Thursday, July 16, 2009

169. The Pygmy/Bushmen Nexus -- Part 9 -- Language vs. Music

Much of the population genetics research directed by Sarah Tishkoff places considerable emphasis on language. The relation between genetics and language is the theme of the 2007 paper, History of Click-Speaking Populations of Africa Inferred from mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Variation, by Tishkoff et al., and the relationship among various Khoesan speakers is an important theme in The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans, where, as I've already mentioned, the very interesting question of whether the Pygmies might have originally spoken a Khoesan-related language is raised.

There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that any Pygmy group ever spoke any type of click language. And, as I've argued elsewhere on this blog, there is reason to believe the Pygmies never had a language of their own at all, possibly due to their having diverged from the ancestral group at a time prior to the development of fully syntactic speech -- a theory reinforced by the fact that whatever remnants of a shared Pygmy language have been identified consist solely of disconnected lexical elements with no trace of syntax.

Regardless of whether the Pygmies had their own language or whether it would have resembled Khoesan, the difficulty in determining the answers to such questions poses a problem for geneticists concerned, as is Tishkoff, with puzzling out the history of our earliest ancestors. If today's Pygmies were indeed in the habit of using click consonants, that would constitute very powerful cultural reinforcement of the theory of their archaic connection with the Khoesan-speaking Bushmen, which, as we have seen, has become an increasingly important theme in the population genetics literature.

Linguistics, along with archaeology, has always been important for population genetics. Some of Cavalli-Sforza's earliest research was in collaboration with historical linguists and from that time to this geneticists have always been eager to find correlations between patterns of linguistic association and those revealed by their own research. Why is this so important? First of all, because it's always better when findings from one field can be tested against those of another. Second, because the genetic results are not always as solid and consistent as could be desired, to the point that certain questions may have to be resolved by independent research in other fields, such as linguistics, archaeology, paleontology, etc.

And at this point I must confess that the results I've been sharing here are not as consistent as they might seem. For example, the phylogenetic tree from the Tishkoff paper of 2007, based on the mitochondrial findings, is accompanied in the same paper by a Y chromosome tree presenting a different picture, not completely consistent with the mitochondrial one. And while the comprehensive phylogenetic tree based on "D2" statistics, from Tishkoff's most recent paper, clearly places the Bushmen and Pygmy groups on its deepest branches, two other phylogenetic trees based on different statistical methods, published in a supplementary document, differ in significant ways from the first. The problem is that no algorithm has yet been developed for automatically producing unique phylogenetic trees from the genetic data, and different approaches to this problem can sometimes produce significantly different results.

Thus, without linguistic or archaeological evidence to more completely test the very special relationship between Pygmies and Bushmen so strongly suggested, but not unequivocally supported, by the genetic findings, the musical evidence becomes especially important. And in this case, as far as I am concerned, there can be no question. What the linguistic evidence fails to reveal, the musical evidence reveals in abundance -- and, as I hope my upcoming Ethnomusicology paper will convincingly demonstrate, there can no longer be any serious question regarding the common origin of the two musical traditions.


Anonymous said...

There is evidence from the Hadzabe tribe of Tanzania, who up to today speak a click language unrelated to any other known languages, and whose oral history says they were once pygmies who gained height after intermarriage with non-pygmy neighbouring tribes. Their genetic markers also relate them to the pygmies of central African rainforests.
I tend to think that the pygmies and Khoisan were from the same stock (due to the even today noticeable shortness of San bushmen) whose only dividing feature was habitat. One group lived on the plains and open savanna, and the other in the forests.

DocG said...

The Hadzabe are a mystery. Their DNA profile is very different from that of any other African population and their music is also unusual -- not only completely different from the music of the Pygmies and Bushmen, but atypical for Africa generally. While they have a click language, it is apparently unrelated to Khoisan.

My best guess so far is that they might have undergone a serious population bottleneck very early on, in the form of some sort of disastrous event that might have left only a few survivors -- which could have drastically altered both their genetics and many of their traditions, including their music.

As far as the pygmies and bushmen being of "the same stock," that sounds too vague for me. The genetic evidence is much more specific. They have very different genetic profiles, but all three groups (Eastern Pygmies, Western Pygmies and Bushmen) have the deepest clades of all living humans. They share a common ancestry, but their lineages diverged from one another a very long time ago.

Historically there does seem to be good evidence that the pygmies have "always" lived in the forest and the Bushmen lived for many thousands of years in the South African plains and savanna. But if we go far enough back in time, they were both part of the same ancestral group, so the challenge is to figure out where THAT group was living prior to divergence.