Archaeology, Language, and History:
Essays on Culture and Ethnicity

John Edward Terrell (editor)

Bergin & Garvey 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
It is too often assumed that language, culture, and biology are uncomplicatedly coupled, and that their history can be modelled with simple "trees". Terrell asked the contributors to Archaeology, Language, and History not just to question this, but to start with what he calls the "strong Boas hypothesis", that "language, culture, and biology always vary independently of one another except under specific circumstances". Some largely ignored that injunction, however, and there is little common theory among the contributions. But perhaps a collection of largely unconnected papers is the logical format for an attempt to demonstrate the importance of local circumstances and the problems with oversimple theories.

Archaeology, Language, and History contains some fascinating material, both theoretical and regional. I fear, however, that it is unlikely to receive much attention, largely because its approach suffers from a public relations problem. Major migration events may be rare and anomalous in human history, but they lend themselves to grand theorising, story-telling, and popularisation, after the fashion of Jared Diamond and Cavalli-Sforza. A collection of papers stressing the historical and geographical specificity of ethnicity and language use, and focusing on small-scale communities, is just not as approachable, either by lay readers or other scholars. It is also, of course, much harder to summarise.

Two chapters focus on disciplinary history. John Terrell gives a brief history of the concepts of race and "primitive isolate" in American anthropology, going back to Boas and Sapir. And Richard Lindstrom looks at Soviet ethnography, where theory may have stressed ethnogenesis but archaeological and ethnographic practice were strongly cladistic.

John Moore presents some interesting evidence for the extent of exogamy in Native American groups towards the end of the nineteenth century (though he spends, in my opinion, too much time arguing the obvious, that strict endogamy can't be maintained in finite populations).

Scott MacEachern looks at the colonial construction of ethnicity in the Mandara mountains of Cameroon and Nigeria, arguing that the resulting labels are of limited utility in the present, let alone for archaeological research.

Looking at the Manchu-Tungusic language family, Lindsay Whaley finds, contra Bellwood, that the problems with phylogenetic ("tree") models and the need for reticulate ("carpet") models can't be restricted to the micro level, but extend even to the level of language phyla.

Pamela Willoughby suggests that the evidence from Africa in the Upper Pleistocene complicates theories, based on the European evidence, which tie together modern anatomy, the origins of ethnicity, and technological change.

John Hines offers an archaeolinguistic study of Celtic and Germanic from prehistory into the early historical period, probing the limits of what we can know about the complex (and changing) relationships between demography, culture, and language during the period.

Martin Evison looks at the connection between genes, languages, and culture in Holocene Britain, focusing on evidence for Scandinavian influence in North Derbyshire. This is the only paper that really uses genetics.

Mark Southern considers the role of language in ethnic identity with the Jewish languages Yiddish, Judeo-Tat, and Judezmo. With several pages of language examples, this had a little too much detail for me.

Using a case study of the Tohono O'odham of the United States Southwest, Jane Hill presents an explanation for variation in language diversity based on communities adopting "localist" or "distributed" perspectives depending on their access to resources. Secure communities are conservative, while those dependent on outsiders more readily adopt innovations.

On the Sepik coast of New Guinea, John Terrell finds that "people are tied to one another by social and economic relationships into a vast community of culture, shared interests, and common goals ... but are divided into scores of different speech traditions"; he uses this to argue for a more nuanced theory of linguistic diversity.

And in a history of communities in the Huon Gulf region of New Guinea, Joel Bradshaw paints a lively picture of "ever-changing patterns of fission and fusion among small, fragile communities where language, culture, and community have rarely coincided" — though modern education may be spreading more familiar notions of ethnicity.

November 2001

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%T Archaeology, Language, and History
%S Essays on Culture and Ethnicity
%E Terrell, John Edward
%I Bergin & Garvey
%D 2001
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0897897242
%P x,317pp