Category Archives: Anthropology

The Kra-Dai languages of Hainan

One of my favourite blogs on the Internet is Martin Lewis’s GeoCurrents, a consistently high-quality and information-dense blog about geography, especially geopolitics, cultural geography and economic geography. As a student in linguistics I’m especially interested in the posts about linguistic geography (which comes under cultural geography), but almost every GeoCurrents post is interesting, and tells me lots of things I didn’t already know. As an example post for interested readers which touches on cultural, linguistic and ethnic geography and the history of agriculture, I recommend The Lost World of the Sago Eaters. Unfortunately, Martin Lewis recently announced that he was going to have to stop making any more posts until, at least, next June. So I thought it might be a good idea to try and do some posts in the style of GeoCurrents on this blog—introducing the reader to some region of the world and telling them whatever interesting things I can find out about this region and the people who live there.

For this particular post, I’ve decided to write about the island of Hainan, and in particular the Kra-Dai languages which are spoken there, which are in my opinion pretty interesting for several reasons. Hainan is an island off the southern coast of China, in the South China Sea. If you look along the southern Chinese coast, you can see Taiwan off the southeast, and then, further towards the west, not far from the Indochinese peninsula, and just across a strait from a little peninsula jutting out to the south, there’s another island of similar size—that’s Hainan. Politically, it’s part of the People’s Republic of China, and it has generally been a possession of the various Chinese states that have existed for over two thousand years. That makes it far more Chinese in terms of age than Taiwan, which was not settled by Han Chinese until the 17th century, was actually claimed by the Netherlands and Spain before China, and was under Japanese rule for most of the first half of the 20th century. However, Hainan has always been on the periphery of China culturally and economically, as well as geographically. Interested readers are referred to Michalk (1986) for an overview of the island’s history.

Below I’ve included a map of the languages of Hainan, based mainly on Steven Huffman‘s language maps.1 One remarkable feature of the island’s linguistic geography which you can see from this map is that languages of four out of the five language families of Southeast Asia are spoken on it: Sino-Tibetan, Hmong-Mien, Kra-Dai and Austronesian. Only Austro-Asiatic is absent, although an Austro-Asiatic language (Vietnamese) is spoken on the nearby island of Bạch Long Vĩ, which is politically part of Vietnam. That’s quite impressive for an island not much larger than Sicily.


All of these languages are interesting and worthy of discussion, but for the sake of not giving me too much to write about I’m going to focus on this post on those belonging to the Kra-Dai family: Be, Li, Cunhua and Jiamao. I will also—because it’s relevant—discuss the Austronesian language, Huihui, a little as well. These Kra-Dai languages are, most likely, the “indigenous” languages of the island, in the sense that they, or direct ancestors of them, were spoken on the island before the others. The Chinese language was obviously brought to Hainan by the Chinese settlers arriving mostly in the second millennium AD; the Mun language is closely related to (and sometimes considered the same as) the Kim Mun language spoken by some people of the Yao ethnicity in the mainland Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Hunan, and therefore these Mun-speakers are probably recent arrivals as well.

The most widespread and probably the most well-known language spoken on Hainan other than Chinese is the Li language, which is spoken in the mountainous interior of Hainan. Chinese sources use the name Li 黎 “black” to refer to the frequently-rebellious indigenous people of Hainan as early as the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Of course, it can’t be assumed that this name refers to exactly the same group of people as the modern name Li does. But the geographic location of the Li-speakers—in the most inaccessible parts of the island, with Chinese settlers occupying the more habitable coastal lowlands—and their language’s phylogenetic position within Kra-Dai (we’ll talk about this more below) does strongly suggest that their language was the main language spoken on Hainan before Chinese settlement. Linguists sometimes use the name Hlai instead, which is presumably based on a native self-appellation. They also sometimes speak of the “Hlai languages” rather than the “Hlai language”, because, much like Chinese, the various Hlai “dialects” are actually highly divergent and often mutually unintelligible. This again suggests an antiquity to the presence of the Li language on Hainan—there must have been plenty of time for these dialects to differentiate from one another. Norquest (2007) has attempted a reconstruction of Proto-Hlai; you can look at his dissertation to get an idea of how different these dialects are from each other.

Two of the Li dialects—Cunhua and Nadouhua—have a special status. They are not much more distinct from neighbouring Li dialects than any other Li dialects are from the dialects neighbouring them. However, the speakers of these dialects are classified by the Chinese government as members of the Han Chinese ethnicity rather than the Li ethnicity, and they themselves identify more with the Han Chinese than the Li. Speakers of other Li dialects also refer to Han Chinese and Cunhua or Nadouhua speakers by the same name, Moi. Cunhua and Nadouhua do have lots of borrowings from Chinese to a much greater extent than the other Li dialects, but according to Norquest (2007) their basic vocabulary is mostly of Li origin which indicates that they should be regarded as Li dialects heavily influenced by Chinese, rather than Chinese dialects influenced by Li or mixed languages. The influence from Chinese is probably due to the fact that the speakers of these dialects live in the coastal lowlands, not in the mountains as do the speakers of the other Li dialects, where contact with Chinese settlers is greater. It is also likely that the speakers have significant Han Chinese ancestry as well as Li ancestry, but I don’t know if any genetic studies have been done. In any case, because of their different ethnic status Cunhua and Nadouhua are often regarded as comprising a separate language from Li, usually referred to as Cunhua or Cun after the more well-known of the two dialects (Cunhua has many times more speakers than Nadouhua). This is reflected on the map above.

Another Li “dialect” is special because it is in the opposite situation to Cunhua and Nadouhua: its speakers do not have a separate ethnic identity from the Li, but the language is clearly divergent and may not even be genetically a Li language at all. This is Jiamao, which is also shown as a distinct language on the map above. Less than half of its lexicon appears to be of Li origin—that is, more than half of its words cannot be identified as similar to words in other Li dialects. Moreover—and more significantly—linguists have been unable to establish regular sound correspondences between the Jiamao words that do look similar to those in other Li dialects, and those Li dialects. In the words of Thurgood (1992a):

The Jiamao tones do not correspond with the tones of Proto-Hlai at all. The Jiamao initials and finals correspond, but with a pervasive, unsystematic irregularity that raised more questions than it answered. The Jiamao initials often have two relatively-frequent unconditioned reflexes, with other less-frequent reflexes thrown in apparently randomly. The more comparative work that was done, the more obvious it became that a comparative approach was not going to explain the “extreme (and apparently unsystematic) aberrancy” of Jiamao.

Some information given to Thurgood by a Chinese linguist, Ni Dabai (it’s not clear where Ni Dabai got the information from) gave him an idea as to why this might be this case. Ni Dabai said that the Jiamao were originally Muslims, and they arrived in two waves, the first in 986 AD and 988 AD and the second in 1486. Thurgood concluded from this that the Jiamao were originally speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language, who migrated to Hainan and thus ended up in close contact with Li speakers. The Jiamao ignored the tone of the Li words they borrowed, and instead decided which tone to pronounce them with based on their initial consonants; this explains the apparently random tone correspondences. And they borrowed words in several strata; this explains the one-to-many correspondences among the non-tonal segments.

I’m not entirely sure how Thurgood gets straight to “they must have been Austro-Asiatic speakers” from “they were originally Muslims,” though. Unfortunately the copy of Thurgood’s paper that I can access online is inexplicably cut off after the fourth page, so I don’t know if he elaborates on the scenario later on in the paper. I’m not aware of any Austro-Asiatic-speaking ethnic group whose members are mostly Muslim. My understanding is that most of the Muslims in Southeast Asia are the Malays, and their close relatives, the Chams, who speak Austronesian languages. To my uninformed, non-Southeast Asian expert, not-having-access-to-the-full-Thurgood-paper self, the Chams seem like the obvious candidates. The Cham kingdom (Champa), situated in what is now southern Vietnam, was for a millennium and a half an integral part of the political landscape of continental Southeast Asia. Its history is one of constant conflict with the Vietnamese kingdom to its north, in which it tended to be something of the underdog. The Vietnamese sacked the Cham capital in 982, 1044, 1068, 1069 (clearly, the 11th century wasn’t a good time for Champa), 1252, 1446, and 1471; after the last and most catastrophic sacking in 1471, the Vietnamese emperor finally annexed the capital and reduced Champa to a rump state occupying only what were originally just its southern regions. Then these regions, too, were chipped away over the next few centuries, and Champa finally vanished from the map in 1832. Some Cham still live in these regions, but they are no longer the dominant ethnic group there, having mostly either been massacred or fled—mostly to Cambodia in the west, but also, in relatively small numbers, to Hainan in the east. This is how the Austronesian language you can see on the map, Huihui, ended up being spoken in Hainan. Huihui is simply an old-fashioned Chinese word for “Muslim”2, and the speakers of Huihui are indeed Muslims. The Huihui themselves call themselves and their language Tsat (which is cognate to Cham). According to Thurgood (1992b), the Tsat came to Hainan after the sacking of 982, and were mostly merchants who had established connections in the area, which explains their Muslim faith (most Cham at the time were Hindu, but much of the merchant class was Muslim; the Cham only became majority-Muslim during the 15th century, which is about the same time that the Malays converted). More Chams might have migrated to join the Tsat after the subsequent sackings.

