Monday, 30 December 2013


I apologise for not posting very much recently - I was very busy throughout November and early December, both with work and with academic things.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

What History Isn't

I live in Oxford, which has plenty of old buildings.  Not that old, actually - the University is reliably dated to 1241, but there aren't very many buildings of that age in the city these days.  I think there's a stained glass window in Christ Church that dates from the fourteenth century, and the old city wall you can see in New College is probably of similar age, but most of the famous buildings are sixteenth century and later, with their fancy fan-vaulting.  Still, it's a pretty place.

What annoys me about it, though, is that people seem to think that Oxford has 'a lot of history' because it has a lot of old buildings.  They're not usually referring to the fact that the lay-out of the city basically dates to the time of Alfred or anything similar; what they really mean is that Oxford looks sort of old, and that in looking impressively old, it fits their idea of what history is.  The same idea says that England, France, and China have 'a lot of history' because they have lots of old buildings, while America has only a few hundred years of history because most American buildings are under four hundred years old.  The equation of old things = history is rather common, as is the idea that you're a history buff if you like castles and Anne Boleyn, and something else entirely if you like reconstructed proto-Indo-European and the Acheulean industry.

Clearly this isn't the right way to approach human history.  Plenty of incredibly important human events took place in the US and other parts of the non-literate world prior to European colonisation.  Population movements over thousands of years spread the Athabaskan languages between Alaska and New Mexico, the Algonquian languages between Delaware and Washington, and the Uto-Aztecan languages between Utah and El Salvador.  Towns and large villages were built and thrived on agricultural surpluses; cities, even, rose and fell; babies were born, wars were fought, and poetry was recited.  Millions of people lived out their lives in these places, and their experiences were largely dictated by the histories of their peoples.  They may not have built in Cotswold stone, but I don't think that means that America has 'less history' than other places, whatever that might even mean.  Without the history of pre-Columbian America, the world today would be an incredibly different place.  Its history is written in the words we use and the food we eat and other intangible things, and I don't think you get to call yourself a history buff if you dismiss that as something other than history.
Monk's Mound, Cahokia.  Older and in many ways more imposing than an Oxford college.  It may not have gargoyles, but it's still a bona fide part of human history (and it's a little embarrassing to have to point that out).  h/t Wiki, User: Skubasteve834

History isn't to be found in quaint frocks and old buildings - not wholly, at least.  It's to be found in every word we use, every piece of food we shove into our faces, and every human-influenced environment we happen to live in, whether in Manaus, Detroit, or Oxford.  Look at the alphabet you use: it began life in Egypt, and by way of innumerable intermediaries and near-imperceptible influences, like the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, the proto-Sinaitic abjad, the Phoenician abjad, the Cumaean Greek alphabet, the Etruscan and Latin alphabets, Carolingian scribal schools, and typeface-designers' workshops, it has ended up as it is today - used to write hundreds of languages found on every continent in hundreds of fonts.  Look at the food you eat: go to Nando's and see chicken, a domesticated bird of Indian origin, side-by-side with butter-mashed sweet potato, a combination of Eurasian dairy technology and an Amazonian tuber.  That's history, in your throat and on your plate.

I'm not saying that beautiful old buildings aren't worth something.  It's just that the equating of history with obviously old things doesn't really make sense, and believing that places or groups of people don't 'have history' unless they've constructed magnificent stone buildings or written lasting chronicles is (often racist) madness.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Language: 'Genetic' Relatedness

When two languages have a common ancestor, we say that they are 'genetically' related.  This has nothing to do with genetics in the biological sense, and it doesn't imply that speakers of genetically related languages are themselves genetically related.  But languages share ancestors like organisms share ancestors, and so genetic relatedness is the metaphor historical linguists use.

Unlike with organisms, genetic relatedness rarely tells us everything we need to know about a language.  If you said that English is a West Germanic language or an Indo-European language, you'd be saying things that are true, but that are just not the whole picture.

English has plenty of non-Indo-European-derived words, including 'person' from Etruscan φersu and 'shark' from Yucatec Mayan xoc (which entered English around 1585).  The Germanic languages themselves appear to show the presence of a non-Indo-European substrate language - that is to say, a non-Indo-European language that crossed with Indo-European at some point in European prehistory, affecting the structure and phonology of proto-Germanic.  While proto-Germanic is clearly an Indo-European language, it shows the presence of some obviously non-Indo-European languages.

English's structures are not wholly West Germanic, either - the idea of forming a question with the verb 'to do' as an auxiliary, e.g., 'do you like linguistics?', apparently derives from a Brythonic precedent.  North Germanic languages contributed so much to English after the Norse invasions/migrations that even the verb 'to be' is partly Norse; 'he is' is entirely Anglo-Saxon, while 'they are' is entirely Norse.  Words like 'egg', 'sky', and 'bag' have origins in Old Norse as well.

It's not that English isn't a West Germanic language, but rather that that fact is not the whole picture, and in order to account for the English spoken today, or at any period, we have to look at all the parts.  And as ever with human language and culture, those parts come from all over the world, and have origins you may not initially suspect.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Patriotism on Twitter

I recently ended up in a protracted twitter exchange with Sarah Kendzior and a guy named Peter Niswander (@BaronPeterN) about patriotism.  Niswander has since deleted the whole of his side of the exchange apart from the first tweet he posted.

Kendzior initially tweeted about patriotism, saying:
Patriotism is not blind adoration of a nation, nor is it averting your gaze from its problems. Patriotism is addressing them, eyes wide open
I replied:
 Patriotism is arbitrary pride in where you come from, not something else. It isn't noble in any way.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

A Comparison of Two Comparative Ethnological Books

I've recently been reading Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World by Julian Baldick (in fact, I finished it a while ago, but I've been very busy since).  It's an attempt at an overview of religious beliefs traditionally found in Austronesian-speaking societies.  Nowadays, the religions with the greatest number of adherents among Austronesian speakers are Islam and Catholicism, so Baldick concerns himself solely with 'ancient' religions, i.e., those religious beliefs formerly found in Austronesian-speaking societies that may reflect shared heritage and common connections.  As I mentioned in a previous post, Baldick is now sadly deceased; this was his last book.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Non-State Social Structure Is Important

I posted recently about the types of descent that can be found in human societies.  Descent is often very important in societies without states, as it forms one of several ways in which humans can group together, achieve shared aims, respond to threats, acquire land and possessions, fight battles, organize agriculture, engage in ritual, and much else.  It's a really important principle.  Alliance, usually based on marriage (but sometimes based on other things, like blood brotherhood) is also important.  This is how non-state societies work, or can work: through kin bonds, through so-called 'fictive' kinship, through marriage, blood brotherhood, and so on.  All of these things have formal properties that can and should be studied, and which are different enough from state, industrial, and post-industrial social structure to require a separate discipline that specialises in them.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

'Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World' by Julian Baldick

A quick note: a couple of days ago, I acquired a copy of Ancient Religions of the Austronesian World by Julian Baldick, a scholar of religion, formerly of King's College, who unfortunately died last year.  This was his last book and, as the title says, it is an attempt to identify commonalities and differences in the religious beliefs of speakers of Austronesian languages.  It's up-to-date, has excellent recommendations (e.g., from James Fox), and is quite good reading.  I saw a copy in Blackwell's (although I bought mine online), and as it is rare for books like this to be published, and as it cites most of the major ethnographies of eastern Indonesia and the Pacific - super-underrepresented areas - I'm glad it exists.

