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Language "trees" provide window into the past

17 November 2004

Language "trees" provide window into the distant past

An Auckland University researcher who stunned academics worldwide by tracing origins of the English and all other Indo-European languages back 9000 years to farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, has turned his attention to the Mayan and Aztec language families of Mesoamerica.

Associate Professor Russell Gray, an evolutionary biologist in the Faculty of Science's Department of Psychology, is applying the thinking and sophisticated mathematical and computer-modelling tools used by biologists for drawing up family trees of genes and species to the construction of "language trees".

Last year, his work and that of PhD student Quentin Atkinson, on reconstructing the Indo-European family of languages was published in "Nature" magazine, attracting worldwide attention for their controversial methods and findings.

Dr Gray is currently analysing the initial peopling of the Pacific, but with the recent award of a Marsden Fund grant, he and co-researcher Professor Lyle Campbell, of the University of Utah in the United States, will extend this work to Mesoamerica.

The research aims to increase understanding about why languages split and diversify, and why and how languages spread. It will test the theory that language dispersal was driven by the inception and spread of agriculture - a phenomenon that has been claimed to be the most important process in human history over the last 10,000 years.

The researchers plan to investigate the timing of expansions of four Mesoamerican Indian language families - Uto-Aztecan, the Mixe-Zoquean, Otomanguean, and Mayan, which existed around 6000 years ago, in the region now Mexico.

Dr Gray says the use of computational tree construction methods, derived from evolutionary biology, allows testing of theories about the sequence and timing of language expansions with much more precision and rigour than was previously possible.

Existing data sources will be used to construct large databases of basic vocabulary for the four language families, which will be converted into matrices for analyses of their evolutionary history.

"The task of making accurate inferences about events in our human pre-history is extremely demanding," says Dr Gray. "But application of these methods enables us to integrate evidence from genetics, linguistics and archaeology. This enables us to discriminate between rival theories and make much more powerful inferences about our past".

"As humans, we are generally curious about our origins," says Dr Gray, "We believe this work will take us a step closer to unravelling the causes of human diversity."


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