Paleolithic Continuity Theory–Mario Alinei & continuitas group Mario Alinei (born 1926, Turin) is Professor Emeritus at the University of Utrecht, where he taught from 1959 to 1987, currently living in Impruneta, Italy. He is founder and editor of Quaderni di semantica, a journal of theoretical and applied semantics. Until recently, he was president of Atlas Linguarum Europae at UNESCO. Alinei has authored hundreds of publications and is a well known scholar in the field of dialectology. He is also the main proponent of the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, which contends that the Indo-European languages originated in Europe and have existed there since the Paleolithic. Some of his main linguistical contributions, which were instrumental in creating the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, regarded tendencies towards the conservation of languages, as opposed to the theories of “biological laws” of linguistic change and the method of lexical self-dating. Alinei was a pioneer in the use of computers in linguistics. According to Pavle Ivic “Alinei is one of the not so numerous European Linguists who already in the early sixties were willing and able to apply the results of technological innovations to the study of language”. The Paleolithic Continuity Theory (or PCT, Italian La teoria della continuità), since 2010 relabelled as the La teoria della continuità(or PCP), is a hypothesis suggesting that the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) can be traced back to the Paleolithic era, tens of millennia earlier than the Chalcolithic or at the most Neolithic estimates in other scenarios of Proto-Indo-European origins. Its main proponent is Mario Alinei, who advanced the theory in his Origini delle Lingue d’Europa, published in two volumes in 1996 and 2000.[1]

The PCT posits that the advent of Indo-European languages should be linked to the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe and Asia from Africa in the Upper Paleolithic.[2] Employing “lexical periodization”, Alinei arrives at a timeline deeper than even that of Colin Renfrew‘s Anatolian hypothesis.[3] Since 2004, an informal workgroup of scholars who support the Paleolithic Continuity Theory has been held online.[4] Apart from Alinei himself, its leading members (referred to as “Scientific Committee” in the website) are linguists Xaviero Ballester (University of Valencia) and Francesco Benozzo (University of Bologna). Also included are prehistorian Marcel Otte (Université de Liège) and anthropologist Henry Harpending (University of Utah).[2].

The framework of PCT is laid out by Alinei in four main assumptions:[2]

  1. Continuity is the basic pattern of European prehistory and the basic working hypothesis on the origins of IE languages.
  2. Stability and antiquity are general features of languages.
  3. The lexicon of natural languages, due to its antiquity, may be “periodized” along the entire course of human evolution.
  4. Archaeological frontiers coincide with linguistic frontiers.

The continuity theory draws on a Continuity Model (CM), positing the presence of IE and non-IE peoples and languages in Europe from Paleolithic times and allowing for minor invasions and infiltrations of local scope, mainly during the last three millennia.[5] Arguing that continuity is “the archeologist’s easiest pursuit,” Alinei deems this “the easiest working hypothesis,” putting the burden of proof on competing hypotheses as long as none provide irrefutable counter-evidence. Alinei also claims linguistic coherence, rigor and productivity in the pursuit of this approach.[2]

Historical reconstruction : Associated with the Paleolithic Continuity Theory (PCT) is the historical reconstruction proposed by Alinei, which suggests that Indo-European speakers were native in Europe since the paleolithic. According to this reconstruction, the differentiation process of languages would have taken an extremely long time; by the end of the Ice Age the Indo-European language family had differentiated into proto Celtic / Italic / Germanic / Slavic / Baltic speakers occupying territories within or close to their traditional homelands. The rate of change accelerated when (Neolithic) social stratification and colonial wars began. Summarizing:[2]

  1. The colonial expansion of the Celts started much earlier than La Tene and proceeded (generally) from West to East, not vice versa.
  2. The Mesolithic cultures of Northern Europe are identified with already differentiated Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Uralic groups.
  3. Scandinavia was colonized by Germanic groups “only” after deglaciation, and was better able to preserve its original character in isolation. Germany, in contrast, suffered fragmentation as a result of the Neolithic appearance of the Linear Pottery culture, and developed a wealth of dialects.
  4. The prehistoric distribution of proto-languages akin to Italic was an important factor underlying the current distribution of Romance languages throughout Europe.
  5. The Slavic languages originated in the Balkans and became linked with the Neolithic expansion. This group would be especially identified by the Baden culture.[6]