Now, the dates Ni Dabai gave for the waves of Jiamao settlement—986 AD, 988 AD, 1486—are just a few years after the sackings of 982 AD and 1471 AD respectively, and that suggests to me that Jiamao, like Huihui, may have a Cham origin. But whereas the Cham origin of Huihui explains most everything about it, there are still a lot of unanswered questions with respect to Jiamao even if we accept that it has a Cham origin. Most obviously, what would have led them to take up residence in the highlands of the southeast, rather than the southern coast where Cham traders would have established the most contacts, and to assimilate so much into the Li culture that they gave up Islam (they are now animists like the Li and Be) and extensively relexified their language with Li loanwords?

Then there’s the problem of the actual linguistic evidence. Norquest in his dissertation examined the Jiamao lexicon and found a grand total of… 2 possible words of Austronesian origin (ɓaŋ˥ ɓɯa˩ ‘butterfly’ and pəj˦ ‘pig’; cf. Proto-Austronesian *qari-baŋbaŋ and *babuy), and none of Austro-Asiatic or of any other identifiable origin, apart from Li. He therefore regards the language as a provisional language isolate. Now, I don’t know how well Norquest knows Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic. He doesn’t explicitly rule out a connection with either of those families; he’s more concerned with simply listing the non-Li Jiamao vocabulary than identifying its origin. So it’s not impossible that Jiamao’s non-Li vocabulary is from one of the main Southeast Asian families, but this is certainly something on which more research needs to be done. I have included below some of the Jiamao and Proto-Hlai words for various body parts, to illustrate the difference; this data is taken from Norquest’s dissertation.

Proto-Hlai Jiamao Sense
*dʱəŋ pʰan1 ‘face’
*ʋaːɦ vet10 ‘shoulder’
*kʰiːn tɯːn1 ‘arm’
*ɦaːŋ tsʰɔːŋ1 ‘chin’

In any case, I assume Thurgood had a good reason for proposing the Austro-Asiatic connection (I just can’t figure out by myself what that reason would be). Another caveat to bear in mind here is that Ni Dabai’s information might be incorrect—even if the story of Jiamao being descended from Muslim immigrants arriving in 986 AD, 988 AD and 1486 isn’t completely false, it could be wrong in some details: perhaps they were Hindus rather than Muslims, and perhaps the dates are inaccurate. In short, it’s a mystery. But an interesting one, don’t you think? It’s just a shame that there has been so little investigation into it, so far—Thurgood’s not-wholly-accessible paper and Norquest’s dissertation are the only two papers I can find which go into any detail about Jiamao.


Moving on… there is one other Kra-Dai language spoken on Hainan, which is completely different, both linguistically and ethnically, from Li. The Be language constitutes a branch of Kra-Dai of its own, and it does not appear to be much more closely related to the Li languages than it is to other Kra-Dai languages. The subgrouping of the branches of the Kra-Dai family is not particularly certain (as usual for language families—subgrouping is a hard problem in linguistics); Wikipedia gives a nice overview, and I’ve included a tree on the right adapted from Blench (2013) below (which appears to be just the Edmondson and Solnit classification mentioned in the Wikipedia article). As you can see, Be is often considered the closest relative of the Tai branch (the one that contains the one Kra-Dai language most people have heard of, Thai, the official language of Thailand). In fact, Norquest in  his dissertation mentions that it shows the greatest lexical similarity with the Northern Tai subgroup, specifically, meaning it might actually be a Tai language; unfortunately, this cannot be verified until more comparative work on Kra-Dai languages is done (no full reconstruction of Proto-Tai or Proto-Northern Tai is yet available).

This suggests that Be is a more recent arrival on Hainan than Li, because it must have arrived after or close to the time that the Tai subgroup separated from the other Kra-Dai languages, whereas Li could have split off straight from Proto-Tai-Kadai. Shintani (1991) has some phonological evidence which he says supports this: the Hainanese dialect of Chinese has undergone a sound change s > t (that is, s in other Chinese dialects corresponds to Hainanese t), and the Be language reflects this sound change in borrowings from Chinese such as tuan “garlic” (cf. Mandarin suan). That means it must have borrowed these words from Hainanese, and Shintani takes this as indicating that Be speakers arrived on Hainan after Chinese settlers were established on the island (that would be no earlier than the time of the Song Dynasty of 960-1279). But I don’t quite follow this inference—couldn’t the Be have arrived first, and borrowed these words only after the Chinese arrived?

That a Tai-speaking group might have migrated to Hainan in the historical period is not implausible, however. Although the political prominence of Thai in modern times might lead you to think otherwise, the Tai languages originated in southern China—more precisely, in the area of the modern provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi, probably extending into adjacent regions of Yunnan and Vietnam as well—and were restricted to that region for much of the historical period. Around 1000 AD, some of them began to migrate to the southwest, perhaps to escape Chinese political domination, although this doesn’t seem like a complete explanation—though the Chinese population in the area has surely been growing over time, they had held the political power since long before 1000 AD. (Also, plenty of Tai-speaking peoples remained in their homeland—in fact, the Tai-speaking Zhuang people still comprise over a quarter of the population of Guangxi). These migrations continued for the next couple of centuries, and by the 13th century the familiar Tai kingdoms of the historical record were being established (Sukhothai in the central part of modern Thailand; Lanna in the northern part of modern Thailand; the Shan states in the eastern part of modern Burma; and Ahom way over in the Brahmaputra valley just east of modern Bangladesh). The Lao people of Laos established their kingdom, known then as Lan Xang “[land of the] million elephants”, in the following century. Over the centuries these evolved into the modern Tai states of Thailand and Laos. Now, if the Tai migrated to the southwest because they wished to leave southern China (rather than being attracted by some particular feature of the southwest), we could positively expect some of them to take the alternative route to the direct south and end up on Hainan. Perhaps this, then, is the origin of the Be.

There is an alternative scenario I can think of which is probably less plausible, but a bit more exciting. Maybe the Be have always been on Hainan—or at least, they have been there as long as the Li have. Be being part of or most closely related to the Tai branch isn’t incompatible with this hypothesis. There’s a useful heuristic in linguistics that a region where a language family is most diverse is likely to be its place of origin, because the longer the presence of a speech variety in a given area, the more time it has to diversify into divergent but genetically related daughters. It’s a heuristic, not a rule, so exceptions are possible, and in fact one of the obvious ways an exception could arise is if external pressure repeatedly pushes speakers of languages in the family into a particular small cul-de-sac region (a “refugium”), which is what would have happened in Hainan in the scenario described in the above paragraph. And of course, the diversity of Kra-Dai in Hainan, with just two independent branches represented, isn’t that much greater than anywhere else (there are four independent branches in Guangxi, namely Kra, Lakkia, Kam-Sui and Tai, and by including an adjacent region of Guangdong the remaining Biao branch can be included as well; of course, Guangxi is a lot bigger than Hainan, and depending on how deep you imagine some of the proposed subgroups are, your perception of each region’s diversity might be altered). But I don’t think it’s ludicrous to think that the Kra-Dai languages, or at least a sub-clade of them excluding Kra, might have originated on Hainan. They might have differentiated first into a southern variety (pre-Li) and a northern variety; a first wave of migration onto the mainland, by the speakers of the northern variety, would have brought about the split between Proto-Lakkia-Biao-Kam-Sui and Proto-Be-Tai; and a second wave would have brought about the split between Proto-Tai and Be.

This is especially interesting to consider in the light of the Austro-Tai hypothesis, one of the most plausible macrofamily proposals floating around. Essentially it proposes a genetic relationship between the Kra-Dai languages and the Austronesian languages, although opinions among proponents differ as to whether Kra-Dai is coordinate to Austronesian (that is, Proto-Kra-Dai and Proto-Austronesian share a common ancestor, but neither is the ancestor of the other) or subordinate to Austronesian (that is, Proto-Austronesian is the ancestor of Proto-Kra-Dai). Sagart (2004) is of the opinion that it is subordinate. If Kra-Dai is subordinate to Austronesian then the possibility arises that Austronesians migrated to Hainan, just as they migrated to essentially all of the islands in southeast Asia and Oceania (plus Madagascar!) Unfortunately, the facts do not seem friendly to this neat hypothesis: nobody, so far as I know, goes so far as to say that Kra-Dai is subordinate to Malayo-Polynesian (the subgroup of Austronesian which includes all of the Austronesian languages outside of Taiwan), and the Austronesians probably hadn’t developed their island-hopping habits so extensively at the point where they were still in Taiwan. The more likely scenario, if the Austro-Tai hypothesis is correct, is that Proto-Kra-Dai was the result of a migration from Taiwan onto mainland China; and in order to reconcile this with the Hainan homeland hypothesis we’d have to propose a migration onto Hainan and then multiple migrations back out again, which is kind of untidy. So, for various reasons, I don’t really think the Hainan homeland hypothesis is likely to be correct. I’d say it’s more likely that the homeland of the Kra-Dai languages is on the mainland, somewhere in Guangxi. But it’s not impossible.


  1. ^ Huffman’s maps do not always make it clear which language is spoken within a given boundary; in order to identify the languages spoken in scattered pockets in the northern part of the Li-speaking area and to the north and east of that area, I had to refer to the wonderful but not entirely reliable map at Muturzikin. Unfortunately the boundaries on Muturzikin’s map are not entirely the same as those on Huffman’s, and even on Muturzikin’s map, it is sometimes not entirely clear what language is spoken within a particular boundary, so I have had to make some guesses in identifying all of these pockets as Mun-speaking.
  2. ^ The modern Chinese word for “Muslim” is Musilin, but the unreduplicated word Hui, which strictly speaking refers only to Chinese Muslims, is often colloquially used to refer to Muslims of any nationality.


