880s at Mesa Verde, near his family’s ranch outside the small town of Mancos, Colorado, but before his more famous work at Chaco between 1896 and 1901, Wetherill did some exploring of the cliff dwellings of the Grand Gulch area of southeastern Utah. By this point in his career Wetherill had become quite sincerely interested in archaeology not just as a source of articles to be sold but as a window into the past, and his techniques of both excavation and interpretation had improved markedly, in part due to influence by the Swedish archaeologist Gustaf Nordenskiöld, who had come to Colorado in 1891 and assisted with the Mesa Verde work.

In the winter of 1893–1894, Wetherill organized an expedition to Grand Gulch with the financial backing of the wealthy New York brothers Benjamin and Talbot Hyde. This was the first instantiation of the Hyde Exploring Expedition, which would later become the aegis for Wetherill’s work at Chaco as well. As James Snead notes in an article on the relationship between Wetherill and the Hydes:

The principal archaeological discovery of the season was of remains predating those of the “cliff dwellers,” which Talbot Hyde, exercising a prerogative of sponsorship, named the “Basket Makers.”

And Basketmakers they remain; the term is still in use to designate this culture, which did indeed predate the later groups of “cliff dwellers” who built stone houses and are therefore known as “Pueblos.”

But how did Wetherill and the Hydes know that the Basketmaker remains they found at Grand Gulch predated the cliff dwellers? Through the use of stratigraphy, which is based on the assumption that in undisturbed deposits lower layers are older than higher ones. The Basketmaker deposits were below the cliff dweller ones, therefore they were older. There have been suggestions that Wetherill actually used stratigraphic excavation at this time, which is to say that he used stratigraphic levels as the organizing principle for the excavation itself, but David Browman and Douglas Givens argue in an article on the rise of stratigraphic excavation in American archaeology that there is no evidence he actually did. Instead, he most likely excavated and only afterward looked at the strata in the exposed trenches to make his cultural determinations, a fairly common practice at the time which Browman and Givens call “post facto stratigraphic interpretation” and oppose to the truly stratigraphic excavation that arose in the 1910s.

But Wetherill didn’t just notice that the Basketmaker remains were different from and lower than the cliff dweller ones. He also came up with a tentative theory on the relationship between the two groups. Based on both artifact differences and, as Erik Reed discusses in an article on the early history of physical anthropology in the Southwest, skull shapes, Wetherill concluded that the two groups were “racially” distinct, with the implication that the one was not descended from the other. As Reed notes, this was challenged a bit by other archaeologists at the time, but later discoveries seemed to confirm it, and it became dogma in the early twentieth century until further research in the 1940s showed that the differences in skull form were actually due to artificial cranial deformation in the later skulls probably caused by the introduction of stiff cradleboards. It was further found that there were actually multiple kinds of such deformation, of possible significance in delineating different cultural groups. Reed says:

The very significant distinction between lambdoid and vertical occipital cranial deformation was brought out only in 1937, by T. D. Stewart, followed up by my 1949 paper; but was foreshadowed by Richard Wetherill who stated [...] “that there is a difference in the mode of flattening the head. In the skulls of the mesa dwellers the artificial depression of the posterior part of the cranium has been applied obliquely from above, so that it principally affects the parieto-occipital region; the skulls from the cliff-dwellings have been flattened straight from behind, the occipital region being most affected.”

The distinction between the Basketmakers and cliff-dwellers on stratigraphic grounds was an important discovery, and while it was the sort of thing that many professional archaeologists would likely have noticed at the time, it’s not something a typical pot-hunter would have cared much about. Wetherill, however, not only noticed it but drew some reasonable if ultimately erroneous inferences about population history from it. He also noticed some subtle differences in skull form and attributed them to different types of cranial deformation, which was later found to be quite correct (although note that he doesn’t seem to have considered that this might have been the reason for the differences between Basketmaker and later skulls as well). Wetherill was a problematic guy in a lot of ways, as my previous posts have noted, but when it comes to archaeological methodology and inference he was definitely at the forefront of the archaeological thought of his time, if not in fact ahead of it.
ResearchBlogging.org
Browman, David L., & Givens, Douglas R. (1996). Stratigraphic Excavation: The First “New Archaeology” American Anthropologist, 98 (1), 80-95 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.1.02a00080

Reed, Erik K. (1963). The Beginnings of Physical Anthropology in the Southwest Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, 2 (3), 130-132 DOI: 10.2307/27641802

Snead, James E. (1999). Science, Commerce, and Control: Patronage and the Development of Anthropological Archaeology in the Americas American Anthropologist, 101 (2), 256-271 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1999.101.2.256

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Linguistics Building, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Sorry for the extended hiatus; I’ve been busy with various things. I’ll have more on the Mississippians at some point, but for now I want to  discuss a more general issue: the relationship of historical linguistics to archaeology in attempting to reconstruct past events. Both disciplines provide ways to study past events beyond the reach of historical scholarship in the traditional sense, which is based on written documentation. (I would argue that in many cases oral tradition provides an additional line of evidence, similar to written history in many ways, useful for understanding the prehistoric past, but that is a controversial position and I’m not going to defend it in detail right now.) What makes linguistics and archaeology particularly powerful is that they are independent lines of evidence, which means that tentative conclusions drawn from one can be compared to the evidence from the other to see how well they coincide. This provides a much more robust and reliable reconstruction of past events than would be possible based on either line of evidence alone.

