Ancient Indo-European Folktales?

Trond Engen sent me links to “Ancient Roots of Indo-European Folktales,” by Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani (“In this study, we introduce new methods for tackling these problems by applying comparative phylogenetic methods and autologistic modelling to analyse the relationships between folktales, population histories and geographical distances in Indo-European-speaking societies”), and the (inevitably breathless) BBC News story about it, “Fairy tale origins thousands of years old, researchers say” (“Analysis showed Beauty And The Beast and Rumpelstiltskin to be about 4,000 years old”). My immediate reaction is skepticism, and Trond says:

Maybe I don’t understand their probabilities, but it seems like they use the statistical procedure to seek out the outliers and then say “I’m almost certain that these are cherries!” I mean, 1/3 of almost 300 adventures showing more vertical affinity than expected by chance. Really? Gradually fewer of those 100 adventures being reconstructible (with a low bar) for each node up, resulting in only one out of 100 being (weakly) assigned to the top node. What do they expect from a scattershot? And no attempt to control with e.g. Finnish or Hungarian.

But both of us are eager to hear what Hatters have to say about it.

Update. Mark Liberman has posted about this at the Log.

Further update.
Julien d’Huy has written me to say he was one of the first to use modern phylogenetic tools to study mythology and folktales; you can see samples of his work here, and compare the approach of Jean-Loïc Le Quellec here — he shows the existence of one folktale during the Palaeolithic period in Africa.


  1. I don’t think their basic assumption is valid, because folktales cross linguistic barriers easily.

    There can’t be any Indo-European folk tales, but only Eurasian ones.

    Some classical folktales have even greater distribution, including all of Eurasia and large parts of Africa.

    Cinderella (ATU510A in Aarne Thompson Uther (ATU) Index) is case in point.

    This tale well is known folklore of peoples living in Western and Eastern Europe, Middle East, Iran, Central Asia, Tibet, Siberia, Japan, China, South Asia, Indo-China, Western Africa, Eastern Africa.

    4000 years? Indo-European tale?

    No way. Cinderella is so widespread that it’s ought to be dated to Upper Paleolithic, at least.

  2. This tale is well known in folklore…

  3. @SFReader: So they do attempt to control for this. They’re using two variables — geographic location and common linguistic descent — and trying to figure out which of them explains more of the variations in the fairy tale plots.

    I’m still skeptical, but at least this basic objection is covered.

  4. I picked it from a different site earlier this morning too. Yes, the model with linguistic similarities worked better than the one with geographic distances, but we are talking cultural affinities and influences, religion, trade, rather than mere diffusion by distance?
    3 of the stories came particularly old-rooted, and two of them have also very old literary roots: Beauty and the Beast, and Rumpelstiltskin. It made me wonder if copycat children book writers, inspired by the Grimm brothers of Germany but introducing variations here and there, may have contributed to the present-day variability.
    The absolute champ (and the only one significantly predating the splits of the subfamilies) is (an unknown to me personally) story about a Smith and a Bad Magic Guy who make a deal, upon which the Smith obtains great powers over metals and materials, which he then uses to break the contract by chaining the Bad Guy to a tree or a rock with an unbreakable chain. One needs to mention (following Trond) that the statistical significance wasn’t properly corrected for multi-testing so the statistical significance is inflated. But the fairy-tale kind of a significance is definitely there, given a story thread of an ur-people which overwhelmed its neighbors after developing metallurgy….

  5. J. W. Brewer says:

    One pretty obvious question is what level of generality do you use to decide if two tales from different cultures/languages are variants of the same ur-tale. (At a sufficiently high level of generality you can usually take a random ’70’s sitcom rerun and find a foreshadowing of the plot in some comedy by Plautus.) They seem to be using this ATU collection, which no doubt has a methodology (with no doubt both defenders and detractors in some relevant specialist literature). So on the one hand it’s good (and also convenient) that they’re using an existing dataset, with whatever pluses and minuses it has, rather than coming up with their own dataset that might be biased toward supporting their own hypothesis. But on the other hand, if the methodology used for the ATU dataset was done in a different context for a different purpose, how do we know if it’s the right sort of data for this exercise? It strikes me that in other folklore-corpus contexts, like the Child ballads in English, you clearly have both situations where text A and text B are plausibly historically related as actual texts even though there may be substantial differences in wording and then you have other situations where text C and text D appear, as texts, to be entirely independent compositions but nonetheless have some similarity of theme, setting, and plot. Using genetic metaphors may work pretty well for the first sort of relationship; for the second sort of relationship it’s, shall we say, a looser metaphor.

  6. Most of the tales Polish children hear come from the Grimms (and many of those have already filtered down into rural folklore). Of course some of the the recurrent motifs may be many millennia old (and found also in genuinely Slavic tales), but with so much horizontal transfer I’d be surprised if population histories and linguistic phylogenies were sufficiently correlated with folktale genealogies to be of much use. Even IE religious and heroic myths don’t tell you much about the history of the languages in which they were told. Yes, there was an important sky-god called *Diēus ph₂tēr, and probably a dawn-goddess called *H₂ausōs, and Bronze Age heroes valued *ń̥dʰgʷʰitom ḱléwos more than anything else, and in order to win it they apparently slew snake-like monsters. But this knowledge doesn’t help us to decide if the Italo-Celtic hypothesis is true, or whether Albanian is genetically closer to Greek, or to Indo-Iranian, or is in an outgroup relation to both.

  7. @Dmitry,

    One of my great-grandpas was a village blacksmith. His fame and local stories about his real or imaginary deeds circulated long after his death in the whole parish, especially because he was also a cheery sort of chap and a prankster. Some occupations just attract people’s attention in this way.

  8. “… and the (inevitably breathless) BBC News story about it, …”

    Oh, come on,. Hat. It is a *news* story, not a report to a conference (or blog) of linguistics experts, but to the great general public, based on an academic paper. Cut a bit of slack.

    The person who wrote it was probably on their umpteenth story of totally different subjects for the day with more to come, and in no position to question the merits of the paper, just report what was said on a general news cast, not a specialized slot. .

    I’ve been there countless times in my career – try, for instance,as a general reporter, being dropped in to cover a worldwide conference on AIDS – 900 experts and 2,000 papers – when it was only just beginning to be known to the wider public.

  9. Some occupations just attract people’s attention in this way

    Yes, if it feels like magic and raw power, then … But the blacksmiths also liked to cultivate the rumors of their special relations with the dark forces on purpose. Like I remember the story of Shaka Zulu’s assegai forged in the dead of the night using things which weren’t to be named.

    (The only time I knew I was in Hell was when we visited an aluminum factory as interns … imagine a cavernous pitch dark hall with the lights dimmed by hydrogen fluoride patina of corrosion of windowpanes and fat, thick graphite dust, where the black crust of the ovens glows red through the cracks, and flickers of blue flame dance over it, with the disquieting low buzz of electricity drowning all sounds … so a cherry-glowing giant scoop swings overhead, unheard, and fades into the darkness … and soon the devil himself appears, a diminutive foul-mouthed man completely covered in soot, wielding a jackhammer to break the crust and to prevent boiling-over of the liquid metal)

  10. I’d be surprised if population histories and linguistic phylogenies were sufficiently correlated with folktale genealogies to be of much use.

