Harold Fleming

Harold Crane Fleming (1926-2015)

In Memoriam

Hal Fleming, Founder of the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory, died on the 29th of April, 2015, at his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Hal was born the 23rd day of December, 1926, in Winsted, Connecticut. Hal was granted the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 1965. Later that year Hal began his long career at Boston University, first as Assistant Professor of Anthropology, then as Associate Professor of Anthropology and Research Associate in the African Studies Center, Boston University (1971-1988), and continuing as Research Fellow in the African Studies Center and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Boston University (since January 1989).

Early in his career Hal published a paper that outlined an important taxonomic discovery, his proposal that what had up to then been known as the “Western Cushitic” language family was not a part of Cushitic at all, “but rather constitutes a sixth primary branch of Afro-Asiatic, for which he suggested the name Omotic.” Solving taxonomic problems with African languages, and worldwide, continued to be a major theme of Hal’s work.

In August of 1986 Hal had an experience that came to significantly shape his activities for the rest of his life. While attending a conference in Moscow he “accidentally” met the young members of the “Moscow Circle” of historical linguists. Hal was deeply impressed by the “long range linguistic probing … of scholars in Moscow who were trying to extend genetic taxonomy of human languages beyond the levels achieved in the 1950s and 1960s.” Hal was selected by the Moscow Circle to be their “representative” to western scholars.

In 1989 what had been the “Long Range Comparison Club” was legally incorporated as the Association for the Study of Language in Prehistory (ASLIP). Hal served as President (1988-1996), Secretary-Treasurer (1996-98, 2004-08), Vice-President/Treasurer (2004-05), Editor of the Mother Tongue Journal (1997, 2004-05), and Member of the Board of Directors (1998-2014). Hal faithfully attended ASLIP annual meetings, up until his last one, on the ninth of November 2014.

During his last few years Hal was plagued by health challenges, including a stroke. Nevertheless, he continued his work, including a long and complicated paper applying the Four-Field approach to human prehistory (with four co-authors), published in the 2013 issue of the Mother Tongue Journal.

As an adherent of the Four Field School of American anthropology, Hal was conversant in physical anthropology, linguistics, archeology, and cultural anthropology, as well as many other spheres of intellectual endeavor. He had a remarkable ability to move comfortably among and through all the different disciplines touching on human prehistory, and the ability to get scholars to talk to each other, whether it be across the chasm between East and West, or across the sometimes impenetrable and artificial walls between scientific disciplines. We are all the richer for having been able to know and work with this remarkable man.


Hal Fleming and Herbert Lewis 1959
Harold Fleming (in white shirt) and Herbert Lewis collecting linguistic data from Gato men In Gamo-Gofa, Ethiopia, January 1959. Photo courtesy of Herbert Lewis, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology and African Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Ancient Khmer script carved in stone. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license