Blench, R., 2013. The prehistory of the Daic (Tai-Kadai) speaking peoples and the hypothesis of an Austronesian connection. In Unearthing Southeast Asia’s past: Selected Papers from the 12th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists (Vol. 1, pp. 3-15).

Michalk, D.L., 1986. Hainan Island: A brief historical sketch. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp.115-143.

Norquest, P.K., 2007. A phonological reconstruction of Proto-Hlai. ProQuest.

Sagart, L., 2004. The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai-Kadai. Oceanic Linguistics, 43(2), pp.411-444.

Shintani, T., 1991. Preglottalized consonants in the languages of Hainan Island, China. Journal of Asian and African Studies, (41), pp.1-10.

Thurgood, G., 1992. The aberrancy of the Jiamao dialect of Hlai: speculation on its origins and history. Southeast Asian Linguistics Society I, pp.417-433.

Thurgood, G., 1992b. From Atonal to Tonal in Utsat (A Chamic Language of Hainan). In Proceedings of the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society: Special Session on the Typology of Tone Languages (pp. 145-146).


Emics and etics


Many non-linguists probably don’t know that linguists use the words “phonetics” and “phonology” to refer to two quite different subjects. There is, admittedly, a considerable degree of interconnection between the two subjects, but most of the time the difference is reasonably stark. The best way to describe the respective subjects is by an example. Many of the languages of the world make use of speech sounds which are known as lateral approximants. The Latin letter L is dedicated to representing such sounds. In English, lateral approximants appear at the start of words like “laugh” and “lion” (and, indeed, “lateral”), in the middle of words like “pillow” and “bulk”, and at the end of words like “tell” and “saddle”. The exact sound of the lateral approximants in these words varies to a considerable degree from utterance to utterance, due to factors such as intonation, the chosen volume and the simple fact that people do not replicate precisely the same physical actions every time they utter a sound. It also varies from speaker to speaker—different people have different voices. The term “lateral approximant” therefore refers not to a particular acoustic signal but to an abstract category including some but not all acoustic signals1. The way language works makes it inevitable that when we talk about speech sounds, we talk about these abstract categories of acoustic signals rather than the particular acoustic signals themselves. This point about “lateral approximant” being an abstract category is not directly relevant to the phonetics-phonology distinction, but I bring it up because it will help clarify things later.

One specific kind of variation in the sounds of speech is especially interesting to linguists. The pronunciation of a sound such as a lateral approximant can be affected by the surrounding sounds. The differences produced thus have the potential be regular and systematic in the sense that they are reproduced from utterance to utterance: after all, the same sequence of sounds exists in each utterance. The term for this kind of variation in particular is “allophony”. A particularly stark example of allophony is exhibited by English lateral approximants2 (which is why I chose to talk about this kind of sound in particular). Before other consonants and at the end of a word (such as in “bulk”, “tell” and “saddle”), they are pronounced one way; elsewhere (such as in “laugh”, “lion” and “pillow”), they are pronounced another way. When they are pronounced in the former way, English lateral approximants are referred to as “dark Ls”, and when they are pronounced in the latter way, they are referred to as “clear Ls”. The IPA has symbols for each pronunciation: dark L is [ɫ], clear L is [l]. If you don’t already know a lot about linguistics, it’s quite likely that you never noticed that this variation existed before, even though, as may be apparent to you now that I have drawn your attention to it, the difference is quite large. You never needed to notice it, because in the English language, the distinction between clear and dark L is never used to distinguish words. That is, there are no pairs of words which consist of the same sequence of speech sounds, except that one of them has a dark L in the same position that the other has a clear L. It is therefore convenient to treat clear L and dark L as the same sound, at least when we are talking about English. We can use the simpler of the two symbols, /l/, to represent this sound, but we add slashes rather than brackets around the symbol in order to make clear that the boundary of the category of acoustic signals referred to by /l/ is determined here by the distinctions the English language (or whatever language we are talking about) makes use of in order distinguish its words from each other. It is reasonable to suppose that the concept of /l/ does actually exist in the minds of speakers of English (and that separate concepts for clear L and dark L do not exist in their minds). But even if this were not the case, the concept of /l/ would still be useful for descriptive purposes. The name for this kind of concept is “phoneme”.

There are in fact languages in which the distinction between clear L and dark L is used to distinguish words. Russian is one of them. The word мел ‘chalk’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a dark L. The word мель ‘shallow’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a clear L. For this reason, Russian is said to have an /l/ phoneme, which is spelt ль, and a /ɫ/ phoneme, which is spelt л. Note that, despite the notation, the Russian /l/ is not the same as the English /l/, any more than the Russian /ɫ/ is the same as the English /l/: the two Russian phonemes correspond to a single, more general phoneme in English.

The crucial, defining property of phonemes is that they are abstract categories of acoustic signals whose boundaries are determined by the distinctions that a particular language makes use of. They are defined in opposition to abstract categories of acoustic signals in general, whose boundaries are not necessarily determined by the distinctions a particular language makes use of; they may be determined by the distinctions a linguist finds interesting to make, for example. Such categories are referred to by the words “sound” or (in my experience, less commonly) “phone”; it has always seemed to me that “phonete” would be the most appropriate word, but nobody uses that one. In the jargon of Less Wrong, the distinction can be conveyed by saying that phonemes carve reality at the joints (for a particular language’s purposes), while sounds in general don’t necessarily do the same.

It can be helpful to shift the viewpoint a little and consider the set of all the phonemes of a particular language. This set is always finite (this is a cross-linguistic universal). One can consider the space of all conceivable acoustic signals that might be produced by a speaker of the language. The set of phonemes constitutes a particular partition of this space into a finite number of parts, and speakers of the language do not make use of any of the differences within each part when processing speech3. The parts under this partition are represented by symbols surrounded by slashes. If you choose to partition the space in a different way for some reason, you need to represent the parts by symbols surrounded by square brackets.

One final point which I want to stress is that both phonemes and sounds in general are abstract categories! People (including me, when I’m not thinking carefully enough) often describe the distinction as something along the lines of “phonemes are abstract categories of sounds”, and this can be interpreted in a way that makes it a true statement, more or less, but it doesn’t constitute an exhaustive definition: the things we refer to as “sounds” in practice are abstract categories of sounds too, so phonemes are a particular kind of abstract category of sounds.

Anyway, the difference between phonetics and phonology is this: phonetics is about sounds in general (“phonetes”), phonology is about phonemes. Or to put it another way, phonology specifically studies the categorizations of acoustic signals that make sense with respect to particular languages, and phonetics studies speech sounds under other categorizations. For example, investigation of how common it is for lateral approximants to appear in speech in both clear and dark forms comes under phonetics. But once you start investigating in addition how common it is for clear L and dark L constitute separate phonemes, you’ve got into phonology.


The concept of the distinction between phonetics and phonology can be generalised. It has proved especially fruitful in the field of anthropology.

The first person to make the analogy was a man called Kenneth Pike. As you might imagine, he was both an anthropologist and a linguist. He was quite an interesting man, actually. According to Wikipedia, he was “the foremost figure in the history of SIL” (that slightly controversial organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics). He also invented a (non-naturalistic) conlang called Kalaba-X. And he used to give what were called “monolingual demonstrations”, where he would work with a speaker of a language unknown to him and attempt to analyze it as far as he could without having known anything about it previously, all before an audience.

Anyway, Kenneth Pike thought that it was helpful to distinguish two different approaches to studying human culture, which he called the emic and etic approaches. The emic approach is analogous to phonology. The etic approach is analogous to phonetics. The anthropologist Marvin Harris later adopted the concept and made it critical to his theory of human culture, which he called “cultural materialism”. Harris made use of the concept in a somewhat different way than Pike originally did. If you want to see Pike’s side of things, you could look at this interview with him, which contains the following amusing illustration of the extent of their differences:

[…] it took me months and months and months to try to understand Harris. Would you like to know how I got started talking with Harris? I was in Spain at the request of some philosophers and spoke there on the relationship of language to the world (Pike 1987). Afterwards they told me that Harris had been there three months previously lecturing. When they invited me, they had sent me some articles with some references to the etics and emics of Harris. That is precisely why they had invited me. Harris had said that he wished he could talk to Pike.

So later we invited Harris to Norman [Oklahoma] to lecture. I asked him to arrive at least a day early so that we could talk privately before the lecture. So we spent four hours talking prior to the lecture. Tom Headland then met him at an AAA meeting and arranged the meeting and we both agreed.

We had a difficult time trying to understand each other. We each spoke 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for reply by the other. Later, we saw each other’s materials so that before publication we could revise our own materials after having read the comments. The commentators could also revise their materials after having read the revisions of our revisions. So we had maximum time to try to understand each other. Even so, every so often I still get a little perplexed.

I have read some of Harris’s work but none of Pike’s, so my discussion is going to be informed by his conception of the emic and etic approaches in particular. Let’s begin with an illustrative example, like the one I used in part I of this post. This example is taken from Harris’s book Cultural Materialism, published in 1979.

