Phylogeny vs Reticulation in Prehistory

By Bellwood, Peter | Antiquity, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Phylogeny vs Reticulation in Prehistory


Bellwood, Peter, Antiquity


The debate

We were standing in front of a painting with two white water lilies. I stepped a little closer to the picture and looked at it. It was then that I noticed that the lilies were nothing but blobs and blotches of paint. But when I stepped away again, they turned into real water lilies floating in a pond - magic?

BJORK & ANDERSON 1987: 14-15

It takes only a limited perusal of the ethnographic record to make the observation that human languages, cultures and gene pools do not co-vary in absolute unison. Politically-motivated attempts to make them co-vary, as we see in current arenas of ethnic conflict, always end in tragedy and disaster. Despite this, it is also apparent that cases of relatively strong co-variation have occurred in some instances in the past human pattern. A number of geneticists have recently presented evidence which they believe indicates a relatively close relationship between language families and genetic geography on a world scale (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1988; 1994; Ruiz-Linares et al. 1995; Chen et al. 1995). Despite criticism, on grounds which vary from technical through theoretical to purely ethical (e.g. Bateman et al. 1990; Nei & Choudhury 1993; Moore 1995; Pluciennik 1996), the underlying logic of some degree of correlation between large-scale linguistic and genetic entities cannot easily be overturned.

This paper, not dealing with genetic data per se, focuses on an allied perspective from archaeology and linguistics. This perspective should clarify aspects of historical trajectory essential for any balanced consideration of such large-scale issues of correlation. It involves the respective roles of reticulation and phylogeny in the generation of cultural and linguistic patterns of variation. Reticulate models, as recently presented by anthropologists and archaeologists, stress the importance of continuing processes of interaction between contemporary communities. Phylogenetic models, stressing commonality of descent, imply dispersal by culturally and linguistically related populations from common origins in circumscribed homeland regions. The intention of this paper is to counter the growing tendency in the archaeological and anthropological literature to see only reticulate models as representing cultural reality, with phylogeny as a red herring in human cultural affairs (e.g. Terrell 1988; Rowlands 1994; Moore 1994a; 1994b). Both are necessary: reticulate models, if applied alone to explain long-term patterns of prehistoric cultural and biological variation, can overlook the large-scale patterning visible on continental and millennial scales in the linguistic and archaeological records.

Reticulate processes of pattern-formation

In two recent papers, Moore (1994a; 1994b) has asked how 'ethnic groups' - the named ethno-linguistic entities studied by ethnographers have been generated throughout the human past and in the ethnographic record. Moore criticizes 'bifurcatory' (phylogenetic) models and promotes 'rhizotic' (reticulate) ones. Reticulate processes focus on a continuous and relatively uncoordinated shifting of linguistic, cultural and biological boundaries through assimilation, intermarriage, borrowing and diffusion. According to Moore, they represent the true foundations of ethnogenesis; so interaction and borrowing, rather than the transmission of inherited traits, have always been the main sources of human cultural and biological variation.

Reticulate models have a distinguished pedigree. As stated by Jean Hiernaux over 30 years ago, referring to biological populations (Hiernaux 1964: 42):

Even if we could reconstruct the intricate succession of mixtures that contributed to each living population, the final picture would look like a reticulum more than a tree, and a reticulum defies dichotomizing subdivision.

A similar model was adopted by Morton Fried (1975) for the genesis of pre-state societies. Today the concept, albeit in varying guises, is commonplace. …

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