Friday, January 21, 2011

Archaeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins

Book Review: Archaeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins
by Colin Renfrew (Cambridge University Press 1987)

This was an interesting book by a renowned archaeologist. However, in this book his main hypothesis is considered controversial and is not accepted by most scholars but may be partially accepted by a minority. He surveys all the main arguments regarding Indo-European origins and language developments and criticizes them in various ways. For the whole first part of the book one gets the impression that the book is mainly a critique of
methods and arguments in both archaeology and linguistics. He criticizes both techniques and conclusions and does point out some circular arguments.

The most accepted conclusions of Indo-European history and development place the original Proto-Indo-Europeans somewhere on the steppes of Southern Russia from which they migrated west and southeast in a series of migrations beginning around 4500 BCE and by the process of elite dominance (military takeover)-  in this case due to superior warfare abilities attributable to horse and chariot warfare developed as a result of the demands of a life a nomadic pastoralism – were able to subdue indigenous populations thereby spreading the language. Renfrew does point out some interesting counter-arguments to this generally accepted hypothesis.

Professor Renfrew’s Hypothesis A, as he calls it, is quite different. He traces the commonly accepted spread of farming from Anatolia around 6500 BC across the Aegean Sea to Greece in 6000 BC and from there across Western Europe to Ireland and Scotland by about 4000 BC. Also a possibility is that farming spread eastward to Baluchistan just west of the Indus Valley culture areas as similar grain farming evidence has definitely been found there in Mehrgar dated to 6000 BC. Actually, based on modern distributions of domesticated einkorn and barley one might put the origin of grain farming as a larger area including Anatolia, Syria and the Levant, and stretching well into Iran perhaps all the way to Baluchistan. In any case, the early crops involved in the Neolithic farming revolution in the Near East and Europe were emmer wheat, einkorn, and six-row barley. Renfrew’s Hypothesis A involves early Proto-Indo-European language spreading along with farming. The mechanism given for population spreading via farming has to do with succeeding generations moving out just a little in order to farm new land. The establishment of agriculture led to more static population and also to a vast increase in population (according to theory) since a smaller amount of land can sustain way more people than in hunting and gathering societies. This wave-model is given as the most likely for the spreading of population in the Neolithic due to agriculture. Renfrew gives many arguments against mass migrationist theories popular in past archaeological circles and he says now rejected by most archaeologists. The elite-dominance model of one culture dominating another through warfare is applicable he says in some situations but again he suggests that this mechanism has been over-used in past archeological analyses to account for culture and language dispersals. Things like the appearance of new pottery styles and even burial types were once thought exclusively to be explainable by migration of new cultures into an area usually by warfare. However, the explanations now more favorable among scholars have more to do with one culture learning a new pottery or art style from another. Burial types are more debatable. The transference of pottery, art, and artifact styles may have had more to do with stature in societies becoming more and more socially stratified. As so-called nobles were buried with these artifacts, this may tie in with burial styles as well.

Renfrew favors a different type of approach to past peoples, what he calls the processual approach which concentrates on the processes taking place at the time perhaps with less definite assumptions being made about movements of people and new cultures dominating old cultures. He seems to favor that the Indo-Aryans and their languages may have been more indigenous to India at least in Indus Valley Culture times. Most scholars seem to think that Proto-Indo-European as a language was developed between 4500 sand 2500 BC and spread along with nomad pastoralist warrior bands from the Southern Russian steppes to Western Europe, Iran, and India through several different waves as proposed in the Kurgan invasions depicted by Marija Gimbutas. The continuity of culture from Mehrgar (6000 BC) to Indus Valley (3100-1900 BC) to historical India is one apparent argument he gives for the possibility of Neolithic Aryan culture. One weak point in this argument is the lack of Indo-European loan words in Sumerian and other Mesopotamian languages.