    I meant to say,

    I’d be surprised if folktale genealogies were sufficiently correlated with population histories and linguistic phylogenies to be of much use to those who study the latter.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    There was a Norwegian experimental archaeologist a few years ago who added charred bones to the smelt to make carbon steel. He interpreted the tales of smiths’ black magic as trade guild metaphysics, interpreting the increased strenght of the metal as the spirit of the animal or the fallen enemy forged into the blade itself.

  12. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have in front of me a Kusaasi (rural West African) folktale which is evidently just the same story as the Pardoner’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales.

    There is actually no great mystery about this; it’s a Buddhist Jataka story, incorporated into the Pancatantra, translated into Middle Persian and then Syriac and then Arabic (and thus to West Africa where it has metamorphosed into a folktale among a people in contact with Muslims but few of whom are themselves Muslim) and then Latin, and thus to Europe and Chaucer.

    No amount of Bayesian analysis would tell you this. It seems to me that this sort of enterprise is remarkably similar to the glorified mass-comparison stuff produced by non-linguists and published in journals like Nature by editors who seem unaware that there actually exists such a thing as comparative linguistics.

  13. It made me wonder if copycat children book writers, inspired by the Grimm brothers of Germany but introducing variations here and there, may have contributed to the present-day variability.

    Absolutely. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” has a known point of origin, or at least a known point of dispersion: Robert Southey’s 1837 story (in which Goldilocks is not only an old woman, but the villain of the piece). All the folklore and literary versions since then descend from it.

    One pretty obvious question is what level of generality do you use to decide if two tales from different cultures/languages are variants of the same ur-tale.

    Tolkien complained in “On Fairy-Stories” about what he considered to be abuses of this very point:

    [T]here are many elements in fairy-stories (such as this detachable heart [which appears in the Egyptian “Tale of Two Brothers” and over and over in both folklore and literature since then], or swan-robes, magic rings, arbitrary prohibitions, wicked stepmothers, and even fairies themselves) that can be studied […]. Such studies are, however, scientific (at least in intent); they are the pursuit of folklorists or anthropologists: that is of people using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested. A perfectly legitimate procedure in itself—but ignorance or forgetfulness of the nature of a story (as a thing told in its entirety) has often led such inquirers into strange judgments.

    To investigators of this sort recurring similarities (such as this matter of the heart) seem specially important. So much so that students of folk-lore are apt to get off their own proper track, or to express themselves in a misleading “shorthand”: misleading in particular, if it gets out of their monographs into books about literature. They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.” We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneken”; that “The Black Bull of Norroway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.”

    Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not the same as Layamon’s story in his Brut. Or to take the extreme case of Red Riding Hood: it is of merely secondary interest that the retold versions of this story, in which the little girl is saved by wood-cutters, is directly derived from Perrault’s story in which she was eaten by the wolf. The really important thing is that the later version has a happy ending (more or less, and if we do not mourn the grandmother overmuch), and that Perrault’s version had not. And that is a very profound difference […].

  14. Trond Engen says:

    My reaction on this was immediately sceptical because of cultural transmission, more interested when I started reading saw that they tried to correct for geographic proximity, and increasingly incredulous as I saw what seemed to be a method for cherrypicking the best fits. But I also suspect I’m missing something. For one thing I have a hard time reading anything significant from Figure 3 (the scatterplot).

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    From Jeffrey Heath’s grammar of the Songhay of Timbuktu:

    “Among the other castes of greatest sociocultural interest, both feared and despised by mainstream Songhays, are the griots and the blacksmiths …
    … the blacksmiths …. are thought to have black-magical powers; most local blacksmiths are ethnic Tuaregs.”

  16. Trond Engen says:

    Have a look at Figure 4 (the phylogenetic tree) and the occurence of different tales in different branches. The tales drop in and out of significance as we move up and down the tree, fairly unrelated to how secure they are in the constituent branches. No. 330, the only tale securely attributable to the top node, isn’t even on the list in Indo-Iranian. No. 328, only >50% secure at the top node, is >70% secure at most bottom and mid level nodes, and present in all of them. Obvious artifacts of statistics.

  17. Oh, come on,. Hat. It is a *news* story, not a report to a conference (or blog) of linguistics experts, but to the great general public, based on an academic paper. Cut a bit of slack.

    Of course, and I don’t expect news stories to resemble academic papers, I’m just having a bit of fun. No offense intended, Old Hack!

  18. Trond Engen says:

    The hyperbole of the BBC article was probably copied straight from the press release, and the press release was probably (contrary to cherished misconception) written by the study’s authors.

  19. I don’t know enough about Indo-European linguistics to comment on the direct influence of the trees. I do, however, know a lot about statistics, and the results did not seem especially strong in that area. (I was particularly puzzled by what they were doing with the Markov chain Monte Carlo, but I suspect that is mostly a weakness of their explanation.)

  20. David Marjanović says:

    One needs to mention (following Trond) that the statistical significance wasn’t properly corrected for multi-testing so the statistical significance is inflated.

    Ouchie. That’s a pretty basic mistake.

    Anyway, I join the chorus of those who think transmission has been underestimated. For starters, the Grimm brothers were full of shit; most of the oh-so-ancient German folk tales they collected had come from France within the previous 200 years – none less than Tolkien has beaten me to bringing up Red Riding Hood.

    The Nart sagas are all over the Caucasus, straight across the language families. Ossetic has them, and it only entered the area 1500 years ago.

    The epic of King Gesar is all over the Tibetan cultural sphere, including whole language families that are very distantly related to Tibetan. Bonus: some think that Gesar is Caesar.

    Alexander the Great has become legendary throughout his empire and beyond, sometimes showing up in what seem to have been unrelated tales.

    Then there’s St. Jehosephat, the bodhisattva…

    I wonder if the test for geography vs. phylogeny failed to take into account how much these two are correlated. Adding Finnish and Hungarian, as suggested above, would certainly have helped.

  21. The Nart sagas are all over the Caucasus, straight across the language families. Ossetic has them, and it only entered the area 1500 years ago.

    And some think they influenced the King Arthur legend!

  22. Re: Geser/Caesar

    One of the most common Mongolian mantras is “om Ochirvaani umpad” (Sanskrit oṃ vajrapāṇi hūṃ phaṭ)

    This is actually a prayer to Heracles…

  23. On the topic of Indo-European: some game developers have hired linguists to create multiple dialects of “Proto-Proto-Indo-European” (i.e. Pre-Proto-Indo-European) for a game set 12,000 years ago. Says one dev: “When we first started recording, it felt very modern. It was like listening to a language coming from Eastern Europe or something.” [The Kurgan hypothesis is true!] “It was very verbose. So we worked with them to regress this language to something that would be even earlier than that.” Proto-Flintstone-European, then. But at that time depth, might they not better served to look at proposed Nostratic or Eurasiatic roots?

  24. The headline I saw was “Phylogenetic analyses suggests fairy tales are much older than thought” which initially made me think “Finally Julian Jaynes has been vindicated!” Less ambiguity in headlines, please.

    I am dubious about The Smith and the Devil going back to the Bronze Age, since the magical status of the smith in folklore depends on the use of iron.

    I don’t think it’s controversial that people enjoy a good story, and that stories can cross linguistic and cultural boundaries. Some Chinese folktales are related to European ones. However, as far as I know, no Native American stories are related to Eurasian ones. That would demonstrate a limit on how far back relationships can be traced.

