Reconstructing the Lifestyles of Three Pre-Historic Amazonian Tribes

Oct 7, 2015 by

[Note: this post is aimed mostly at the students in my current class, “The Science of the Deep Human Past: Linguistics, Genetics and Archeology”, but comments from other readers are very welcome as well. The post draws heavily on Epps 2015.]

Arawak Tucanoan Nadahup

In my class on October 5, 2015, we talked about how ancestral languages can be reconstructed on the basis of their present-day descendants and how such linguistic reconstructions (particularly reconstructions of the vocabulary) can be used to reimagine the lives of the speakers of such ancestral languages. While most of our examples in class dealt with Indo-European languages (with a brief foray into the Polynesian world), here I would like to present another example where the same sort of socio-cultural reconstruction can be done on the basis of unwritten languages who offer us a rare glimpse into the lives of the their speakers’ linguistic ancestors. This example concerns three indigenous South American language families: Arawakan, Tukanoan, and Nadahup. These languages are spoken in the Upper Rio Negro region, on the border of Columbia and Brazil (see the map on the left adapted from The present-day Arawak languages are shown in pale-green, Tukanoan languages are shown in yellow, and Nadahup languages in brown. (The best-known language in the Nadahup family—at least in linguistic circles—is Nadëb, which exhibits the rarest Object-Subject-Verb order, found only in a handful of languages around the world, 4 in the WALS sample.) Of the three families, only the Nadahup is limited to this region, while Tukanoan languages are also spoken elsewhere through South America and Arawakan languages are found from Brazil to the Caribbean.

Epps (2015: 581) describes the present-day speakers of the languages in these three families who live in the region as follows:

“within the Upper Rio Negro region, the contemporary Arawak and Tukanoan peoples are settled river-dwellers who rely predominantly on fishing and bitter manioc cultivation for subsistence; the Nadahup are semi-nomadic forest-dwellers who prioritize hunting and gathering but also cultivate small garden plots.”

But did their ancestors live the same way? Since there is no indigenous form of writing, we must turn to contemporary languages and reconstruct the ancestral tongues. Such reconstructions were made by Payne (1991) for Proto-Arawakan, Chacon (2013) for Proto-Tukanoan, and Martins (2005) and Epps (forthcoming) for Proto-Nadahup. The relevant reconstructed words are given in the table below (adapted from Epps 2015: 582). The exact pronunciation of these reconstructed forms is not relevant for our present purposes; what matters is whether or not a given word reconstructs for a particular proto-language. A dash in a given table cell indicates that the word does not reconstruct for that family.

Proto-Nadahup Proto-Tukanoan Proto-Arawak
ceramic pot *tsoto *kopi(thi)
canoe *xoh *kanowa (?)
maize *weʔa *marikhɨ
hot pepper *p’ia *ačɨdɨ
sweet potato *yapi *khalɨ(thi)
tobacco *hũt *mɨt’o *yuerɨ
peccary *toh *tsese *ahbɨya


Since the only language for which the entire lexical set reconstructs is Proto-Arawakan, Epps concludes that its speakers “lived in settled villages, probably along larger rivers, and made use of ceramics, diverse domesticated plants… and animals … — consistent with archaeologists’ conception of early Arawak peoples as settled agriculturalists, much as they are today” (p. 581). In contrast, speakers of Proto-Tukanoan and Proto-Nadahup must have had very different lifestyles from those found among their descendants today. As can be seen from the table above, in Proto-Tukanoan a word for ‘canoe’ cannot be reconstructed. Similarly absent from the reconstructed Proto-Tukanoan vocabulary are “words for animals typical of larger rivers, as well as words for ‘canoe’, ‘paddle’, or ‘fish-trap’” (ibid). From this lexical gap, it has been concluded that speakers of Proto-Tukanoan were “less river-oriented than they are today” (ibid). However, the presence of a broad range of words for domesticated plants suggests that they engaged in agriculture. Likewise, the reconstruction of ceramic-related words means that speakers of Proto-Tukanoan manufactured ceramic goods.

As for speakers of Proto-Nadahup, they too must have had a different lifestyle from that of their present-day descendants. As mentioned above, today’s Nadahup peoples are “semi-nomadic forest dwellers who prioritize hunting and gathering but also cultivate small garden plots… [and] manufacture … ceramics” (ibid). Their ancestors, in contrast, appear to have neither “relied on domesticated plants, with the apparent exception of tobacco” (pp. 581-582) nor engaged in manufacturing ceramics since words for such objects are not reconstructed for the ancestral tongue.


Epps leaves the issue of Proto-Nadahup speakers’ apparent familiarity with tobacco a mystery: why tobacco if they did not have words (and therefore probably did not grow) manioc, maize, hot peppers, or sweet potato. But it is possible that for Proto-Nadahup speakers tobacco was not a domesticated plant they cultivated but rather a cultural product they might have bought from other tribes in the region, particularly the Proto-Tukanoan and Proto-Arawakan peoples, who appear to have been agriculturalists, based on their broad vocabularies for various local crops. If that was the case, Proto-Nadahup speakers might have been familiar with tobacco not as a domesticated plant, but as a consumable product, much like speakers of European languages that have a Chinese-derived loanword for ‘tea’ know it not as a plant they grow but as a product they import. While importing a certain cultural product often goes hand-in-hand with borrowing the corresponding word, as was the case for instance for ‘tea’, ‘coffee’, and ‘chocolate’ in European languages, that is not always the case. For example, although the Hungarians did not independently invent computers, they did not borrow the word computer from English but rather created a native word for it, számítógép, from számító ‘calculating’ and‎ gép ‘machine’. Likewise, the French call it ordinateur (from Latin ordinator ‎‘one who orders’, itself from ōrdinō ‎‘to order, to organize’). The Hebrew word for ‘computer’ is maxšev, created on the basis of a native root √XŠV and a native template for instruments. Finally, the Turkish word for ‘computer’, bilgisayar, was derived from Turkish parts: bilgi ‘information’ + say ‘to count’ + –ar (simple present tense suffix); it literally means “information counter”.

To recap, if the socio-cultural reconstructions of Proto-Arawakan, Proto-Tukanoan, and Proto-Nadahup are correct, we can conclude that the ancestors of these three indigenous groups, which today have rather similar lifestyles, used to live quite differently from one another in the past—and for Tukanoan and Nadahup peoples, quite differently from how their descendants live today.





Chacon, Thiago (2013) On proto-languages and archaeological cultures: Pre-history and material culture in the Tukanoan family. Rivista Brasileira de Linguistica Antopologica 5(1): 217-245.

Epps, Patience (2015) Historical linguistics and socio-cultural reconstruction. In: Claire Bowern and Bethwyn Evans (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics. London: Routledge. Pp. 579-597.

Epps, Patience (forthcoming) Language and subsistence patterns in the Amazonian Vaupés. In: Tom Güldemann, Richard Rhodes, and Patrick McConvell (eds.) The languages of hunter-gatherers: global and historical perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Martins, Valteir (2005) Reconstrução fonológica do Protomaku Oriental. PhD dissertation. Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Payne, David L. (1991) A classification of Maipuran (Arawakan) languages based on shared lexical retentions. In: Desmond Derbyshire and Geoffrey Pullum (eds.) Handbook of Amazonian languages. Volume 3. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 355-499.


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