The Global History of Human Migration

bellwoodRating: ★★★½☆

Peter Bellwood (ed). 2013. The Global Prehistory of Human Migration. Wiley. ISBN978 1 118 97059 1

We are used to the idea of migration, largely as a movement of people. If we go back in time, the the various ‘Out of Africa’ hypotheses help us to understand the spread of modern Hominins/Hominids. There is an assumption that there is movement but often of a  “silent” people. I would guess there is less focus on the language of such people or how language groups might disperse. The rise of genetic analysis would possibly open up a new avenue but this this assumes that there is enough good material to make testing valid.

This text takes a relatively well-known (but no less controversial for that) idea of human dispersal from Africa and then subjects it to the techniques of three disciplines: archaeology, linguistics and genetics. Each of these three subjects offers their own perspective. They don’t always agree on the interpretation but this multi-facetted approach has much to recommend it.

Originally, this text was the first volume of a much larger work but it’s arrival in this format brings together global studies in many different disciplines with the only constant being the look at prehistory. The numerous contributors take their specialities and put, in a relatively limited space, a condensation of what they add to the debate. The result is a wide-ranging text where, even if the reader is not a specialist  in all areas, it is possible to follow the line of argument. The result is a fascinating journey through a series of ideas, conjectures and hypotheses as we try to piece together the spread of modern humans. The case for separate perspectives is well made in the opening chapter. The idea of carrying out an analysis just on one set of concepts and ideas is useful, not least because evidence is not “contaminated” by inferences from other disciplines. If we follow this line of reasoning, we find that even within disciplines there is not complete agreement especially where there is unlikely to be any concrete evidence left i.e. languages (cultural practices in this do not leave physical signs).

It’s appropriate that we start the discussion with the very earliest hominins – in Africa and how they might have migrated (the range of out-of-Africa hypotheses) – although very recently published research might have that questioned! As might be expected, much of this work relies on archaeology and Pleistocene geology with some genetic analysis coming in later. It’s not until the Holocene and the Neolithic peoples that the idea of linguistics comes in.  From this point in the text, the work looks, broadly at regions in turn from Africa to Asia, Oceania and the Americas, often alternating with ideas on linguistics, archaeology and genetics. The overall effect is to give a snippet from each part and show how it might come together.

There is much to like in this text. It covers a considerable range of disciplines and areas/ages with each part getting only a fraction of space to express its central ideas. This brevity might come at the cost of academic detail but it does provide a fascinating overview of one of the key questions facing us – where did we come from. The answer will never be known with certainty but we do have an increasing array of techniques that help us piece together parts of the puzzle to make a reasoned attempt at uncovering the truth. It’s an enduring story, continuing to be popular as ideas such as the Genographic Project take off.


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