I spoof the attempt to concoct pre-histories from western linguistics.


You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!*
“Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia” by Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (April 15, 2013).

[T]he Pagel et al. paper is yet another sad example of major scientific publications accepting and publishing articles on historical linguistics without bothering to ask any competent historical linguists to review the papers in advance.
“Ultraconserved words? Really?” Sally Thomas, Language Log. May 8, 2013


The scene: A crepuscular drizzle. An old man (Oldman) and an old woman (Oldwoman) huddle, watching a younger man (Longnose) working a fire-drill with two hands, unsuccessfully. Painted with red and ashy pigments, they are all dressed in leather and furs, with stone amulets. From the shadows, a red glow approaches, eventually revealing the silhouette of a man (Flatnose), toting a fire carrier of horn. He speaks, and Longnose, startled, replies.

You, hear me!


Longnose (Jumping up, ready for fight)

Who is that?


Flatnose (Ignoring the threat)

Give this fire

to that old man.



Flatnose! (Takes the fire and hands it to Oldman, who proceeds to apply it to the damp bark tinder.)


Flatnose (Looking over Oldman’s shoulder)

Pull the black worm

off the bark and give it to the mother.


(Longnose watches Oldman pull a fat caterpillar out of the tinder and hand it to Oldwoman, who eats it with toothless gums and laughs. She draws a bone from a pouch and gives it to Oldman, who blows through it into the igniting embers)


You scared me, cousin, I thought you were a


Flatnose (Spitting to the side, contemptuously)

Ptooee! (Sees that Longnose is about to spit into the fire pit)
And no spitting in the ashes!


(Longnose swallows. Flatnose sits on a nearby stone, satisfied with the effects of his command. He holds up his ten fingers)


This many winters: It’s time to trade wives
and sharpen our axes against the Small-ears.


Axes? Why?



To kill those who won’t trade wives,

who fled the ice when there was still ice,
swamp settlers now, whose hidden women mate
with rats, plot with snakes, spread their hate for laws
of fire, ashes, black worms, spit, wives.
Now, bring me your daughters.



Hock! Ptooee!


The Fire




*Phrase cobbled from Pagel et al by David Brown in “Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words,’” May 6, 2013, Washington Post.