I'm about halfway through, and it has been reasonably good so far.  Needless to say, it covers more ground than merely what we would classify as religion.  There are a few basic mistakes, actually - typos, of course, but also some accuracy issues, as will happen with any work of similar scope.  For example, Baldick calls the majority ethnic group of West Timor the 'Atoni', instead of the now-more-common name, Meto.  It is notable that despite relying on 'Atoni' evidence for some of the book's conclusions, the bibliography contains none of the work of Andrew McWilliam, even though McWilliam has written extensively on Austronesia, the Meto, and even headhunting, one of the core features of Baldick's vision of proto-Austronesian culture.  He also misses out R. E. Downs's article on headhunting in Indonesia, which is still key to discussions of it.

I also have a bit of a problem with the presentation.  For a start, there are no maps or diagrams that would help clarify the relationship between the various branches of Austronesian or their geographic distribution.  Baldick took the Indo-Europeanist Georges Dumezil as an inspiration and arranged his book the way Dumezil organised his, with separate sections on Western, Central, and Eastern Malayo-Polynesian speakers (never mind that these are artificial divisions) and a conclusion that attempted to draw out the similarities.  I much prefer the approach of M. L. West, a classicist whose work on Indo-European religion, poetry, and myth is perhaps the most interesting you'll find.  West divides his book on the basis of topic, with separate sections on poetic metre, storm gods, and warfare (&c.), which is a much more effective comparative device, to my mind.  But I suppose your mileage may vary.

I'll be reviewing the book as soon as I've finished reading it.  Until then, though, I recommend it.  If you're at all interested in ethnology, prehistory, or the limits of what can survive in human communities from such great time depths, then it is certainly worthwhile reading.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

What kinds of descent are there?

Descent is the transmission of names, rights, duties, membership in organizations, and other properties from parents to children.  It's key to understanding life and law in almost all human societies in some sense or other, and I suspect the concept is part of our phylogenetic inheritance - the idea of maternal and paternal connections conferring some kind of advantage or disadvantage being found in plenty of other primate societies.  The thing is, descent isn't so simple, and there were arguments throughout the early twentieth century about how it worked and why.  Those arguments have pretty much come to a halt in Europe and America as the topic of descent, and of the formal study of kinship as a whole, has become deeply unfashionable.

Austronesian Archery

Lots of words have now been reconstructed to proto-Austronesian, the reconstructed ancestor of the Austronesian languages probably spoken on Taiwan between around 4000-3500 BCE.  There are plenty of words for common objects and ideas - houses, for instance, or parts of the body.  Other terms refer to technologies, and the reconstructed words allow us to say that the speakers of the protolanguage used the associated technologies.  Two of these are *panaq, meaning 'to shoot', and *busuʀ, meaning 'bow' (as in, bow and arrow).

There are a couple of different versions given by different linguists, but they're all pretty close.  For example, Zhang Yongli's Seediq Language Reference Grammar (2000), which also lists some proto-Austronesian vocabulary, gives *buƭug for 'bow', as well as *buhug for proto-Atayalic (one of the Taiwanese sub-families of Austronesian), although *panaq is the same.  However you swing it, proto-Austronesian had words for bows and the action of shooting them.  I'm also sure proto-Malayo-Polynesian had a word for 'blowgun' (*sumpit), but I'm not so concerned about that right now (although see my earlier post on blowguns here).

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Jason Colavito on Jason and the Golden Fleece

Jason Colavito has written an interesting series of posts about his work on the myths of Jason and the Argonauts.  His book on the subject is going to be published at some point and his posts are mostly clearing up little problems of analysis, but they're a fascinating insight into the difficulties of producing analyses of early European and Near Eastern myth, given the profusion of influences, societies, languages, cities, peoples, and places that could have been responsible for certain words and phrases.  So check them out:

Aea: An Indo-European or Near Eastern Dawn Land?

Georgia and the Golden Fleece: The Politics of Mythology

The Kursa and the Golden Fleece

Sign up to his blog for more interesting stuff on a range of topics, from Lovecraft to Apollonius to Ancient Aliens.  I'm constantly surprised at the depth of his knowledge on all of these topics, so I expect you will be, too.

Austronesian Headhunting - Some Thoughts

Headhunting is a practice that can comfortably be ascribed to the speakers of proto-Austronesian due to its near ubiquity among their descendants.  Prior to European imperial domination, the idea of beheading strangers and taking their heads home was found throughout Austronesian-speaking island southeast Asia (the Philippines, much of Indonesia, non-peninsular Malaysia, Brunei, and Timor Leste), island Melanesia (the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu), parts of coastal New Guinea, and non-Sinitic Taiwan.  Emphasis on the head was considerable in Polynesia and Micronesia, too, and heads were clearly important booty in pre-colonial New Zealand as well.  There is still a tendency to treat headhunting as something created by colonialism instead of exacerbated by it, but this simply is not the case; it is a tradition of prehistoric ancestry, not European introduction.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

'Bad Death'

One of the most pervasive features of Austronesian heritage is the category of 'bad death'.  This is a category that has been covered explicitly in dozens of academic publications, probably because its association with death and ritual has aroused the interest of ethnographers throughout Austronesia.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Maps - Language and Population Density

The maps in my post yesterday, showing the distribution of some language families in South America, got me thinking.  Most of the land coloured in as containing speakers of a particular language is uninhabited, and the languages themselves are spoken by relatively low numbers of speakers.  Moreover, there is often great diversity at a lower level.  As Michael Heckenberger tells us of the Upper Xingu, plenty of indigenous South Americans speak not only different languages, but even languages of different stocks.  The solid blocks of colour are completely inaccurate and give the bluntest, least nuanced understanding of the distributions.  I understand that many of them were produced by amateur cartographers/Wikipedians, but most maps in professional publications are no better.

So I was wondering if there was a way to simultaneously encode population density and language to give a more rounded picture of how things are on the ground.  There must be a way to do it, and then you'd only need accurate data to put on the chart.  Granted, South American languages families are poorly documented in every sense, including their present-day (let alone prehistoric!) distributions, and the numbers of speakers are low anyway and would probably barely show up on a map of the whole of South America, but...

I'm busy this evening, but if anyone out there knows of any attempt to do this, I'd really appreciate it if you could pop a note or link in the comments.  If I find anything myself in the next few days, I'll post something about it anyway.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Language Contact in South America

It would be fair to say that most of South America's language families are controversial in some way or other.  There are some established language families that are accepted as valid by most linguists, including Quechuan, Chibchan, Gê, Panoan, Tukanoan, Tacanan, Arawak, Carib, Chon, and Tupian, and these are useful hooks for hanging hypotheses about South American prehistory on.  There is a clear, solid distribution of Gê languages in the Brazilian eastern highlands, an equally solid distribution of Chon languages in South America's tail, and Tupian languages are only found south of main trunk of the Amazon, all of which can tell us something about the prehistory of each of these regions.  But the details and possible inter-relationships of these families have yet to be resolved.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

'The Ecology of Power' by Michael Heckenberger.

