Cha Winja warhamas! – We speak Wenja here!
The Far Cry game series is known for its fast cars, big guns and bigger explosions, which is why it was a surprise for many when Ubisoft announced Far Cry: Primal. Set in 10,000 BC, Primal follows the story of Takkar the Wenja trying to reassemble the members of his tribe, taming big cats and mammoths as he goes. Despite the fact that both Takkar and his people are fictional, the creators of Primal used real archaeological research in their game. What makes this game somewhat revolutionary is that none of the voice acting is English, or any other language that most would recognise. In Primal, both the language Takkar speaks, and the languages of his enemies, were developed by Andrew and Brenna Byrd, Assistant Professors of Linguistics at the University of Kentucky, and were derived from the ancient language Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. PIE was spoken around 6000 years ago, (Mallory, 1989, p. 7) and is the fore-runner to most modern European languages, including some which have gone extinct.
Little is known about the Indo-European people. As with most prehistoric peoples, they had no system of writing, and so written remains are impossible to find. With other civilisations, such as those of Iron Age northern Europe, the literature of concurrent civilisations are used to discover more about them. In this example, the invading Romans wrote extensively about the Iron Age Britons, and, when taken with a pinch of salt, can be extremely informative. For example, the Massilliot Periplus, a Classical book on sailing, speaks of the ‘proud-spirited, energetic and skilful’ people, with ‘boats made of leather hides sewn together’, whom Cunliffe (1997, p. 149) hypothesises lived in Cornwall.
Unfortunately, the Indo-Europeans do not seem to have interacted with other literate societies, and so we do not have these vital writings. Gamkrelidze places the origins of the linguistic group in Armenia, and Renfrew places them in Anatolia, but these are discussed and dismissed by Mallory (1989), as the archaeological evidence is lacking, and the arguments flawed, as they can be disproven with other evidence that each have ignored or not used. Mallory dedicates an entire chapter to the homeland ‘problem’, concluding that the Indo-European people may have originated in the Pontic-Caspian steppe (although it is clear that this is simply another hypothesis, and we are far from conclusively defining the Indo-European homeland). What is clear, however, is that from this homeland, the Indo-Europeans spread either East into the Indus Valley, or West, all the way to Iceland , over the period of thousands of years (Mallory and Adams, 2006, p. 6). Their influences can be felt today, in the many languages that have evolved from PIE. Figure 1 demonstrates these initial divergences of these languages (albeit in a simplified manner, not taking into account the influences that different branches have had on each other).
An argument could be made here for some modicum of historical accuracy within Primal, as the game was criticised for reusing the map from Far Cry 4, which was set in a fictional country in the Himalayas (Manka, 2016). In addition, the plot of Primal (which is focused around finding scattered tribe members and bringing them to one central location) could be interpreted as showing the beginnings of settlements and farming, given the correct time period (Lazaridis, 2016, p.3). The first evidence for farming and settlements are found the middle East, around an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Evidence of domesticated animals, such as pigs and sheep, and farming doesn’t appear in the homeland of the Indo-Europeans until the late 7th Century BC (Barker, 2006, p. 139), but it is likely that there would have been social centres, or sites of ritualistic importance, as is shown in Primal. For example, the Turkish Mesolithic site Göbekli Tepe is hypothesised to be the creation of several entirely ‘independent’ groups, working together in the 9th and 10th centuries BC (Schmidt, 2005, p. 14). Placed on the top of a hill, Göbekli Tepe would have been visible for miles around, suggesting it was an important centre. It is unknown whether its significance was ceremonial, or simply a trading ground, but figure 2 demonstrates from just how far away people were likely to have come to visit the site. Although the people depicted in Primal were nomadic hunter-gatherers, the game has some accuracy in that there is clear evidence of central sites that were important to relatively large groups.
As previously stated, the Byrds were recruited to the Primal team to deconstruct PIE to form the languages used in the game, and then teach the voice actors to pronounce their version of these languages. This all came in an effort to create a realistic setting for the game. The pair did not just instruct the voice actors to just make noises, or just create a couple of words, but rather created several languages, complete with over 40,000 words, grammar, vocabulary lists and several pronunciation guides (A. Byrd, 2016). Andrew Byrd’s blog, Speaking Primal, not only lists these, but explains how he created the language, with specific examples from PIE. He also takes the reader through the entire game, cut-scene by cut-scene, explaining how to pronounce the conversations. Furthermore, in an interview with the University of Kentucky’s Linguistics department (Hairston, 2016), Brenna Byrd stated that the voice actors not only learnt their lines, but began speaking to each other in the various languages in their own time, and Wenja ‘began to feel tangible, natural, a living language’ (B. Byrd, in Hairston, 2016).
Far Cry: Primal was an important contribution to archaeology, as it used real research and attempted to recreate an extremely long dead language. Although language itself does not leave a material culture, and it is unknown how accurate the actual language is, this type of reconstruction is widely used in experimental research. In addition, the ensuing interest from the actors involved, and the general public who played the game, show that ancient history is not only important and interesting, but can also be relevant to 21st century life, and draw curiosity from many kinds of people, given the correct medium for this information to be passed on.
“Besides,” he said, “it’s just plain fun, more primal to scream as you attack an enemy ‘u mi-gwaru hada’ instead of ‘eat my spear.’”
(A. Byrd, quoted in Hairston, 2016)
Barker, G. The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Byrd, A. 2016. Speaking Primal. Available at: http://speakingprimal.blogspot.co.uk/ [Accessed on: 20/03/2017]
Cunliffe, B. 1997. The Ancient Celts. London: Penguin.
Hairston, G. 2016. Uk Professors Go Primal With ‘Far Cry’. Online. https://linguistics.as.uky.edu/uk-professors-go-primal-far-cry [Accessed on: 12/03/2017]
Mallory, J. 1989. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames and Hudson.
Mallory, J and Adams, D. 2006. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P561.M2
Manka, M. 2016. Ubisoft recycled Far Cry 4’s map in Far Cry Primal? Online. Available at: http://www.gamepressure.com/e.asp?ID=563 [Accessed on: 15/03/2017]
Lazaridis, I, et al. Genomic insights into the origin of farming in the ancient Near East. Nature (536), p. 419–424. Online. Available at: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v536/n7617/full/nature19310.html [Accessed on: 05/04/2017]
Schmidt, K. 2005. “Ritual Centers” and the Neolithisation of Upper Mesopotamia. Neo-Lithics 2/05: 13-21