Reframing Columbus Day
By Jessica Crabtree
Historians and scientists have long understood that the genetic origins of most Native Americans lie in Central Asia, where they lived before crossing into the Americas sometime during the last Ice Age, and where their nearest living relatives can be found today. There are already observable parallels in language and culture that demonstrate this link. But in the case of the Athabaskan peoples (a linguistic group encompassing an extended range from Alaska to the Southwest) a much later entrance onto the historical stage supports a more recent connection.
The spread of Athabaskans—in particular the Navajo and Apache—is documented by archaeology and by the ancient records of Pueblo peoples who witnessed their arrival to the region around 1400. They were originally warlike migratory peoples seen by others as outsiders. While this alone does not prove a recent origin beyond the Americas, the striking congruities between Athabaskan and Yeniseian languages pose important questions first asked by scholars as early as the 1800s. Why would one ethnic branch of Native Americans have such a well-preserved connection to an ancestral Asian tongue?
The research into this area has since evolved far beyond linguistic analysis to include technologies such as modern genetics and physical anthropology that further corroborate the recent timeline, and have helped to hone in on a more exact point of origin. The evidence points towards a conglomerate of Central Asian peoples in what is today Tibet who absconded from the region under the scourge of Genghis Khan's Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The examination of Native oral accounts describing an exodus from a dangerous world, and an exhaustive comparison of ceremonial/ritual practices, all bear this out in astonishing clarity.
For more on the subject, see Were Indians "Colonists" Too? and Did Indians "Colonize" America?
"Intriguing" is one way of putting it. The thing is, "Dene-Caucasian" is one of those "Christmas tree families", as my linguist friend calls them.
One must understand how it began. Max Müller found similarities between languages of Europe and those of India and Central Asia. He speculated a Central Asiatic origin and named them "Aryan", after the ancient Persian word for "nobility", ariya. (The Greek word aristos, as in aristocrat, is related.) Aryan languages were mostly inflected, had a root of nine tenses (the six Latin tenses and three "aortic" tenses, indicating desire), three numbers (the two we use plus the dual), and three noun classes, among other similarities. Nouns must agree with verbs on number, and with adjectives on number, gender, and case. The Aryan vocabulary is much more complex; our word witch, for instance, comes from weik, "magic". The use of t, d, theta, or eth at the beginning of three is another similarity; Hindu gods are even called the Trimurti. (One must be careful with individual words, though; weik could also connect to wakan, and Lakota is definitely not an Aryan language.)
We now call it Indo-European, because of obvious corruption of the term "Aryan" by Nazi Germany. Even Müller said there was no such thing as Aryan skulls, hair, or blood, much like "a dolichocephalic dictionary or brachycephalic grammar".
Moving on. Aryan was ambitious. Over time, more ambitious categories evolved. Afro-Asiatic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic) were seen as somewhat close to Aryan languages, as were Dravidian languages (e.g., Tamil), Turkic languages (Turkish, Khalkha), and Altaic languages (Japanese, Korean, Evenki). These became Nostratic, though most linguists are still skeptical of its existence; most of these similarities were from looking, not at similarities between Hebrew and Korean, but between proto-Afro-Asiatic and proto-Altaic. Except both of those are constructed languages. One last note: Only the kunyomi of Japanese are Altaic-derived; the onyomi are mostly corruptions of Chinese words. (Fu, "style", becomes fu as in gaifu, "imported style" or wafu, "traditional". Also note that Hokkaido is deliberately named such to include the Ainu name for the island, Kai, but still have its kanji mean something, "north sea road". Japanese is a language of puns.)
A similar pattern was done for other languages. But few could do it with American Indian languages. Enter Greenberg, with his Amerind hypothesis. But Greenberg could not connect Amerind to Athabascan or Eskimo-Aleut languages. Some already connected proto-Eskimo-Aleut to proto-Nostratic and called it Eurasiatic; whether proto-Eurasiatic speakers were from North Africa, Asia, or the Bering Strait was another issue. Eskimos also had more classically mongoloid features than North American Indians, and some Eskimos had type B blood, so it all worked out well.
Athabascan was another issue. But proto-Sino-Tibetan and proto-Caucasian (as in, the Caucasus Mountains, not white people in general) had been connected. Some even added Basque; it is entirely possible in this world that, prior to the Aryan migration, all Europeans were Sino-Caucasian speakers. Those who connected proto-Sino-Caucasian to proto-Athabascan (again, constructed languages) called it "Dene-Caucasian".
So that's my (admittedly tangential) history of the Dene-Caucasian family.
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