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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

Languages and Prehistory

Languages contain buried clues that can help us trace the prehistory of happens so rapidly, when a population splits, the two resulting groups can end up after some time speaking two separate, mutually incomprehensible tongues.

Each language is thus one piece in the puzzle to tracing ancient human migrations that led people to the Americas, Polynesia, and so on. Linguistic evidence from shared vocabulary may also reveal prehistoric contacts among unrelated peoples. Two native languages of southern California have in their vocabularies some special words referring to canoes and canoe-making technology.

These appear to have been borrowed from ancient Polynesians who must have sailed to California in prehistoric times.55 Often linguistic evidence is needed to supplement archeological and genetic data in understanding the history of human habitation and contact patterns around the globe.

For example, genetic evidence clearly points to links between natives of Central Siberia and North America, as the two groups share unique traits not found elsewhere.56 But linguistic links between Siberians and Native humans and their migrations around the globe. Because language change Americans have proved elusive. Languages change so rapidly that after only 1,000 or so years of divergence, what were once close dialects may change beyond recognition, even though the peoples themselves retain cultural or genetic similarities.

Linguist Edward Vajda has found intriguing parallels in verb structure and sound correspondences in basic vocabulary that link the Siberian language Ket (990 speakers) to native Alaskan languages like Tlingit (700 speakers) and Eyak (1 speaker), and to the more geographically distant Navajo (148,000 speakers).57 Though controversial and awaiting further research, Vajda’s initial results are tantalizing and may provide elusive clues about the prehistoric peopling of the Americas.

They may provide the first solid linguistic link between the populations of North Asia and North America, revealing something about Ice-Age migrations of human populations. Another intriguing puzzle of human prehistory, and one that linguistics may help solve, is cultural evolution.

Humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture in different places and times. The Mlabri people living in the hills of Thailand and Laos practice a very different way of life than do other peoples in the area, who are all settled agriculturalists. The Mlabri roam the forests, building temporary houses of leaves, and surviving by hunting and gathering.

It was assumed that the Mlabri must therefore be descendants of an original hunter-gatherer people who had never adopted agriculture. But when genetic tests were done, the Mlabri showed surprisingly little genetic diversity, indicating that their entire population must have sprung from a common ancestor (perhaps a single woman and from one to four males) as recently as 500 to 1,000 years ago.

Linguistic studies revealed that the Mlabri tongue is related to Tin (46,000 speakers), also spoken in the hills of Thailand. In diverging from Tin, Mlabri underwent a series of well-defined sound and grammar changes over a millennium to bring it to its present form. But since the Tin are known to have been practicing agriculture for well over 1,000 years, the Mlabri would seem to present a rare case of recent reversion from a once agriculturalist society to a hunter-gatherer one.

Support for the reversion hypothesis is found in many Mlabri words and myths that refer to agriculture. Scientists do not know what founding event led the Mlabri to go off on their own, abandon agriculture, and become roving forest dwellers. By looking at both genes and languages, it is possible to peer deeper into the past of the Mlabri and thus reconstruct one small part of human prehistory.

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