Saturday, June 16, 2018

Peopling of the Americas

I get it that few or none of you are all that interested in this, but I ran across this interesting historical linguistic theory from 20 years ago by Johanna Nichols and thought I would put it forward. Nichols suggests connections among languages in the Old World and the New World on the basis of deep structure.  She examines families of languages for how they mark possessives, their typical word-order (SVO, VSO, etc), and the initial consonants for pronouns. She sees a Pacific Rim Necklace of language relationships, which is quite different than what most linguists see. The standard explanation is that there is no demonstrable connection between the two sides of the Pacific, other than Eskimo-Aleuts, the last arrivals. I understand that there is some minority acceptance for a connection between Ket in Siberia and Na-Dene (Navajo, Hopi) languages in the Americas.

Nichols also believes there has not been enough time for a single language to differentiate enough to create all the remaining New World languages, and believes that humans must have arrived much earlier than Clovis*, or that there were multiple waves of settlement of peoples already speaking different languages.  The possibilities keep narrowing because of the periods of glaciation. There are eras when movement is much less possible.

Both of these are intriguing because of the genetic connections we can now trace. There is an "impossible" genetic pattern deep in the Amazon. There is only an overlap of a few percent, but some Amazonian groups have a connection to genetic patterns in the Andaman Islands, which are between India and Burma, to save you looking it up. Tribes moving from island to island is not unknown, especially if the next island is actually visible at times. Yet in the case of moving east from South Asia, you can only get as far as the Solomon Islands that way, even allowing for the ocean being 300 feet lower.  If you know the islands are there out as far at Pitcairn, skilled navigators, such as those who peopled the Pacific thousands of years later, can make it.  That still leaves over a thousand miles of open ocean before you land on what is now Chile. (At least South America is hard to miss at that point.) Plus, it's not good enough to just wash up on shore after a freak storm.  To start a colony you need at least a dozen people, and fifty is a better low estimate.  So that's not really possible.  OTOH, leaving no trace in North America on your way to the Amazon by curling up along the Aleutian glacial coasts doesn't work either. Not to mention why a seafaring people would take it into their heads to cross the Andes.  No sensible explanation is available, and yet there it is.

I do have a possible explanation for that linguistic clock in the New World, however.  Nichols's estimate is based on language differentiation in populated areas.  In Eurasia and Africa, if you were moving, you kept bumping up against other people. That would keep groups of similar language together longer.  Yes, things can get pretty diverse over time in mountainous areas such as the Caucasus, where everyone settles in a different upper valley. Yet the connections can still be discovered by linguists. But in the New World, people could spread out quickly and lose contact with each other.  Isolated languages change more rapidly.  I think Nichols's clock runs too slowly for that reason.

*I think there is growing support for pre-Clovis, though not at the depth she describes. Monte Verde seems to have earned support from even hardcore Clovis believers, but that is only a couple of thousand years earlier. There is even a hint that discovered human fires and tools date back 32,000 years ago.  A lot can go wrong in that sort of isolated find, but at least it's out there.

Update:  Better analogy. It is as if a few pieces of broken bottle were unearthed far up the Amazon, and were found to be not only of a type of bottle from the Andaman Islands, but a matched fit for shards of a bottle that was broken there. People would not only wonder at the impossibility, they would wonder where the other pieces of the bottle might be found.


RichardJohnson said...

When I was working in Venezuela, I purchased a book written by a Venezuelan of Italian origin (There were quite a few Venezuelans of Italian origin, at the time.Venezuela used to attract immigrants.). The author, Natalia Rosa de Taraffi, postulated that the Etruscans came from the Andes. There were, she claimed, some similarities between the Estruscan and Quecha languages. IIRC, both had a similar root for "hand" --"maq."
Mysteries of the first language.

Natalia Rossi de Tariffi, to this day we consider this Philological investigation the most expertised, deep and coherent, with respect to locating the mysterious cradle of the Etruscans in her work published in 1969, 'America cuarta dimension, los etruscos salieron de los Andes' ( America fourth dimension, the Etruscans left from the Andes').

I no longer have the book, and Amazon doesn't have it either, so this comment is merely report on speculation. IIRC, Rossi de Taraffi was a philologist/linguist.

Texan99 said...