While doing fieldwork in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Harris observed that the sex ratio among the cattle owned by farmers there was highly skewed in favour of females: for every hundred female cattle there were only sixty-seven male cattle. The farmers, when asked about this, vehemently denied having killed the excess males, as expected given the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle. They instead attributed the difference to an innate propensity towards sickness among male cattle. When they were asked why this propensity existed, some of them replied that the male cattle ate less than the females. When they were asked again why the male cattle ate less than the females, some replied that they were given less time to suck on their mother’s teats. However, there are other states in India, such as Uttar Pradesh, where the sex ratio is skewed the other way: there are more than two oxen for every cow. Moreover, these states are precisely those where the ecological and economic situation is such that there is a relatively large need for traction animals, such as oxen. Suspicious, isn’t it? What seems to be happening is that, despite the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle, the farmers of Kerala take active steps to ensure that male calves drink less milk than their sisters4.

By taking these actions, the farmers cause the male calves to die, when they otherwise would survive. Therefore, there is a sense in which their action can be called “killing”. But the crucial point is that if we call the action “killing”, then we are making use of a categorization which is etic rather than emic. That is, it is not a categorization which makes sense on the terms of the culture of the Keralan farmers. These farmers’ concept of killing does not include neglecting to feed male calves properly5. It is just the same as how the Russian /l/ covers a smaller range of acoustic signals than the English /l/. The contradiction between Hindu custom and what actually takes place must be understood in this light: it is only an apparent contradiction, because, from the emic perspective, the farmers are not doing any killing of cattle.

Note that this is not to say that the Keralan farmers would be able to get away with openly slaughtering the cattle, say, by slitting their throats with knives. The concept of “killing” is not infinitely malleable. In the same way, no language that I know of considers both [p] and [l] to be the part of the same phoneme. All we are saying here is that the extent of variation in emic categorizations is constrained to some degree by the properties of the things they categorize. In describing these constraints we make use of categorizations that are chosen for their usefulness for this descriptive purpose, and not for their coincidence with categorizations that are used by a particular culture. Such categorizations are by definition etic. This means that if the extent of emic variation is sufficiently constrained, the distinction between emic and etic becomes redundant, because all cultures will essentially categorize things the same way, and this categorization can be perfectly well understood from an etic perspective. In most areas of human culture, however, there are considerable degrees of freedom in categorization and therefore the emic-etic distinction is very helpful in understanding cross-cultural variation.

The Keralan cattle sex ratio example is an especially striking one, but another example given by Harris in the same book is, I think, more illustrative of just how helpful the emic-etic distinction can be. In Brazil, Harris collected data on the number of people living in households. But doing this required a more complicated methodology than just asking people from different households, “How many people live here?” The culture of Harris’ informants was such that they did not consider their servants members of their households, even when they were permanent residents there. And for whatever purpose he was collecting the data, Harris found it more useful to consider these servants as household members. He therefore had to ask extra questions to get information about the numbers of servants, in order to make use of an etic categorization of his own that was different from the emic categorization of his Brazilian informants. It is easy to see how not heeding this kind of thing could lead to confusion: if, for example, you collected data on the number of people in households across both Brazil and some other country in which live-in servants were counted as household members, only asking, “How many people live here?”, and used that inference to make conclusions about, say, the amount of food that the average household consumed in both countries, then these conclusions could be grossly wrong, and the data would be meaningless in that sense.

This is connected with another important consideration. One of the things which gives the social sciences a rather different epistemic flavour from the natural sciences is the ubiquitous use of concepts which are rather slippery and vaguely defined: “status”, “role”, “social class”, “tribe”, “state”, “family”, “religion”, etc. Social scientists regularly try to make these definitions more precise (that is, to “operationalize” them), but they do this in a peculiar way: it is rare for a particular operationalization to actually become accepted as the one, true definition of the concept at this level of precision, or for two different operationalizations to be given different names so that researchers can from then one treat them as separate concepts. Indeed, I think a lot of social scientists might agree that it is more useful to leave these concepts vaguely defined and use the operationalizations appropriate to the circumstances. Why is this the case? The crucial factor may be that in the social sciences, the distinction between emics and etics comes into play. Social scientists often need to talk about “status”, “tribe”, “state”, “religion”, etc. as emic concepts; that is, as conceptualised by particular cultures. Different cultures have different ideas of what these concepts are, and hence different operationalizations are appropriate for different cultures. Having a common word for each of these different operationalizations is still useful as a way of emphasizing the similarity between them (and perhaps their common origin, in some sense). And it doesn’t cause too much confusion, because the sense of the word in a particular context can be inferred from the culture being talked about in that context. It’s only when one needs to make use of etic concepts that are similar to these emic concepts that the potential for confusion becomes large. One thing that might be useful in the social sciences is to reserve some words for the emic approach and others for the etic approach. For example, we might reserve “caste” as the word for social strata as conceptualized by particular cultures6 and “class” as the word for social strata as conceptualized in other ways.

To summarize: in order to understand a culture, one must understand the concepts which the culture’s members understand their experience in terms of. Emic approaches to culture work with these concepts only. On the other hand, etic approaches to culture may work with alternative conceptual systems which clash with that of the culture being studied. The two approaches are not rivals; they lead to insights about different things and at the same time complement each other, just as phonetics and phonology are not in conflict, and are different subfields of linguistics yet at the same time are closely interconnected.

  1. ^ By using the word “category” I don’t mean to imply that membership in the category is categorical, as in a mathematical set (i.e. that every acoustic signal is either a lateral approximant or not, and there is never any need for further clarification). The category may be radial: it may be the case that one particular acoustic signal or set of acoustic signals is maximally lateral approximant-like, and acoustic signals which are less similar to these central examples are less lateral approximant-like. Or it may have some other, more complicated structure.
  2. ^ Some dialects don’t exhibit this allophony—Welsh English sometimes has clear L everywhere, and certain American English dialects have dark L everywhere. So if you can’t see this distinction in your own speech after reading the rest of the paragraph this footnote is attached to, that may be why.
  3. ^ This isn’t quite true: for example, you might notice that somebody keeps pronouncing clear L where they should pronounce dark L and conclude on that basis that they must be Welsh or foreign. You may do this subconsciously, even if you don’t know about the distinction between clear L and dark L. (The subconscious understanding of allophonic variation patterns is a large part of why people find it difficult to imitate other accents than their own: they see the problem in others, but not in themselves. Conversely, understanding phonetics and phonology is the secret to being able to imitate accents like a boss.)
  4. ^ Harris does not go into very much detail about this example. There are some things I’d like to know more about, such as why this stark difference in demand for traction animals exists between different Indian states, and how exactly the farmers are supposed to ensure that the male cattle are fed less. If anyone reading this knows of some resources that would be helpful, I encourage you to point me to them.
  5. ^ Of course, there may be a certain level or style of neglect for which it would be regarded as killing; but the means by which the differential sex ratio is produced is certainly not considered to be killing.
  6. ^ Or subcultures, of course. Basically everything that is being said here about the analysis of cultures can also be applied to more finely-grained divisions within cultures.

The mystery of Proto-Germanic *awahaimaz ‘maternal uncle’

From Old English ēam ‘uncle, esp. maternal’ and Old High German ōheim ‘maternal uncle’ we can reconstruct Proto-West Germanic *auhaimaz ‘maternal uncle’. (PWGmc *au becomes OE ēa, and PWGmc *h is lost in voiced environments in OE with contraction of resulting vowel sequences, while in OHG PWGmc *au and *ai become ei and ou respectively in most positions, but *au becomes ō before dental consonants, r and h.) This word looks like a compound consisting of a dependent noun stem *aw- and a head noun *haimaz.

The head noun is readily identifiable as the PGmc word *haimaz ‘home’ (cf. Goth. haims ‘village’, ON heimr ‘home, world’, OE hām, OHG heim; the ‘village’ sense is also attested in place names in the NWGmc languages), which does not (AFAIK) have direct cognates in other IE languages, but it can be derived from a formation *ḱóymos ‘resting place’ from the verbal root *ḱey- ‘lie down’ (cf. Skt śete ‘(s)he is lying down’, Gk keîtai ‘(s)he is lying down’). As for the dependent noun stem, it appears to be the same one seen in Goth. awō ‘grandmother’; presumably its meaning was ‘grandparent’, or ‘grandfather’ given that non-gender-specific IE stems used to form kinship terminology tend to refer to males by default. The stem would have been *awa- in PGmc, which became *aw- in PWGmc after the loss of word-final low vowels that occured in the WGmc languages. There are cognates outside of Gmc too; PGmc *awa- would be the regular outcome of PIE *h₂áwh₂o- ‘grandfather’, which is widely attested, via reflexes of the noun *h₂áwh₂os formed directly from this stem (cf. Hitt. ḫuḫḫas, Toch. B āwe, Arm. hav, Lat. avus ‘grandfather, ancestor’), via reflexes of the adjective *h₂áwh₂yos (cf. OIr. aue ‘grandson, descendant’, Serbo-Croat. ȕjāk ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -ak]), and via n-stem reflexes of some form or other (cf. Lith. avýnas ‘maternal uncle’, Lat. avunculus ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -culus], OIr. amnair ‘maternal uncle’ [with the ending of athair ‘father’]; also Goth. awō itself, which has the gen. sg. awōns). As we can see from these reflexes, it wasn’t uncommon for derivatives of *h₂áwh₂o- to come to mean ‘maternal uncle’. This is probably due to the fact that in strongly patrilineal societies (and it is thought that PIE society was strongly patrilineal), there is a tendency for kinship terms to conflate members of different generations who are relatives on the mother’s side. Note also that the parallel conflation of nephews with grandchildren is widely attested in IE, and from Gothic and Slavic there is evidence that the conflation was originally with sororal nephews, specifically.

