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The Prehistory of Amazonian Languages

Research project in Human Ecology

Project's title: The Prehistory of Amazonian Languages: Cultural and Ecological Processes Underlying Linguistic Differentiation (EUROCORES/The Swedish Research Council)

Project's duration: 2002-2008

Contact person: Alf Hornborg


A point of departure for this project is that historical linguistics in lowland South America would benefit from closer consideration of anthropological theory regarding ethnicity, ethnogenesis, and inter-ethnic relations.

The main research task is to create a GIS database comprising all documented archaeological sites in greater Amazonia, including for each site available information on recovered ceramic styles, tempers used, other items of material culture, trade goods, rock art, datings, anthropogenic soils, subsistence practices, earthworks, etc. This database will then be used to explore possible correlations with historical linguistics (including distribution of key loanwords), other historical information (e.g., on trade), ethnography (e.g., material culture, mythological themes, etc.), and biogeography (particularly soil and vegetation).

The aim is to explore various hypotheses about connections between linguistic families and specific archaeological features (e.g., ceramic styles, agricultural systems), and between these phenomena and specific ecological zones. It is hoped that the conclusions will add to our knowledge about the cultural development and diversification of prehistoric Amazonia as a systemic process mediated by ecology, exchange, and ethnogenesis.

A central concern is thus our understanding of the socio-cultural processes generating ethno-linguistic diversity, considering the roles of ecology, migration, trade, politics, language shifts, demography, marriage patterns, and cultural creativity.

The ambition is to transcend notions of bounded and essentialized ethnic identities that have characterized earlier attempts to account for the spatial distribution of, for instance, indigenous languages and ceramic styles. Emphasis will rather be on the various factors that have conditioned active processes of ethnic identity construction, and on the possibilities open to anthropology’s different subfields to identify such conditions and processes at specific points in time and space.

Methodological issues include criteria for recognizing expressions of identity in the use of language, material culture, and other ethnic markers, acknowledging that such use may be context-specific, as well as the feasibility of using new forms of cartography to trace correlations between conditioning factors and ethnic expressions.

The project builds on established anthropological understandings of ethnicity as a means of communicating distinctness, but focuses on the specific ways in which Amazonian experiences of distinctness and difference have been shaped by spatially distributed circumstances largely defined by the logic of economic and political structures at the macro-scale level of the South American continent or even the world system.

In relating local or regional processes of ethnic identity construction to macro-scale conditions such as ecological diversity, trade routes, and conquests, an integrated understanding of long-term patterns of ethnogenesis will thus also contribute to current discussions of stratification, demography, and intensification of resource use in indigenous Amazonia.