They needn't have crossed the South Atlantic, need they? Both the Amazonians and the Andragans could be common survivors of a now-extinct group from somewhere in middle-east Asia. The southern branch ended up in Australia and the Andragan islands while the northern branch crossed the Beringian.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In both cases above, one would expect some trace in between somewhere. Especially now that we have genetic samples as well as languages to compare, there would have to be some similar mix, even if it were only a few percent, at many points in between. Often there is some connection between nearby groups, but in this case the shared parts at a distance are not the same as the shared parts nearby. The amazonians don't share this quirky section with anyone else in the New World, though they share other things with Brazilians. They don't share much with any North Americans. They're the only ones who have it. The Andaman Islanders share genetic material with those the Indians and Burmese around them, but this bit isn't in those other countries. This suggests that it goes way back in time, and is unrelated to the known migrations.

It might be possible that the second wave of Beringians (which we have been think of as the first) completely wiped out the first, leaving no trace except for those stragglers over the Andes. Still, there is usually at least some capture of women and intermixing in those situations though, somewhere along the thousands of miles of coastline.

Texan99 said...

Weird. Well, that just leaves alien intervention!

Texan99 said...

I'm enjoying the lecture, but the host is making me nuts, not just interrupting with off-the-point questions, but keeping up a constant nervous laughter and skeptical "yeah-yeah-but" noises that sound like a demurral, in the face of a lot of threatening and unwelcome ideas. I'm not convinced he's listening. He seems to be engaging in the style of conversation we're often warned against, where your entire concentration is focused on getting a chance to break in and move the topic closer to your own preoccupations.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As his title is "Future Strategist," I think he is used to dealing with weirder stuff and has only a pass-by knowledge of the topic. He does seem to pick it up as he goes, but not entirely.

As to alien invasion, that has been suggested laughingly in Greg's comment section enough that I think people are nervous that they have non better explanation.

I have a better analogy than the one I used and will update the OP

Texan99 said...

There's also time travel or wormholes. But I imagine some clever soul will untangle it eventually. Anyway, sometimes a whole origin population might actually disappear without a trace in a region, especially if our sampling mechanisms are still a little rudimentary. These are fuzzy indicators.

I finished the podcast last night. Great stuff, but the host kept bothering me. The guest kept presenting him with fascinating little paradoxes and expecting him to say, "Wow, that's odd. I wonder . . . ?" But he almost never quite got that reaction. The host also really liked to talk about the cognitive errors that lie in wishful thinking, but the host just wasn't going there. I suppose I'll have to run down the host's books or lectures and listen without the filter.

Tom Bridgeland said...

I believe I have read that isolated languages change more slowly, not more quickly. Thus Appalachian rural folk speak an English more similar to 1700s British than do modern day Brits.

But that's neither here nor there with the Native Americans. 15,000 years is plenty of time for widely diverged languages. PIE split apart 4000+ years ago and English and Hindi are pretty different.

Texan99 said...

I wonder if the mechanism could be that isolated languages change more slowly, but two isolated languages in--say--neighboring valleys still diverge from each other more quickly than the languages of two populations living near each other and in constant contact? In the second case, the change would be faster, but it would happen more in tandem, so they ended up more like each other and less like the ancestral tongue.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Isolated languages change more quickly, because staying in contact with others for trade or religious festival is a natural brake on changes. As to Appalachia, the belief that it is more similar to 17th C English than other forms persists because we just don't notice the Elizabethan forms that are in Standard English but dropped out of the many dialects - we just think of them as "English." The mountain forms jump out at us as odd, but it's not any closer. There are words like "poke" for sack, or "sallet" for salad, but other dialects can boast similar holdovers. I suspect the big one that gets people thinking that it's more preserved is the a- form, as in "He came a-runnin'" or "He'll go a-begging." There is also "young'un."

The Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots were a large part of the Appalachia founding, and the English Borderers from Yorkshire were the rest. It is less well known that they also were the primary settlers of the Merrimack Valley in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and much of Maine.

Tom Bridgeland said...

Okay, I may be confusing 'change' with 'diverge'. As in, isolated languages diverge more quickly, but languages in contact with other related languages change more quickly, while diverging less. Not sure if either is true, but it makes sense to me.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, they diverge. Exactly. The Caucusus has wildly divergent languages.