Mayan, A Sino-Tibetan Language? A Comparative Study
by Bede Fahey
In 1995 I had the opportunity to visit the National Palace Museum in Taipei. I had already seen photographs of the old Chinese bronzes, which caused a second take based on the perception that a Mesoamerican fingerprint was readable in the various designs of these ancient Chinese artifacts. Looking at the real bronzes for the first time however, brought that experience into a new arena, where I felt that what I had been seeing more or less casually in the photographs, was too real to be coincidental. The problem however, was an aesthetic one with no rational explanation, and I had no idea of how this recognition could be brought into the realm of science.
Two years later when the issue surfaced again, it occurred to me that what might be required, if a solution were to be found, would be to research the origins of these fingerprints in their indigenous regions, to see if the existing knowledge in these areas could trigger ideas that might lead to a satisfactory resolution. The objective would be to discover if there was a plausible mechanism by which cultural transfer could have taken place across the Pacific. On searching the literature, I found that I was a relative latecomer to the intriguing problem of transpacific fingerprinting, and that it had already instigated a considerable body of published material (see Jett 1983; Sorenson and Raish, 1996). I next found many anomalies in the anthropological literature of the Pacific Basin, the archeology in paI1icular, and some of the problems were stated in very clear terms by the scholars themselves. I began to wonder if the anomalies themselves might be suggesting an answer, and whether or not a solution might be found to these issues if they were to be approached from a macro-regional perspective. There were clearly associations between Neolithic Asia and Pre-Columbian America, and the problem was to find the best theoretical solution to explain them.
Finally I noticed the extreme relevance of the literature on the Southern Mongoloid dispersal in solving what began to appear as a circum-pacific issue. The theoretical basis developed to explain the Southern Mongoloid dispersal could conceivably apply to an ex-migratory episode affecting the whole macro-arena of the Pacific. It began to seem possible that a plausible mechanism of cultural transfer could have been colonization. The many noticeable indicators of apparent transpacific contacts could be indicators that much of the Americas may have been colonized well after the end of the Pleistocene. The Asiatic fingerprints in the Pre-Columbian Americas could be signatures of somewhat large scale migration out of Asia owing to adaptive changes and cultural developments there during the Neolithic. If the Austronesian maritime expansion into the Pacific could be attributed to the advance of agriculture on the East Asia mainland, it would seem plausible that such a mechanism could also have generated migration along the north Pacific rim. This would provide both an explanation and an investigative paradigm. A new investigative paradigm could perhaps address the problem at a more fundamental level, in terms of addressing what the full demographic impact of these early Holocene adaptive transitions, especially the transition to fanning in East Asia might be, and whether it might be appropriate to reapply the Southern Mongoloid dispersal model to the entire Pacific rim.
Though it may not be possible to fully know the processual aspects of the advent and advance of agriculture as a human adaptation, it could be possible to observe some of the effects of the adaptation in the available data. A successful adaptation could be defined as one that leads to an increased fertility rate and hence population increases resulting in colonization. Such processes would be observable in different data sets. Straightforward statements of hypotheses about these processes in early Neolithic agricultural core regions have been put forward by Peter Bellwood (1996a, 1996b, 1997) and Robert Blust (1993), for the Southern Mongoloid dispersal, and by Colin Renfrew (1987,1988, 1992a, 1992b, 1996), for the Indo-European expansion. These hypotheses are expressed in terms that can be tested, and hence issues of long-distance fingerprinting and macro-regional anomalies can be brought into the scientific arena. Simply put, their hypotheses state that human populations expand outwards from indigenous early agricultural CORE REGIONS such as southwest Asia and the agricultural basins of the Yangtze and the Yellow Rivers. Agricultural dependency in these regions represented a fundamental shift of social practices which was not easily adopted by foragers and hence the agricultural populations have generally grown at a much more rapid rate than was the case with hunter-gatherers, and expanded out of core areas and colonized new niches at the expense of hunter-gatherers. The agricultural core regions tend to be regions of high linguistic diversity (Bellwood 1996a: 288-93). Languages spoken by these populations in the new regions reflect those initially spoken at the core, and hence population spreads are traceable to their initial core via linguistic (among other) evidence.