    There’s a claim that Child Ballad No. 4 (The Outlandish Knight), which is related to an old Hungarian folktale, is illustrated on a gold Scythian scabbard dated to the 3rd century BC. (See discussion at, If nothing else, it shows that people have been considering these matters for some time.

  25. Regarding the “Proto-Proto-Indo-European” dialects commissioned by a game developer, I had heard the news mentioned but did not realize that the game was set 12,000 years ago. That’s roughly twice as old as Proto-Indo-European itself. We might disagree on how old PIE is, but we can all still agree that this is many thousands of years before PIE for sure. The article says the game is set in the Carpathian Mountains, somewhere in Slovakia. At that time depth, it’s anybody’s guess where Pre-Proto-Indo-European would have been spoken, though the Carpathian area would have been speaking something else by the time of PIE. I would have just invented a language that looks like the various proto-languages reconstructed in Eurasia without claiming any relationship to PIE.

  26. The language of the Ulam tribe constructed by Anthony Burgess for Quest for Fire looks (at least lexically) like an Indo-European-based pidgin. Atra ‘fire’ is even distinctly Iranian (or maybe Proto-Albanian), tir ‘game’ is High German, and bratt ‘brother’ is Slavic.

  27. David Eddyshaw says:

    “However, as far as I know, no Native American stories are related to Eurasian ones.”

    The rabbit as too-clever-for-his-own-good trickster, who is certainly a West African, also turns up in Muskogean stories; but although I think I’ve seen it asserted that he’s Amerindian, it seems on first principles pretty likely that Choctaws could have heard about him from enslaved Africans. (Not unlike the Sioux Norsemen we just heard about.)

    Of course, rabbits may just *be* like that.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Cherokee, rather than Muskogean according to the ‘pedia; I’d forgotten about the Algonquian trickster-rabbit, too.

    Whatever else, it all demonstrates just how contagious good stories are.

  29. marie-lucie says:

    In Alaska and the Northwest there are many stories about Raven, usually the trickster, as in some Siberian traditions. As you go South along the Pacific, very similar stories are attributed to another animal trickster, such as Mink or Coyote.

  30. Jim (another one) says:

    “Some Chinese folktales are related to European ones. However, as far as I know, no Native American stories are related to Eurasian ones. ”

    I know of another non-exception exception to this. There used to be an anthropologist who was active in the Southwest collecting among other things folk stories. One time when he went out, he was astonished to hear a story that resembled the Bremen Town Musicians. Then it dawned on him what had happened. Collecting these stories is not just a matter of saying “Okay, the tape recorder is going; start telling your story.” You had to offer a story to get one back, and he had told the story of the Bremen Town Musicians. What threw him off at first was the substitutions. Instead of three animals there were four and the European animals had been replaced with ones that made more sense locally. I remember that one of them was a coyote.

  31. My understanding was that Br’er (/brə/ < brother) Rabbit was a Native American relexification of Anansi, who is definitely West African, or perhaps a merger of tricksters.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    But a number of European-like tales in Canada are attributable to the shared lives of French and Indian paddlers and other lowly employees of the fur trade in past centuries.

  33. David Eddyshaw says:

    @John Cowan:

    The rabbit is certainly West African. (He’s Asuong or Asumbil in Kusaal: “Mr Rabbit.”) He’s a rabbit in Hausa too. I’ve got the Tar Baby story in Hausa somewhere (it has more sex in it than in Uncle Remus’ version.)

    I seem to remember you yourself demonstrating that he was of the same mythological heritage as Anansi, despite what would seem to be fairly large barriers of species.

  34. David Eddyshaw says:

    I suppose Bugs Bunny has a fair claim on the inheritance. He’s better at it than Brer Rabbit, though. Must be those extra centuries of practice.

  35. What threw him off at first was the substitutions. Instead of three animals there were four
    I’m puzzled by this – the Grimms’ version of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten has four animals (donkey, dog, cat, rooster). Maybe it was the other way round, four substituted by three? Or do you know a different European version with three animals?

  36. What could be said about the famous Aesop’s Fables then? Could they echo older, widespread tales shared by various people in SE Mediterranean, or were they inspired by his immediate environment? (He himself was supposed to have come from Asia Minor originally.) Were they the product of just one man’s imagination? Were they later received so well in other languages only because they were translated into them, or because their standard characters (smart animals, lazy people, etc.) were already part of the local folklore? One way or another, their perseverance is remarkable.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    Maybe it was the other way round, four substituted by three?

    Many peoples have a specific, perhaps “magic” number which is important in story-telling. For Europe it is usually three, in the Northwest usually four, sometimes five or six. It is possible that the native version substituted its own number. Alternately, the story-teller might not have had a lot of suitable local animals to choose from.

    In many cases the traditional number applies to a group of N+1 rather than simply N: N brothers (let’s say) have identical adventures and each one in turn fails, but the last one (who may be the only one named) does things differently and wins. The group of animal musicians is different, as each one has his own distinctive “song”. They also fit the composition of the stereotypical four-voice choir (which may be why they need to be four rather than three). In any case they are a solid group, and stand or fall together.

  38. marie-lucie says:

    Ariadne: Some of Aesop’s fables are also found in India.

    With ancient literature as well as folk tales, the role of the known “author”‘s was not to invent the stories but to tell them in a particularly memorable manner. Aesop, Ovid, Homer, or in France Perrault (tales) or La Fontaine (fables) (and similarly other authors in different countries) largely transmitted much older traditions, in their own distinctive manner and style.

  39. I thought that Br’er Rabbit originated in Lapine (Adams 1972).

  40. David Eddyshaw says:


    In that case we have to postulate an origin of the tale many millions of years ago. Unless, of course, there were human beings prior to Adams who spoke Lapine.

  41. I recall hearig that Michael Witzel’s The Origins of the World’s Mythologies had an even more grand scope and grand conclusions, organizing mythologies from all over the world into one historical account. I haven’t read the book. I’d be curious to know what others think of it.

  42. David Eddyshaw says:

    Sounds like a rip-off of Edward Casaubon’s magnum opus, sadly unfinished at his death.

  43. David Eddyshaw says:
  44. Ah, Neal Ascherson — always enjoyable! “Mr Casaubon, more than a century before his time, was a post-structuralist.”

  45. Trond Engen says:

    I think it’s time to draw some lines here.

    1) The news stories take this as proof that some stories are very old. That’s not news. We know about Naticve American and Aboriginal Australian stories of natural disasters that are thousands of years old. The story of the great deluge may belong here too. But we don’t have to stop there. There’s hardly any doubt that stories have been continually told and retold since the first campfire, but I’m also in no doubt that they’ve been altered, split, merged and remerged beyond recognization for just as long minus one week,

    2) Some shrug and say horizontal transfer i more important. That may well be. But there’s no doubt that stories are told to children and grandchildren (“vertically”) as well as when meeting people from other places (“horizontally”). The authors of the paper admitts the importance of horizontal transfer up front and tries to correct for it. Given the mere existence of parents and grandparents anything but a clear vertical signal would be surprising for short timespans. For longer spans not so much..But the paper doesn’t go there.

    3) The claim of the paper is something much more specific: That the effect of vertical transfer associated with one cultural trait, language, can be identified, and that the linguistic affinity of the latest common origin of some fairytales, and hence their latest possible dates of creation, can be reconstructed with confidence through statistical methods. What I think we’ve concluded is that the paper falls well short of those claims.

