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Zambian Population Expansion, Language Change Focus of Africa Historian’s NEH Grant

November 14, 2018 – Kathryn de Luna, an associate professor of history, has conducted fieldwork in five countries in eastern and south central Africa. A recent collaborative research grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow her and two co-investigators to study the causes of population expansion and language change between the 6th and 16th centuries in central Africa.

Co-investigators: Jeff Fleisher of Rice University and Matt Pawlowicz of Virginia Commonwealth University. Fleisher and de Luna recently published a book called Speaking with Substance: Methods of Language and Materials in African History (Springer, 2018).

Fieldwork and Student Engagement: The research team will make several trips to a small village in central Zambia as part of an international research team over the next three years and work alongside Georgetown in Zambia: The Africa Field School. The highly selective study-abroad program brings Georgetown students to Zambia to take part in field research during a five-week summer session.

“We need physics and math majors as much as we need historians and climate scientists,” de Luna notes.

Research: De Luna, Fleisher and Pawlowicz are challenging the assumption that environmental change and other structural factors were the primary drivers of population expansion in central Africa. They aim to pioneer an interdisciplinary approach that factors cultural change into such large-scale historical analyses of the spread of populations and language families.

“Climate, disease, and subsistence were key concerns for early communities, but these instrumental explanations are overrepresented in scholarship,” de Luna explains. “This masks the role of creativity, curiosity, and cultural values in shaping decisions about where to live and what languages to speak and teach your children in earlier time periods.”

Additional Support: The pilot research got 2017-2018 support from the Georgetown Environment Initiative, which helped the team secure the NEH funding. The project received support from Georgetown's Global Health Initiative this month to add ancient DNA (aDNA) research into the project to better understand how changes in the environment and climate also created new disease loads in the landscape.

Modern equivalent: "A Georgetown student might decide to learn Mandarin Chinese for career advancement, while another studies the language because of cultural interest or heritage. The former student might be responding to changes in technology and large-scale global trends; the latter is simply interested in learning more about the culture. Both contribute to the spread of the language, but only one is acting in response to the type of change scholars of premodern history often focus on."

“We’re trying to get at cultural practices, which might not follow the ‘logic’ we would expect to influence choices, but that nevertheless shaped processes like population and language expansion,” de Luna says.