      I've recently been reading Michael Heckenberger's 2005 book, The Ecology of Power: Culture, Place and Personhood in the Southern Amazon, AD 1000-2000 (Oxford: Routledge), about the pre- and post-Columbian societies of the Upper Xingu river, Brazil.  Heckenberger is moderately famous, as archaeologists go, for his research revealing the existence of complex chiefdoms and inter-connected polities in pre-Columbian Amazonia.  He has featured in two popular books that have significantly increased the exposure of Amazonian archaeology - Charles Mann's 1492, a great book about the pre-Columbian Americas, and David Grann's The Lost City of Z, a gripping account of the life of Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared in the jungle while looking for native Amazonian cities.  The latter is to be made into a movie with Benedict Cumberbatch, which should further increase exposure.  Heckenberger also contributed the Amazonian section of one of archaeology's standard texts, The Human Past (2013, Chris Scarre [ed.], Thames & Hudson), so he's quite a big name.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The genetic gallacy and argument from tradition in action...

I saw this post over on Zero Anthropology about Sergei Lavrov's recent statements on international relations, and I left a comment saying that Lavrov's words were nice enough, but they attempted to excuse barbaric acts on the grounds that they are 'tradition'.  I was told that I'm Eurocentric (somehow) and backward, and there was the not-so-subtle implication that I'm an imperialist pig-dog who supports the United States government in everything it does (I'm not even American, of course).  You can see the short exchange so far on the site.

Ancient Astronaut Pyramids

Indonesia doesn't feature prominently in ancient alien mythology.  This is a good thing, of course, and it means that Indonesian archaeological sites aren't full of hawkers selling ancient alien garbage, as you'll find at Palenque and Teotihuacan.  However, it is symptomatic of the general ignorance in the English-speaking world regarding Indonesia.  If modern Indonesia is a mental black hole for most people outside of Indonesia and the Netherlands, then ancient Indonesia might as well be another planet.  Ancient Aliens and other similar media ignore Indonesia primarily because it isn't already well-known.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: A Small Overview

I don't have a particular structure to what I'm writing about eastern Indonesia - I'm happy to write about a set of interconnected topics and let them coalesce over time into a more comprehensive picture - so my posts don't necessarily have a consistent theme.  But the picture I've been trying to build up so far is of an ethnically, linguistically, and genetically diverse region bound together by a number of shared cultural traits, many of which derive from a common prehistoric heritage.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Village Defence

Life in much of eastern Indonesia was precarious until fairly recently.  That isn't to say that people there didn't have time to trade or create works of art or poetry, or that everything they did was a hard slog, but life expectancy has always been low there, and is still low.  Population growth was minimal until the late nineteenth century.  There were simply too many threats to life, including geological, viral, and human enemies, from volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and malaria to headhunters and slave-raiders.  Here, I'm going to look at some of these.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Marriage, Part II

In my last post on marriage as a total social fact in eastern Indonesia, I provided the bare bones of a description of eastern Indonesian symbolism so as to make marriage more comprehensible in the area.  Here, I provide examples and show how it functions in marriage alliance itself.

To see the functioning of the recursive complementary cosmological dualism outside of the context of marriage, let's look at the example of the sacrificial post, a common feature of villages in Nusa Tenggara Timur.  They are usually to be found in the centre of the village, often but not always on a raised stone platform.  Examples of these are the Nage peo on Flores and the Meto hau mone found in West Timor; the latter means 'male tree', which should tell you something about its symbolism.  They are usually Y-shaped, with a central trunk forking into two subsidiary branches.  The post is used for tying up animals for sacrifice (blood sacrifice being another common feature of eastern Indonesian societies - blood is considered 'cooling').  In former times - i.e., before so-called 'pacification' by Dutch and Portuguese imperial forces - the posts were also used to hang heads on after headhunting raids.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Marriage as a 'Total Social Fact', Part I

In my last post on marriage alliance, I wrote about how it works in theory - how different rules governing who you can and can't marry will affect the relationships between the inter-marrying groups, how wife-givers typically have a superior position to wife-takers, how MBD-FZS marriage ideally creates long-lasting asymmetric relationships between wife-givers and wife-takers, and how the asymmetrical nature of these relationships necessitates bonds between three or more groups at a time.  That's the ideal of asymmetric marriage alliance/MBD-FZS marriage/matrilateral cross-cousin marriage/circulating connubium (all names for the same thing), and it doesn't only apply in eastern Indonesia, the area I'm particularly interested in.  These are the basic features of MBD-FZS marriage.

So how does it manifest in eastern Indonesia?  Why do they have this particular arrangement?  What else is it linked to?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Southeast Asia in World Histories

As someone with a strong interest in southeast Asia, I can say that it is uniquely poorly served by world history books.  Andrew Marr's loudly-trumpeted book - probably the most popular world history of the past few years, and one with its own BBC adaptation - presented itself as comprehensive, but included no references at all to pre-modern southeast Asia.  Even Angkor is absent, which is just... there are no words.  Given that southeast Asia actually has more people than the whole of Europe including the entire population of Russia, at over 600,000,000 inhabitants, this is a bit of an oversight.  And it's a common trend.  It's not that Marr is a bigot who hates southeast Asians (well, I assume that's not the case), but rather that it is considered acceptable to skip southeast Asia and concentrate on India, China, and - obviously! - Europe.  It seems to be thought of as a place for tourism and cuisine, not serious academic understanding.

Dumb 'World' Histories

Reading this post on 'Big History', so-called, by Michael Smith, I'm reminded of all the problems I have with world histories and even regional historical surveys.  Usually, they're lacking in archaeological nous, have little or no accurate prehistoric content (a big problem when discussing the pre-Columbian Americas, Africa, and the Pacific), and repeat common misconceptions found in older material.  There's also a clear bias towards white males of the second millennium CE.  The European peninsula features far too heavily in world histories, as do men (the achievements of women are naturally underplayed), noble and royal life (poor people are just too badly documented, aren't they?), and the last five hundred years (you know how few sources there are on pre-modern history, don't you?).

Open a history of the world at the middle and I'll be surprised if you're not in the seventeenth century at that point (look in a bookshop and try it - bonus points if it's the eighteenth).  More often than not, Europe will be the focus of attention.  There are some exceptions to this, but world histories that treat history as something with truly global roots are few and far between.  That results in a general lack of familiarity with the really interesting things found outside of Europe, before five hundred years ago, or made by women, and that has the effect of making history boring (not to mention all the other things wrong with this approach to human life).

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Austronesian-Ongan Languages

Since I posted recently about a paper by Juliette Blevins potentially linking Malay semangat and its various Indonesian cognates with proto-Oceanic *manaq through the notion of ancestral power (amongst other things), I thought I'd highlight this paper in Oceanic Linguistics from 2007 in which Blevins attempted to demonstrate a connection between proto-Austronesian and proto-Ongan, the reconstructed ancestor of Jarawa and Onge, languages spoken in the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal.  The islands are fairly near Sumatera, but this isn't a case of Malayo-Polynesian languages having shifted to Andaman from Indonesia in late prehistory or something like that.  The connection is with proto-Austronesian, which is believed to be about 5,500 years old or so.  Wiki also has a brief summary of the arguments.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Marriage Alliances and Cross Cousins

In a previous post on eastern Indonesia, I noted that cross cousin marriage is common throughout the area, pointing to some kind of prehistoric relationship among the cross-cousin-marrying people of the region.  Which is all well and good, but I expect a number of you are wondering just what on earth cross cousin marriage is.  So, here I'm going to outline a little of how it works and the reasons for it so that I can post something about marriage alliance in eastern Indonesia specifically.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Is there such a thing as human nature?

Ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior L.) are dying in the UK because of a disease, ash dieback, imported from continental Europe by trans-North Sea breezes.  I like ash trees a great deal.  They tend to grow straight and tall, and their symmetrical arrangements of soft green leaves are some of the most elegant foliage to be found in a northern European copse.  Their wood is lovely - it's sturdy, generally straight, unknotted, and very hard.  It's very evocative, with a bright white colour, visible grain, and distinctive smell (a lot of people say that freshly cut ash smells 'old').  It's also very easy to work, which was a notable characteristic for me when I used to run about the place armed with a Swiss army knife and whittling know-how.  The common name in English, aesc, was once used to mean 'spear'.  Its wood is particularly good for that purpose.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A Southeast Asia Reading List

I've been asked by Thomas Greer, a very interesting blogger, to produce a reading list for southeast Asian history.  This is a big task, especially as I use the term 'southeast Asia' quite broadly, including eastern Indonesia and, to some extent, New Guinea, in addition to all of the islands and the southeast Asian mainland (up to, in my view, the Changjiang, or Yangtze).  I certainly don't have expertise in the whole area, and some of it is still a little mysterious to me.  My knowledge is uneven: I know a fair bit about the poetic language of Timor and the Sawu Sea, but next to nothing about the music of Thailand.  I should also point out that much of my understanding of the area comes from academic articles rather than popular summaries or monographs, which is absolutely necessary for coming to grips with the central issues.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Genetics and Culture

For the previous post, on eastern Indonesian languages, see here.

Eastern Indonesia is an interesting and complicated place, in genetic terms, and I'd like to go over some of the implications of the genetic material.  It isn't my intention to detail the haplogroups involved, here at least, but rather to point out the implications of the trends shown in the data.  My principal source for this is a 2009 paper for which my former tutor collected the data, which can be found (for free!) here on PubMed.  Here's the abstract:

Friday, 2 August 2013

Eastern Indonesia: Linguistic Issues - Central-Eastern Malayo-Polynesian (CEMP) Languages

This is the first post in a series on eastern Indonesian topics.  I haven't written much about the area on this blog, and I'm not sure why that is, so I'm starting a series dealing with various ethnological (read: linguistic, historical, ethnographic, ethnohistorical, and art-historical) problems in the area.

The Austronesian languages are sub-divided into a number of smaller families, just as Indo-European is divided into Indo-Iranic, Hellenic, Armenian, Germanic, Celtic, Italic, and so on.  The principal division is between the Formosan languages (the indigenous languages of Taiwan) and the Malayo-Polynesian languages, which are the languages found outside of Taiwan.  Malayo-Polynesian is by far the widest-spread family of Austronesian, and was the most widely distributed language family in the world in pre-modern times, found from Madagascar to Rapa Nui, and from Hawai'i to New Zealand.  Indonesia and the Philippines are the countries with the largest numbers of Malayo-Polynesian-speaking people.

'Formosan' is an umbrella term for several first-order sub-families of Austronesian; there is disagreement about their number (Robert Blust, if I remember correctly, says that there are nine Formosan families), but Paiwanic, Atayalic, Rukai (the most divergent extant Austronesian language), and Tsouic are some of the most realistic candidates.  These are all sub-families of the same order as Malayo-Polynesian, which includes all of the Austronesian languages outside of Taiwan, from Indonesian and Tagalog to Hawaiian and Malagasy.  The diversity on Taiwan is a key part of the evidence for an Austronesian origin there.  The consensus is that proto-Austronesian was spoken in Taiwan or southeastern China around 3500 BCE, and that it spread south, in the guise of proto-Malayo-Polynesian, about five hundred years later.  By 2000 BCE, speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages were almost certainly present throughout the islands of Indonesia, probably moving to the area in different waves associated with the Bornean languages and the Nuclear Malayo-Polynesian languages.

Monday, 29 July 2013

'The Social' and the Philosophy of Action

A post I wrote a while ago is getting a lot of hits (a lot for this blog, anyway!) and the source isn't showing up in my stats.  It was a bit of a throwaway post about the idea of economic transactions and any other interpersonal activity being 'embedded' in 'the social', an idea I have a number of problems with.  I said that what I find objectionable about the concept is not the predictions it makes (that, for instance, markets will be found at the boundaries between groups) or the idea that interpersonal relations are an important variable in determining human actions of most kinds, but rather the idea that 'the social', whatever that is, is something of a different order to other human actions and is not reducible to beliefs and desires, making it a defiantly non-naturalistic attempt at understanding how people work.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Tibetan Empire - A Brief Overview

The formatting was poor on the earlier version, due to my having copied and pasted from a Word document (which blogger always seems to find problematic).  It was necessary to repost the whole thing, unfortunately.

In this brief overview of the Tibetan empire, I am mostly relying on the works of Matthew Kapstein and Christopher Beckwith, and I've therefore decided to use Kapstein's (unorthodox but easy to read) transliteration of the Tibetan language.  In addition, I have provided the Wylie transliteration (the harder-to-read but more accurate one, in terms of replicating the written form of Tibetan) where possible.

        The image of Tibet portrayed in various media these days, of a small and peaceful nation of Buddhists unfairly in thrall to China, has no correlate in the ancient past.  In the late seventh century a Tibetan-speaking government wrested control of the entirety of the Tibetan Plateau – a 200 million-year-old swathe of extreme highland larger than the entire Republic of India – and beyond, into Xinjiang, Gansu, and Shanxi, even briefly capturing the capital of Tang China at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in 763.

Tibetan armies campaigned in Ladakh, in present-day Jammu and Kashmir, and in Bihar, present day India, even going so far as to rescue a Tang diplomatic mission lost near Tirabhukti (now named Tirhut) in 648.  Nepal, or at least the Kathmandu valley, which had been under the control of the Licchavi from the early first millennium CE, also fell to Tibet’s rulers.  And for a time, Tibet struggled against both China and the Arabs for control of the trade routes to the north of the Plateau, the ‘Silk Road’, a contest ultimately decided in the mid-eighth century in favour of the Arabs at the battle of Talas (or Taraz).

How this came about gives a small insight into the rise of states in general, and is of course an interesting story all of its own.  It also says a lot about inner Asia in the late first millennium CE.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Blowguns and Migrations

One of the many pieces of evidence employed in advancing theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact is the peculiar distribution of blowguns, or blowpipes, in Eurasia and the Americas.  Within Eurasia, blowguns are limited primarily to southeast Asia, where they are/were most commonly used to shoot darts of varying lengths.  They were more widely distributed in more recent times, reaching Europe by the middle ages, but they were probably restricted to southeast Asia in prehistory.  In the Americas, they were found throughout the tropical lowlands of South America, in the circum-Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and what is now the southeastern United States.  These regions are separated by earth's largest ocean, but some people like to claim a prehistoric connection between the two on the basis of the blowgun evidence.  This doesn't quite work, as I hope to show below.

