The over-simplistic “Kossinian Model”: homogeneous peoples speaking a common language within clearly delimited cultures

There seems to be a growing trend to over-simplistic assumptions in archaeology and linguistics, led by amateur and professional geneticists alike, due to the recent (only partially deserved) popularity of Human Evolutionary Biology.

These studies are offering ancient DNA samples, whose Y-DNA and mtDNA haplogroups and admixture analyses are showing some new valuable information on ancient cultures and peoples. However, their authors are constantly giving uninformed conclusions.

I have read a good, simple description of the Kossinnian model in the book Balkan Dialogues (Routledge, 2017), which has been shared to be fully read online by co-editor Maria Ivanova.

Chapter 3, The transitions between Neolithic and Early Bronze Age in Greece, and the “Indo-European problem”, by Jean-Paul Demoule, offers a clear account of the difficulties found in tracing the arrival of Proto-Greek speakers to Greece or the “Coming of the Greeks”. The identifications of cultural breaks most commonly supported by academics as potentially signaling the arrival of Proto-Greeks are cited, including the Early Helladic III period ca. 2300 BC (with the diffusion of Mynian ware), or the Middle Helladic period ca. 2000 BC. The problem of finding a clear cultural break before the emergence of Mycenaean Greece (which obviously spoke an early Greek dialect) has led some to adopt a “Palaeolithic autochthonous theory” (Giannopoulos 2012), which offers still more problems than it solves.

Of interest is his reference to Kossina in light of the recent popularity in resorting to DNA to answer all problems. It is mandatory for the field of Indo-European studies – regardless of what renown labs and journals of high impact factor are publishing – to avoid carrying on “in the steps of race based cranial measurement which enjoyed its floruit in the 19th century before fading into oblivion.”

This is why, without denying the relationship between Indo-European languages, we need to question the validity of the overall model itself, which has shown itself to be over-simplistic in assuming the movement of permanent and long-lasting homogeneous “peoples”. More precisely, we have to criticize in details the “Kossinnian Model” underlying all those assumptions – “Kossinnian”, because of the German archaeologist Gustaf Kossina (1858–1931), well known for the famous sentence: “Cultural provinces, which are clearly delimited on the basis of archaeology, correspond in every era to specific peoples or tribes” (“Scharf umgrenzte archäologische Kultur-provinzen decken sich zu allen Zeiten mit ganz bestimmten Völkern und Völkerstämmen”). Four basic assumptions arise from this central idea:

  1. Changes in languages are due to population movements, usually involving conquest, and every migration implies a linguistic change.
  2. Archaeological “cultures” are homogenous ethnic groups, with defined frontiers, based on the model of 19th- and 20th-century nation-states and equally on the model of biological entities that reproduce by parthenogenesis.
  3. There is coincidence between language and material culture.
  4. Finally, languages are also homogenous biological entities which are autonomous and clearly delimited, and which can reproduce by parthenogenesis or by scissiparity.

Unfortunately, none of these points is self-evident and each can be countered by a number of historical examples (Demoule 2014: 553–592).

While I agree with the first part of the first statement attributed to the “Kossinnian model”, i.e. that languages are usually the product of population movements (either involving conquest or not), the other statements are obviously and demonstrably false, and are frequently assumed in comments, blog posts, forums, and even research articles – particularly in those based on genetic studies -, and this trend seems to be increasing lately.

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