Tuesday, July 14, 2015


Without any linguistics archaeology has no legs


This book is fundamental though definitely already very old. The last twelve years in archaeology have been crucial in phenomenal advances thanks to DNA essentially since now the human genome and the genome of any DNA-carrying living organism is cheap and can be done in hours, and in ten years it will be in minutes. DNA has completely changed our way of working and thinking. Steven Mithen gives one example page 496-497 in which DNA proved that the domestication of cattle happened first in the eastern Sahara, two thousand years (9,000 BC) before what was considered as standard, viz. that it happened in the Middle East (7,000-7,500 BC) and spread from there to Europe and to northern Africa. Wrong. DNA proves that cattle evolved separately in northern Africa and in the Middle East and this separate evolution has been a fact for more than 20,000 years, hence at least 9,000 years before its domestication in northern Africa and 11,000 years before its similar domestication in the Middle East. But the two branches were separate at the time and had been for nine or eleven thousand years.

Strangely enough he does not enter the debate that was raging at the time with the publication in 2001 of Sykes’s The Seven Daughters of Eve in which the author proved with DNA that Europeans are about 75% old European (meaning from a migration before the Ice Age) and only about 25% new European (meaning from a migration – Indo-European – after the Ice Age). That means agriculture and the domestication of cattle, sheep and other animals that supposedly came from the Middle East was not brought by a massive invasion of Indo-Europeans but by some demo-economic spreading essentially through commerce and “cultural” influence. This “cultural” influence was so important that Indo-European languages conquered the whole continent. This means this book is already out of date on such issues. We cannot cut the period before the Ice Age from the period after the Ice Age.

In the same way he does not integrate the research of Joseph Greenberg on the common origin of all languages in Africa, though he quotes two of his studies on Amerindian languages. That prevents him from asking the fundamental question: how did Homo Sapiens migrate out of Africa – and also in Africa – and when. This question is fundamental because it brings in the question of language, or rather the phylogeny of language and the three vast families of human languages. One origin, three main migrations and three main families based on the phylogeny of language itself developing three successive articulations. Steven Mithen is not a linguist and that shows at every page. More about it in a minute.

It is here necessary to speak of the time line of all the events he follows. There is the time line of his book. He ends with Africa though Homo Sapiens originated in Africa. He limits his period to after the Ice Age, hence from 20,000 BC to about 5,000 BC. The vast voyage around the world is thus unrealistic because it does not follow the various migrations of Homo Sapiens in and out of Africa. The order of this voyage is thus arbitrary and extremely subjective. The impression is that after all it all started in the Middle East. That is the structure of the book. But that is not what he says at the end. We have 500 pages starting from the Middle East and moving around in the world in no logical and historical order to end up with Africa which should have been the starting point and we end with one paragraph that says every region in the world had its own evolution after the Ice Age, and due to the climate change of the time, the warming up that he states, every zone came up to the same evolution inventing agriculture from what was available locally and animal domestication from what was available locally. That paragraph may sound right but the structure of the book is wrong.

What’s more the fictionalized approach with his fictional though real character, the Victorian archaeologist John Lubbock, misses up everything. It makes the book easy to read in a way and yet it loses us in a maze of a labyrinth. There is no time line of each region and of the whole planet so that we have to take notes or to have a tremendous memory to build the time line all by ourselves. That is bad and surprisingly too when we look at the enormous corpus of notes, the extensive bibliography and the substantial index. That goes against the very intention of the author to provide us with some objective approach wrapped up in an easy to read package. I am not going to provide you with that time line. At the end there is one paragraph that gives us a skeleton of such a time line. That is not enough.

