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Study Offers New View of Language Ties Across Bering Strait

PLOS-ONE

“Our work proposes the first linguistically grounded argument for migrations out of a Beringian homeland, the lowland land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska in the late Pleistocene,” says Mark Sicoli, Georgetown College assistant professor of linguistics.

March 13, 2014 – A PLOS-ONE study published today by a Georgetown professor shows that people in ancient times may have migrated back to central Asia from the Bering Land Bridge around the same time people were migrating into North America.

Previous research on a language family known as the Dene-Yeniseian has suggested there are common language elements between the North American Na-Dene languages and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia.

To examine the relationship more closely, Mark Sicoli, Georgetown College assistant professor of linguistics, and Gary Holton of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, used a technique called phylogenetic analysis, originally developed to investigate evolutionary relationships between biological species.

The research was featured in a New York Times article yesterday.

First Grounded Argument

“Our work proposes the first linguistically grounded argument for migrations out of a Beringian homeland, the lowland land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska in the late Pleistocene,” Sicoli explains. “The connection between the two language families has by some been uncritically fitted into a popular narrative that central or western Asia was the point of origin for Native Americans. The study Gary and I did shows that is not necessarily the case.”

The researchers mapped approximately 40 languages from the area diffused across North America and Asia.

After the mapping, Sicoli and Holton 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 and vice versa.

Important New Tools

Sicoli says the work shows that computational phylogenetic tools can be extremely useful in exploring implications of possible deep linguistic relationships, including questions of migrations in the terminal Pleistocene.

“The interesting fact about Beringia is that it and other sites along the coast have been covered by rising sea levels and thus archaeologists are less likely to find material evidence,” he says. “To explore questions related to these areas we need these kinds of new tools.”

The Georgetown professor is now building a database to conduct linguistic phylogenetics with the Oto-Manguean language family of Meso-America, another very old set of related languages distributed from central Mexico to Costa Rica. 

“Computational phylogenetics is an exciting area of research,” Sicoli says, “as incorporating these new methods into linguistics can increase the dialog among linguistics, archaeology, biology and ecology in developing our understanding of prehistory with applications to questions from other areas of the world.”

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