Now, something is very weird about this compound noun (PGmc *awahaimaz, PWGmc *auhaimaz). The two constituent nouns in a compound noun don’t usually have an equal relationship. Generally, one of them can be identified as the head noun, and the other can be identified as the dependent noun; the compound is used to refer to things that can be described as the head noun, but have some more specific attribute, not implied by the head noun itself, described (or often only vaguely alluded to) by the dependent noun. For example, in English, a blackbird is a bird which is black, and a football is a ball which you kick with your feet. Generally, in English and the other Germanic languages, and in PIE itself, compounds like this (which are called determinative compounds) are head-final, that is, the head noun is the second noun in the compound, and the first noun is dependent. But it seems unlikely that a compound whose head was *haimaz, and which therefore referred to a kind of home, would have ended up meaning ‘maternal uncle’. Instead, it seems that the head of *awahaimaz has to be *awa-, the first noun in the compound—unlike every other PGmc compound I’m aware of.

Furthermore, even if we assume *awahaimaz was a head-initial compound meaning ‘home-uncle’ or something like that, it’s still unclear what the dependent noun *haimaz is meant to indicate here. In a patrilocal society, wives live in the home owned by their husband’s family after marriage. Hence, the members of one’s extended family who live in the same home may include one’s paternal uncles, but it does not include one’s maternal uncles (because one’s mother has come from a different home, where she lived before getting married). It would therefore make more sense for paternal uncles to be referred to as ‘home-uncles’, rather than maternal uncles. We know that the Gmc peoples were patrilocal in historical times and we are reasonably sure that the speakers of PIE were patrilocal. It’s possible that PGmc speakers passed through a temporary matrilocal stage, in which case the compound would make more sense, perhaps. But if it was common for people to live along with their paternal or maternal uncles along with their parents, it is quite likely that these uncles would have been referred to as ‘father’ or by some transparent derivative of that term; after all, they would have served a similar role, and such conflations are known to be common in strongly unilineal (that is, either patrilineal or matrilineal) societies. So I don’t think this is a totally convincing explanation; and it doesn’t explain the fact that the compound is head-initial in any case.

Anyway, I don’t have a solution to this mystery. I just thought it was worth pointing out.

A brief history of English kinship terminology

In modern standard English, the following basic kinship terms exist:

father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, brother, sister, nephew, niece, husband, wife, son, daughter.

Phrases consisting of multiple words and terms which are regularly derived from more basic words via prefixes like grand- or great- or suffixes like -in-law are not included in this list. cousin is included here on the basis of its sense of ‘first cousin, i.e. uncle or aunt’s child’, not its sense of ‘relative who is not a direct ancestor or descendant’. Gender-neutral terms like parent, sibling, spouse and child are not included because, when the gender of the referent is known, it is always preferable to use a gender-specific term in English, so these terms are not as basic as the gender-specific terms.

The English kinship terminology system is a perfect example of an Eskimo kinship terminology system. Eskimo kinship terminology is the kind of terminology expected in a bilateral society, where no distinction is made between patrilineal and matrilineal ancestry and where the emphasis is on the nuclear family.

In Old English, the system was different. Here are the basic kinship terms of Old English (from the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary):

fæder ‘father’, fædera ‘paternal uncle’, faþu ‘paternal aunt’, mōdor ‘mother’, ēam ‘uncle, esp. maternal’, mōdriġe ‘aunt, esp. maternal’, brōþor ‘brother, sweostor ‘sister’, nefa ‘nephew, grandson’, nift ‘niece, granddaughter’, swēor ‘father-in-law’, sweġer ‘mother-in-law’, tācor ‘husband’s brother’, sunu ‘son’, snoru ‘daughter-in-law’, dōhtor ‘daughter’, āþum ‘son-in-law, sister’s husband’.

Note that the precise meanings of the Old English kinship terms are difficult to identify, because the historical evidence is often incomplete, and also there was probably variation over time and space. So there might be some more obscure words, and additional senses to the words listed above, that have not been listed here. The above list, therefore, should be taken as a close but not exact approximation of the Old English kinship terminology system. With this caveat in mind, the following differences from modern standard English can be observed.

  • A distinction is made between paternal and maternal uncles and aunts. There were specific terms for paternal uncles and aunts, fædera and faþu respectively. The other two terms, ēam and mōdriġe, appear to have not referred exclusively to maternal uncles and aunts respectively but they were chiefly used in this sense.
  • The terms nefa and nift, chiefly meaning ‘nephew’ and ‘niece’ respectively, could also be used in the sense of ‘grandson’ or ‘granddaughter’, respectively. Note that unlike the terms for uncles and aunts, maternal and paternal nieces and nephews were not distinguished, although it was possible to use more specific derived terms like brōþordōhtor ‘brother’s daughter’.
  • It’s hard to find information on the Old English terminology for cousins; it seems that it isn’t well-attested, and people disagree about what distinctions where drawn. So I haven’t included any of it here. But according to Bosworth-Toller swēor ‘father-in-law’ could be used to refer to male cousins of some kind and mōdriġe ‘maternal aunt’ could be used to refer to female cousins of some kind. The use of swēor to mean ‘cousin’ is especially interesting because it may indicate that the Anglo-Saxons practised some kind of cousin marriage.
  • Like many languages, Old English lacked basic terms for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’; the words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, wer or ceorl and wīf or cwēn respectively, were used instead).
  • Old English had basic terms for ‘father-in-law’ and ‘mother-in-law’: swēor and sweġer respectively. It also had basic terms for ‘son-in-law’ and ‘daughter-in-law’: āþum and snoru. However, āþum had an additional meaning of ‘sister’s husband’, and in this sense it translates modern standard English brother-in-law. But brother-in-law can also mean ‘husband’s brother’, and Old English had an entirely distinct word for this sense: tācor. As for ‘sister-in-law’, Old English does not appear to have had any basic terms for this, whether in the sense of ‘wife’s sister’ or ‘brother’s wife’.

The Old English kinship system does not fit neatly into any of Morgan’s classifications. It resembles the Eskimo kinship terminology of modern standard English in that paternal and maternal nephews and nieces are not distinguished; however, it does make a distinction between paternal and maternal uncles and aunts which is more typical of a Sudanese kinship terminology system. The Old English system might be seen as a system in a state of transition between a Sudanese system and an Eskimo system. The nonexistence of a basic term for ‘wife’s sister’ and the existence of a basic term for ‘husband’s brother’ might be taken as an indication that Old English society was patrilocal.

The Proto-Germanic kinship terminology system is of course even more difficult to know about, because the language is not attested in writing. However, based on the evidence of the older Germanic languages (Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Dutch and Old High German), we can reconstruct an approximation of the system. The following list is based on information in Lehmann (2005-2007), A Grammar of Proto-Germanic and Ringe (2006), From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic.

*fadēr ‘father’ (c.f. Goth. fadar, ON faðir, OHG fater), *mōdēr ‘mother’ (c.f. Goth. mōdar, ON móðir, OHG muoter), *nefō̄ ‘nephew, grandson’ (c.f. ON nefe, OHG nevo), *niftiz ‘niece, granddaughter’ (c.f. ON nipt, OHG nift), *brōþēr ‘brother’ (c.f. Goth. brōþar, ON bróðir, OHG bruoder), *swestēr ‘sister’ (c.f. Goth. swistar, ON systir, OHG swester), *swehuraz ‘father-in-law’ (c.f. Old Swedish svēr, OHG swehur), *swegrū ‘mother-in-law’ (c.f. Goth. swaíhra, ON sværa, OHG swigar), *taikuraz ‘husband’s brother’ (c.f. OHG zeihhur), *sunuz ‘son’ (c.f. Goth. sunus, ON sunr, OHG sunu), *snuzō ‘daughter-in-law’ (c.f. OHG snura), *duhtēr ‘daughter’ (c.f. Goth. daúhtar, ON dóttir, OHG tohter), *aiþumaz ‘son-in-law, brother-in-law’ (c.f. OHG eidum).

Note that in Gothic, there were two other words for ‘father’ and ‘mother’ besides fadar and mōdar: atta and áiþei. The first of these has a PIE ancestor, *átta (c.f. Greek átta, Latin atta, both respectful terms of address for elderly men, and Hittite attas ‘father’). Ringe (2006) reconstructs *attō̄ for Proto-Germanic. However, áiþei is of unknown origin. The resemblance to *aiþaz ‘oath’ (which has a cognate in Old Irish ōeth, but no other Indo-European cognates, so it is probably a loanword from an unknown language that entered both Celtic and Germanic) is suggestive, but it could also be entirely unrelated. áiþei may also be related to *aiþumaz, which is also of unknown origin; it has no known cognates in any non-Germanic Indo-European languages, or indeed in any non-West Germanic language.