  46. Have a look at Figure 4 (the phylogenetic tree) and the occurence of different tales in different branches.

    Where did they get that tree? Why is Indo-Iranian branching off first when it is clearly related to Balto-Slavic? It all looks bizarre.

  47. Trond Engen says:

    Rick: Where did they get that tree? Why is Indo-Iranian branching off first when it is clearly related to Balto-Slavic? It all looks bizarre.

    Oh, that?

    Trees for our study were sourced from Bouckaert et al.’s [2,29] Bayesian phylogenetic analyses of Indo-European languages.

    … so it’s garbage. I didn’t mention it since I didn’t think it was important to the overall point. But it clearly is, since Bouckaert et al. essentially just measures the geographical distance anyway.

    As for the lingusitic tree, it would have been a nice try switching the branches around to see if the best fit matched some near-consensus linguistic tree more than geographical proximity. That would also allow adding Uralic, Turkic, Dravidian and the full compass of Caucasians as controls.

  48. David Eddyshaw says:


    “One of the most common Mongolian mantras is “om Ochirvaani umpad” (Sanskrit oṃ vajrapāṇi hūṃ phaṭ)”

    Belated but heartfelt thanks. Mongols praying to Heracles (which seems oddly right, somehow) has now officially taken over as my poster child of cultural diffusion from Tibet’s national epic starring C Julius Caesar, beating St Bodhisattva into third place.

    Truly, all This is That …

  49. Aladdin and his lamp have also made their way into the Grimm collection.

  50. The Japanese wind god Fūjin is said to be derived from the Greek Boreas.

  51. David Eddyshaw says:

    Those Greek-speaking Buddhists seem to be at the back of a lot of apparently unlikely long-range connections.
    The Pali Canon itself includes

    the Questions of Milinda, i.e. Menander, a Greek king in Bactria who conquered much of north India and promoted Buddhism.

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    Apropos of nothing much except that it’s cool cultural diffusion and involves Greek, the Nubian kingdom of Makuria in the first millennium

    used Greek as its primary written language (also Coptic and Old Nubian) and Greek may even have been the language of the court.

    Prince Georgios of Makuria is said to have travelled to Baghdad to intercede (successfully) for remission of tribute under the “Baqt” i.e “pact”, the treaty between Makuria and Muslim Egypt.

  53. Great heavens, if I’d ever known about that I’d forgotten it! This bit from the Wikipedia article is strikingly idiotic:

    The Nubians were a literate society, and a fair body of writing survives from the period. These documents were written in the Old Nubian language in an uncial variety of the Greek alphabet extended with some Coptic symbols and some symbols unique to Nubian. Written in a language that is closely related to the modern Nobiin tongue, these documents have long been deciphered. However, the vast majority of them are works dealing with religion or legal records that are of little use to historians. The largest known collection, found at Qasr Ibrim, does contain some valuable governmental records.

    In what universe are works dealing with religion or legal records “of little use to historians”?!

  54. Governmental records! How fascinating! 🙂

  55. Trond Engen says:

    In what universe are works dealing with religion or legal records “of little use to historians”?!

    Heh. In a universe where historians are trying to understand the political history of a kingdom, I suppose. Actually, I thought something along those lines might have been edited out, but the sentence has ended just like that since the very first version of the article more than 10 years ago.

  56. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t know about the stuff in Greek or Coptic, but the total amount in Old Nubian is agonisingly small. According to Gerald Browne’s Old Nubian Grammar it would amount to about a hundred pages of continuously printed text. This is actually a lot more than once was the case; the archaeological rescue work engendered by the Aswan Dam project quadrupled the amount of material.

    Of what there is, about half is translation from Greek, New Testament and other Christian writings, and the remainder “public contracts, private letters and similarly ephemeral material.”

    The translation stuff is of course invaluable for the language, but tells you nothing about Nubia except what they valued in reading material; the limitations of the corpus make interpretation of the “ephemera” hard, by the sound of it.

    There’s a lot of interest (I gather) in involving Africanists in the Old Nubian work, which has traditionally been carried out by people more from the “philological” Classicist side. There are various modern forms of Nubian which descend from the old language. I was mightily irritated by the blurb on the back, though, which says: “it is the only indigenous African language whose development we can follow for over a millennium.” Get a map of Africa, guys …

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    “tells you nothing about Nubia except what they valued in reading material”

    I suppose it also tells you there must have been a good many people who could read Nubian but not Greek (or else why make a translation?) which says at least something about the status of the language.

    I’ve worked in places where if someone says “He’s literate” they mean “He speaks English.” Evidently it was not like that in Makodia. (Well, I don’t suppose they spoke a lot of English, anyway.)

    With Nubian it may well have been a genre thing though; in Coptic as well there is lots of Christian (and heretical religious) material and some “ephemeral” stuff but little or no history or science or secular artistic literature or even systematic theology, because if you wanted to read (or write) that you’d do so in Greek, or – later on – in Arabic.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    Makuria, not Makodia. I’ve carried out an Anschluß by Makuria of its upstream neighbour Alodia. Apologies to both parties involved.

  59. David Marjanović says:

    And some think they influenced the King Arthur legend!

    Ah yes, King Arthur, protector of Wales… or England… or France.

  60. marie-lucie says:

    David: King Arthur, protector of Wales… and of Brittany perhaps, rather than France. There are medieval French texts adapted from the King Arthur legend, which were known as la matière de Bretagne ‘the matter of Brittany’.

  61. I note that Nubian language was written in Cyrillic

    sort of…

  62. Re: ” However, as far as I know, no Native American stories are related to Eurasian ones.”

    This is not true at all.

    Berezkin’s catalogue of folklore motifs distribution clearly shows that majority of Native American folklore is of Eurasian origin. Small part, primarily centered in South America, is of, “Indo-Pacific” origin.

    Few concrete examples

  63. note the maps.

  64. In the King Arthur legends, there simply is no English Channel: consequently, the Arthurian stories are called the Matter of Britain in English, rather than of Brittany. Lancelot can ride all the way to Arthur in Camelot/Winchester from his castle in Benwick, though it takes him quite a while to make the journey. Benwick is Benoic in French, and is said to be on the river Loire not too far from Bourges, possibly in the commune of Issou(n)dun. Note that Issoudon does have a castle and was near the old border between the Kingdom of France and the Angevin Empire (as well as, by chance, the border between occupied France and Vichy France).

  65. George Gibbard says:

    Makuria may have been a more interesting place linguistically even that that: the king lived at Old Dongola where Old Dungulawi was spoken, but written Old Nubian is agreed to be the ancestor only of Nobiin, spoken further north than Dungulawi (Bechhaus-Gerst recommends Old Nubian be called Old Nobiin instead). It is likely that Old Nobiin writing originated in the kingdom of Nobatia (capital Pachoras, which was Faras in Egypt until it was submerged as a result of the Aswan Dam) which Makuria absorbed. The most northerly part of Nubia (Dar Kunuz until the Aswan Dam), which was apparently conquered by Silko of Nobatia from the Blemmyes (Beja), eventually wound up speaking Kenzi, a descendant of Old Dungulawi, though it was separated from the Dungulawi area by a 400-km stretch of Nobiin speakers.

  66. marie-lucie says:

    JC, you must be right about Bretagne meaning “Britain” in this context, but since the Bretons came from Britain only a few centuries before, and they never lost all contact with the Celtic areas of Britain, the stories were common to both.

