Prehistoric language boundaries discovered

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s Europe, 30,000 years ago. In a cave in France, a tribe of Homo sapiens have gathered around a fire for the evening. By the harsh yellow glow they repair and rework their tools, ready for another hard day’s hunting. One sets down his stone point, unfinished, and begins to drill holes in shells, threading them onto a string to make a necklace. His friend, worried that the tool is unfinished turns to him and says….

Says what? Language was always thought to be beyond the scope of archaeology, since it the studies material remains yet prehistoric language left none. It wasn’t recorded for most of humanity’s existence, and the body parts responsible for it – such as the voicebox, tongue and brain (which, granted isn’t used by everyone) – decay.

Tell me his last words and they'll make a nobel prize in archaeology, just for you.

But recent research suggests that we can know at least one thing about the language spoken in Europe 30,000 years ago: the areas different languages were spoken in.

They studied the material culture of modern hunter-gatherer groups and found that groups who spoke the same language made similar jewellery (or personal ornamentation, if you want to sound sophisticated), since both are parts of their cultural identity.  This correlation was so widespread they thought it might be present in past societies as well.

So they examined the personal ornamentation record of Europe from ~30,000 years ago and found there were 157 types of artefact from 98 sites across the continent. If these types occurred together at 3 or more nearby sites they were considered a “set.”

Based upon their research into modern hunter-gatherer groups, it seemed likely that the boundaries of these sets correlated with the boundaries of languages. So they drew up a map of prehistoric language boundaries, because that’s a pretty cool thing to be able to draw.

Language groups of Europe ~30,000 years ago

Now, before you get overly excited about that map and start using it to plot your cultural journey through Europe when you finally get a time machine, it should be noted there are some flaws with the study.

Firstly there’s sample bias. We haven’t recovered every piece of personal ornamentation made and not every piece that has been discovered was analysed by this study. It might be that if we had all the data we’d see these sets are just artefacts and really the jewellery made by prehistoric people was the same across the continent.

Then there’s the issue about whether or not we can extrapolate information gained from modern hunter-gatherers to the distant past. There’s 30,000 years of society and a continent between them, whose to say that doesn’t result in differences?

Note the absence of mammoths, for example.

On the other hand, the study also has some strengths.

For starters there’s the fact European prehistory has been excavated for over a hundred years. There is a wealth of data available, so it’s unlikely future finds are going to discover that the sets observed in the study are just a product of sample bias. There may be some changes, but the pattern should remain broadly the same.

Then there’s the fact that the sets don’t correlate with resource availability. An alternate explanation for the distribution of personal ornamentation might be that certain resources aren’t available to all groups, influencing what they can make. Yet a lot of these personal ornaments are made from resources which were available across the continent, meaning differences between sets didn’t arise from differences in resource distribution.

This is further supported by the fact that even resources with a limited distribution see variability within sets made from them. For example, even though mammoths might only be found in a certain part of Europe, within that mammoth region were differences in sets made from mammoth.

Even the coolest piece of bling can't top something MADE FROM MAMMOTH!

So, unless the extrapolation from modern hunter-gatherers is overturned – which, I think, is unlikely given the strength of the correlation that forms the foundation of this study – then the map of language boundaries should remain pretty accurate. Whilst some refinements in methodology or new finds might alter the borders slightly, as a general guide to the linguistic groups of ~30,000 year old Europe I think the map will remain valid.

Vanhaeren, M., & d’Errico, F. (2006). Aurignacian ethno-linguistic geography of Europe revealed by personal ornaments Journal of Archaeological Science, 33 (8), 1105-1128 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.11.017

6 thoughts on “Prehistoric language boundaries discovered

  1. Pingback: The origin of cooking | EvoAnth

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