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The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes: A search for early migratory relations between North and South America

Final Report Summary - MESANDLIN(G)K (The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes: A search for early migratory relations between North and South America)

The ERC project entitled “The Linguistic Past of Mesoamerica and the Andes” (MesAndLin[g]k) is a multidisciplinary project developed under the guidance of Willem F.H. Adelaar (PI) and Sören K. Wichmann (Co-I) at Leiden University and, initially, also at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. In its final stage Oxford University was involved alongside Leiden University. The project seeks to integrate insights from linguistics, human genetics, and archaeology to understand pre-Columbian connections between coastal areas of South America (mainly northern Peru and Ecuador) and the Pacific coast of Mesoamerica. This document gives a summary of the project, and ends with a summary of the project’s outputs and dissemination activities.

A major problem in our understanding of the prehistory of the Americas is that, despite the relatively recent peopling of the region, linguistic and economic connections between South America and Mesoamerica have been elusive. However, in the 1990s, this began to change when Hosler and Anawalt, among others, showed evidence of maritime and coastal contact between these two regions. Apart from the earliest population migrations, which in general must have followed a north-to-south direction, incidental contacts occurred in more recent times when the areas compared were already settled by dense, agricultural populations. Such contacts, which may have extended from 600 CE to the arrival of the Europeans, have left cultural traces in parts of Mesoamerica—most importantly, in the shape of bronze production based on an alloy of copper and arsenic. This technology was developed in the Americas among the Mochica and neighboring peoples of the Peruvian north coast in the initial centuries of the present era, but may have had earlier antecedents further inland in the Andes. Later on, at the beginning of the proposed contact period, a similar technology appeared in northwestern Mexico, in the state of Michoacán and adjacent areas, which at the time of the European conquest was home to the kingdom of the Tarascans (or Purepecha), rulers of a multinational state rival to the Aztecs. Their language is a linguistic isolate, both lexically and typologically very different from the surrounding Mesoamerican languages. There is no substantial evidence of language contact between this dominant language and the neighboring languages, which suggests an origin foreign to its present location. There are notable typological similarities between the Purepecha language and the Quechuan and Aymaran languages of the Central Andes in South America, but thus far no systematic lexical or formal correspondences can be found that would prove that they share a common origin.

Other maritime contact between the Andean Pacific coast and Mesoamerica can be derived from the distribution and trade of Spondylus shells. These shells fulfilled an important ritual function in ancient Peru and were apparently imported from Mesoamerica once the coastal waters of Ecuador were depleted. Similarities in clothing and funerary practices between ancient northwestern Mexico and Ecuador also suggest migratory contact, though this has not been shown conclusively. In addition, genetic research on the basis of modern human DNA, conducted within the framework of our project, has revealed admixture—albeit limited—between Andean and Mesoamerican DNA in several Mesoamerican locations close to the Pacific. One of these locations is Michoacán, a center of the pre-Columbian metalworking technology as noted above.

In the domain of linguistics, members of the project’s research team have built a database of maritime vocabulary in the languages of the Pacific coastal region between northwestern Mexico and north-central Peru. Some of these languages are extinct, while others are still spoken, It appears that the indigenous languages that have been recorded in the areas relevant to the proposed migrations exhibit few indications of possible long-distance contact. High numbers of linguistic lineages (that is, linguistic isolates, small language families without known relatives, as well as a few larger language families) constitute a common pattern in the Americas, and the area under scrutiny is no exception to this trend. Since the pace of linguistic change in the agricultural societies of Mesoamerica and the Andes appears to be rather slow, the extreme differentiation of the indigenous languages of the Americas must have been the result of events that took place at an early point of time long before the scope of modern observation. These events may have been succeeded by a long history of linguistic conservatism, as can be derived from developments in linguistic areas that produced written documents or inscriptions across several millennia, as in the case of the Mayan area of Mesoamerica.

A similar conclusion can be reached with respect to the Central Andes, where advanced reconstructive and areal-typological research is still feasible. A thorough reconstruction of the earliest recoverable layers of the major Andean linguistic lineages—Quechuan and Aymaran—has been achieved by identifying the source of their shared vocabulary. These linguistic lineages were transformed by an intense contact situation that pre-dates the internal differentiation visible in the present-day Quechuan and Aymaran families. This process of identification, which relies on the phonotactic differences between lexical roots in each family, has revealed the direction of the borrowing underlying the shared lexicon. It appears that most of the borrowed lexical items have their origin in Quechuan. It has thus become possible to uncover the original profile of each of the two lineages, thus opening up space for further comparisons between them at earlier stages of their development, as well as with other linguistic lineages in the region. Consequently, it is now possible to make external comparisons involving the lexicon of either one of the two main Andean lineages without having to refer to the other.