The Paleolithic Continuity hypothesis reverses the Kurgan hypothesis and largely identifies the Indo-Europeans with Gimbutas’s “Old Europe.”[7] PCT reassigns the Kurgan culture (traditionally considered early Indo-European) to a people of predominantly mixed Uralic and Turkic stock. This hypothesis is supported by the tentative linguistic identification of Etruscans as a Uralic, proto-Hungarian people that had already undergone strong proto-Turkish influence in the third millennium BC,[6] when Pontic invasions would have brought this people to the Carpathian Basin. A subsequent migration of Urnfield culture signature around 1250 BC caused this ethnic group to expand south in a general movement of people, attested by the upheaval of the Sea Peoples and the overthrow of an earlier Italic substrate at the onset of the “Etruscan” Villanovan culture.[6]

Archaeological evidence : Proponents point to a lack of archaeological evidence for an Indo-European invasion in the Bronze Age, and to analogy with a theory of a Paleolithic origin of Uralic peoples and languages in Eurasia. Moreover, the continuity theory is much more parsimonious in comparison with classical approaches to the IE developments. A certain pan-European development is supported by archeological evidence, featuring a process of regional depopulation followed by re-population in a “sparse wave” scenario. Hunter-gatherers may have rapidly migrated out of a refugial area to account for a disproportionate contribution to the genetic and linguistic legacy of the region. Most likely, this would have happened at the end of the coldest part of the Younger Dryas (around 10,800-9,400 BC) or later, following the cold event at 6,200 BC.[8]

Linguistic evidence : Linguistically, PCT seeks to connect the origin of the areal distribution of world’s languages to that of the origin of language itself. Language continuity and evolution from Homo habilis and erectus to sapiens sapiens and to extant languages, is proposed to be reflected by a lithic-geolinguistic correlation of separate cognitive developments and groupings of fusional, isolating and agglutinating languages. As such this approach opposes the language discontinuity theory of Philip Lieberman in adhering to the notion that language can be derived from hominid communication. Additional support from Chomsky‘s innateness of language would yield to the proposition that ‘superficial structure’ – without excluding a further developing ‘deep grammatical structure’ – points to a linguistic stability of a magnitude “unthinkable without projecting the emergence of language back to some Australopithecus.” Thus, though confirming language indeed to be innate to humans, the language faculty is proposed to be “the result of a much longer evolution than traditionally thought, beginning with some Australopithecus“.[9]

PCT draws radically different conclusions about the rate of linguistic change from those of the “traditional” theories of Gimbutas and even Colin Renfrew, that instead compress all language evolution within the lapse of time starting with the theorized Neolithic or Chalcolithic expansions from the respective homelands. Moreover, a linear projection of the rapid rate of linguistic change observed in this lapse of time back into the Palaeolithic would yield completely different results. The search for archaeological evidence beyond what can be motivated from historical linguistics has been criticized by linguist Kortlandt,[10] considering the probability of irretrievable loss of many linguistic groups somewhere between the archeological horizon and the attestation of a language. Also, Kortlandt addressed a general tendency to date proto-languages farther back in time than is warranted by the linguistic evidence since, like with Romance languages, the linguistic impact of contact during the first expansions has proven to be decisive to the formative period. Against the ancient continuity of the Celtic language in Ireland he refers to the radical changes which embody the formation of Irish in the first half of the first millennium AD that are probably due to imperfect learning by speakers of an unknown substrate language which was lost forever. Kortlandt relates the earliest dialectal divergences within Slavic to the period of historically attested expansions, about the fourth century AD. Though reasonable to assume that many dialects arose and disappeared at earlier stages, the term “Slavic” would be inappropriate before the expansions of the first millennium AD. Accordingly, any proposal which goes back too much in time, say beyond the fifth millennium, would rather have to start from the possible affinities of Indo-European with other language families.[10]

