Right? In most languages of the world, sure. However, in Timucua, this is not the case.
‘Most of us are aware that the Romans associated the right hand with skill, dexterity, and luck, calling it manu dextra, and that its opposite, the left hand, was associated with evil and misfortune, manu sinistra.
It is therefore, something of a shock to find that the now extinct Timucua language of Northern Florida and Southern Georgia used the word eba ‘strong, healthy, lucky, fortunate’ for ‘left hand’ and fara ‘dislike, ruin(noun or verb), weak, sickly, scoundrel, misfortune’ for ‘right hand’ a mirror-image of standard Indo-European usage,
The primary meaning of Timucua eba is ‘paddle, oar’ and its semantic extension to ‘strong’ in a society oriented toward water and riverine travel, when a good rowing arm was all-important, does not require a great stretch of the imagination. Its extension to mean ‘left hand’, however, is indeed unusual.
When that semantic peculiarity is accompanied by extension of the meaning of fara ‘dislike, weak, unfortunate’ to ‘right hand’ then one really sets up and takes notice.
The Timucua language was a highly creolized trader’s idiom of ultimate west-central Amazonian origin, there is no precedent for this peculiar hand-naming system in the Arawakan, Panoan, Tacanan, Tucanoan, Chibchan, Paezan, Cariban or other language groups of that homeland region.
Neither is there precedent in the Muskogean, Siouan, Iroquoian, Algonquian, or Gulf languages (Tunica, Atakapa, Chitimacha, Natchez, and probably, in view of this writer, Yuchi and Yamasee/Yamacraw) of the southeastern United States, with which the Timucua were in intimate contact from their likely being introducers of ceramic-making techniques to the Georgia coast approximately 2000 B.C.E…..
Neither origin nor genetic connection for the strange semantic anomaly can be found in either North or South America. (Granberry 1996).
First of all, I find it fascinating that US Amerindians had developed ceramics as early as 4000 YBP (Years Before Present). That’s a pretty serious advance for a culture.
It’s also notable that the Timucua actually came from Venezuela. Likewise, we might wonder where the Caribbean Indians (now mostly extinct or blended into Caribbean stock) came from.
Although the Cuban Taino Indians are said to be extinct, there seem to be some descendants left on the east coast near Baracoa. Puerto Ricans may have 17-33% Indian genes on average. Caribbean Indians were largely decimated by the initial Spanish invasions of the islands. Most of them died, so Black slaves had to be imported. In this article, we discover that all of the Indians of the Caribbean probably came from Venezuela (Lalueza-Fox 2003).
Let us look at the mystery a bit further.
How could the Timucua have developed the strange notion that the left was strong and the right was weak?
One possibility is the crayfish. A crawfish often has one strong pincher and one weak pincher, and a subspecies was a stable of the diet of the Yue Timucua of Lake Okefenokee. However, most pictures I have seen of crayfish show it as having the long pincher on the right side, not the left. If there is a crayfish subspecies in Lake Okefenokee that has one long left pincher and one short right pincher, then this makes a lot more sense.
To go really far afield, nearly into the realms of sci-fi, let us look at a strange creature, the opossum. It is not true that the opossum is not native to the Americas; in fact, a prehistoric, double-pouched opossum-like marsupial (actually a lion)* existed in South America very long ago. A similar creature existed in Australia 15,000 million years ago.
What is strange about this animal is that it was saber-toothed and had a huge protruding tooth from the left side of its jaw. Hence, it’s strength was on the left and it’s weakness was on the right. It went extinct 15,000 million years ago.
The one in South Australia is the oldest marsupial lion known. A similar creature is known from Australia as Wakaleo vanderleuri. The find is from Bullock Creek, Lake Pitikanta. (Archer et al 1987).
Presumably, this double-uterus marsupial went extinct because having two uteruses is not adaptive. A female with two uteruses would be too weighted down and might either be easy prey or might not be able to gather enough food if she was carrying so many babies.
Since the Timucua came from Asia long ago, is it possible that their Asian or Australoid ancestors found a skeleton of it and hence adopted the left = strong, right = weak notion?
Let’s look at one more strange piece of possible evidence. The Japanese word deppu/beppu, ‘protruding, jutting out’, resembles the Timucua word for left, eba. The Japanese are related to the Ainu, who are an Australoid people with links to Australia.
Suppose an Aborigine saw a skeleton of one of these saber-toothed lion possums and coined the word that eventually became deppu/beppu in Japanese, due to the protruding tooth on the left?
Suppose the same proto-ancestors of the Japanese and the Amerinds then went to the Americas, carried the word left=strong, right=weak with them, and the word eventually ended up in Timucua.
Making this story even stranger are possible links between the ancient shell mound and pottery cultures of Georgia 4,000 years ago and similar cultures of the Pacific Rim. Japan is of course on the Pacific Rim. Recall again that Kennowick Man, a 9,000 year old Amerindian found in Washington State, resembles the Ainu and Polynesians (Pacific Rim) more than anything else.
Just throwing some really crazy ideas out there. We’re kind of getting into Twilight Zone territory here.
*A double-uterine, saber-tooth marsupial lion from the Etadunna Formation South Australia, had one large saber tooth projecting from the center of its lower jaw
- Author Unknown. 1987. A New Miocene Marsupial Lion, in M. Archer (ed.). Possums and Opossums: Studies in Evolution. Sydney: Surrey Beatty and Sons and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. Vol 2: 427.
Granberry, Julian. 1996. Eba/Fara:An Ethnolinguistic Note on Timucua Hand Use. International Journal of American Linguistics 62, 2:188.
Lalueza-Fox C. et al. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA from Pre-Columbian Ciboneys from Cuba and the Prehistoric Colonization of the Caribbean. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 121:97-108.