Another important issue regarding the prehistory of South America is the linguistic and socio-economic dynamics of the inter-regional contact between the Andes and the adjacent Amazonian lowlands. This was the topic of a symposium organized by the project and of several publications. It also includes work on Trans-Andean contact relations involving, for instance, the (coastal) Mochica language and the (pre-Andine) Cholón-Hibito languages, which used to be spoken on the eastern slopes of the Andes in a transitional area to the Amazonian lowlands.

A major challenge for this project has been interpreting the prehistoric linguistic situation of the coastal and Andean regions of northern Peru and Ecuador, which were decimated by European epidemics, forced migrations, and ruthless violence during and after the Conquest . These languages were also neglected when there were still living speakers in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Project members have contributed to the reconstruction and external comparison of some of these languages, including Mochica, Quingnam, Cholón, and Tallán. In addition, one of the linguists of the team has contributed a monograph on the extinct languages of northern Peru, which brings together the dispersed and miscellaneous information that can still be linked to them. The method employed in this work is a kind of linguistic reconstitution based on heterogeneous sources, and represents an innovative methodological approach.

Three team members have participated in the interpretation of Puquina, an extinct language of the southern central Andes that survives only in a single colonial text. A study of Puquina kinship vocabulary has been submitted for publication. The interpretation of modern data from undocumented languages that have become extinct in a relatively recent time is represented by a study on the so-called Lengua X of Bolivia.

The languages of the so-called Intermediate Area, the Central American isthmus that simultaneously separates and connects the two New World poles of higher civilization identified by archaeologists, have received due attention in an in-depth study of the external relations of the Chibchan language family. The Chibchan family originally covered most of Central America east of Guatemala, as well as parts of Colombia and Venezuela. A member of the team has demonstrated that the Chibchan lineage exhibits a relatively close relationship, both in terms of language contact and possible inherited features, with the Macro-Jê languages spoken in the eastern lowlands of South America (Brazil and Bolivia). This conclusion contrasts with earlier efforts to link the Chibchan language family to Mesoamerican or North American languages.

A further area of attention of the project has been the systematic bilateral comparison of pairs of language lineages that are not known to be related. This is one of the only ways to learn more about the deeper genealogical relationships among the language families of the region. In this approach, the basic vocabulary of each language under consideration is subjected to an internal analysis that can be described as morphological deconstruction. Several team members have contributed to this task with a number of proposals, such as a link between Chocoan (near the Pacific coast of Colombia and Panamá) and Yaruro or Pumé (Venezuela), and a possible connection between Páez (Andean Colombia) and the eastern Oto-Manguean languages of Central Mexico (in particular, the Zapotecan languages of Oaxaca). Although tentative at the present stage, these comparisons offer interesting perspectives for future research.

The development of quantitative historical linguistic methods has been a major concern of the project, as can be seen in numerous publications co-authored by Co-I Wichmann. They belong to three prominent strands: (a) methodologies for using phonological and lexical evidence in the reconstruction of past events; (b) models of linguistic prehistory; and (c) case studies in the prehistory of the Americas and beyond. The speed of lexical change and the impact of the time to be measured between split-offs for the structure of phylogenies are among the methodological topics addressed. Among the case studies, a newly established connection between the Chitimacha language of the Lower Mississippi Valley and the Totonacan and Mixe-Zoquean families of Mesoamerica deserves attention, as well as a study on loanwords as evidence for contact across the Gulf of Mexico.

Summary of outputs and dissemination activities

The project has generated a substantial quantity of outputs and dissemination activities. These include:
1) More than 80 publications in major journals, volumes, and handbooks. These publications cross-cut the various disciplines represented by the team members. For instance, research from the project has appeared in:
-major science publications, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and PLoS One.
-linguistics journals, including Language, International Journal of American Linguistics, Linguistic Discovery, Journal of Language Contact, Lingua;
-linguistic anthropology journals, including International Journal of the Sociology of Language, Language in Society.
-anthropology journals, including Journal of Anthropological Research, Anthropos, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, Social History & Evolution.
Genetics, biology, and physical anthropology journals, including American Journal of Medical Genetics, BMC Genomics, Systematic Biology, American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
-major disciplinary handbooks, such as the Handbook of Historical Linguistics, the Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Typology, and the Routledge Handbook of Archaeology and Globalization.
-a range of edited volumes and conference proceedings.
2) Organized conference sessions, and presentations at dozens of academic conferences around the world. Sessions organized by team members were featured at events such as the Societas Linguistics Europaea conferences; the American Anthropological Association conference; the European Network for the Study of the Andean Languages conference; and at a number of invited presentations and meetings.
3) Presentations to non-academic audiences. Project members have met with community organizations and given media appearances in the Netherlands, the U.K. Peru, and Poland.