There were probably terms for uncles, aunts and cousins in Proto-Germanic as well, but they are difficult to reconstruct. On the basis of OE ēam and OHG ōheim we can reconstruct Proto-West Germanic *auhaimaz ‘maternal uncle’. This appears to be a contraction of a compound *awahaimaz formed from *awaz ‘uncle, grandfather’ (< Proto-Indo-European *h₂éwh₂os) + *haimaz ‘home’. But this is a strange compound, because compounds in the modern Germanic languages and in Proto-Indo-European are head-final (for example, elephant shrew refers to shrews that are like elephants, not elephants that are like shrews). An *awahaimaz is a kind of uncle, so this compound appears to be head-initial. I have no idea why this is the case. The choice of this compound to denote the maternal uncle is also interesting. If *awahaimaz is interpreted as ‘uncle who lives in the same home’ that suggests that the Proto-West Germanic speakers actually had a matrilocal society. In a patrilocal society, wives move into their husband’s homes after marriage, leaving their brothers behind, so people tend to live in extended families with their paternal uncles rather than their maternal uncles. This might seem strange, because it is pretty clear that later Germanic society and earlier Proto-Indo-European society was patrilocal. But there is, in fact, a theory that societies in the process of state formation tend to pass through a temporary matrilocal stage. For more on this, see my post on Tumblr about matrilocal societies.

There are other indications that Proto-Germanic preserved a reflex of *h₂éwh₂os (maybe *awaz?). Old Norse had the words afi ‘grandmother’ and amma ‘grandmother’; amma is probably a nursery word, but Lehmann says afi is a reflexes of *h₂éwh₂os (although I don’t know why the word has -f- rather than -v-). Apparently a dative singular form awōn ‘grandmother’ is attested from Gothic, too, which would correspond to nominative singular *awō. This might be the descendant of a feminine derivative, *awō (< PIE *h₂éwh₂ah₂, if it goes back as far as that), of *awaz in Proto-Germanic.

What about the other Old English words for uncles and aunts? Well, all of them lack cognates outside of West Germanic. fædera and mōdriġe are clearly derivatives of the words for ‘father’ and ‘mother’ respectively; they were probably originally adjectives meaning ‘paternal, i.e. of a father’ and ‘maternal, i.e. of a mother’ respectively. faþu also seems to be some kind of derivative of the word for ‘father’, although I don’t know what process would turn *fadēr into *faþō. Note the apparent Verner’s Law alternation!

Old English had a word mǣġ ‘relative’, which is not a kinship term has defined here. Its cognate in Old High German, māg, also means ‘relative’. However, in Old Norse mágr was a general term meaning ‘male relative by marriage, i.e. son-in-law, brother-in-law, father-in-law’, and in Gothic mēgs meant ‘son-in-law’ specifically. This word has no cognates in other Indo-European languages, and it is possible that was a kinship term with the ON or Goth. meaning in Proto-Germanic; then again ‘relative’ might just as well be the original meaning, especially if *aiþumaz is Proto-Germanic.

As for Proto-Indo-European, there is even more uncertainty than with Proto-Germanic, but the following kinship terms can be reconstructed.

*ph₂tḗr ‘father’ (c.f. Tocharian B pācer, Sanskrit pitā́, Old Armenian hayr, Greek patḗr, Latin pater, Old Irish athair), *máh₂tēr ‘mother’ (c.f. Tocharian B mācer, Sanskrit mātā́, Old Armenian mayr, Greek mḗtēr, Lithuanian mótė, Old Church Slavonic mati, Latin māter, Old Irish máthair), *h₂éwh₂os ‘grandfather’ (c.f. Hittite ḫūḫḫas, Old Armenian haw, Latin avus), *bráh₂tēr ‘brother’ (c.f. Sanskrit bhrātā́, Old Armenian ełbayr, Greek phrátēr, Lithuanian brólis, Old Church Slavonic bratrŭ, Latin frāter, Old Irish bráthair), *swésōr ‘sister’ (c.f. Tocharian B ṣer, Sanskrit śvasā́, Lithuanian sesuõ, Old Church Slavonic sestra, Latin soror, Old Irish siur), *swéḱuros ‘father-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit śvaśura, Greek hekurós, Albanian vjehërr, Old Church Slavonic svekrŭ ‘husband’s father’, Latin socer), *sweḱrúh₂ ‘mother-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit śvaśrū́s, Greek hekurā́, Old Church Slavonic svekry, Latin socrus), *dayhₐwḗr ‘husband’s brother’ (c.f. Sanskrit devā́, , Old Armenian taygr, Greek daḗr, Old Church Slavonic děverĭ, Latin lēvir), *yénh₂tēr ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ (c.f. Sanskrit yā́tṛ, Greek enátēr, Lithuanian jéntė, Old Church Slavonic jętry), *ǵh₂lōws ‘husband’s sister’ (c.f. Greek gálōs ‘sister-in-law’, Old Church Slavonic zŭlŭva ‘husband’s sister’, Latin glōs ‘husband’s sister’), *suHnús / *suHyús ‘son’ (c.f. Tocharian B soy, Sanskrit sūnú, Greek huiús, Lithuanian sūnùs, Old Church Slavonic synŭ), *népōts ‘grandson’ (c.f. Sanskrit nápāt, Greek anepsiós ‘cousin’, Albanian nip ‘grandson, nephew’, Old Church Slavonic netijĭ ‘nephew’, Latin nepōs ‘grandson, nephew’, Old Irish nïa ‘sororal nephew’), *snusós ‘daughter-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit snuṣā́, Old Armenian nu, Greek nuós, Latin nurus), *dʰugh₂tḗr ‘daughter’ (c.f. Tocharian B tkācer, Sanskrit duhitā́, Old Armenian dustr, Greek thugátēr, Lithuanian duktė̃, Old Church Slavonic dŭšti)

There were probably feminine counterparts to *h₂éwh₂os and *népōts in Proto-Indo-European, but they were formed as derivatives of the masculine terms. There are numerous indications that the society of the Proto-Indo-European speakers was patrilocal: swéḱuros seems to have referred to a husband’s father only, not a wife’s father, there is a basic term for ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ but not ‘husband’s sister’s wife’, and it is uncertain whether there are reconstructable basic PIE terms for ‘wife’s brother’ or ‘wife’s sister’.

It looks to me like the evidence of kinship terminology suggests that English-speakers and their linguistic ancestors have been patrilocal for most of their history. That said, as mentioned above, Proto-Germanic *awahaimaz suggests that there might have been a short matrilocal period around the Proto-Germanic period. This is far from conclusive evidence on its own, but there are also clues that the Germanic peoples might have been to some degree matrilocal (or avunculocal) from Tacitus’s Germania, and if the Harris-Divale theory of matrilocality being related to external warfare during state formation is correct, this would be a prediction of that theory.

The origin of war (summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 4)

Previously: Chapter 2.

I meant to write about Chapter 3 next, which is about the origin of agriculture. Basically, Harris thinks that the origin of agriculture is ultimately a result of the climate change that occured at the end of the Ice Age; but the exact causal sequence is complicated, and it varies depending on which region you’re talking about. I was struggling to write a post about it, so instead I’m going to write about Chapter 4, which is about the origin of warfare. I might write something on Chapter 3 later.

Why do people wage war against each other? In order to start answering this question we first have to understand that warfare is a phenomenon that has varied significantly in its nature across time and space. Different kinds of wars may happen for different reasons. We also have to understand that there is a difference between proximal and distal causes. The First World War happened, in one sense, because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and yet most people who ask why the First World War started are not satisfied with this answer, because on its own it does not explain why the archduke was assassinated nor why his assassination caused a war. In general, when one asks “why does X happen?” and one receives the answer “because Y” there remain two questions about the cause of X—“why Y?” and “why does Y cause X?”. Y is the more proximal cause here, while the cause of Y and the cause of the fact that Y causes Y are the more distal causes. There is a temptation with questions of causation to think in terms of trying to find a first cause, but there is a sense in which first causes do not exist; everything is caused by something else. Yet it is possible to get to a stage where the remaining distal causes are already understood, or can be taken for granted; at that point you can say that the question has been answered. A lot of literature has been written by historians to try to get us to that point with the question of what caused the First World War. However, I’m not going to discuss this literature very much here, because even the causes identified in this literature are too proximal; they are the causes of one specific war, while the question at hand is the cause of war in general. And the First World War is a very atypical example of a war. In fact, all wars between states are atypical, in a certain sense, so the causes of these wars are not going to be the main focus of our discussion. States have only existed for the last few thousand years. But behaviorally modern humans have existed for at least 30,000 years. For most of that time, all human societies had a foraging mode of substance and were organised into bands1. It is only in the last 10,000 years that societies started to emerge that had a farming mode of subsistence and were organised into tribes, chiefdoms or states, and for much of this time these societies were a minority. So out of all the societies that have ever existed, most have been organised into foraging bands. Therefore, let’s start by examining the causes of warfare between foraging bands specifically.

At this point we have to note that there is some dispute over whether warfare is characteristic of forager societies. The dispute has a long history; Hobbes famously argued that humanity’s “state of nature” was a “war of all against all”, while Rousseau argued for the opposite. Nobody denies that there are forager societies today which wage war. But there are also some forager societies which have never been observed waging war, such as the Andaman Islanders, the Yahgan of Patagonia and the Semai of Malaysia. These are a minority of forager societies today, but some anthropologists believe that during the Palaeolithic, all forager societies were like this, and the modern forager societies which wage war acquired the practice due to contact with farmers. Marvin Harris is not one of those anthropologists. He thinks warfare is a very old phenomenon. The dispute is to some extent politically charged, because those with anti-war inclinations would like to believe that the prospensity towards warfare is not innate to the human species. Of course, even if humanity did have some innate prospensity towards warfare that wouldn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t be suppressed by culture. In any case, the question of how old warfare is as a phenomenon is a factual one, to be settled by facts.

