Linguist’s ‘Big Data’ Research Supports Waves of Migration to the Americas – ScienceDaily

University of Virginia linguistic anthropologist Mark A. Sicoli and his colleagues are applying the latest technology to an ancient mystery: how and when the first humans inhabited the New World. Their new research analyzing more than 100 language features suggests more complex contact and migration patterns among the earliest peoples who first settled in the Americas.

The diversity of languages ​​in the Americas is unlike any other continent in the world, with eight times more “isolates” than any other continent. Isolates are “languages ​​that have no demonstrable connection to another language with which they can be placed in a family,” Sicoli said. There are 26 isolates in North America and 55 in South America, mainly distributed on the western edge of the continents, against only one in Europe, eight in Africa and nine in Asia.

“Scientists in recent decades have reimagined the peopling of the Americas,” Sicoli said, “replacing the idea that the land that connected Asia and North America during the last ice age was just a “bridge” with the hypothesis that during the last Ice Age humans lived in this refuge known as “Beringia” until 15,000 years ago and then sowed migrations not only to North America, but also to Asia”.

In a February 17 presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Boston, Sicoli will join other scientists to discuss “Beringia and the dispersal of modern humans into the Americas.” . Since much of Beringia, theorized to be generally located between northwestern North America and northeastern Asia, has been under water for over 10,000 years, it It has been difficult to find archaeological and ecological evidence of this “deep story”, as Sicoli calls it. .

Recent ecological, genetic, and archaeological data support the notion of human habitation in Beringia during the last ice age. New linguistic research methods, which use “big data” to compare similarities and differences between languages, suggest that such a population would have been linguistically diverse, Sicoli said.

In “Linguistic Perspectives on Early Population Migrations and Language Contact in the Americas”, Sicoli shows how big data analyzes point to the existence of at least three now-extinct languages ​​from earlier migrations that influenced extant Dene and Aleut languages when they moved to Alaska. coast. Data comparing dozens of indigenous languages ​​supports phases of Dene language migration and multilingual language contact systems along the Alaskan coast, which potentially involved languages ​​related to present-day language isolates. Traces of these linguistic contacts hold that the intermingling populations also intermixed their languages ​​as part of human coping strategies for this region and its precarious environment.

“Computational methods give us traction on unanswered questions,” said Sicoli, who worked in collaboration with Anna Berge from the University of Alaska and Gary Holton from the University of Hawaii. “They help us understand how people migrated and languages ​​diversified not just through isolation, but through multilingual contact.”

By analyzing the languages ​​of the Dene-Yenise macro-family, Sicoli and Holton previously found support for the Dene migrations from Beringia to North America and the Yenise migration to Siberia. Continuing research by linguists follows this earlier study which postulated a return migration for the Yenisian language family.

“In new work, Holton and I also examine typological linguistic evidence from the Dene language subgroup suggesting multiple routes and phases for Dene migrations in North America,” said Sicoli. “We find further support for coastal and interior distributions with two chains of inland migration from Alaska to Canada and a later phase of migration involving connections between Tsuut’ina Athabaskan in western Canada and the Apache languages ​​and Navajo of the southwestern U.S. We also find support for a series of migrations from Alaska and interior Canada to the Alaskan coast, raising the issue of language contact with the languages earlier that we explore with Aleut scholar Anna Berge.”

In his presentation, Sicoli describes several comparisons of computer work with several languages ​​of the Dene family and the more recently arrived Eskimo-Aleutian language family. It combines geographical maps with linguistic networks from the database that show shared characteristics. For example, they “coded the Aleut and Eskimo languages, adding them to the typology database that already included Dene and Haida languages.” [an isolate]and integrated the results of phylogenetic and network analysis with previous studies of vocabulary and grammatical patterns,” writes Sicoli.

“Based on linguistic analysis including computational phylogenetics,” writes Sicoli, “we suggest that the prehistory of southern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Pacific Northwest Coast involved intensive linguistic contact, including language shifts from now-extinct languages ​​that we can infer through typological features, grammar, and vocabulary found in documented languages ​​in historical periods.”

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Sean N. Ayres