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The Three Dimensions of Human History
A Talk With Colin Renfrew

RENFREW: Lately I've been interested in the possibility of unifying our separate visions of the human past. When we look at the archeological record, we have some story that emerges from the archeological record about human prehistory. The archeological picture of the past is a very concrete one, and it's very well dated, because of radiocarbon dating, but it doesn't actually say much about language.

On the other hand when we look at the pattern of the world's languages, the diversity of the world's languages, we come up with another kind of history. The linguists are looking at language families, like Indo-European, or Afro-Asiatic, or the Bantu languages, or the Austronesian languages. They clearly understand, and it seems very plausible that there is a history to these languages, there is a reality behind these language families, so that the Indo-Europeans had an origin, maybe as a group of people who spoke a proto-Indo-European language, in a particular part of the world at a particular time, and so on for each of the other recognized language families.

Thus the linguists build up a kind of history, which in a way implies an archeology. But they're not very good at working out exactly when these people lived in this or that place, these hypothetical people, yet historical linguists do have their picture of the past.

The curious thing is there's very little harmony between these two visions. I assume we can make the axiom that there was only one past, though accessible to us in different dimensions; people spoke, people lived.

Then there's a third dimension. The third element, which is only just coming into play seriously, is the molecular genetics.

As you very well know, you look today at people's mitochondrial DNA, or at other genetic evidence, and you can make inferences about the population history from that present DNA. I'm not talking about ancient DNA, which is another very interesting question, although it hasn't developed so far yet. If you take these present day mitochondrial DNA samples from communities in different parts of the world, by looking at the similarities and differences you can put together a notional history. Of course you know about the work 10 or 15 years ago now about the so-called mitochondrial Eve. That's when you go right back to a point of convergence in these terms among all living individuals and groups, however long ago it is, when you go back to human origins probably in Africa. But I'm more concerned with slightly more recent population histories, like those over the past 20,000 years. So we do have a third independent source of information about human history, namely molecular genetics. The meeting ground between these three dimensions is population history.

The interesting thing about these three dimensions of human history - archeological, linguistic, genetic - is that each is autonomous, each is authentic and valid, each gives a picture of the history of the human past, but the three have to be reconciled and brought into coherence. Because there were individual people who had their genes and their languages and their material culture, there is a synthesis that remains to be worked out. It is being worked out, but it turns out to be very difficult to reconcile these three dimensions.

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