  67. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Ah yes, King Arthur, protector of Wales… or England… or France.”

    Scotland, really. Arthur’s Seat is in Edinburgh.

  68. David Eddyshaw says:

    “I note that Nubian language was written in Cyrillic” (linking to a Coptic alphabet)

    Although the script has some letters borrowed from Coptic (and Meroitic), Browne bangs on quite a bit about the Nubian script *not* being based on Coptic in the sense that “the ductus litteratum is Greek, not Coptic.” He says that this enabled the excavators of Qasr Ibrim to distinguish Nubian and Coptic fragments even without knowing the languages. He says published texts have used the Coptic letters for convenience. His grammar actually uses a purpose-designed Nubian font, which does look a bit unCoptic, though I can’t say I’d have noticed without prompting.

  69. David Eddyshaw: What’s St. Bodhisattva? Can’t find it on Google.

  70. David Marjanović says:
  71. Trond Engen says:

    SFReader: Berezkin’s catalogue of folklore motifs distribution clearly shows that majority of Native American folklore is of Eurasian origin.

    Thanks. The Berezkin articles are very interesting. Some of his motifs are clearly related, others less so. I read the one about pygmies without mouths very recently, I think, in a retelling of a medieval traveller’s account from the Volga. Now I’ll just have to find that book again…

  72. St. Josaphat.

    I see from the flyleaf it was almost twenty years ago that I bought (at the late lamented Soho Books in Manhattan) The Balavariani: A Tale from the Christian East, translated from Old Georgian by D.M. Lang; I well remember my astonishment to learn of the wide dispersal of this Buddhist story.

  73. @DavidEddyshaw: “The rabbit is certainly West African. (He’s Asuong or Asumbil in Kusaal: “Mr Rabbit.”) He’s a rabbit in Hausa too. I’ve got the Tar Baby story in Hausa somewhere (it has more sex in it than in Uncle Remus’ version.)”

    The Javanese trickster animal is Kancil the mouse deer, but several of the stories told about him are remarkably similar to Uncle Remus stories. In a field methods course when I was an undergraduate, our language consultant told us the story of Kancil and the tar baby (well, the doll covered with sticky stuff). A bit of search a few minutes ago turned up a version in a paper by R.V. Winsedtt, “Some Mouse-deer Tales“, Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1906, who writes “Mr. George Maxwell and others have reminded me, that one of these tales of mine bears an extraordinary resemblance to that of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.”

    I’ve always wondered how that story ended up in the American South and in Java. Aurelio Espinosa, “A New Classification of the Fundamental Elements of the Tar-Baby Story on the Basis of Two Hundred and Sixty-Seven Versions“, The Journal of American Folklore 1943, affirms his “belief in the India origin of the tale in the sense that India is as far back as we can trace it, and that it is not of African origin as some have believed”.

    But anyhow, neither linguistic phylogeny nor geographical proximity seems to have been especially important in this case…

  74. David Marjanović says:
  75. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Mark Liberman:

    Very interesting. Makes the tar-baby story look like a practical human universal (perhaps Brett is right and it’s proto-mammalian …)
    Interesting especially in that the Hausa version I know (tar baby as Hot Babe) is obviously not unique.

    Even so, the conjunction of Trickster-Rabbit and Tar Baby is a lot more specific, so the coincidence of the appearance of that form of the story in savanna-zone West Africa and the American SE is still striking.

  76. SFR, thank you for the Berezkin links.

    Prof. Berezkin was at the 2008 conference on the Dene-Yenisei hypothesis, among other non-linguist specialists in the relevant circumpolar cultures. He was especially interested in possible additional instances or even fragments of the “Cosmic Hunt” myth involving the stars of Ursa Major, which I was not familiar with.

    On the other hand, your other link, to the Dwarfs and Cranes story, was especially interesting to me as I had studied a story in which dwarfs fighting birds were an episode, with a footnote from Boas citing the Greek equivalent (that I had never heard of). My interest at the time was purely linguistic, but I should reread the story for its mythological content and Berezkin’s article for background.

  77. ə de vivre says:

    Maybe those of you with more knowledge of statistical analysis and historical linguistics can help me out with this article. My understanding is that in historical linguistics mother-daughter relationships are established from regular sound correspondences and morphological similarities that then allow you to distinguish between genetic and borrowed or chance similarities between any two given languages. Is there analogous method in this study, or for any proposed genetic relationship is the alternate ‘borrowing’ hypothesis essentially unfalsifiable? Or did I completely miss what it’s claiming?

  78. Trond Engen says:

    ə de vivre: Is there analogous method in this study, or for any proposed genetic relationship is the alternate ‘borrowing’ hypothesis essentially unfalsifiable? Or did I completely miss what it’s claiming?

    I haven’t looked into the actual statistics (indeed, I haven’t even checked if it’s available as an appendix to the paper), but my understanding is that there’s no comparative method in this study, How could it? To paraphrase Berezkin in one of his linked papers, tales are too fluid to be compared element by element in search of regular correspondences.

    What they do is use the standard catalogueization system of folklorists, the Aarne Thompson Uther (ATU) Index, picks a subset they judge suitable for the purpose, and check which catalogue numbers are known to be present in which countries/linguistic groups. They know that horizontal transfer (“borrowing”) is very important, so what they try to do is discern a signal from vertical transmision from the horizontal background noise.

    They establish a benchmark level of horizonal transmission through correlation of shared tales with geographical proximity. This level is presumably much higher than in historical linguistics. Then they look at the distribution of of tales to find those whose shared distribution among linguistic relatives is higher than would be expected from geographic proximity alone. After that (by some trick I’ll not pretend to knoe, but it may simply be the same routine again), they see if the shared distribution between presumed IE sub-branches is such that the tales can be attributed to the common linguistic ancestor. They come up with one whose broad distribution gives it more than 70% probability of being shared inheritance of all Core IE.

    There’s no falsification beyond statistics. And the statistics looks very weak. The sheer number of tales, already picked for their generality (“magic”), should be expected to produce false hits, at least hits with the bar of confidence as low as 70%. I wonder if what happened was that they went out looking for a clear signal in the data, and when nothing came up, they turned the control for geography upside down, using it instead to cherry-pick the best fits. Then they repeated until fade.

  79. ədv: phylogenetic approaches, like this one, don’t address the issue of chance resemblances. They take lists of cognates that were prepared in some other way, and attempt to use them to generate plausible clusters. If a certain set of words/folktales/etc. make the languages/traditions/etc. in question cluster nicely and consistently, you can argue that these all follow the same pattern of differentiation. If some other words/folktales don’t follow that pattern but are correlated geographically, you can argue for a borrowing scenario.
    For folktales there is nothing as precise as linguistic sound laws to judge whether two stories from different traditions are related by chance or historically.

  80. ə de vivre says:

    Ah, thanks. Comparing correlations with linguistic proximity versus geographic proximity makes sense (or at least isn’t completely insane if you accept their premises). It seems like a strange mix of late 19th century structuralist folklore and modern large scale statistic analysis. I didn’t think people really did mytheme-style folklore analysis anymore except for lazy critics who use Joseph Campbell to avoid having to think about why they did or didn’t like something (not that I have unnecessarily strong opinions about that or anything).