Freedom and Guns

There's been a lot of talk about the Martin/Zimmerman case since the verdict.  It's everywhere - of course it's everywhere, it's a big story.  Much of the discussion has, naturally, focused on race.  Trayvon Martin's was a death that resulted in part from racism, as well as from macho swagger and the presence of firearms, and it is clearly true that a young white man would not have aroused George Zimmerman's suspicions in the same way as Martin did simply through being black.  This is a terrible thing and it is right to bring it up.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Reductionism Again

I was in Turkey for all of last week and part of the week before, which is why I haven't posted anything in a while.  I've got some posts lined up, however, and shall be back to regular posting soon.  Istanbul, by the way, is an amazing city, perhaps the most amazing I've ever visited, and I hope to put up a few photos from inside the Hagia Sophia when I have the time.

I've recently been reading, among many other books (including The Oxford History of Byzantium and the latest edition of Coe and Koontz's fabulous Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs), Roderick McIntosh's Ancient Middle Niger: Urbanism and the Self-Organizing Landscape (CUP 2005).  My aim in purchasing the book was to find out more about the ancient history of the west African savanna, and it fulfills that aim tolerably well.  Unfortunately, there are two problems: First, McIntosh, an eminent Africanist and archaeologist, uses far, far too many exclamation marks!  Second, he repeats a number of frankly silly claims about reductionism.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Jason Colavito on Ibn Farrukh

Yesterday, Jason Colavito posted a brilliant article contesting a claim that an Arab navigator made his way to America in 999 CE.  The claim had made its way to Wikipedia, and has cropped up elsewhere.  Colavito's takedown is excellent, and I recommend reading it.

Check out the rest of Colavito's website, as well.  There's really no reason for anyone else to go about debunking Ancient Aliens when Colavito has already done the hard work for us.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Trask vs. Crowley

I got an email asking why I decided to use Terry Crowley's Introduction to Historical Linguistics instead of Larry Trask's Historical Linguistics, so I thought I'd answer it here.  When I had the choice, I went for Crowley's book.  I have a strong interest in Austronesian languages, and at the time of first studying the subject I was very interested in New Guinea and Australia as well, so Crowley's was the natural choice.  Trask, an expert on Basque, drew primarily on Indo-European and Basque examples, which are certainly interesting but not exactly what I was looking for.  Having read Trask's as well - an excellent book, and actually somewhat more readable than Crowley's - I still think Crowley's is the better option for the beginner.  There are a couple examples of editorial choices that put Crowley's above Trask's, if only slightly.  For instance, if I remember correctly, Trask puts such things as final devoicing in his section on fortition, instead of in the section on assimilation/dissimilation.  Final devoicing certainly is an example of fortition, but it's best thought of as an assimilatory change (assimilating the voicelessness of the silence following the word).  At least, assimilation is the best explanation for why it occurs, rather than the more mysterious fortition.

So that's the answer.  Crowley focuses on languages from the Pacific, which come from several language families and are (in many cases) morphologically simpler, making linguistic rules easier to understand.  Trask, meanwhile, went a more classical route, which was less optimal for my needs.  In addition, Crowley's lay-out, while less readable/humourous, is marginally easier to understand for the beginner.  They're both excellent books, though, as is Lyle Campbell's, so take your pick based on your own criteria.  If your interest is in Eneolithic Eurasia, or learning Grassmann's Law, Grimm's Law, etc, in quite a classical environment, then Trask's is the book for you.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Pseudoscience: Western Xia Become Navajo? - An Email from Alice Beck Kehoe

I received an email from Alice Beck Kehoe, an archaeologist/anthropologist who holds some ever-so-slightly fringe ideas about pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact - a bit like Betty Meggers, an anthropologist whose expertise was demonstrable but many of whose ideas were contrary to evidence or parsimony.  She emailed me because of a book I mocked, briefly, in a post on The People of Alor: Ethel Stewart's utterly bizarre The Dene and Na-Dene Indian Migrations 1233 A.D.: Escape from Genghis Khan to America, a book claiming to set out the evidence for a recent migration of Sino-Tibetan-speaking people to North America because of the Mongol invasion of the Western Xia polity in the early thirteenth century.  These migrants then became the Athabaskan-speaking populations of western North America, including the Haida, Navajo, and Apache.  I mocked the book because it's totally unsupported and among the worst of fringe archaeology, claiming something downright silly and in defiance of the facts.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Dissimilation - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics' by Crowley and Bowern, Part VIII

This is the eighth part in a series on historical linguistics, using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.  Part IV, here.  Part V, here.  Part VI, here.  Part VII, here.

Having covered all of the features of assimilation, dissimilation should be a piece of cake.  It's just the inverse of assimilation: instead of sounds becoming more similar due to proximity, they become less similar.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Assimilation II - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics' by Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern, Part VII

This is the seventh part in a series on historical linguistics, using Crowley and Bowern's Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.  Part IV, here.  Part V, here.  Part VI, here.

So, last time we dealt with several aspects of assimilation, finishing on one of the most famous sound changes of them all, palatalisation.  This time, we're going to look at assimilation-at-a-distance, final devoicing, and vowel and nasal harmony.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Assimilation I - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics', Part VI

 This is post VI on historical linguistics using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.  Part IV, here.  Part V, here.  The topic of this post is assimilation.

Assimilation is the most common form of sound change, and so it's a good idea to spend time on it.  The essential idea is that sounds in proximity to one another can change one another, and they can do so when they are right next to one another or when they are scattered throughout a word (or even a sentence - pepper becoming 'pecker' in 'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers' is an example of assimilation at a distance).  It's extremely common and found in all languages and language families.  It's different from fusion, in that the sounds do not fuse together to become a single sound.  Instead, they change one another slightly (or completely) but maintain their separateness.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Zero in a Śāka Date from Cambodia, 683 CE

For students of southeast Asian history - or world history, I suppose - this is rather cool: an inscription from Cambodia with the oldest known Eurasian zero inscribed on it.  It's in a date, 605 Shaka.  The Shaka era (Saka, or Śāka; the article uses 'Chaka', which I've not seen anywhere else) began in 78 CE, so the date in the Gregorian calendar would be 683.  The inscription is clearly in the Pallava script.

I doubt this is the earliest zero in the world.  In fact, I'm sure it isn't; there must be Mayan zeroes out there of similar or earlier date, even if they were used for different purposes, and if it has been found in Cambodia to express a date in an Indian calendar in an Indian script, it must have had earlier Indian precedents.  The comments on the article say the same thing.  But still, it's an interesting artifact, one originally discovered by Georges Coedes and rediscovered by the author of that article.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Fusion and Fission - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics', Part V

This is the fifth part in a series on historical linguistics using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.  Part IV, here.

So, on with feature.  Features, as we saw last time, are what phones break down into.  [m] has a set of components, including [+ consonantal] and [+ nasal], and so does [a] and [x] and [ç] and every other phone in every human language.  Of course, we all share the same phone-production equipment, so all sounds have to be able to break down into features that are potentially parseable by any other human brain or vocal apparatus.  In speech, the presence of two phones in close proximity can make them fuse together through the removal of features from one phone and their coming together with other features from the other phone.