But the main short coming at that level is that altogether the author is on the line of the most than infamous Neolithic agricultural revolution. He modernizes the approach by showing it happened separately in every zone but he wants it to be the same pattern everywhere. And yet he has to recognize at the end that there can be some variations in the pattern: agriculture first or animal husbandry first, permanent urban architecture as the result of this “revolution” or before. He does not see that there is a problem with a theory that says the cause can be the effect and the effect can be the cause. In fact we do not have a “Neolithic revolution” of any sort. Sally McBrearty who he does not quote has proved it. There is, on this point he must be right, a human evolution that takes place all over the world after the Ice Age because of the phenomenal climatic change that occurs then over something like 20,000 years, at the very least 15,000 years if we do not go beyond 5,000 BC. We are speaking here of 500 to 666 generations. There is not the slightest possibility for this evolution to take place if one thing is not stated and available: communication. And there is no communication without language. Back to the question I have already come to.

Steven Mithen is not a linguist. That is not a crime. But he cannot understand the full history of Homo Sapiens from its emergence something like 250,000-300,000 years ago if he does not take into account this dimension. He speaks once of the “mind” of Homo Sapiens. At the end again. But what does this mind mean? He does not answer the question. He does not ask the question. This mind is a virtual construct of man’s brain’s capabilities and functioning. This is the result of a simple connection of mutations that were brought in Homo Sapiens by the necessity to become a bipedal fast long distance runner to survive in the savanna: lowering of the larynx that became the breathing pump; innervation  of the global laryngeal, glottal and mouth articulatory system that is the mechanics of that breathing pump; and the development of the Broca zone as the coordinator of all the functions that have to be coordinated if Homo Sapiens wants to be able to run long distance on his two feet in upright position. These mutations developed what will enable him to multiply his linguistic capabilities by increasing the number of vowels, multiplying the number of consonants and then developing the rotation of vowels and consonants to produce so many calls that this first articulation had to bring the mind of Homo Sapiens to a higher linguistic level.

But here again Steven Mithen misses one point that he does not specify, though he may have it in his mind here and there. That’s what we could call the inventiveness of Homo Sapiens. Good word indeed but what does it cover? Man like any animal with eyes and senses (five in the western style or six in the Buddhist and Asian style?) has sensations that are processed by the brain into perceptions that are identified or recognized by the brain with the help of what has already been registered in the mind. Any animal has that level of mental activity. Man has one more thing that even superior Hominids or even other Hominins do not or did not have: language. Maybe at first nothing but calls but these calls are systematically attached to some referents. That referential dimension is possible because man has the possibility to produce hundreds of such calls with rotating vowels and consonants. Man is the only animal that can name things and by naming things man develops a further dimension. He can experiment on things, speculate on these experiments and he can come to conceptualization in several stages as Vygotsky has proved and Piaget confirmed. Without that chain of mental construction only possible because of language that develops the mind in the same way as the mind in its development develops this language, a chain that can be summarize in six words: sense-perceive-name-experiment-speculate-conceptualize, Homo Sapiens would not have been able to live through the Ice Age and before he would not have been able to migrate to the whole world and reach Crete from northern Africa 130,000 years ago.


Steven Mithen is led by this ignorance to assume the tremendous selection of species that enabled agriculture was nothing but an accident. It was not. It was the experimenting of sowing seeds on the basis of the observation, speculation and experimentation of many generations that Homo Sapiens understood that planting the seeds would lead to growing the plants and it is this process of growing the plants, of mixing some seeds from various wild species that looked alike but where not that produced an evolution which was not in one step or even in two but took many generations to happen. Steven Mithen, at the end again, alludes to genetic manipulation and he is right but does not exploit it in the book. Did they know what they were doing? Certainly not but they knew that their experimentation was producing something good (if not it was abandoned) and they probably devised a supernatural explanation to it. Steven Mithen seems to forget that the one who possesses knowledge is supposed to be a priest of some type that we, Westerners, call a witch-doctor or even a wizard, why not a sorcerer. He is the Rsi of Indo-European culture. The one who has the knowledge of the community and who knows how to speak to the supernatural forces that will bring a good end to a procedure that is strictly defined, as Paul Radin showed a long time ago. Apparently the Gravettians of Central Europe 10,000 years before the Peak of the Ice Age had already tamed some wolves into some kind of dogs. By limiting his work to after the Ice Age, Steven Mithen sterilizes Homo Sapiens of the long evolution of before, the more than 250,000 year long evolution. Then we have a sudden change after the Ice Age. The climatic explanation is easy but only circumstantial. There is no proof in the book that the two are really connected and the difficulties Homo Sapiens meets then call for the very same qualities Homo Sapiens must have had to go through the long Ice Age, the long migrations before, etc.