  81. David Marjanović says:

    Ah, we’re getting into the distinction of primary homology and secondary homology. 🙂 Primary homology must be established before any phylogenetic analysis; it means “systematically similar enough that it should be coded as the same character state; it could be secondarily homologous/cognate, but it could also be due to convergence/chance resemblance or to lateral gene transfer/borrowing”. You construct a whole dataset of these. Then you calculate the trees that explain the dataset most parsimonously; and then the trees tell you which primarily homologous features are secondarily homologous = are inherited from a common ancestor.

    In this case, the assessments of primary homology between tales weren’t made by the authors of the study, but taken from the ATU database. The tree wasn’t made by the authors either, but taken from Bouckaert et al. (2012 – not the best choice as of 2015, but fairly close as far as the topology rather than the length is concerned). They optimized their characters on the tree, or without the jargon they mapped the character states (each ATU number present/absent) on the tips of the tree and had the computer calculate their most parsimonious evolution along that tree, so that at each node they got a probability for the presence/absence of each ATU number. This is a test for how much phylogenetic signal the dataset contains: if there are few changes along the tree, there’s plenty of signal, while if there are many changes, it’s closer to random noise. The authors compared the results from this to an analysis without a tree that used geography as the predictor instead, and found that the tree fared better.

    Geographic distance, however, is a rather crude measure of the probability that a tale will spread across language barriers.

  82. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks, David. I’ve been hoping that you and Dimitry would dissecate it for me. When I’ve become more and more outspokenly ignorant, it’s with the noble aim of coercing you into surrender.

  83. David Eddyshaw says:

    Culture is likely to be more significant than simple proximity in the case of horizontal spread of folktales. Obviously culture and geography do correlate, but in the fairly frequent cases of mismatch culture is surely going to be the important thing.

    Islam is an obvious vector of stories; I’m also beginning to wonder from this thread if perhaps all the stories in the world are originally Buddhist.

    Although Arabic is in one way *the* Islamic language, genuine historic Islam (as opposed to the crippled parody which masquerades as Islam so often on the news) has always picked up cultural strands from many, many different linguistic groups and passed them on to many others; and as for Buddhism …

    (Apropos of nothing, reminds me of the catty remark that the Pali Text Society’s translations are in Buddhist Hybrid English.)

  84. Zhanara Dayrbekova says:

    “Berezkin’s catalogue of folklore motifs distribution clearly shows that majority of Native American folklore is of Eurasian origin.”

    This is very true. I recently read a collection of Native American folktales or myths and many plots reminded me of several themes in the Epic of Manas.

  85. Trond Engen says:

    For Dimitry read Dmitry. Sorry.

    Culture is obviously important, but how to measure it? By using religion, I suppose. Political entities are also important. As are trade connections. The folk tale inventory of different peoples and regions of the Balkans could be illuminating.

  86. ZhD: majority of Native American folklore is of Eurasian origin.”

    Some people will think that this means that Native Americans were taught the stories by Europeans, rather than they already knew the tales from their origin in Asia. Either way, some people will be offended.

  87. David Eddyshaw says:

    The thing about Language is that the form of individual words is *arbitrary* except for particular domains like onomatopoeia and baby-words, so that if different languages show a great deal of resemblance in word forms, that calls far some sort of explanation via descent or borrowing. So far as statistical methods can give meaningful results in comparative work, this is critically dependent on the arbitrariness of speech. Even when you move from vocabulary to syntax within Language the method starts to break down, because there are only so many ways you can string a sentence together so that people can still parse it, and the various combinations of choices you might think it possible to make turn out not to be independently variable – hence all those Greenbergian partial universals (the Good Greenberg.)

    None of this arbitrariness is true for stories. There’s nothing very implausible about completely separate groups having come up with very similar stories by pure coincidence, and given the constraints that the story has to be coherent and memorable and relatable-to by actual people, and made out of things that actual people encounter (like animals) a further process of natural selection is going to result in a good bit of convergent evolution. If the groups in question live in similar material circumstances, it’s going to be even less significant if they tell similar stories.

    On top of all that, there aren’t really any good metrics for measuring similarity of stories; certainly nothing nearly as reproduceable and objective as you can think up for words.

    The whole notion that there is a workable analogy between language change and folktale transmission bears no real scrutiny.

  88. -Some people will think that this means that Native Americans were taught the stories by Europeans, rather than they already knew the tales from their origin in Asia. Either way, some people will be offended.

    The former is likely to account only for a small minority of folktales.

    What I gathered from Berezkin’s articles (and books. But they exist only in Russian, I am afraid) is that most of the folk motifs around the world are very, very old and date from Upper Paleolithic Eurasia (20-30 thousand years ago).

    People had to do something in these caves around fire during long, cold nights of the Ice Age, right?

    And some stories are even older and were brought by modern humans from Africa (50 thousand years ago).

  89. Who do you think was the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood?

    Neanderthal or Denisovan?

  90. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well, how many potential stories are there?
    According to some of the more boring structuralists out there, there seem to be about three plots.

    While I have no sympathy for that sort of thing at all, I do think a microscopic kernel of truth lurks in it; and we can’t say anything meaningful about the likelihood or unlikelihood of similarities among the tales of different groups unless we have some sort of idea of the denominator. Even if we had a reliable way of assessing similarity.

    Neanderthal. Obviously. No Denisovans in Grimm-land.

  91. -Islam is an obvious vector of stories; I’m also beginning to wonder from this thread if perhaps all the stories in the world are originally Buddhist.

    Berezkin has a very short (one page!) article on the Big History (titled “What happened in history?”).

    It’s in Russian, but try google translate.

    He ends his big history of humankind with the establishment of permanent links between East Asian and Western Eurasian centers and formation of the “world-system” which he dates to last centuries of the 1st millenium B.C.

    That’s the last important thing which happened in history so far.

  92. I like one instance of an independent but similar folk-story theme: people marrying seals. There are versions at least from Scotland (the Selkies), the Pacific Northwest and Tierra del Fuego. In detail they differ quite a bit, but if you were to ignore these differences, you could waste a lot of time on trying to explain why all of them merit the same checkmark on the theme list.

  93. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed. Lots of stories about people marrying animals (foxes, in Japan.)
    But I don’t think it’s surprising, or needs any sort of explanation by vertical or horizontal transmission.

    Story A:

    Neolithic Storyteller: Hey! Listen to this! A man killed a seal!
    Neolithic Audience: Triffic. What’s on television? How long do we have to wait?

    Story B:

    Neolithic Storyteller: Hey! Listen to this! A man married a seal!
    Neolithic Audience: Disgusting, yet strangely compelling. Tell us more …

  94. No, the Google translate would not do.

    The article on Big History is short, so I translated it myself (using Google Translate, of course).

    Here it is in its entirety.

    Yu.E. Berezkin

    “What happened in history ”

    “What happened in history?” was the title of Gordon Childe’s famous book, in which he formulated the concept of the Neolithic and Urban revolutions. Since its release in 1942 and until the end of the 1970s, the idea of such revolutions structured our vision of pre-literate history. However, with the progress of archaeological research it became clear that the heuristic value of this concept is limited, especially outside of Asia Minor. Since the late 20th century, it became possible to reconstruct the specific history of human societies instead of universal stages of development. When the geneticists have found that modern humans came out of Africa, c. 60 thousand years ago and then spread over the ecumene on certain routes, we got a new base model, which helps to structure the knowledge of the past.