And yet, despite the potential interpretive power to be gained from using linguistics and archaeology in tandem, this integration is rare, and both linguists and archaeologists have a tendency to ignore each other’s work most of the time and, when they do acknowledge it, to use it in a very uncritical and superficial manner that doesn’t come close to unlocking the full power of real integration. Back in 1976 the journal World Archaeology published a theme issue with several papers exploring the potential for integrating linguistics and archaeology, and it’s a sign of how little this integration has progressed that some of these papers are still useful summaries of the issues and the state of research.

The introductory paper in the issue, and the one I will primarily focus on in this post, is by Christopher Ehret of UCLA, and it provides a general overview of the types of historical inferences that can come from historical linguistic research. He notes that most research up to that time had been oriented toward just one of these types: those inferences that can come from evidence of genetic relationship between languages, which is to say, the knowledge that a given group of languages descends from a single “proto-language” presumably spoken by a single socio-cultural group at some point in the past. These are certainly useful, in a general way, but there are real limits to how much can be learned just from knowing which languages are related in a given region. Looking at the reconstructible vocabulary of the proto-language can give some important information about the culture that spoke that language that can, at least in theory, be correlated with archaeological evidence to pinpoint which archaeological “culture” corresponds to the speakers of that proto-language. Two other papers in this issue address different aspects of this kind of research in different context and with different language families: Robert Blust’s paper on Proto-Austronesian shows how information gained in this way can supplement the archaeological record by providing evidence for the presence of certain items of material culture and social institutions that are not recoverable by archaeology because of their perishable or intangible nature, while J. P. Mallory’s survey of research along these lines on Proto-Indo-European mostly points out the difficulty of attributing cultural items for which there are reconstructible words to a single culture when the proto-language being reconstructed may not actually represent a single language or its speech community.

Moving beyond these issues, however, Ehret points out that there is more to historical linguistics than determining which languages are related and what words can be reconstructed for various proto-languages. A potentially much more productive line of evidence for culture history, and yet one that has seen remarkably little research, is loanword studies. Languages may adopt words from other languages for a variety of reasons, many of them quite important for understanding political and economic relationships between societies at various points in the past. Furthermore, loanwords are often (though not always) easy to identify either in currently spoken languages or in the reconstructed proto-languages from which they descend. Ehret gives various examples from his own research in Africa to illustrate how loanword studies can give substantial insights into cultural relationships and history.

It’s important to note, however, that while most of what Ehret says in this paper about general methodology is unexceptionable, his own conclusions about African prehistory are quite controversial and one of his faculty pages at UCLA even has this remarkable paragraph:

His linguistic works include A Comparative Reconstruction of Proto-Nilo-Saharan (2002), Reconstructing Proto-Afroasiatic (1995), and The Historical Reconstruction of Southern Cushitic Phonology and Vocabulary (1980). He has also written monographic articles on Bantu subclassification, on internal reconstruction in Semitic, on the reconstruction of proto-Cushitic and proto-Eastern Cushitic, and, with Mohamed Nuuh Ali, on the classification of the Soomaali languages. These reconstructions have not been well received, and are not followed by other linguists.

Evidence for the controversy engendered by Ehret’s interpretations comes in the very same special issue for which he wrote this introductory paper. One of the other papers, by the archaeologist D. W. Phillipson, addresses the Bantu language family and the potential for both linguistics and archaeology to shed light on the issue of when and how Bantu-speakers spread across much of southern and eastern Africa. Phillipson notes Ehret’s interpretations but disputes them in detail on various points. This is obviously a one-sided account, but Phillipson’s arguments seem pretty strong to me. I don’t know much about this issue, of course, and it’s quite likely that research has progressed a bit since 1976 in any case, so I’m not going to draw any conclusions about who was more right.

Africa is actually an interesting case here because it seems that historical linguistics has played a much bigger role here than elsewhere in developing hypotheses about prehistory (probably due at least in part to Ehret’s work). This is in contrast to the Americas, where linguistics and archaeology have mostly operated separately and the latter has been more dominant in developing historical hypotheses. I think the African model offers a potentially productive route for Americanists to take in trying to come up with more detailed reconstructions of culture history, although the many controversies over the proper interpretation of African prehistory show that this more integrated approach is by no means a cure-all.

I’ll have more on the potential implications of all this for North America later. For now I just want to introduce the topic.

ResearchBlogging.org
Blust, R. (1976). Austronesian culture history: Some linguistic inferences and their relations to the archaeological record
World Archaeology, 8 (1), 19-43 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979650

Ehret, C. (1976). Linguistic evidence and its correlation with archaeology World Archaeology, 8 (1), 5-18 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979649

Mallory, J. (1976). Time perspective and proto‐indo‐European culture World Archaeology, 8 (1), 44-56 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979651

Phillipson, D. (1976). Archaeology and Bantu linguistics World Archaeology, 8 (1), 65-82 DOI: 10.1080/00438243.1976.9979653

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