Historical Linguistics Has Limitations

I'm finishing up my post on fusion, feature, fission, etc, in the series on historical linguistics, and I'll put that up shortly.  But before I do, I wanted to post something I've been thinking about recently.

There have been some proposals - in fact, many proposals, and they keep on coming - trying to establish a common language family in Eurasia, or Afro-Eurasia, or the Americas, or the world.  People seem to love this kind of research.  Media publications seem to love it, too, with the New York Times and BBC website regularly publishing overviews of these kinds of spurious linguistics.  It looks a lot like science.  It is not science.  The people involved are usually non-linguists applying a non-standard framework to linguistic problems - a phylogeographic model employed by epidemiologists and biologists, for instance, which has graphs and cool jargon and other sciency accoutrements.  It looks convincing to people who don't know anything about linguistics or reconstruction, and it tends to treat languages as if they are something other than languages.  But languages are languages; they aren't genetic entities like living organisms, but 'genetic' entities, with a primarily metaphorical association to the idea of genetic relationship. Treat them as something other than languages and you'll only do it wrong.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Sound Addition, Metathesis, and a bit of Fusion - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics', Part IV

This is the fourth post in a series on historical linguistics, using Introduction to Historical Linguistics by Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern as the source.  Part I is here.  Part II, here.  Part III, here.

Sound addition can be a very common phenomenon.  We can see it in a lot of loanwords, in particular; think of borrowings into Chinese and Japanese, which typically add vowels to break up consonant clusters (Las Vegas becomes Lasi Weijiasi in Chinese).  In fact, breaking consonant clusters into CV (consonant-vowel) structures is a common tendency in human languages, and so this kind of sound addition isn't at all surprising.  Crowley gives the example of English loanwords in Maori, which, like most Oceanic languages (indeed, most Austronesian languages), strongly tends towards CV structures:

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Sound Loss - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics' part III

This is the third part in a series on historical linguistics.  Part I - here.  Part II - here.

You may have twigged to the fact that much historical linguistic work is applied phonetics.  Better understand the nature of sounds in human languages and you'll better understand how they change.  Better understanding how sounds change can help you to reconstruct forms used in the past and provide a reasonably reliable image of past times.  Sounds almost always change in predictable ways - or, perhaps more importantly for the work of historical linguists, in retrodictable ways.  While historical (diachronic) linguists study change in general, most historical linguistic work consists of reconstructing common ancestors of known languages and is therefore retrodictive rather than predictive.  Anyway, it's mostly applied phonetics.  If you know synchronic phonetics inside-out, applying it to historical cases is quite easy - as we'll see later, this is especially true when looking at fusion and assimilation.  In this post, however, we'll be looking at sound loss, which is simpler than fusion if you don't know phonetics so well.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Types of Sound Change: Lenition and Fortition ('An Introduction to Historical Linguistics' by Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern)

This is the second post in a series using Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern's An Introduction to Historical Linguistics as a base to provide a brief introduction to the method to interested parties on the web.  The first part is here.

Sounds in human languages change in more-or-less predictable directions.  Sound changes are the result of the sum of individual decisions, and so they aren't totally predictable - we could all get together and decide to say 'telephune' instead of 'telephone', for instance, and that would be an isolated and pretty peculiar sound change.  But in general they move in similar directions, largely because humans tend to use the same or similar criteria in determining their actions.  As I mentioned in my last post, simplicity and relevance are key factors in human communication, and the maximisation of the effort/effect ratio in speech is probably behind much phonological change.

Monday, 13 May 2013

'An Introduction to Historical Linguistics' - Terry Crowley and Claire Bowern. Part 1: Introduction

This is the first part in a series on historical linguistics, using Crowley and Bowern's book as a base.  Updates will be posted until the book is finished.

One of the best books I read as a graduate student was a book I read on my own initiative with no compulsion from any source.  It appeared on none of the reading lists for any of my courses and I didn't read it to improve my exam scores.  (Actually, this applies to almost all of the reading I did at Oxford!)  This book was An Introduction to Historical Linguistics by the late Terry Crowley, one of the doyens of Pacific linguistics, and Claire Bowern, a linguist at Yale who was primarily responsible for editing and updating the work in the wake of Crowley's untimely death.  I read it because I thought it would be a good introduction to the discipline, which is in turn important for understanding humanity and prehistory.  Having now read a couple of other works on the same subject, I have to say that it's still the most readable book for the novice.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Naturalism and Anthropology

It is normal for humans to consider themselves beyond or above nature.  It isn't that humans oppose 'culture' to 'nature' in a neat binary; it's simply that they don't tend to think of their societies as being part of the natural world, no matter where they live or what society they live in.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Books on Indonesia

Southeast Asian history often feels a little cut off from the rest of the world.  Scholars seldom appear conversant with major languages, like Chinese or Arabic, that are vital for understanding the region, and as a Chinese speaker I am more than a little perturbed by the fact that southeast Asianists are often relying on transcriptions and translations that are over a half a century old, in some cases much more.  Chinese sources for Timorese history used today were translated in 1880 by W. P. Groeneveldt and haven't been translated since, and many other sources are not much younger.  This results in errors - or, at least, it results in orthographies that are incorrect and that make the rest of the work feel a bit more amateurish than it actually is.  This is especially bad when it comes to Indonesia.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Pama-Nyungan and the Language/Farming Dispersal Hypothesis

Australian aboriginal life is almost nightmarishly difficult to find out about.  There are a few popular books on the subject, but these tend to treat indigenous Australians as noble savages or portray ancient Australia as a place with little meaningful cultural variation.  The traditional image of Australian aborigines boils down to little more than living in deserts, foraging for food with boomerangs, killing kangaroos with spears, and maybe having the odd dance.  As there are few accurate popular works dealing with the actuality of Australian life prior to Europeanisation, it is unlikely that this popular image will change.  Even the academic works are hard to get hold of or prohibitively expensive, and even if you live in Australia it is easier to find books on the prehistory of Indo-European than it is to find out about Pama-Nyungan (see below).

Sunday, 3 March 2013

'Embedded in the Social'

When we speak of something being 'embedded' in social considerations, or even (a cumbersome and ugly phrase) 'embedded in the social', what we mean is that considerations of status and abstract relationships form part of the reasons for a particular action.  'The social', so-called (the influence of French academics should be obvious in the use of this hideous terminology), is often thought of as a disembodied milieu in which things happen; it is thought of as an over-arching whole encompassing human actions rather than just another set of reasons for action.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Violence in Pre-Colonial Amazonia

     I've recently been reading Comparative Arawakan Histories, a collection of some excellent essays on Arawak societies and their cultural histories edited by Jonathan Hill and Fernando Santos-Granero. Arawak (or 'Maipurean') is a language family of South America and the Antilles, and Arawak languages produced many of the words we use in English for American products and ideas (maize, canoe, hurricane, cannibal, etc). Arawak-speaking groups appear to show remarkable consistencies in social structure and what we might term 'culture'.