But I want to take one example of how the non-consideration of languages can lead to a blind alley. He states as we have seen that the domestication of cattle happened around 9,000 BC in Northern  Africa and only around 7,000 BC in Asia Minor. But he then states (p. 502) that the domestication of goats, sheep and cereals, plus spinning and weaving originated in Asia Minor (as for Europe, northern Africa and south Asia) around 7,000 BC and was thriving in Europe or south Asia by 5,000 BC. But it only reached Egypt around 3,500 BC. If he took into consideration the linguistic groups in Asia Minor he would have understood. Asia Minor or rather the Iranian plateau is the nursery of the Indo-European and Indo-Aryan linguistic family. They emigrated from there to Europe and to south Asia taking agriculture and animal husbandry along with them (more or less because there were relays in both cases). Note the Indo-Europeans are more a demo-cultural migration than a purely demographic migration. He wonders what blocked the transfer of this know-how to Egypt. Egypt speaks a Semitic language at the time. The Semitic people moved into the Levant when they moved to northern Africa some 150,000 years BC but moved out of it around 80,000 BC to moved back to it in 35,000 BC. During that time the agglutinative migration had taken place and occupied Asia Minor, mixed with Neanderthals there and among other movements moved to Europe some 50,000 years BC. The Semitic people coming back could only be second comers then and later with the Indo-Europeans arriving and among others the Sumerians, the Semitic groups could only be accepted on the side like scribes for the Sumerians or like slaves like the Hebrews in Babylon after a long history of incessant warfare. This explains that. The Semitic people resisted the inventions of the non Semitic, and the Semitic were in secondary positions with the exception of the Phoenicians starting around 6,500 BC but in Lebanon and then conquering the Mediterranean, not the Middle East. That would explain the delay a lot better than the Sinai.

This books is very rich and has to be exploited but the fact that these prehistoric people being more or less mute since they do not have languages, we wonder what they could say when by accident they are declared as singing, chanting or saying something. Not to speak of John Lubbock who is moving in and out of all these multiple communities and understanding everything. Or does he really do so?

We need today to cross archaeology and linguistics, particularly the phylogeny of language, to capture a believable evolution of that Homo Sapiens species fighting and struggling against enormous difficulties and evolving one step at the time from a potential to a reality.

But archeologists should not use their science to prove I do not know what about the modern world. Steven Mithen concludes with a lyrical couple of paragraph on the man-made warming up of the earth due to pollution today. We have to stop polluting. Granted. But he accepts that the earth population is going to increase by two billion people within fifty years or so. Frankly when the population is increasing in such a proportion we, those who pollute most PER CAPITA, can cut on our pollution as much as we want but we will never be able to reduce our pollution enough to compensate for the pollution these two billion people are going to bring in within fifty years. He does not ask the demographic question. We have to stop the growth of the human population on the earth, if not envisage its reduction. Maybe it sounds horrible to ask such a question but we have to consider it and the solution will have to be global. Try to start telling those who are practicing families with 11 or 12 children (with 1 or 2 or more wives, at the same time or in succession) that they have to come down to two children maximum. What do we do with the children over that number? The one-child family in China has proved its positive dimension enough, even if now they try to get to a two-children family and encounter a strong resistance from the concerned people, proving that all the West had said about the resistance against the one-child family was nothing but propaganda. We have to globally take some decisions that will hurt, if we do not want to be confronted to a real apocalyptic demographic upheaval in the world. The level of CO2 might even be a good thing then since it could eliminate a good portion of the population by shortening the life expectancy of everyone, in addition to vast demographic wars from the third world against the developed countries. Just plain water might become the real motivation of such war-mongering migrations.


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