Neolithic Insights (Chap. 21)

Neolithic Insights and Archaeolinguistics

In his book Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes (Random House, 2008,2009), linguist/ethnographer Daniel Everett recounts his work and adventures recording the language and culture of a small group of inhabitants of the Amazon jungle, the Pirahã. While reading this account recently, I got a number of interesting insights into some hitherto peculiar (to me) aspects of the Neolithic culture of Mesopotamia, the first cradle of civilization.

The first thing that grabbed my brain was Everett’s discussion of the inherent equality of the Pirahã individuals: everyone is entirely responsible for his own food and other problems, with no leaders, no one in charge. Early Neolithic villages in the Near East and SE Europe have always seemed so remarkable in their lack of differentiation: no house bigger, fancier, richer, or more central than any other, likewise for the burials; and the representations of humans show identical silhouetted figures dancing around the rims of pots. (By contrast, Early Bronze Age and later settlements in the Near East show large, rich, central houses, soon becoming palaces; while the representations of humans show large-sized leaders giving feasts for smaller retainers, served by yet smaller servants, including musicians—no more egalitarian circle-dances.) Reading the descriptions of Pirahã behavior, I suddenly found the Neolithic data fitting into a known and reasonable world, though very unlike our own.

Presently I hit Everett’s linguistically fascinating account of all the things not found in Pirahã, including abstractions such as color terms, quantifiers (“all, each, every”), and especially numbers, which the Pirahã were unable to grasp despite their best efforts. (They desperately wanted to learn numbers so that they wouldn’t be cheated by the Brazilian traders, but their cultural traditions excluded the process of generalizing or forming abstractions.) Denise Schmandt-Besserat, in her extensive work on the origin of cuneiform and of our own numbers, has documented how it took some 3500 years to move from a simple one-to-one tallying system for livestock (this little ball of clay = this sheep, this other ball of clay = that sheep, this little cone of clay = this cow, and so on) to abstract numerals with names and abstract notations. In essence, as the tally system got to be too much to handle, on one dimension or another, the system repeatedly folded in on itself, creating greater and greater levels of abstraction/generalization, until finally POP! it generated both abstract numbers above 2 and the abstract writing of language as rebuses, all at once, around 3200 BCE. (Proto-Indo-European and proto-Semitic show borrowing of the very same labels for numbers above 5, an event that must have happened at almost exactly this time.) The final “pop” was almost certainly the result of a different group of people (the Sumerians) coming into Mesopotamia around 3500 BC, trying to learn the clumsy accounting system that had evolved, and saying, “Um, there’s gotta be a better way…” (My own research suggests strongly that all major breakthroughs in creating more efficient writing systems have been the result of new people coming in and looking at an old system in a whole new way.) Until I understood how the Pirahã could fail to understand generalization/abstraction, I could not see how the notion of number could have arisen so late in the development of the Mesopotamian tally system. When I finally understood that, then I could finally see how both numbers and writing language might in fact come into being at the same moment: the “pop” moment.

Everett also describes 5 “channels” of speech used in Pirahã, a tone language with a very small roster of consonants and vowels. (I love the fact that because you can’t whisper tones, the Pirahã equivalent of whispering ends up being humming.) Martin Joos’s little book, The Five Clocks (1962), posits 5 levels or channels for English, the more formal of which transmit explicit information while the least formal transmit principally social signals. As I cogitated Everett’s descriptions, I began to get a new angle on why the phonology and grammar of Pirahã should be so very simple: for the most part, members of this small group of speakers (he estimates 400 or so, at one point) merely need to “register” the presence or relevance of known information (Joos’s “intimate” level), not explain new things (Joos’s top 3 levels). At the intimate level, we too can talk without segmental phonemes, as when we intone “I don’t know!” with only our vocal cords. They clearly also use his “casual” and occasionally even “consultative” levels, but we ourselves ignore much of available English grammar at these smaller-than-paragraph levels of communication.

It was also interesting to me that Everett ran smack into a communication problem that my husband and I have written about in our work on ancient mythology (When They Severed Earth from Sky; 2005). We call it the Silence Principle: people just don’t say what they assume everyone already knows. As Everett points out, the Pirahã father doesn’t have to tell his son all the steps for shooting a fish, because these speakers already share maybe 95% of their knowledge-base. Now think about what happens when we try to understand an ancient text—especially a “myth” that was encoded eons ago into a form compact enough to make it through oral/memory channels more or less intact. The compaction includes not saying what everyone [in that culture] already knows. Quiz: what was the Golden Calf? Drawing on our knowledge, we’d say it was a statue made of gold and depicting a calf. But if you had been living in ancient Egypt for several generations, you would grow up knowing that the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, appearing as a cow standing four-square over the earth with the stars on her belly and her head in the west, gave birth each morning to…well, duh, a golden calf. It’s just sun-worship at dawn.

In retrospect, I want to thank Everett profusely for his repeated defense of working from masses of real, observed data, rather than starting from theory. As Charlie Chan quips in one of those old detective movies, “Theory like fog on glasses: obstructs vision!”