      In particular, hierarchically-arranged chiefdoms and the deliberate disavowal of endo-warfare (that is to say, warfare within the group) and feuding, as well as the preference for creating strong alliances with other groups (especially other Arawak-speaking groups), mark out Arawak populations across the continent. Arawak languages are found from the Andean foothills in southern Amazonia through to the Caribbean, and these principles, with changes, are recurrent throughout the language area.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Southeast Asian Scripts and Sanskrit

Everyone on the net seems to be talking about Napoleon Chagnon.  I have nothing to add to this debate and it has descended into name-calling.  A lot of the same accusations are flying again - Chagnon hates the Yanomami, Neel and Chagnon had Yanomami people kill one another in exchange for axes and money, etc. - despite their having been debunked repeatedly.  It's boring and annoying, so I'm going to focus on something else: southeast Asia inscriptions and Sanskrit.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Mick Aston interview with Oxbow Books

Mick Aston, familiar to many Britons as one of the archaeologists on Time Team, has answered questions in an interview with Oxbow books.  As Oxbow is a local company (their office/bookshop is right around the corner from mine), and as the questions are quite good if local British archaeology is your thing, I thought I'd post the interview on here for any interested parties.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sedentary Foragers (and other non-industrial economic peculiarities)

A lot of people think that the 'Neolithic revolution' happened in more-or-less a single bound: sedentism, farming, pastoralism, ground-stone celts, pottery, and so on, all happening together, or causing one another.  In many causes, these traits do co-occur.  The domestication of animals in the Near East coincided almost exactly with the domestication of grains, and while the domesticating communities didn't use pottery, they did use ground-stone tools and other Neolithic-y traits.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Eteocypriot in the Ashmolean Museum

I was recently in the Ashmolean Museum, one of the oldest and greatest history museums in the world (certainly one of the greatest in terms of the quality of its research).  As it is free to enter, like many museums in Britain, I tend to pop in there whenever I get the chance.  I also happen to be an amateur epigrapher.  Recently, I've been trying to find out more about the Cretan and Cypriot scripts - Linear A, Linear B, Cypriot, and so on - and as the Ashmolean happens to have some of the best Cretan and Cypriot collections in the world (especially for a museum of its size), I went in with a high-quality notepad and jotted down some samples for my own amusement.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

'Linguistic Time Machine'

There's a big buzz at the moment about the new programme, developed at Berkeley, to reconstruct past languages.  The media is treating it as if it's an entirely new thing - as if the software alone gives academics the ability to reconstruct proto-languages - but, of course, it isn't, and most of the methods of historical linguistic analysis have been around for about 150 years.  The computer just makes it easier.

Monday, 11 February 2013

David Graeber and Brad DeLong (etc)

The most remarkable comments thread I've seen in a while has just been going down on Savage Minds.  David Graeber has been trying to defend his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, from sceptical economists and sociologists, and the whole thing has descended into farce, with Berkeley economist Brad DeLong turning up, ad hominems flying about the place, and accusations of lying and misreading showing up in nearly every comment.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

The Atheist and Sceptic Movements

When it comes to social movements or organisations, I'm not a joiner. At Oxford, I tended to hang out with people from other colleges.  I have never been a member of a religious movement.  I've never become such a huge fan of a band that I stopped listening to other bands or genres.  I'm not patriotic or nationalistic.  I've never liked being part of a group in that way, despite being a generally sociable guy; I like being around people, I just don't like joining things.  I'm especially suspicious of movements based on abstract concepts.  They always involve some flexibility in the core concept - 'atheism' defined however you like - because the aim of a movement can never be simply finding out about an idea or promoting something for its own good.  Movements have to be made into larger movements, because the larger a movement is, the more revenue and/or prestige the founders and those associated with them will accrue.

Cognitive Causes

The way humans work, in general, is that events in their nervous systems cause physical actions in their bodies.  This is the same process as occurs in all animals.  Sparrows' actions are caused by events in their nervous systems.  Humans just have more complex nervous systems than sparrows do.  This seems to me to be an important point: if humans do anything, ever, it is due to things affecting their nervous systems, which in turn cause physical actions.  This is the route of causation in all of human action, and as all of human society and culture reduces to the actions and thoughts of individual humans, it is the way in which social and cultural phenomena are caused as well.  In order for 'the economy', 'culture', 'neo-liberalism', etc, to affect human actions, they have to affect human nervous systems.

Friday, 8 February 2013

'Anthropology Is Not A Science'

Gene Expression by Razib Khan is a wonderful blog about the human sciences by a sensible, scientifically-minded chap who also manages to write clearly about complex topics - even about race, a topic that is nothing if not a minefield.  I've followed Gene Expression on and off for years, and I was subscribed to it while it was part of the ScienceBlogs fold.  It left a long time ago, as did many other excellent blogs, causing an unfortunate fragmentation of the science blogosphere and making it harder to keep up with the blogs I used to follow; many of them have joined other blogging stables, including Freethought Blogs (which has largely abandoned the topics covered by ScienceBlogs) and Discover magazine (which has taken the lion's share of the good ScienceBlogs content).

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Corpus of Cham Inscriptions

The inscriptions of Campa ('Champa') are now available for free online as part of the Corpus of the Inscriptions of Campa project.  This is good news indeed for southeast Asianists with limited budgets.  Campa was an assortment of Indicised Austronesian-speaking kingdoms that existed in southern Vietnam in the first millennium CE.  The Cham people had enemies to the north, in the form of Dai Viet (Annam/Annan), and to the west, in the form of Angkor.  They were also responsible for the oldest discovered inscription in southeast Asia, the Vo Canh inscription.  Their kingdoms were assimilated into Vietnam in the last millennium.

Cham Script (a later development; h/t wikipedia)

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Stephen Corry on Diamond

This is a short reply to Stephen Corry's article on Diamond's new book.  Corry claimed that tribal societies - the sort his organisation, Survival International, was ostensibly founded to protect - were/are about as peaceful as modern democratic states, or perhaps even more peaceful than them.  This is not the truth, and Corry's argument amounted to little more than the moralistic fallacy ('it would be bad if that were true, ergo it isn't').

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Why Europe? II

I said in my previous post that Europe in 800 CE was not a 'backwater', and justified it by saying that Europe was literate and urban with trade links to the rest of Eurasia that were non-trivial.  At the same time, it is clear that Europe was quite poor at that time, especially in comparison to the Abbasid caliphate or China (both of which had undergone considerable strife in the preceding century, it should be pointed out).  But the point isn't to understand how Europe became wealthy - the answer to that question is reasonably obvious (hint: it involves global conquest).  The point is to answer the question of how Europe achieved the means to become wealthy (ie, the global conquest part).  Europe's success in conquering the world didn't require prior wealth - certainly no more than any other conquest did - and I think it is still eminently reasonable to see Europe's later dominance as having some precedents in 'dark age' Europe.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Why Europe?

The Atlantic Ocean is quite small.  It isn't anything like the size of the Pacific.  The North Atlantic, in particular, is a relatively short stretch.  To a small, fast vessel capable sailing into the wind, the Atlantic doesn't present much of a problem.

Saturday, 26 January 2013


Here's something amazing: this script originated in Egypt over five thousand years ago.  This writing system, this way of recording information so that you and others can benefit from it, is the direct ancestor of the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

New issue of the Bijdragen

The new Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde is out.  If you're interested in Timor, like I am, then you may like the piece on water symbolism in Tetun-speaking Koba Lima, on the Indonesia-Timor Leste border (south coast).  There's also a new article by Roxana Waterson, whose work is generally very good (see her The Living House: An Anthropology of Architecture in South-East Asia for a readable and beautiful survey of houses and social structure in the Malay archipelago).  Honestly, the other submissions failed to set my world alight, but I don't really mind - this is a free journal, and while I do have JSTOR access, I'm still appreciative when an organisation decides to spend its money on opening up its content to the world, even when it is about a subject as far from public interest as the ethnology of southeast Asia.

If nothing catches your eye there, don't forget to search the archives!  Some great old articles, including the earliest accounts of the Kutai inscriptions in English.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Guns, Germs, and Steel (again)

I've been reading a few of the articles anthropologists have written on Guns, Germs, and Steel recently, and I'm unimpressed by most of them.  Almost all of them repeat the common straw man errors and blatant misrepresentations that have caused the book to be seen as foreign to anthropology rather than important to it.  Jason Antrosio, for instance, repeats the tired trope about how being given technologies, like steel weapons or naval vessels, doesn't require turning them on other human beings.  This is obviously true, but entirely trivial, and Antrosio takes it to a ridiculous extreme.  Take a look at this statement:

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Freedom and Non-State Societies - 'Savage Minds'

I've decided to comment on another Savage Minds post, this time by Alex Golub (aka Rex).  Rex is reading through Diamond's book and blogging about it piece-by-piece.  In his latest post, I was struck by this comment: 
Let’s face it, people living in a world without the state, bureaucracy, police, and complex networks of material culture allied with these forces (fences, locks, concrete barriers) lived in a world of much greater freedom than those of us who have passports today. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went there.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A reply to a comment on Savage Minds

 This post is just an extended comment to Clare Sammells, an anthropologist who posted on the blog Savage Minds about Jared Diamond and his work.  The original comment can be found at that link.

European Technology's Prehistoric Roots

This is a follow-up post to the earlier one regarding a comment made on the anthropology group blog, Savage Minds.  Here, I'm trying to explain, in detail, why the distaste at Diamond is so misguided.

The end conclusion seems to be, yes, people in PNG (or wherever) are our equals, and if only they had wheat/horses/small pox instead of potatoes/llamas/syphilis, they’d be running the world economy now instead of us.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Preliminary thoughts - The World Until Yesterday

The big buzz in popular anthropology at the moment is Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday.  Diamond is a Marmite sort of guy; I happen to like his approach a lot, but some people absolutely hate it.*  This hatred is probably partly due to jealousy - Diamond has no formal qualifications in anthropology, and yet he's successful as a purveyor of insights about non-industrial humans.  A lot of anthropologists hate him for that, and they shouldn't, because it is certainly possible to be good at something without having any formal training in it (duh), especially something like anthropology, which contains hardly any technical knowledge these days.  Some of the hatred is due to legitimate flaws in his approach.  Certainly, Diamond's endorsement of the farming/language dispersal hypothesis is problematic, because it doesn't seem to be based on sound linguistic reasoning (or archaeological reasoning, for that matter).  Languages spread for a bunch of reasons, as far as I can tell, only one of which is down to population growth allowed for by agriculture and sedentism or the power of new cultigens.  Diamond's views can be a teensy bit simplistic.  They usually aren't, but they can be.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

'The People of Alor' and Anthropology

I've been filling up the Kindle with books and articles, and managed to find - for free! - the classic work, The People of Alor (1944), by the American anthropologist Cora DuBois.  DuBois was one of those early twentieth-century American anthropologists fascinated by personality and the effect of culture and experience on the psychological welfare of the individual - quite a noble project in its aims, of course, but not necessarily framed in the most politically-correct way.  She decided to go to Alor, an island north of Timor, to study what she thought were the psychological pathologies of the Malayan peoples, although she did realise, in the course of fieldwork, that Alorese people are not so culturally similar to people in the western side of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago.  (In fact, she ended up writing a bit on Abui, a non-Malayo-Polynesian language of Alor.)

Monday, 7 January 2013

Social Facts, and a little about Searle's theory of them

See my earlier posts here and here.

Explanation in social science has to be a) reductionist in principle and b) holist in practice.  This is because social facts and other social phenomena reduce to human actions and mental states, but reducing them to this for explanatory purposes would require knowing each and every action and plausibly-ascribed thought that had a causal role in producing the social phenomenon, and this is probably impossible.  Likewise, the properties of a dodo entirely reduce to the atoms that compose it, but knowing precisely how they all inter-relate in producing the actions of a single dodo, let alone the species, is impossible.  (Dodos are extinct, after all, so we can't reconstruct very much beyond generalities!)  In social science as in biology, we can and should accept the view that all sociological phenomena reduce to human thoughts and actions while using entities for explanatory purposes that we do not necessarily have to explain in terms of those individual thoughts and actions.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Holism (again)

In my last substantive post, I outlined the difference between reductionism and holism, and showed how anthropologists tend to get it wrong in using these terms to outline theoretical differences (especially with regard to complexity and explanation).  But there is another way in which anthropologists, and other social scientists, use the word 'holistic'.  It isn't to do directly with complexity, or with the tradition, from Herbert Spencer on, of treating societies as wholes that amount to more than the sum of their parts (the classic holist premise, embodied primarily in the sociology of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown).  This other use isn't holism in its classic sense, and isn't really an ontological term at all.  Instead, these anthropologists are using 'holism' to describe an approach that attempts to integrate data from several streams.  So we might say 'a holistic approach to the peopling of the Pacific' (see Patrick Kirch (2010) 'Peopling of the Pacific: a holistic anthropological perspective', Annual Review of Anthropology 39: 131-148), or 'holistic anthropology' as a generally-applicable phrase (see David Parkin's and Stanley Ulijaszek's book of this title, 2007, Oxford: Berghahn).

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Upcoming posts

I was given a Kindle Fire for Christmas along with several books, so I'm going to spend the next few weeks reviewing some of them.  These include R. A. Donkin's Between East and West, about the Moluccan spice trade, and the trade in sandalwood (which actually comes from Timor, not Maluku) before European domination (see Gerrit Knaap's review here); Ted Nield's Supercontinent, a pop-sci book about the formation of the continents of the planet earth; Flannery and Marcus's The Origins of Inequality, a brilliant popular account of the development of inequality in human societies (I'm only about 20% through it, but it's great stuff thus far); Champa and the Archaeology of Mỹ Sơn (Vietnam) by a collection of authors, about, well, Champa and the archaeology of Mỹ Sơn, Vietnam's premier archaeological site; Brotherhood of Kings, by the historian Amanda Podany, about diplomacy in Egypt and the ancient Near East; and Ian Tattersall's The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE, part of OUP's line of works on the history of the world (a good place to start for world history, although quite uneven in terms of quality).  I've also started After the Ice, Steven Mithen's classic on human history between 20,000 and 5,000 BCE, but since that's so well-known and well-reviewed elsewhere, I won't be saying much about it, except that it's a really great read.

Stay tuned for reviews of these books and a few other bits and bobs.  Happy New Year!