A new scientific approach is applied to determine how and when early humans migrated to America. The new research, conducted by scientists at the University of Virginia, uses linguistic features as an indicator of migration among the populations who first inhabited America.
The analysis, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, supports previous theories on the waves of migration.
Migration To America, A Linguistic Analysis
Genetic, archaeological, and ecological data all support current theories on the inhabitants of Beringia during the last ice age. Mark A. Sicoli, the linguistic anthropologist who led the research, employed big data as a means to compare the similarities and dissimilarities between different languages. The results of this approach suggest that the population was diverse from a linguistic point of view, according to Sicoli.
Early America had the world's most diverse languages, holding a record of eight times more "isolates" compared to any other continent. An isolate is a language that is not proven to have a connection with another existing language, thus being impossible to classify it into a family of languages.
North America has 26 isolates, while South America has 55. At the same time, there are nine isolates all over the Asian continent and no more than one in Europe.
"Scientists in the past decade have rethought the settlement of the Americas, replacing the idea that the land which connected Asia and North America during the last ice age was merely a 'bridge' with the hypothesis that during the last ice age humans lived in this refuge known as 'Beringia' for up to 15,000 years and then seeded migrations not only into North America, but also back into Asia," noted Sicoli.
The new research points out toward another three extinct languages that were used by early migrators. These languages had an influence on Dene and Aleut, languages that still exist today on the Alaska coast. The big-data analysis compared different indigenous languages, and it concluded that the phases of migrations by Dene-speaking populations took place the way we previously thought.
Additionally, it's possible that during different phases of the migration, linguistic isolates were also involved in communication processes among different populations along the Alaska coast. The traces documenting mixing populations also suggest that the languages had combined.
Computational Research: Big Data And Linguistic Evolution
Thanks to computational methods, unanswered questions can now be explained. One of these regards the diversification of languages not by simple isolation but through the contact of these varied languages, according to Sicoli's analysis.
"Many languages in the Americas were lost to the extensive epidemics and genocides of colonialism, as well as though language shifts, where speakers in social contact may give up one language to adopt another. In this latter case, the language shifted-to often becomes changed to bear traces of linguistic features of the language shifted-from," noted the abstract of Sicoli's presentation.
As part of the talk, structural features of these languages were presented, as well as their interaction in the broader historic context. This new perspective brings a better understanding of how extinct languages were involved in the sociolinguistic prehistory of the region of Alaska, during different waves of migration.