    Partly a precondition and partly a consequence of the adoption of this model is the idea of higher, than it was customary to think, inertia of the culture in which its traditional forms, if they do not reduce the competitiveness, can be reproduced indefinitely. Elements of culture are exposed to natural selection influenced by a variety of factors, including random and unique, so full parallelism in the development of societies which lack exchange of information is impossible. Since the history has no laws, but only probabilistic regularities, we should focus on specific events and processes which resulted in development going this particular route. And the farther away from us the time of possible bifurcation points, the greater would be the effect of the realized choice. It can seem very important that the intelligent beings did not evolve from dinosaurs, but if the deuterostomes did not appear in the Precambrian, we probably would have had to evolve from the octopus.

    Reconstruction of the genetic history of mankind is getting more detailed each day, as well as getting updated and filled with new content thanks to the discoveries of archaeologists. Materials of comparative study of folklore and mythology associated with the processing of large volumes of data (tens of thousands of texts), make a picture of the past even more multidimensional.

    About 60 thousand years ago, modern humans formed in Africa began to migrate to Arabia and moved further to the east along the Indian Ocean coastline. No later than 45 – 40 thousand years ago, they settled the subcontinent of Sunda (now partially submerged southeastern edge of Asia) and the Sahul continent (Australia with Tasmania and New Guinea). In the Persian Gulf region, some groups who separated from these migrants have journeyed to the north and by 50/45 – 35 thousand years ago, they occupied roughly the same territory in which the Neanderthals lived earlier. About 30 thousand years ago, modern humans replaced in East Asia the Homo erectus who who lived there before. Soon afterwards, the humans reached northeast Asia (Yanskaya site), but it is difficult to say whether they came from the south-west across Siberia or from the south from China, continuing to spread northward from South-East Asia. In the era of glacial maximum 22 – 19 thousand years ago, the population of Northern Eurasia was reduced and the groups which passed through this “bottleneck” likely have changed their culture. 18-19 thousand years ago, they again began to settle in the territory north of about 55 ° N lattitude in north-eastern Europe and to the east of the Urals (as the dating of Diuktai culture in Yakutia in northeastern Siberia and the monuments of the Late Kama and Pechora basin show). Analysis of materials (P.Yu. Pavlov) has recently shown that a new population of northeastern Europe came from the southern regions of Siberia.

    About 15 thousand years ago, from a foothold in Beringia (in what is now the shallow waters of the Chukchi and Bering Seas) the colonization of the New World began, in which both the groups of continental-Eurasian and East Asian origin have participated. The first inhabitants of the Americas both anthropologically, and, most importantly, culturally, more resembled the Ainu and even Melanesians and Australian Aborigines than the modern American Indians. However, in the Holocene, these archaic groups were gradually replaced by Amerindian-like populations. Materials of physical anthropology with great likelihood point out the Sayano-Altai region as the ancestral home of the latter. In middle and late Holocene, the displacement of protomorphic (close to Melanesian-like populations) populations in the south-eastern edge of Asia by colonizing populations from southern China of Mongoloid type (familiar with the productive economy) has occured. In Melanesia and New Guinea, where the separate center of agriculture has developed, the non-Mongoloid populations have survived, although in Melanesia they had lost earlier languages.

    In the Near East, 10-12 thousand years ago, the formation of productive economy and relatively complex societies has occured. The tendency to develop in this direction emerged several millennia earlier. Having a much greater density than the surrounding areas, the Near Eastern farmers in 8 th century BC. began to expand in all directions, resulting first in neolithization of Asia Minor, Cyprus and Zagros, and then of the Southern and Central Europe, the Iranian plateau and the bordering areas of Central Asia, Caucasus, Eastern and Northern Africa. Then the cultural achievements spread to the west and north of Europe, the Eurasian steppes and in the west of South Asia. In northeast Africa, 10 thousand years ago, a separate (with no or minimal influence from Asia Minor) center of ceramics production and animal husbandry emerged. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the productive economy and the accompanying cultural achievements began expansion only in the 2nd millennium BC. under the influence of cultural impulses from the north.

    Of the above mentioned macro-processes, the most important – after migration out of Africa – is the separation of populations of the Old World into the continental Eurasian and Indo-Pacific groups, which for tens of thousands of years (45-15 thousand years ago or so) were separated from each other by sparsely populated or even uninhabited territories of Tibet and surrounding arid areas to the west and to the north of Tibet. The evolutionists up to the mid-20th century unsuccessfully tried to comprehend within the stadialist concept the accumulated differences in the culture of these two regions. The presence of these two distinct cultural complexes, which then partially (but not completely) mixed in the New World, as well as in Southeast Asia and Siberia, is reflected in the differences between the complexes of folklore and mythological motifs. This Indo-Pacific complex has African roots while the Eurasian continental complex is virtually devoid of such links. The mythology of the Sub-Saharan Africa is strikingly poor and basically boils down to a set of motives, which was known to the beginning of modern human colonization of Eurasia and has moved to the Indo-Pacific world. It is about a dozen motifs associated with explanations of mortal nature of people, and about as many related to ideas about the sun and the moon, the starry sky (the Milky Way, the Pleiades and Orion’s Belt, and the African astral mythology in general is poor), the appearance of the people from underground or from the sky.This also appears to include some Trickster motifs, some of which are familiar only to the people of Africa, especially to the Bushmen, and to the Australian Aborigines. All or almost all of adventure motifs of folklore common in Africa have probably penetrated here from Asia in the Holocene.

    The mythology of Native Americans, by contrast, is extremely rich because in its formation both sets – continental Eurasian and Indo-Pacific- were involved. By the beginning of the settlement of the New World, the culture of East Asia has been very complex, as evidenced by the spread of ceramics here already in the late Pleistocene. This technological discovery is important not only in itself, but as an indicator of the ability of the culture to innovate. It is possible that the bottle gourd first cultuvated in Asia, was known if not to the first inhabitants of the New World, then at least to the people who lived in America at the beginning of the Holocene. Iconography of cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America and Nuclear America (from Mesoamerica to the Central Andes) shows common elements with the East Asian iconography. This is due not to the Trans-Pacific sea contacts (only with the Polynesians, whose influence on the culture of Southern California, and possibly Chile was purely local), but to preservance of the ancient heritage of migrants who came to America through Beringia. This does not allow us to consider the development of the cultures of the New World as quite independent, since they began to develop on already quite formed Eurasian basis. Accordingly, the historical experiment of the parallel development of the civilizations of the Old World and the New World is not entirely pure.

    In Sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, spontaneous fundamental changes in the culture did not occur. The most common explanation is probably as follows. Such changes are rare and occur under unique set of circumstances. Huge spaces, a variety of natural conditions and their frequent changes under the influence of climatic variations, distant migrations and, as a consequence, the development of new natural niches – all this contributed to the cultural dynamics of Eurasian populations and after the Late Glacial Maximum led to formation of two powerful centers of cultural genesis: Near Eastern and East Asian . This East Asian center at a late stage also experienced external borrowings (chariots and horses, bronze, then iron), while the Near Eastern center, having expanded to include Europe, North Africa and part of western Asia, remained self-sufficient. Both centers were in a state of constant expansion, both demographic (its last stages – settling by Polynesians of Far Oceania and finally, the expansion of Europeans in the modern times) and cultural. Expansion of Bantu peoples in southern Africa who met here Europeans who arrived from Holland and then England is nothing, but a distant consequence of the process which began at the upper Euphrates and the Levant in the terminal Paleolithic. Since the end of 1st millennium BC., regular contacts (as opposed to previous sporadic and indirect contacts) between the East Asian and Western Eurasian centers were established, leading to the formation of so-called “world-system”.

