Genes, languages, and archaeology

John Hawks has a new blog entry entitled ‘Gene-culture models and reductionism‘, which is a thoughtful response to a 2004 letter in American Anthropologist. The letter adopts a highly skeptical view towards the possibility that genetic information can tell us much about prehistoric population history and specifically that it can tell us much about cultural and linguistic prehistory. Hawks, in contrast, takes a more moderate view that leaves open the possibility that we can use genetic, linguistic, and archaeological evidence in tandem, while acknowledging that naively using one as a proxy for the other two is a serious error. Read it, then come back here. It’s short, and I’ll wait.

This is a subject of some interest to me, as a historically and prehistorically-minded linguistic anthropologist (or a linguistically-minded archaeological anthropologist, I don’t care which). The late Bruce Trigger and I published a chapter in 2004 (perhaps we could have found a better venue for it) in which we talk about the naive ways in which Iroquoian studies have used archaeological evidence to attribute ethnic identification (esp. ‘Iroquoian’ vs. ‘Algonkian’) to sites, and linked this problematic issue to broader problems in the use of archaeology to reconstruct language and ethnicity (Chrisomalis and Trigger 2004). The AA letter rightly points out that identifications of tribes or fixed social structures that correlate with genetic populations – or, unmentioned, languages – is problematic, and the notion that any of these must correspond with overarching ethnic identities is doubly problematic, as Barth (1969) argued persuasively decades ago. And yet …

It has long been recognized (since the 19th century at least) that language families are organized phylogenetically and that biological taxa are phylogenetic. This is partly a reflection of reality, and partly a reflection of the mutual reinforcement of phylogenetic models in linguistics and biology through academic interdisciplinary discourse over the past couple hundred years. But the problem noted by Hawks (and which no one interested in the subject can ignore) is that biological transmission (excepting some viruses) is vertical – you get all your genetic material from your parents alone – whereas cultural and linguistic transmission is both vertical and horizontal – that is, you get a lot of your culture from non-kin, including people who may not be part of your ‘tribe’. This is the sort of work that people like Steve Shennan (2002) are doing, and while I am not always convinced by the answers he reaches (particularly, I remain unconvinced that vertical, parent-child linguistic and cultural transmission is as important as he thinks it is), the research deserves more attention than it is getting.

On Tuesday, I am introducing my class to this subject through Colin Renfrew’s (2000) paper ‘At the edge of knowability: towards a prehistory of languages’. Again, I’m not always in agreement with Renfrew (I’m more of a skeptic than he is), but I’m thrilled that people are asking these questions. As social scientists and humanists, linguists and archaeologists need to forcefully assert the relevance of their data, and not let themselves be run roughshod by geneticists who treat their apex of the triad as the cornerstone of all knowledge in the field. One of my hopes for this blog, and for my research in general, is to be able to contribute to ongoing discussions on this issue. This post is, at best, a preliminary introduction to a topic which I suspect you will see here very often in the months (dare I hope for years?) to come.

Works cited

Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries. Boston: Little, Brown.
Chrisomalis, S. and B.G. Trigger. 2004. Reconstructing prehistoric ethnicity: problems and possibilities. In In J. V. Wight and J.-L. Pilon (eds), A Passion for the Past: Papers in Honour of James F. Pendergast, pp. 419-433. Mercury Series, Paper No 164. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
Renfrew, C. 2000. At the Edge of Knowability: Towards a Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(1): 7-34.
Shennan, S. 2002. Genes, memes and human history: Darwinian archaeology and cultural evolution. London: Thames & Hudson.
Wildcat, D., I. Sumi and V. Deloria Jr. 2004. Commentary: A Response to Doug Jones. American Anthropologist 106, no. 3: 641.


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