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  • At the Edge of Knowability:Towards a Prehistory of Languages

    but about the limits to knowledge and the ways bywhich we can assess what is in principle knowable,given favourable conditions of research, and what isin principle unknowable, being beyond the reach ofhuman investigation. Some of the research describedhere has in part been funded by a generous grantfrom the Sloan Foundation applied to the projectThe Prehistory of Languages conducted at theMcDonald Institute.

    My own concern for this theme dates back tomy first research in the Aegean and the realization(Renfrew 1964) that earlier inferences about the chro-nology of the prehistoric place names of the Aegean(Haley & Blegen 1928) were invalidated by the dis-covery of Neolithic settlements on the Cycladic Is-lands (Evans & Renfrew 1968). This line of reasoning,applied to the origins of the Greek language, led to agrowing scepticism about the current consensus onthe origins of the Indo-European languages of Eu-rope (Childe 1926; Gimbutas 1973) that their adventwas due to the activities of warlike nomad pastoralists

    Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:1 (2000), 734


    Colin Renfrew

    The issue of knowability in relation to the origins and distribution of the languagefamilies of the world is addressed, and recent advances in historical linguistics andmolecular genetics reviewed. While the much-debated problem of the validity of theconcept of the language macrofamily cannot yet be resolved, it is argued that a time depthfor the origins of language families greater than the conventional received figure of c. 6000years may in some cases be appropriate, allowing the possibility of a correlation betweenlanguage dispersals and demographic processes following the end of the Pleistoceneperiod. The effects of these processes may still be visible in the linguistic spread zones,here seen as often the result of farming dispersals, contrasting with the linguistic 'mosaiczones' whose early origins may sometimes go back to initial colonization episodes duringthe late Pleistocene period. If further work in historical linguistics as well as in archaeol-ogy and molecular genetics upholds these correlations a new synthesis, whose outlinesmay already be discerned, is likely to emerge. This would have important consequences forprehistoric archaeology, and would be of interest also to historical linguists and moleculargeneticists. If, however, the proposed recognition of such patterning proves illusory the

    prospects for knowability appear to be less favourable.

    This article, based upon the eleventh McDonald Lec-ture,1 is about linguistic diversity and the origins ofthe 6500 or so languages spoken in the world today.These origins may be traced back in some cases overthe past 10,000 or so years. Controversial claims havebeen made that some features may be traced backeven further. But the more general question of theorigins of language itself, as a typically human ca-pacity, will not be discussed, although it is one of themost fascinating issues in contemporary archaeol-ogy (Mellars 1998; Pinker 1998). There is a generalconsensus (Noble & Davidson 1996) that a fully mod-ern language capacity is a feature of our speciesHomo sapiens sapiens, and that this is likely thereforeto have been the case of our sapiens ancestors ofmore than 40,000 years ago, and I do not propose toconsider greater time depths than that. The title ofthis article is drawn in part from the current inter-ests of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation of New Yorkon the whole issue of knowability. The question is notso much about the extent of our current knowledge,

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    Colin Renfrew

    lized the elegant device proposed by Ammerman &Cavalli-Sforza (1973) of the wave of advance whichmodelled the propagation of the farming economyby a process of demic diffusion. Although this wassoon criticized by Zvelebil & Zvelebil (1988; 1990) inits application to the European case, and with somejustice, as an oversimplification, the basic notion ofthe arrival of Proto-Indo-European speech in Europewith the coming of farming has nonetheless beenwidely accepted (Zvelebil 1995). At the same time,the notion of a single Proto-Indo-European dispersalwas seen by many linguists as too simple a hypoth-esis to account for the complexity of the relation-ships among the various sub-families of the Indo-European language family, well illustrated forinstance by Raimo Anttilas diagram (Anttila 1989)of isoglosses. Both objections were valid. They arediscussed further below.

    In retrospect, then, Archaeology and Languagesuffered from two principal defects (among otherdeficiencies). In the first place, it laid too much storeby the demic diffusion model of Ammerman &Cavalli-Sforza and not enough on the phenomenonof contact-induced language change. Ironically per-haps it is the application of molecular genetics whichhas given new insights into the limited extent towhich demic diffusion took place (see below). And

    Figure 1. The early spread of agricultural communitiesin Europe, as summarized by Stuart Piggott in 1965.1) Proto-Sesklo and Starcevo cultures; 2) Linear Potteryculture; 3) Impressed pottery culture. It is suggestedbelow that the early spread of Proto-Indo-Europeanspeech accompanied the dispersal of farming in theseareas. (From Piggott 1965, 57.)

    from the Pontic steppes. It invited instead the for-mulation of an alternative theory.

    The quest for some radical change in Europeanprehistory with more convincing explanatory powerthan was offered by the alleged coming of themounted warrior nomads was influenced by the clearpicture on farming origins outlined for instance byPiggott (1965, 57, fig. 26) as seen in Figure 1. Thiswas supported by the striking patterning for thechronology of the dispersal of farming in Europe(seen in Fig. 2) established on the basis of radiocar-bon determinations by Grahame Clark (1965, 46). Itherefore proposed (Renfrew 1973a) that the spreadof farming to Europe from Anatolia was the princi-pal agency responsible for the arrival and dispersalof Proto-Indo-European speech. If this proposal wereaccepted it would follow that the homeland for theoriginal Proto-Indo-European language would besituated somewhere in south-central Anatolia (whereJames Mellaart had been making striking EarlyNeolithic discoveries) and that the arrival of Proto-Indo-European speech into Europe from Anatoliacould be dated using the available chronology forthe coming of farming to around 7000 BC.

    In developing the farming dispersal thesis forIndo-European into a more comprehensive statementin Archaeology and Language (Renfrew 1987), I uti-

    Figure 2. Radiocarbon chronology (uncalibrated) asproposed by Grahame Clark in 1965 for the spread offarming from Anatolia to Europe. Radiocarbondeterminations are shown for the earliest sites of farmingsettlements as dated by 1965. The direction and source ofthe farming dispersal is very clear. (From Renfrew1973a, 71.)

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    At the Edge of Knowability

    secondly it did not sufficiently deal with the com-plexity of the further developments of the Indo-Eu-ropean languages in the long time span after theinitial Proto-Indo-European spread, with local con-vergence (or advergence) effects responsible for theformation of some of the sub-families (see now Ren-frew 1999). But it did, perhaps for the first time inthe context of recent discussions, establish two prin-ciples or processes which turn out to be applicableon a much wider canvas than that of prehistoric Eu-rope. The first is the creation or at least the foundationof a language family not through some long-distancetribal migration (like that of the legendary mountedwarrior-nomads) but through a spread phenomenonwhich may be seen as the result of an intelligibleeconomic and demographic process (on the subsist-ence/demography model). In this case the spread offarming a prime case of what Dixon (1997), fol-lowing Stephen Jay Gould, was later to term a punc-tuation, leading to the formation of what JohannaNichols (1992) was to name as a linguistic spread zone.

    The second principle is a matter of time depth.Hitherto, historical linguists have in general come toemploy what the archaeologist would term a shortchronology, with a time depth for language familiesof often just five or six thousand years before thepresent. But many of the decisive demographic proc-esses in world history are climate-related, either thedirect consequence of such phenomena as the end ofthe Late Glacial Maximum or the end of the Pleisto-cene period, or the indirect consequence, dependentfor instance upon the origins of farming, a processwhich is now viewed in most parts of the world asinitiated by those climatic events but slower to de-velop in some areas. By establishing a date as earlyas 7000 BC for the first spread of a Proto-Indo-Euro-pean language (or at least by seeking to do so) itbecame possible to view the origins of language fami-lies within a time-frame linked to the end of thePleistocene period which allowed such globalchanges to be regarded as relevant to the issue. Thisis a principle which, for instance, Nettle (1999a) hasused to very good effect.

    It was the publication of Merritt Ruhlens veryclear survey A Guide to the Worlds Languages (Ruhlen1991) which opened the way for the employment ofthe same principles, using explicit models (Renfrew1989a) for language change. The wider applicationof the language/farming dispersal model, first inEurasia (Renfrew 1991) and then much more widely(Renfrew 1992b; 1996), suggested a global solutionto the problem of the spatial distribution of theworlds languages, although one which at first

    presents a number of problems, particularly linguis-tic ones. It is noteworthy that over the same periodPeter Bellwood, working in the Pacific, first with thePolynesian and then with the wider Au