    And in it, we have lived since then.

  95. ə de vivre says:

    I think the problem is that in historical linguistics genetic and borrowing relations aren’t just abstractions over the data, they correspond to two different types of language acquisition (or maybe two poles on a spectrum of language acquisition). You acquire your native language(s) during a critical period of infancy when you learn lots of complicated stuff that for the most part isn’t available to reflection. After that any language acquisition is much more conscious, simpler, and more available to reflection. For stories, everything is borrowed. There is no privileged genetic transmission, so just because story X is highly correlated with language family Y, that in itself doesn’t tell us anything about the relationship between the most recent common ancestor of the language and the origin of the story.

  96. Either way, some people will be offended.

    Some people are offended by the claim that Native Americans came from Eurasia in the first place. Or for that matter the claim that Navajos and Apaches came from the North.

  97. Trond Engen says:

    David Eddyshaw: None of this arbitrariness is true for stories.

    This is true, but not completely true. Stories are made up of elements that are put together arbitrarily, These elements or subplots may be borrowed wholesale into completely different stories. Some of these elements are in themselves complex, some are simple, but strung together they can make something that hardly could have occured by chance. Repeat this over several stories or whole mythologies, and you have evidence of cultural ties.

    It follows that the more general the plots, the weaker the results. The phylogenetic study uses ATU numbers, a classification designed to be general, with no attempt to build an internal phylogeny (or, since this is philology, provenance). This is like doing mass comparison without weeding out borrowings. I’m not sure which way it skews the results, but it certainly makes them weaker.

    Berezkins approach is quite different. By comparing stories on the same theme in detail, he’s able to find some instances of quite complex plotlines or metaphysical concepts that are shared between different peoples far apart. I don’t think it’s evidence of pseudo-genetic inheritance along with language, but it does point to (recent or ancient) cultural contacts. I’m e.g. convinced that the circumpolar cultural sphere is one of contact and shared metaphysics rather han common descent. The tundra and the arctic coast have been underappreciated as a spreadzone. Samoyedic and Yukaghir each cover a stretch of coastline equalling roughly half the distance between Dene and Yeniseian, and Inuit even more. All are suspected to be recent arrivals in most of their range.

  98. The whole notion that there is a workable analogy between language change and folktale transmission bears no real scrutiny.

    I agree; while it may be true that “strung together, [plots] can make something that hardly could have occurred by chance,” there is no way to quantify it, and anyone looking to build a theory of inherited stories is obviously (based on human nature) going to overinterpret. There is simply no way for a believer to convince a skeptic that such inherited links are true. Contrast the Indo-European thread (still going strong at well over 800 comments!), where elaborate attempts to support insufficiently based theories are being efficiently shot down by people who actually know what they’re talking about. Facts are facts.

  99. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t think we disagree much. I’m usually annoyed by attempts to attribute certain minimal and very general plotlines (“guy stealing a cow”) to PIE mythology based on scattered evidence, but they gain strength with complexity (“ginger-haired warrior with a thunderbolt weopon killing dragon and stealing cows”). But as you say, there’s never any way to qualify the impression. In this way “comparative folkloristics” is more like archaeology, but without the dating: But as with archaeology, one might discern patterns and build hypotheses that might turn out to be powerful in coordination with other disciplines. The recent advances in ancient population genetics is transforming European archaeology as we speak, as pots turn out to have language and genes after all. I wouldn’t be surprised if general patterns of distribution of complex plotlines over a large number of myths turned out to correlate with genetic evidence. If so, it might predict even linguistic relatedness. But we’re not there yet.

  100. Sure, and I’d be much more inclined to take an interest in such theories if they weren’t so prone to be embraced by cranks with no idea of what the word “evidence” means. I agree we don’t differ much if at all; I’m just more inclined to be impatient and dismissive.

  101. Stories (or better motifs, which are an element of a story) are memes and reproduce by retelling. From one generation to another or from one tribe to another, there is no functional difference. So there is no point in contrasting inheritance and borrowing, both are natural pathways for story transmission.

    Once born, a story is basically immortal quite unlike languages.

    The reason is simple. Reproduction of story is millions of times easier than transmission of language. It takes several years to teach a child a language, but five minutes to retell Cinderella story!

    To kill a story which people find interesting, you’d have to exterminate all tribes where it was ever told without a single survivor.

    And fortunately such things are rather rare.

    A story told in dozens of unrelated languages across large distances is the most natural thing in the world and doesn’t require explanation.

    Explanation is needed when the same story is told in very distant places which don’t have contacts with each other, but nowhere in between. It could be either a parallel invention or very ancient migration.

    Now, if we have not one story, but several dozen or several hundred stories which are found only in Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, but nowhere in between, the ancient migration argument is the only valid.

  102. marie-lucie says:

    Retelling stories does not always mean saying the same thing over and over again. As Lévi-Strauss showed, it is very common for a story to be altered in a way that differentiates one people’s tradition from another. For instance, if in one story the hero travels to the sky, the neighbours might tell a similar story but with the hero diving to the bottom of the sea. When enough details are changed, the story might be unrecognizable.

    Marrying animals: Stories of men or women marrying animals are not just for entertainment, much less presented as interesting news (“Hey, listen to this, a man married a seal!” as David E suggested), but placed in a mythical time when humans and animals were part of the same world – they might all have been created as rather undifferentiated beings which were given shape and other attributes as well as appropriate ways of living by a Transformer.

  103. Trond Engen says:

    marie-lucie: When enough details are changed, the story might be unrecognizable.

    True, or be similar only on the surface. But all the more power when a complex storyline is shared.

  104. Lévi-Strauss having been invoked, I recall that he thought the circumpolar cultural sphere might be behind resemblances between certain Algonkian myths and the Grail cycle. Whether this is tenable in 2016, I don’t know.

  105. Retelling stories does not always mean saying the same thing over and over again.

    Indeed. I learned “The Rhyme of the Nancy Bell”, whose meter and rhyme tend to stabilize it, at my father’s knee. Only much later did I find out that it was by W. S. Gilbert, who I already knew and loved, and discover that the text I had memorized was somewhat different from Gilbert’s 1866 version (even to the title; Gilbert called it “The Yarn of the Nancy Bell”). I still preserve many of those variations when I recite it today. Nor are any two recitations quite alike: I accidentally dropped two whole stanzas once when I recited it publicly, no doubt contaminating the memories of who knows how many children who were listening at the time.

  106. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I wasn’t thinking only of slight changes of words or forgetting a few paragraphs, but retelling stories in order to avoid disgraceful episodes and add more praiseworthy ones, make some characters more or less acceptable, and the like. Political correctness is not restricted to our own time. For instance, in one myth of origin from British Columbia that I know, two brothers are dropped on earth and proceed to explore and delimit the territory which will become that of their future descendants, meeting neighbouring tribes peacefully and acquiring wives from them. So far so good, but one episode involves a much more distant tribe, and some details show that this episode must have been added at a later date, after the distant tribe had expanded its territory towards the one that created the myth in question, and that expansion was not rexactly peaceful.


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