Linguist Peter Schrijver speculates on the reminiscent lexical and typological features of some northwestern European regions and assumes the preexistence of pre-Indo-European languages up to 9000 years ago, linked to the archeological Linear Pottery culture and to a family of languages featuring complex verbs, of which the Northwest Caucasian languages might have been the sole survivors: those influences would have been especially strong on Celtic languages originating north of the Alps and on the region including Belgium and the Rhineland,[11] thus yielding some kind of other linguistic continuity rather that language continuity. This notion that Balkan farmers introduced a short lived non-Indo-European language into Europe is shared by Alinei, though so far the PCT does not accept the slight evidence this Balkan languages spread so far to the north. In the field of cognitive linguistics Alinei draws on a synthesis of linguistic studies and on Noam Chomsky‘s consequences of innate grammaticality.[12] The theory was derived as a development of the Uralic Continuity Theory.

Genetics : In introduction to PCT Mario Alinei wrote[2]In genetics, the school founded and led by Luca Cavalli Sforza has made fundamental discoveries about the relationship between genetics and linguistics, such as: (A) the areal distribution of genetic markers largely corresponds to that of the world languages (Cavalli Sforza et al. 1988, 1994, Menozzi et al. 1978 etc.); (B) language differentiation must have proceeded step by step with the dispersal of humans (probably Homo sapiens sapiens). (C) Independent geneticists working on DNA have recently ascertained that 80% of the genetic stock of Europeans goes back to Paleolithic (e.g. Sykes 2001, 240 ff). Despite these conclusions, for the specific problem of the origins of Indo-European languages Cavalli Sforza has first tried to adjust his data to the traditional model of the warlike invasion theory, claiming that the two data converged, and later has done the same with Renfrew’s model (Ammerman-Cavalli Sforza 1984). Nevertheless, he has recently had to surrender to the latest outcome of genetic research, i.e. that 80% of the genetic stock of Europeans goes back to Paleolithic (Sykes 2001, 240 ff). As Bryan Sykes’ has recently commented: «The Neolithic farmers have certainly been important; but they have only contributed about one fifth of our genes. It is the hunters of the Paleolithic that have created the main body of modern European gene pool». (Bryan Sykes, 2001, 242).

A 2009 study comparing mitochondrial DNA lineages of late hunter-gatherers, early farmers, and modern Europeans found large differences between the three groups. In particular, 82% of hunter-gatherers had maternal lineages that are rare in modern central Europeans.[13] The origin of paternal lineages remains difficult to prove because modern science is unable to extract Y-DNA haplogroups from Paleolithic samples. However, the recent analysis of Arredi, Poloni and Tyler-Smith (2007) suggests that R1b-M269, the most common western European haplogroup, may have entered Europe only in the Neolithic.[14]

Reception : Alinei’s Origini delle Lingue d’Europa was reviewed favourably in 1996 by Jonathan Morris in Mother Tongue, a journal dedicated to the reconstruction of Paleolithic language, judging Alinei’s theory as being – “both simpler than its rivals and more powerful in terms of the insights it provides into language in the Meso- and Palaeolithic. While his book contains some flaws I believe that it deserves to be regarded as one of the seminal texts on linguistic archaeology, although given its lamentable lack of citation in English-language circles, it appears that recognition will have to wait until a translation of the original Italian appears.” Morris’s review was reprinted as the foreword to the 2000 edition of Alinei’s book.[15]

Renzi (1997) sharply criticized Alinei’s book, refuting in particular the claim of the presence of Latin and of its different territorial forms in Italy in the 2nd millennium BC. Renzi argues that this theory would subvert firmly established concepts of Romance philology and dialectology, such as the concepts of substratum, vulgar Latin and so on.[16] Alinei’s theory was again critically reviewed by Adiego Lajara (2002):[17] Although some of Alinei’s reflections on linguistic change are very interesting, it should be said that certain conceptions in his work — such as the excessive immobility of languages or the relationship between types of language and progress in the prehistoric lithic industry — are very debatable. Alinei’s core theory — continuity from the Palaeolithic –, runs into a serious difficulty: it obliges us to deal with words traditionally reconstructed for Indo-European, referring to notions that did not exist in the Palaeolithic as loans, when from the formal standpoint they are indistinguishable from those Alinei sees as being Indo-European in the Palaeolithic period. See also:

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