Excerpt: Clues to Lower Mississippi Valley Histories

The following is an excerpt from Clues to Lower Mississippi Valley Histories: Language, Archaeology, and Ethnography by David V. Kaufman, available now.


From the introduction

The Mississippi Valley is the heartland of early North American civilizations. The region is rich, diversified, and at the center of transportation to every part of eastern North America and to Mesoamerica (Mexico). The Lower Mississippi Valley (LMV) was home to the earliest mound-building societies and some of the most impressive kingdoms seen by Spanish and French explorers. The languages of the region are key to the realities experienced by these indigenous peoples, their histories, and their relationships. Much of this book focuses on relationships that constitute what linguists call a sprachbund (a German term meaning ‘language union’), or language area, ca. 500–1700 CE. As I set out these relationships, archaeological and ethnohistorical data fall into place. This is a history of North America that dates back many centuries before the European invasions and the establishment of the United States.

The main premise of this book is that, in addition to archaeology and ethnography, languages can inform us about events of the past. Linguistic evidence can help us discern cultural and social patterns of the past and can help us trace movements and contact among peoples (Silver and Miller 1997, 314). While the main focus of this book is on language and, more specifically, language contact, I also incorporate and synthesize archaeological and ethnographic evidence with the language evidence where appropriate. That is, if we extend the archaeological concept of artifact to include words and grammatical concepts—things also made by humans—then we can include language evidence in interpreting archaeological records.


Linguists and archaeologists often do not consult with each other, and syntheses between these disciplines have been lacking. In this book I attempt such a synthesis and preliminary analysis of certain aspects of linguistics and archaeology as they pertain to the LMV and the elucidation of its history. Perhaps not every non-linguist will be convinced of the significance of the data I adduce, but the language relations, and the sprachbund they form, are telling to a linguist. For example many archaeologists will insist that there is little or no evidence of contact between the North American Southeast and Mesoamerica. Yet there is probable linguistic evidence for such contact that goes unacknowledged. Borrowing, or copying, of vocabulary between languages implies human interaction among those speaking the languages; even in the absence of material evidence, such linguistic evidence should be seriously considered and evaluated.

The North American Southeast has long been hypothesized as a sprachbund (see, for example, Sherzer 1976 and Martin 1994), but there has been little systematic in-depth analysis of the region in comparison with better-known language areas such as Mesoamerica (Campbell, Kaufman, and Smith-Stark 1986; Thomason and Kaufman 1988), the Balkans (Friedman 2009; Tomić 2006), and South Asia (Emeneau 1956; Masica 1976). In this book I incorporate such a systematic in-depth analysis, examining the degree of linguistic contact among the peoples of the LMV and how the languages have been shaped by such contact. In addition this book will demonstrate broader linguistic contacts with regions outside of the LMV, including with other possible language areas to the east and west. It will also become clear that discursive and pragmatic features such as focus- and topic-marking, which have been generally little studied in analyses of language areas, play a major role in the LMV. Further, word borrowings, which include exchanges of “basic” vocabulary and several calques (semantic translations), suggest intense contact and intercommunication within the area.

It is my hope that linguists, anthropologists, historians, and anyone with a general interest in Native America will profit from reading this book, gaining more insight into the history, peoples, and languages of the LMV and its importance to the history of North America. It is a history rooted in the rich multiethnic and multilingual diversity of this region for many centuries, if not millennia.


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