Unfortunately, there is no strong evidence for any stance when it comes to Palaeolithic warfare. We certainly don’t find obvious giveaways, like the walls, towers and moats of Jericho, or the Talheim Death Pit; none of the cave paintings depict warfare. Plenty of skeletons have been found showing signs of trauma, but this is not unambiguous evidence; the trauma could have been caused by hunting accidents, or one-off incidents that were not part of an organised campaign of violence, or it could have been inflicted after death (the Manus people of New Guinea, for example, sever their dead relatives’ heads to use as keepsakes, while the Fore people, also of New Guinea, used to smash holes in their dead relatives’ skulls in order to eat their brains).

Harris admits that warfare was probably less frequent and less deadly in the Palaeolithic. Forager societies are mobile, so there is less need for conflict over territory (although it might still arise when there is no new land to escape to that is sufficiently fertile). There is also less sense of shared identity and hence less potential for xenophobia. Bands are small units, with less than 100 individuals each, so members of different bands have to intermarry to avoid inbreeding, and people often move between bands, perhaps accompanied by relatives within the band, to meet up with relatives outside of the band. Recorded instances of wars between forager bands are perhaps best described not as wars between bands, but as the sum of one-on-one fights between members of different bands who decide to resolve their individual disputes. In order to illustrate this, let’s have a look at one example of such a war that was recorded by C. W. Hart and Arnold Pilling in the late 1920s. This war took place between two bands of Australian aboriginals who lived on the Tiwi Islands in northern Australia, the Tiklauila-Rangwila and Mandiiumbula bands. The original account is not available to me, but here’s Harris’s retelling of it:

The Tiklauila-Rangwila men were the instigators. They painted themselves white, formed a war party and advised the Mandiiumbula of their intentions. A time was set for a meeting. When the two groups had gathered, both sides exchanged a few insults and agreed to meet formally in an open space where there was plenty of room. As night fell … individuals from the two groups exchanged visits, since the war parties included relatives on both sides and no one regarded every member of the other group as an enemy. At dawn the two groups lined up on opposite sides of the clearing. Hostilities began with some old men shouting out their grievances at one another. Two or three individuals were singled out for special attention.

Hence when spears began to be thrown, they were thrown by individuals for reasons based on individual disputes.

Since the old men did most of the spear throwing, marksmanship tended to be highly inaccurate.

Not infrequently the person hit was some innocent non-combatant or one of the screaming old women who weaved through the fighting men, yelling obscenities at everybody, and whose reflexes for dodging spears were not as fast as those of the men … As soon as somebody was wounded, even a seemingly irrelevant old crone, fighting stopped immediately until the implications of this new incident could be assessed by both sides.

Harris thinks that a typical war between forager bands in the Palaeolithic would have been much like this war among the Tiwi people. It would have arisen as a result of individual disputes when people who shared disputes against members of the same band decided to team up with each other. That would have been the proximal cause of these wars. Yet the question remains: why did these disputes need to be resolved by violence?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not expecting that foragers wouldn’t have resorted to violence when it was advantageous for them. (Although there are forager societies which appear to have had a philosophy of complete non-violence, such as the Moriori of the Chatham Islands; unfortunately such societies tend to be selected against for obvious reasons—look up what happened to the Moriori.) But war between forager bands is immensely costly, perhaps more so for the societies involved than war between states. Remember, forager bands are small. And war disproportionately affects the stronger members of the band, the adult males, who make the biggest contribution to the band’s continued survival. Note also the mention in the above account of the Tiwi war of the fact that the Tiklauila-Rangwila and Mandiiumbula war parties included relatives on both sides. These people were trying to kill their own relatives, and other people who they regularly interacted with. It wasn’t like a war between states were the two parties can dehumanize each other.

Why couldn’t the Tiklauila-Rangwila men have resolved their grievances by engaging in some kind of ritualised mock combat? Of course, we don’t know how serious these grievances were, and killing has a finality which no other method of conflict resolution can rival—but it would be rash to assume that war was the only thing which would work. In fact, this was apparently how the Moriori resolved their conflicts.

Why might this kind of warfare happen? Let’s try and think of some possible reasons.

  1. The need to foster solidarity. By working together to fight an external enemy, groups that wage war increase their internal cohesion and hence their capability for survival.
  2. The need for entertainment. Groups might start wars just because their members enjoy it. (OK, this might sound a little ridiculous to people brought up in the modern Western cultural tradition which tends to hammer home the “war is hell” message, but in other cultures war is glorified. If you haven’t been in a war, how do you know what it’s really like? And if you have been in a war and not enjoyed it, might others have had a different experience?)
  3. The need to satisfy an innate “urge to kill”. Humans, or perhaps just human males specifically, have an instinct which compels them to kill others, which has evolved in the usual way via natural selection; for whatever reason, humans with an inclination towards violence have proved more reproductively successful. Of course it is possible to suppress and moderate this innate drive, just as is possible with other innate drives (people go on hunger strikes, and die from them, for example), but it remains present and manifests itself in the absence of mitigation.
  4. The desire to control more resources.

The last explanation here, that war occurs when political units compete over resources, might strike you as the most sensible one here, and it probably is the main explanation for wars between states. But does it work as an explanation of the Tiwi war? If wars between forager bands are waged for this reason, we would expect wars to often result in one band gaining resources at the expense of the other band. The ethnographic evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Victorious warriors certainly gain social status, and sometimes they gain women which they have kidnapped from the enemy, but often they return only with trophies, such as the severed heads of the men they have slain. After all, these societies do not have the capability to store food or other valuables in large quantities. Territorial expansion is out of the question; bands are mobile, so they lack territory in the first place, and besides they lack the organisational capability to subjugate a population and extract tribute from it. And as we have seen from Chapter 2, forager societies control their population growth, so they would have no need for more Lebensraum most of the time. Of course forager societies would not have always been completely successful at maintaining a constant population, so perhaps wars would occur for reasons of Lebensraum sometimes, but it would not be the main cause of war.

So, perhaps one of the other three explanations given above is more appropriate? Well, let’s have a look at them one-by-one.

Harris’s main problem with the solidarity explanation is that it needs to be accompanied with an explanation of why, out of all the ways a group could increase its sense of togetherness, warfare would be favoured over other methods which do not suffer from the rather significant costs associated with warfare. Is it so difficult to foster intragroup solidarity? In modern Western societies, sport seems to be able to do this to a considerable degree. Maybe it doesn’t work as well as warfare would, but it’s not clear—and warfare doesn’t just need to be better at fostering intragroup solidarity than sport, it needs to be so much better that it is worth the cost. Nobody has been able to show that this is the case, and without that the solidarity explanation has no explanatory power.

As for entertainment: well, I tried to convince you above that it’s not totally obvious that war isn’t fun, but after a careful look at the evidence it seems fair to conclude that war really isn’t fun. Of course societies tend to bombard their members with messages telling them that war is a blast (and not just literally), or, failing that, that killing people somehow makes you a better, more noble person—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, right? But the very fact that the message has to be hammered home so much kind of gives away that this attitude towards war is far from natural. Humans don’t need these societal messages to get them to do things they enjoy doing; in fact there are some things that humans enjoy very much and do very frequently even when the society they live in is constantly telling them that it makes them a bad person. Everybody knows about the conscientious objectors during the two World Wars. What you might not know is that their equivalents existed even in many pre-state societies which waged war. The Crow Indians, for example, allowed adult males to avoid fighting as long as they dressed themselves in women’s clothing and worked as servants to the warriors. Even the notoriously warlike Yanomamo of the Amazon rainforest have to prepare themselves for battles by taking drugs and performing special rituals. So this explanation, too, is not convincing.

The “killer instinct” explanation suffers from the same problem. If humans have an innate urge to kill people, why is it so hard to get them to do it? In any case, why would such an innate urge be maintained by natural selection in the first place? The cause which the instinct explanation names is too proximal.

So if none of these explanations are satisfactory, what is Harris’s explanation?

I mentioned above how warfare could occur due to the need of bands for Lebensraum after population growth, but this would be a rare occurence. But a related reason why war would be beneficial would be the fact that war helps decrease the average population density in a region. Obviously, the prospect of war is good motivation for bands to try and stay away from each other. In fact, the threat of attack might encourage bands to stay away entirely from certain regions where they would be especially vulnerable. In this way “no man’s lands” are created, and these might be crucial to ensuring that foragers do not deplete the supply of the animals and plants that they consume.

But Harris doesn’t think these are the only benefits of war. He also claims that war helped foragers to control their population growth. On the face of it, this claim might seem strange because the direct effect of war is mainly to reduce the number of adult males in the population. But as long as the amount of adult women remains more or less constant, the rate of population growth will remain the same, especially in openly polygynous societies. (Not all forager societies are polygynous, but the more warlike societies tend to be more polygynous, according to Harris.)

Harris’s answer is that warfare is part of a kind of package of practices which mutually reinforce each other and serve to control population growth, so that forager populations remain within the carrying capacity of their environment. These three practices are female infanticide, warfare and male supremacy (i.e., patriarchy).

Female infanticide, of course, directly limits the rate of population growth. That was the topic of Chapter 2. But female infanticide is costly for the mother. Not necessarily in moral terms, because cultures vary greatly in how they view the morality of infanticide. But pregnancy isn’t easy, and it is not hard to see why mothers would be reluctant to kill their newborn babies after going through all that effort. And it’s not just mothers who suffer the costs, because the whole band has to work together to supply the extra food needed to feed the developing baby (or the newborn baby, since infanticide can occur by neglect, not just by direct killing).