He gives the basic argument of what he calls Hypothesis B – where mounted nomads of the steppe invade. He concedes that this may have happen but says that Indo-European languages may have already been spoken in several of the areas invaded. Regarding the development of nomad pastoralism he notes that this type of economy developed among people who also traded with agriculturists and likely farmed some as well. He suggests that the earliest pastoralists came from the peoples of Eastern Europe just west of the Russian steppes bringing some of the domesticated livestock with them. So the pastoralists would have migrated initially from west to east. He notes several stages in the domestication of the horse: first used as pack animals which increases mobility of the population; next came wheeled carts which further increased mobility; development of the war chariot (1800-1600 BC); horse riding and military horsemanship (common from 1200 BC but earlier near steppes to 2000 BC suggested.) The development of the bit made horse riding much more common. Later around 400 AD in China, the development of the stirrup made warfare on horseback much more powerful as warriors could stay on their horses much easier. The main argument of Hypothesis B is that with the advent of chariotry and mounted warfare an elite dominance can be effected which would result in cultural and language displacement. Renfrew thinks that the languages of the Cucuteni and Tripolye  cultures in the Eastern Balkans was already Indo-European before the nomadic-pastoralists presumably split off from them eastward to the Ukrainian-Russian steppes. This is not at all an unreasonable assumption. The appearance to the present day of non-Indo European languages in the Caucasus region suggests a barrier there to language development and so to any migration through that region. The Andronovo culture of the Iranian steppes also seems to have stepped out from Neolithic farming communities but now with nomadic pastoralist features. Anyway, basically Renfrew’s Hypothesis A is not entirely at odds with the more acceptable Hypothesis B as one may easily combine the two. However, he does assume that the PIE language spread initially with farming much earlier and only later with the elite dominance of warrior-nomads.

He gives a short chapter about Indo-European mythology which is basically a critique and refutation of mythic similarities well noticed among different IE cultures such as Dumezil’s tripartite social structure. Here I think he gives weak arguments as he suggests that these similarities are just natural divisions of societies in general and that many of these can be discounted. After reading Dumezil and some others I would have to disagree strongly with that assessment. The similarities are just too uncanny and to exact in detail to be coincidental, not to mention the linguistic similarities. According to Renfrew the separation of say Celts and the Indo-Aryans would have been for way longer than the other models and so similarities in myth and social functions should theoretically be less apparent and that may not be what we see. However, it is possible that some migrations came later bringing the mythic components and the initial language structures were already there. However, if one notes something like the Irish kingship horse sacrifice similarities to the Vedic horse sacrifice – one would assume something like that would have had to have been with the common ancestor to both cultures well after 6000 BC and likely after 4000 BC – so much favors later migrations of both peoples and mythic components in my opinion.

The book as a whole was worth reading and does point out several problems in methodology in both linguistic and archeological studies. The early history of farming I found to be interesting and I can’t help but think that the early language dispersal associated with it could have been PIE or at least have something preserved about it in later languages. More may be discovered in the future about languages to shed light on these issues. The Hittite and other IE Anatolian languages may hold clues. Deciphering the Indus Valley script – as IE, proto-Elamite, or Dravidian would help. A better idea and decipherment of the early Mycenean languages would also perhaps be helpful. More archeological discovery in India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Russia may help too. He gives a long chapter about the Celts and their development as a series of tribes, as associated with art styles and cultures – Urnfield,  Hallstat, and La Tene. He notes that an ethnicity, an art style, a cultural style, and language may or may not be the same and may overlap in various ways as to be difficult to define. Celtic art style, he says represents a major style of a fairly good-sized part of Western Europe. Certainly though there was travel and trade, long-distance trade as well especially through sea routes that may have influenced language and perhaps ideas and mythic notions more than current scholarship allows. Perhaps as he suggests the stratifications of society and even mythic structures passed from peoples to other peoples more so than just from within the tribe or ethnicity. So much is unknown but the early history of myth and various mythic ideas seems worth pursuing. Renfrew’s ideas are not easily acceptable but certainly are worth perusing.

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