Language 'evolution' may shed light on human migration out-of-Beringia

Mar 12, 2014
Network summarizes all splits with at least 10% support in 3,001 trees sampled. Longer branch lengths indicate higher probabilities for splits. Credit: Mark A. Sicoli; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722.g003

Evolutionary analysis applied to the relationship between North American and Central Siberian languages may indicate that people moved out from the Bering Land Bridge, with some migrating back to central Asia and others into North America, according to a paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on March 12, 2014 by Mark Sicoli, from Georgetown University and Gary Holton from University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Languages evolve slowly overtime and may even follow human migratory patterns. A proposed family known as the Dené–Yeniseian suggests that there are common language elements between the North American Na-Dene languages and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia. To investigate this further, scientists employed a technique originally developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between biological species called phylogenetic analysis, where a tree is constructed to represent relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits. Scientists used linguistic phylogeny to work out how approximately 40 languages from the area diffused across North America and Asia. The authors first coded a linguistic dataset from the languages, modeled the relationship between the data, and then modeled it against migration patterns from Asia to North America, or out-of-Beringia.

Results show an early dispersal of Na-Dene along the North American coast with a Yeniseian back migration through Siberia and a later dispersal of North American interior Na-Dene languages. Sicoli explained, "we used computational phylogenetic methods to impose constraints on possible family tree relationships modeling both an Out-of-Beringia hypothesis and an Out-of-Asia hypothesis and tested these against the linguistic data. We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age." Although the authors cannot conclusively determine the migration pattern just from these results, and state that this study does not necessarily contradict the popular tale of hunters entering the New World through Beringia, it at the very least indicates that migration may not have been a one-way trip. This work also helps demonstrate the usefulness of evolutionary modeling with linguistic trees for investigating these types of questions.

This polar projection map of Asia and North America shows the approximate terminal Pleistocene shoreline. The center of geographic distribution of Yeniseian and Na-Dene language is in Beringia. From this center burgundy arrows extend toward the North American coast and into Siberia. A blue arrow indicates Interior dispersals of Na-Dene. Credit: Mark A. Sicoli; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722.g004

These finding suggest that phylogenetics may be used to explore the implications of deep linguistic relationships.

Explore further: Fossils offer new clues into Native American's 'journey' and how they survived the last Ice Age

More information: Sicoli MA, Holton G (2014) Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91722. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0091722

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Indo-European languages originate in Anatolia

Aug 28, 2012

(Phys.org)—The Indo-European languages belong to one of the widest spread language families of the world. For the last two millenia, many of these languages have been written, and their history is relatively ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

Dec 18, 2014

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

Dec 18, 2014

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

How to teach all students to think critically

Dec 18, 2014

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.