Monday, 24 September 2012

Literary and Cultural Evidence of Indo-European Pastoralism

One of the things that annoys me about the non-steppe origin hypotheses for Indo-European is that they fail to explain some of the most basic data of all.  The Anatolian hypothesis fails to explain the eastern Indo-European languages - Indo-Iranian and Tocharian - and it focuses unduly on Europe, as if the only expansion of IE occurred in Europe.  The out-of-India hypothesis fails to explain any of the data, except the presence of IE languages in India (a steppe origin explains this equally well, of course).  But perhaps the most obvious failing is that Indo-European cultural traditions are fairly constant, and the non-steppe hypotheses make no sense of them.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Leach, Pareto, Machiavelli, Carbo

If you've ever studied marriage alliance or southeast Asia, you've almost certainly come across Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma.  Here I'm going to look a little - only a little - at Leach's central theory about Kachin social structure, tying it to earlier (much earlier) precedents.  There's actually considerably more in the book than the disequilibrium theory, but that is what I am interested in here.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Theory in Anthropology

Studying anthropology at university, you learn a lot of fairly useless stuff.  If what you want to do is a fairly old-fashioned study of village life and marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia, or a dig at the site of a pre-Columbian Ecuadorian kingdom, you've got to learn about - and pass exams on - 'social theory', or the thinking of continental philosophers about human society.  This is usually called, simply, 'theory'.*  It can be important to know about the philosophical aspects of investigating societies, but for most of the work anthropologists do, this 'theory' stuff is basically useless.  Maybe even worse than useless.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Lost Cities of Amazonia, The Black Soil, and Google Earth

I have recently begun reading David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a popular and critically-acclaimed book about the English explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who went missing in the Mato Grosso*, Brazil, in 1925.  Fawcett was on an expedition to locate 'Z', an alleged pre-Columbian city in the jungle.  The expedition was famous, Fawcett became a celebrity, and his disappearance spurred a number of people to go looking for him, all of whom disappeared, died, or otherwise failed.  The number dead as a result of Fawcett's disappearance may be as high as a hundred.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Why the Anatolian hypothesis is wrong

There is a breakdown on John Hawks' blog of a recent paper in Science about the Indo-European expansion.  Using a method derived from epidemiology, the authors reached the conclusion that Proto-Indo-European was spoken in Anatolia.  This is the Anatolian hypothesis, that Indo-European languages spread after agriculture was introduced to what is now Turkey, with the expansion dating to some point in the last 10,000 years, perhaps around 6000 BCE.  The method used in the paper is based on a statistical analysis of cognate terms in Indo-European languages, which is not a usual method in historical linguistics.  Linguists have experimented with statistical methods in the past, and they have rejected most of them in favour of rigorous analysis of languages.  Unless the sample is chosen judiciously, statistical methods are useless.  And it's important to remember that historical linguists and archaeologists have other methods, methods with a proven utility.

Sunday, 2 September 2012


Terms like 'Iron Age', 'Bronze Age', and 'Neolithic' are common in popular accounts of the history of humankind.  The idea of different 'ages' of humankind is a very old one; Hesiod, the 8th century BCE Boeotian poet, used it in Theogony, and the idea of a 'Golden Age' is actually a direct inheritance from him.  It's also an idea found in Popol Wuj*, the K'iche' Maya creation myth, in which the gods created different generations of humans from mud and wood before settling on the final form.  But in archaeology, the ages we're all familiar with go back to the first rigorous formulation of the discipline in early nineteenth century Denmark, when items found in graves were placed in a rough chronology based on the dominant materials used in their creation.