the past 5,000 years, Bantu speakers moved from present-day Nigeria and
Cameroon to most of southern Africa.
linkage of languages
Rather than documenting human migrations with DNA or archeology, Greenberg used language. By looking at the spread of similar words, he helped unravel one of the largest human migrations -- the spread of Africans speaking the Bantu languages to the southern tip of the continent.
The presence of languages derived from a common tongue could, according to Greenberg and his scientific followers, be used to trace migrations that long predated written language.
Greenberg painstakingly examined similarities in common words for, say, hand, mother or heart. Similarities among languages, he reasoned, were far more likely to reflect a common ancestor language than a chance concatenation of sounds. (Although words are sometimes borrowed, that turns out to be rather uncommon.)
Even we linguistically challenged bozos at The Why Files could see the relationship between English and German from word pairs like "house" and "haus," or "night" and "nacht."
Yet English also shares elements with the Romance language Spanish: witness "manual" ("by hand" in English), and "mano" ("hand" in Spanish). According to linguists, this indicates that Romance and proto-Germanic are members of a larger family.
Matters get interesting when you compare these larger families. It turns out that Romance, proto-Germanic and descendants of Sanskrit like Hindi (spoken in India) comprise the proto-Indo-European family, which, after European colonial conquests, includes languages spoken around the globe. Hindi, in other words, has telltale similarities with French.
(For more on the comparison technique, see "The Origin of Language" in the bibliography.)
Toward the end of his life, Greenberg cataloged similarities and differences in tongues on other continents, investigating whether, as he suspected, all languages might be descendents of a mother tongue spoken tens of thousands of years ago. That dicey proposition rests on the assumption that language arose once (for comparison, we know writing was independently invented about five times).
The invention of agriculture allowed the invention of specialized crafts, like this highly useful one, iron-working, which emerged in West Africa. ©David Tenenbaum
By domesticating or adopting sorghum, pearl millet, cowpeas and peanuts, Bantu-speakers amassed the population density and technologies --- especially iron-working -- needed to dominate hunter-gatherers living to the south and east.
Farmers have overwhelmed hunter-gatherers and pushed them onto marginal land or even to extinction again and again. Consider the harassment and confinement of Native Americans in the United States after the Europeans arrived, or the plight of the San (sometimes called Bushmen), who cling to a tenuous existence in the Kalahari Desert, displaced by Bantu and European-descended farmers.
Over a career spent studying African myths and stories, Scheub found strange commonalties that echo Greenberg's hypothesis of a mother tongue. The Venda myth, he says, included the portage of a sacred object reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant in Judaism. Like the Ark itself, this symbol of the Venda people was eventually destroyed.
Let's not overplay the parallels: While Greenberg used language to trace migration, Scheub consider the common elements of African myths windows into the deeper recesses of the human psyche.
When he started recording more than 10,000 African stories and myths about 30 years ago, Scheub says he expected to find "kaleidoscopic diversity." Instead, he kept stumbling across similarities in the stories. "The more I saw and gathered, the more I began seeing these common threads," he says. "It was remarkable."
Beginning: God created life and the universe, and there was a struggle between chaos and order.
Separation: Disobedience, struggle, or fate broke the connection between God, Earth and humans.
Struggle: Good and evil battled on Earth, as humans tried to reconnect with the heavens.
Second connections: Heroes struggled to restore the lost harmony with the heavens.
Ending: Death and disorder won. Humans were set adrift from God, and had to make their own fate, although there are some suggestions of a reunion with God. (Scheub explains it better in "A Dictionary of African Mythology" -- see bibliography.)
Why a "grand myth," and why so many similarities with Western myths, religions and legends? In languages, as we saw, the common elements derive from ancestor languages. Scheub says commonalities among myths are a response to human experiences and needs -- archetypes that resonate in what psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. "I agree with Jung," Scheub says, "that we have similar experiences and have similar images to explain them."
In an age that celebrates diversity and multiculturalism, he says, many students are troubled by the idea that humans respond to common images. And yet after having walked thousands of miles through southern Africa, collecting stories and myths, that's how he sees it.
Read an African myth with elements of the "grand myth".
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