Monday, May 28, 2007

17. The Bottleneck

We may now return to the phylogenetic tree introduced in section 12. Note the break between style family (or “haplogroup”) A4 and the families just above it, to the right, B1, B2 and B3, all rooted at the same place, the thick horizontal line representing the “Bottleneck.” Note also that there is no solid line connecting any of the A families with any of the B families. What is represented here is a break in continuity.
What could this mean? If "modern" humans originated in Africa, with one small group migrating from that continent to populate Asia, Europe, Oceania and the Americas with their descendents, then it’s only logical to assume their music would have migrated with them. According to this “Out of Africa” model, we would expect that either the original African style family would persist, or gradually evolve, or both. However, as should be clear from our discussion of the “old problem” faced by the early comparative musicologists, as well as my original tree diagram, the expected continuities simply aren’t there.

For example, let’s consider style family B2, “Breathless Solo.” (Equivalent in my original tree to B, “Breathless” style.) What is this style and why is it important? By “breathless” I refer to an unusual and highly characteristic feature of this type of vocalizing, in which a solo singer produces a continuous stream of notes as a sort of musical “run-on” sentence. Breathing often appears arbitrary in this style, i.e., not coordinated with the melodic structure. In many cases, the singer appears to be attempting to continue for as long as possible and then audibly gasps for breath with no apparent regard for where he or she is in the melody. We called this style “breathless” because it doesn’t seem to take the singer’s need to take a breath into account. This is radically different from what we would ordinarily expect, since the coordination of the breath with important syntactic junctures is a very much taken for granted aspect of both the musical and linguistic phrase in the great majority of cultures. Other distinctive features of this style are the use of nonsense vocables, wide intervals and a voice quality characterized by heavy glottalization and nasality.

“Breathless Solo” appears to be the dominant style for a very widespread family of so-called “Paleosiberian” reindeer-oriented hunting societies stretching across the length of northern Eurasia, from Scandinavia (the Saami Laplanders) through vast stretches of northern Russia and Siberia (Samoyed, Evenk, Yukaghir, Kamchatka, etc.) to the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido (the Ainu). As with the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa, the very widespread distribution of such a distinctive musical style (not to mention lifestyle) over such a vast and difficult terrain, strongly suggests a common cultural root dating back, in all likelihood, to the upper paleolithic.

So how do we get from the mellifluous, flowing, highly integrated, interlocking, polyphonic style of “haplogroups” A2 through A4 to the rather singsong, runon, monophonic vocalizing of the Paleosiberians represented by B2? If the replacement theory is correct, the Paleosiberians must share a common genetic root with the Africans. Could something have happened during the migration out of Africa through the southern coast of Asia that might have suddenly caused such a drastic change? Yes, or at least that’s the theory.

That “something” would have been what I’ve been calling the “bottleneck,” i.e., a drastic reduction in population size that would have wiped out much if not all the genetic variation in a given population, with the possibility of an equally drastic alteration of its culture. This isn’t my idea, by the way. There are several references in the genetic literature to a major population bottleneck thought to have occurred at some point between 30,000 and 130,000 years ago. Geneticist Steven Oppenheimer, in his book The Real Eve, is more specific, attributing such a bottleneck to the historically verified super-explosion of Mt. Toba, in Sumatra, sometime around 72,000 years ago. Oppenheimer has written of the “paradox of the Indian genetic picture, in which the genetic trail of the [Out of Africa] beachcombers can be detected, but the bulk of Indian subgroups . . . are unique to the continent, especially among the tribes of the southeast. This is what we would expect for a recovery from a great disaster” (p. 193).

Oppenheimer’s theory zeroes in on the Toba eruption as the disaster in question since it was so vast and occurred when, according to his timeline, the Out of Africa migrants could have left colonies all along the south Asiatic coast, precisely in the path of a lethal ash cloud that could have, in his words, precipitated a “nuclear winter,” wiping out all or almost all living things in its path.

Oppenheimer’s theory has been questioned, since many archaeologists doubt that the Out of Africa exodus could have occurred prior to 72,000 years ago. However, there is another possibility for a disaster that could have been just as devastating, a Tsunami of the type we experienced two years ago, which killed almost a quarter of a million people along the various coasts of the Indian Ocean. A similar event, centered due south of the Indian subcontinent, at some time between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago could have wiped out all or almost all the Out of Africa migrants living along the entire coast of southern Asia, from Yemen to Indonesia.

To be continued . . .

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