Harris proposes (as we’ll see when we get to the next chapter) that foragers’ reliance on the strongest members of their societies, the adult males, for military purposes is the cause of the development of male supremacist institutions and practices. One of these male supremacist practises is the favouring of male babies over female ones, and this encourages female infanticide. Female infanticide would be favoured to some extent already because of its effect on population growth, but male supremacy makes it possible for it to be favoured to a greater extent, resulting in a greater effect on population growth.

Even if you don’t find this causal link illuminating (it is elaborated upon in the next chapter), Harris points to evidence that it holds up. William Divale studied a number of band and tribe societies for which census records were available covering the time when the society was pacified by the occupying state. He found that the ratio of boys less than 14 years old to girls in the same age bracket was significantly higher (128:100, on average) before pacification than after it (the average figure for societies less than 25 years post-pacification was 113:100, and after 25 years it dropped to 106:100, more or less the global average, which was 105:100 when Harris wrote the book but is 107:100 today). The figures are restricted to this age bracket for the obvious reason that when these boys grew up, many of them were killed in battle, so that the sex ratio among the adults in the unpacified societies was actually more or less exactly equal, and it actually became more skewed towards boys after pacification.

So, in summary: according to Marvin Harris, the practice of warfare facilitates the survival of forager societies because it encourages the dispersal of bands and the creation of no man’s lands where the animals and plants that they feed on can take refuge, and also because it facilitates the development of male supremacist institutions and practices; in particular, it encourages female infanticide, which limits population growth and thereby prevents the resources in the environment from being depleted.


  1. ^ Anthropologists classify societies via their extent of organisation into four types, going from least to most complex: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states.

A summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 2

Cannibals and Kings is an anthropology book by Marvin Harris aimed at a popular audience. Since I’m trying to read this for education rather than entertainment, I’m not reviewing it in the usual way, but instead I’m trying to understand what it is arguing for. Hopefully, this will be part of a series of posts where I summarise each chapter; I’m starting with chapter 2 because the first one is a general overview. I wrote a brief introduction to Marvin Harris and Cannibals and Kings in this post on Tumblr.

Somebody not familiar with the topic might be inclined to think of agriculture as an invention, like the steam engine or the light bulb. The question of the origin of agriculture would not seem well-posed to such a person. They would say that until the first farmer societies appeared 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, the idea of agriculture had simply never occured to anybody, and for this reason every society was a forager society. But once the first person had the idea (who happened to be in the Middle East, 12,000 years ago), people saw that the farmer lifestyle would be better for them, and therefore they adopted it. Neighbouring societies came into contact with the first farmer societies, came to the same realisation, and became agricultural themselves. Other societies came up with the idea independently too (but later than those Middle-Eastern pioneers), and passed the idea on to their own neighbours. In this way most of the societies in the world became agricultural, except for a few in places like Siberia where the environment made agriculture impractical, and in places like Australia where the societies were too isolated to be sufficiently exposed to the idea and happened not to come up with it themselves.

There are a lot of problems with this explanation. One of them is the assumption that the idea of agriculture was sufficiently unlikely to occur to people in forager societies that the first farmer societies only appeared 12,000 years ago. Humans are thought to have reached behavioral modernity around 40,000 years ago, so that’s 28,000 years where the idea of agriculture, if it occured to anybody, occured only to people who were unable to get it across to others, or to people in those places like Siberia where agriculture was impractical. Was the idea of agriculture really so inaccessible? Anthropologists have found that people in modern forager societies often have extensive knowledge of the natural world in which they live. Presumably, prehistoric foragers were the same. In particular, the mechanics of plant growth would probably not have been a mystery to them. And if they knew how plants grew, it doesn’t seem like a massive leap for them to have the idea of planting seeds and encouraging their growth in order to eat the plant once it was fully grown.

But the most fundamental problem with this explanation is the idea that the farmer lifestyle would be attractive to foragers. This is far from obvious. In fact, it appears that, at least in its primitive stages, farmer societies were in many respects less conducive to general well-being than forager societies. There are lots of points that could be made here, so let’s just focus on one metric by which forager societies have an advantage over farmer societies (at least the primitive ones): the amount of leisure time available, as opposed to time spent obtaining food. The modern San foragers of the Kalahari desert spend about three hours per adult per day hunting and gathering and have a diet rich in animal and plant protein. Modern Javanese peasants (as of 1977), on the other hand, spend about six hours a day working their farms and get much less protein for their efforts. Even modern workers still spend about four and a half hours a day earning the wages they need to obtain their food (assuming a 40-hour week), although they have access to an enormous range of different kinds of food, so the comparison is less straightforward. And, let’s not forget, the Bushmen live on the edge of the Kalahari desert, not one of the most hospitable environments in the world. Most prehistoric foragers would have lived in environments where food was easier to access.

That’s the empirical side of the argument. It is also possible to explain why it makes sense that the early farmer societies would have had a worse standard of living than forager societies. The reason is that there is a crucial difference in the nature of the means of production in forager and farmer societies. Foragers depend on the amount of resources present in the surrounding environment. It is impossible for them to increase the amount of food produced per unit area, because the more they hunt and gather, the more scarce the animals and plants that they sought become. On the other hand, farmers can increase the amount of food produced per unit area by planting more crops per unit area; there are limits on the amount of crops that can be grown per unit area too, but the limits are sufficiently high that the maximum amount of food that can be produced per unit area in a farmer society is much higher, and the early farmers would not have needed to reach it. Harris refers to increase in the amount of food produced per unit area as “intensification of production” (it’s a concept that re-occurs and is important throughout the book). The difference between forager and farmer societies can therefore be briefly summarised as this: foragers cannot intensify production, but farmers can.

Since foragers cannot intensify production, forager societies are motivated to maintain a constant population density. If the amount of foragers within a given area increases, the foragers in the area have to eat less on average. However, if the amount of farmers within a given area increases, the farmers in the area don’t have to eat less on average, because they have the option of increasing the amount of food produced in the area and thereby cancelling out the effect of the increased population density. As a result, farmers are not motivated to maintain a constant population density, and, in general, the population density in a farmer society tends to increase over time. But the intensification of production that farmers must carry out in order to accomodate the increase in population density necessitates an increase in workload.

One last question remains. How do forager societies maintain their constant population density? In the second chapter of the book, which is called “Murders in Eden”, Harris talks about some of the methods that they probably used. As the name of the chapter suggests, some of these might turn you off from the somewhat idyllic picture of forager life that has been painted so far.

Foragers had no access to effective methods of contraception. They had access to methods of abortion, and some of them were probably quite effective, but they tended to also be very effective at killing or seriously injuring the mother, so abortion was not an attractive option. But there was another way of getting rid of unwanted children which carried zero risk of harm to the mother: infanticide. Infanticide is, of course, morally objectionable to most people in my society, and probably yours as well, if you’re reading this. But other societies, both historical and modern, it is not; in these societies infants are considered to be non-persons, just as many people in my society consider foetuses to be non-persons. I think Harris would agree that a society’s nature generally determines its moral system, not the other way round. The necessity of infanticide in forager societies would cause these societies to define infants as non-persons. There would, therefore, be no reason for foragers to refrain from carrying out infanticide for moral reasons. The only reason infanticide would be disfavoured to some degree would be so that the effort of pregnancy, and, especially, the extra food that the mother would need to eat, would not be wasted. But the benefits of keeping the population constant would have outweighed these costs.

Another, less morally questionable method that was used was late weaning. After birth, women ovulate only after their body has built up enough fat reserves to allow the next baby to get enough food, at least according to Harris (I don’t know if this is an accepted fact or not). If they breastfeed, they expend a significant amount of calories feeding the baby, so that their fat reserves build up more slowly, and ovulation is delayed. (The same mechanics are behind the fact that menarche occurs earlier among more well-nourished populations.) In farmer societies, people usually consume enough carbohydrates that it is impossible to delay ovulation for more than a year or two, even if the baby is not weaned for the whole of this time. But foragers’ diets are much less carbohydrate-rich, so they can delay ovulation for much longer. And as long as ovulation has not occurred, impregnation is impossible. Studies of Bushmen women have found that, by putting off weaning, they often avoid getting pregnant for four years or more. That means that, within in the approximately 26-year-long span in which they are fertile (between the ages of 16 and 42, or close to those ages), there is only time for five or six pregnancies. Accounting for the effects of miscarriage and infant mortality, this might result in only three or four children who survive puberty on average, given no infanticide. In order to maintain constant population this number needs to be cut down to two, and this would have to be done via infanticide, but the average woman would only need to kill one or two babies during her lifetime. It still probably doesn’t sound like an ideal way to live to anybody reading this, but it’s not quite as bad as you might have thought. Again, though, it is important to understand that while this would be a moral cost for us, it would not have been a moral cost for foragers in which infanticide was an accepted practice.

Now that we have established that the naïve description of the origin of agriculture given above is incorrect, the next question to answer is this. In general, farming was not an attractive option for foragers. What were the particular circumstances in the Fertile Crescent 12,000 years ago, and in the other areas where agriculture originated independently, that made farming an attractive option in these particular times and places? This is the subject of the next chapter, “The Origin of Agriculture”, which I’ll write about in the next post.