It is worthwhile to observe the constraints that apply to population behavior under the above model. In the time domain, human beings have only been involved in agriculture for a relatively short period; namely, agriculture coincides time-wise with the Holocene, and was probably Holocene-induced. Humans began to seek new ways of sustaining a livelihood in the wake of the climate changes brought on by the warming at the end of the Pleistocene. In the spatial domain, the constraint on population spread based on an adaptation is the available habitat, which in the case of Neolithic agriculture is confined to suitable regions within the global temperate belt. An adaptive population, human or otherwise, tends to expand to fill its available habitat, and it is possible to seek evidence of what has happened to human populations during the Holocene using that line of approach. A scientific approach would ask to what extent innovative human adaptations tended to fill the available habitat globally. It might be argued, this would imply a tendency for populations having acquired adaptive innovations to migrate latitudinally, i.e., to occupy the Earth's zones most climatically suited to their particular adaptations. To what extent humans have done this is a question one puts to the evidence. The evidence is beginning to suggest that more or less east-west migration of agricultural populations had occupied suitable niches in the temperate zone globally. Agriculturalists having occupied the most suitable zones in Eurasia, had then crossed the Pacific.
The investigative domain for assessing the effectiveness of the Neolithic farming revolution as an adaptation (now reconfigured as population science) is therefore the global data. The investigative domain for mainstream scholars in the tradition of anthropology regarding Pre-Columbian America has been the Americas themselves. The major reason for this seems to come from the perception that people less modern than ourselves would have neither a reason nor the capabilities to cross the Pacific. On the one hand that assumption has to all' intents and purposes already been shown to be wrong by the existing scholarship on the Austronesian dispersal, but in scientific terms, it involved placing a restriction on the investigative domain based on an untested assumption.
The tradition of anthropology may have also slowed progress in understanding historical processes in Pre-Columbian America by emphasizing the understanding and explaining of cultural change as a primary goal. This limited emphasis has perhaps amounted to an additional intellectual restriction, whereby the major anomalies such as the great and relatively sudden cultural onsets in the archeological record of Mesoamerica may not even be explainable in terms of cultural change at all, and need a broader framework of inquiry.Cultural change, as an interpretive paradigm, does not envelope all the present fields of knowledge in these areas. We know, for example that the Mayan cultural onset is associated with a specific language group. On the other hand, linguists have known for a long time that the genesis of a language group is never sudden, and certainly never as sudden as the onsets of the major cultural complexes in Mesoamerica. The inclusion of all relevant data sets, including the field of human genetics research (Guthrie 2001: 90-163), already makes traditional historical views of the Americas untenable, and points not only to the use of an expanded model, but to the necessity to apply such a model objectively and globally. Understanding cultural change remains a desirable objective, although under a broader model, it tends to be viewed as something rather more fundamental, i.e., as adaptation.
I wrote a paper, published in Pre-Columbiana (2001), in which I argued that many of the languages of the Americas may reflect Neolithic migration from East Asian agricultural heartlands. These heartlands probably contained a multitude of language groups which have since been overridden in the heartlands themselves, but are nonetheless preserved in the colonized zones. Hence languages spoken in the Americas, particularly those known to be descended from Pre-Columbian agricultural societies, might be compared with dispersed languages of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, because some of these languages might reflect a shared common origin among the theoretically displaced languages at the core. If this general hypothesis is true, much of the ethnicity and culture of indigenous America would reflect in a more or less intimate fashion those conditions from which the ancestral people departed in East Asia, and in particular, the regions associated with the Yangtze and Huang He river basins. These languages would be primarily non-Sinitic, reflecting earlier conditions in these major regions. However, in the process of checking transpacific languages for traces of common origin under the above model I found a tendency for a great many similarities to be found between the surviving language at the core, which was theoretically responsible for the displacement, i.e., Chinese (or Sinitic), and the Mayan languages of Central America. The ensuing comparison between the Sinitic and Mayan languages (henceforward usually referred to in the singular as 'Mayan') is the subject of this paper. It explores evidence of a genetic link between Mayan and Chinese, and ultimately its language family, Sino-Tibetan.include '../includes/navbar.html'; ?> include '../includes/footer.html'; ?>