Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 26 · Spring 1996

Victor Mair's Superb Conference

A most valuable example of one ASLIP ideal, mutually stimulating interdisciplinary work, was shown to what I want to call perfection in Philadelphia in April. The convening of experts on all aspects of the prehistory and ethnology of East Turkestan (Sinkiang) was managed by Victor and his friendly team of Pennsylvanians.

A fair number of long rangers were there, and it was a pleasure to meet some of them, yet the conference was a short range one. Rather than focusing on a long range topic, we all were bound by the time limits set by Indo-European and the archeology of Sinkiang -- 6 kya. Malheureusement, there are too many excellent papers to report on, not even the abstracts which we had hoped to put in MT-26. We will perforce be most selective in what we report. My apologies! But only things relevant to common concerns can be included.

Sensa dubbio, the peak of it all came at the end -- the semi-debate between Renfrew and Mallory over I-E dates and homelands. Sophisticated but amiable and a treat to the audience, the pair taught us much prehistory. Their talks were separate, not in a formal debate format, yet each disputed the other's past commentary on the questions. No clear victor (save Mair!) but each scored some heavy points. JPM scored against CR's chronology; CR scored against JPM & Anthony re horses. Great debate!

Here are other key points:

(1) Tongmao Zhao (NIH) showed that Uighur Turks, now dominant people in Sinkiang, were 55% European in blood/serological groups. Kazakh were 35%, Hui 14% and Dongxiang 26%. Someone pointed out that such was al-ready obvious in Uighur faces. We all reflected on this 'simple' truth.

(2) Paolo Francalacci (Sassari) tested DNA from 'Tocharian' mummies, got enough mtDNA to tell something, and concluded that the mummies were certainly Europeans, adding that Euros were very homogeneous actually but included Turks and Lebanese. [Probably Jews too-HF]

(3) Chinese scholar, AN Zhimin, concluded that the Bronze Age came to North China via the Tocharians; this startled us.

(4) Donald Ringe talked about his new 'computational cladist-ics' which frankly mystified most listeners. He also made a statement which caused me to doubt his usefulness to prehistorians. A rough quote is: "What matters about all this is the method. The results are not important." I would say that meant he was playing theoretical games in preference to history. Still his results interested the conference because he 'found' Indo-Hittite to be valid, i.e., Hittite is the first split off or coordinate to the rest of IE.

(5) Eric Hamp was a traditional methodological opposite to Ringe but also, unbelievably, found Indo-Hittite to be valid. Sturtevant would have loved this. Hamp also produced a leit motif for his paradigm. Again a rough quote: "Our job is to produce an absolutely spotless reconstruction of proto-Indo-European; nothing else really matters." Does that sound like the voice of Neo-Grammarians in the 20th century? Nothing in this about taxonomy or prehistory. And since the perfect reconstruction is forever eluding our grasp, his brand of linguistics looks more and more like the Arthurian pursuit of The Holy Grail. Anyone for Camelot?

(6) Michael Puet (Harvard, East Asian Studies) gave a paper full of wisdom in which he advised the 'New Archeologists' or the 'Process Archeologists' to admit some diffusion sometimes in their explanations. Local process does not always explain things, he said. (We hope to get more of his paper another time.) During questions, Colin Renfrew supported Puet's main argument.

Michael had written his paper before a big discussion of Bronze Age metallurgy in which the amazingly rapid spread of that technology from the Atlantic to the Pacific (in the 'civilized' world) begged for explanation. During our talks, I was very surprised to be twice attacked by irritated colleagues for being so 'old-fashioned' as to suggest diffusion as a model.

I guess I forgot how much basic ethnological theory has been lost by so many. In any 'theory course' with diachronic problems in it the traditional dichotomy of invention versus diffusion remains valid. Oddly enough, historical linguistics is not confused at all on this point; nor is biogenetics or paleoanthropology. But archeology has allowed its children to believe that only invention counts, for isn't that what 'process' archeology is all about? (Plus high tech digs.)

(7) While no single paper proved that the mummies spoke Tocharian or whatever, and while a great deal of evidence for an Iranian presence in Sinkiang surfaced, still we generally reached a consensus -- the initial conclusion that the mummies spoke Tocharian was probably true. And these Tochari had come from the west off the great steppes, had come from PIE, had greatly influenced ancient Turkic folk, living on in the modern Uighurs.

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory