The New World in three easy steps

By Razib Khan | August 31, 2010 10:28 am

One aspect of human demographic expansions seems to be the fact that we often model them as a constant diffusion process, when in reality there were likely pulses (economic historians can conceive of this as the periodic gaps between land and labor factor inputs). I don’t know much about the human movements prior to H. sapiens sapiens, and from what I can gather the fossil remains are too sparse to be too wedded to a specific model, but it seems clear that anatomically modern human expansion occurred through a series of rapid outward sweeps which would periodically reach a “natural barrier.” Modern humans reached the Solomon Islands ~30,000 years ago, after which there was stasis for ~25,000 years. Only with the Austronesian expansion did humanity push past the Solomons. And this was no baby-step, ultimately the Austronesians went as far as the Hawaiian islands and Easter Island.


The New World is similar. The initial migration out of Africa by modern humans resulted in the range expansion of the human lineage into a region which had been untouched by earlier hominins, Australasia. But after that point tens of thousands of years passed before our species pushed into virgin territory, in this case North America. The when and the how of this though is still up for debate. A new paper PLoS One attempts to construct a plausible scenario by taking archaeological data points and inputing them into a diffusion model. Archaeological Support for the Three-Stage Expansion of Modern Humans across Northeastern Eurasia and into the Americas:

We use diffusion models…to quantify these dynamics. Our results show the expansion originated in the Altai region of southern Siberia ~46kBP , and from there expanded across northern Eurasia at an average velocity of 0.16 km per year. However, the movement of the colonizing wave was not continuous but underwent three distinct phases: 1) an initial expansion from 47-32k calBP; 2) a hiatus from ~32-16k calBP, and 3) a second expansion after the LGM ~16k calBP. These results provide archaeological support for the recently proposed three-stage model of the colonization of the Americas….Our results falsify the hypothesis of a pre-LGM terrestrial colonization of the Americas and we discuss the importance of these empirical results in the light of alternative models.

It’s an interesting paper because it seems to have been triggered in part by inferences made from the genetic data. I don’t know how confident archaeologists are about their radiometric dates, but I think some of the molecular clock results from the genetics of Amerindians need to be taken with a grain of salt (I don’t see many people repeating some of the really ancient coalescence dates for Amerindian Y lineages at this point).

These data seem to indicate that modern humans made it no further than previous hominin groups for several tens of thousands of years. But something happened within the last 20,000 years, and our species made the leap across Beringia. The bottleneck here is certainly not the Bering Strait, which was spanned by land much of the time in any case. Rather, our species didn’t have the biological or cultural capacity to survive in extremely frigid environments. I’ve read modern humans pushed the boundaries of their range in northern Europe further than Neandertals ever did, indicating our flexibility and plasticity. Since the human lineage had been resident in Eurasia for at least one million years that suggests to me that it was behavioral modernity that was key. In particular, how quickly our cultures evolve and shift. Though that flexibility itself may be a function of our biological competencies.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy
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  • bioIgnoramus

    What was the last decentish bit of land colonised – I mean with a kind climate and of reasonable size? NZ I suppose.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    madagascar too.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Any recent dates for the colonization of the Americas, such as the ones the authors advocate, fly in the face of overwhelming linguistic evidence that shows that the New World harbors 2/3 of world linguistic diversity. Plus abundant typological studies documented the broad range of very specific similarities between Amerindian languages and such distant areas of the Old World as the Caucasus and the Sahul. These similarities would have been impossible if the proto-Amerindian populations in Siberia had a hiatus between ~32-16k calBP. This hiatus would have resulted in the loss of all the similarities with broader areas of the Old World and the fixation of Amerindian languages on some version of generic Siberian language type. The problem with this kind of studies is that they hold a limited focus on evidence and synthesize only what fits a pre-existing conceptual model. The authors write: “Indeed, for humans to have colonized the Americas much before Clovis … would require major changes to the northeast Eurasian Upper Paleolithic archaeological record, including a much faster colonization velocity, no expansion hiatus, and a Beringian archaeological record more than twice as old as current evidence suggests.” Well, I guess we do need to rethink this archaeological record pretty dramatically in order to arrive at a true cross-disciplinary consensus.

  • Mary

    Linguistics and archeology. The halt leading the blind. Each of these two disciplines having little standing to challenge each others’ assumptions. In my humble opinion, begging your pardon.

  • dave chamberlin

    I would love to hear Razib’s take on the book “Ice Age Peoples of North America” edited by Robson Bonnichsen and Karen Turnmire. It is put together by The Center for the Study of the First Americans, Department of Anthropolgy, Texas A&M University. It would seem to meet his high standards of scientific mothodology but then it starts throwing out some astonishly early dates. The Abstract for one chapter titled “The Inhabitants of Mexico During the Upper Pleisocene”, page 482 states, “The time of initial human occupation in Mexico” has been named the Lithic stage and dates from (40/35,000-14,000) Years B.P.”

    Say what?!

    I honestly don’t know what to make of this book, it seems to be good science but it throws out much ealier dates than I have read elsewhere.

  • gcochran

    Back then, Injuns had no bones.

  • John Emerson

    “Linguistic evidence that shows that the New World harbors 2/3 of world linguistic diversity. ”

    I don’t think that this is necessarily evidence of age, for several reasons. For one thing, Eurasia has been swept by many waves of conquerors and a very large number of languages have disappeared. Fewer than ten Paleosiberian languages survive and several of them will soon probably be extinct, but they belong to four different groups which are not related to one another. A number of languages have disappeared in historical times and there’s every reason to believe that many more disappeared in prehistory. The same is very likely true of pre-Indo-European Europe, pre-Bantu Africa, pre-Arab North Africa, and so one.

    Second, diversification is not a simple function of time. It moves faster in some circumstances than others and is speeded by separation, isolation, pidginization, creolization, complexification, etc.

    Apparently in New Guinea (which has incredible linguistic diversity) social groups will even deliberately alter their languages or switch language in order to maintain their distinctness and keep secrets or for other reasons.

  • onur

    I don’t think that this is necessarily evidence of age, for several reasons. For one thing, Eurasia has been swept by many waves of conquerors and a very large number of languages have disappeared.

    Add to that the very significant technological improvements (especially in agriculture and transportation) in the Old World in the last several thousand years even without including the modern era. Obviously these had a very significant homogenizing effect (look at the geographical expansion of the IE, Afro-Asiatic, Bantu, Turkic and Chinese languages in the last several thousand years even without including the modern era).

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    John and Onur,

    I’m afraid your argument is flawed on several counts: 1. Even if homogenization affected Eurasia and Africa to the extent that hundreds of smaller language families and isolates were replaced by such expansive “heavyweights” as Niger-Congo, Indo-European, Austronesian, etc., this doesn’t explain why the New World should be so diverse linguistically. We would expect the New World to be homogenous because of recency, while the Old World homogenous because of latest population replacements. This is not the case; 2. The massive extinction of small language families and isolates in the Old World is not proven to have occurred at rates higher than the rate of extinction of language stocks in America at the same time. There’re large expansive stocks in the Americas (not necessarily associated with the spread of agriculture, as the Na-Dene case suggests), small families and isolates are subject to the vagaries of climate, food supply and internecine warfare and hence are as prone to extinction as in any massive population replacement scenarios; 3. The extent of agricultural language replacements may be overestimated in the first place, as foragers and agriculturalists are recorded to maintain long-term exchange relationship and complement each other in regional economic networks (see work in Southeast Asia, Africa and Borneo), which is not the behavior conducive to language imposition by agriculturalists; 4) Finally, the New World suffered massive language and population extinctions in the past 500 years – more than any other region of the world – so it’s actual language diversity levels achieved by 1492 are suppressed.

    This said, it’s true that diversity is not a simple function of time. But this applies to all sciences, from genetics to archaeology. The fact that the archaeological record in the New World is so poor before 12K (read: not as “diverse”) can be explained not as the function of the lack of human presence (0 diversity) but rather a combination of historical factors such as population size, density, reliance on perishable tools, varying rates of archaeological recovery (it took Dillehay 20 years to prove a site, which is only 2,000 years older than Clovis, so you can calculate how much it will take to find and prove sites going back to 40-50,000 years), etc. Antiquity is sometimes expressed in the spatial and temporal diversity of archaeological sites and sometimes in the diversity of languages in a specified region. It all depends on what happened in history, what was left behind and what was passed along.

  • onur

    Yes, I should also have included the Austronesian languages in my list.

    If you look at the territories where the heavyweights expanded (I am again excluding the modern era as it is far beyond in achievements than anytime before), you will see that they are either the territories of the world where agriculture was advanced, transportation was advanced or a combination of the two. In the pre-modern world, the New World (I am including Australia and New Guinea in the New World) generally lacked these qualities while most of the Old World was being possessing them for several thousand years, so it shouldn’t surprise us to see the Old World as being linguistically (not genetically) less diverse per area than the New World. The recency of the Amerindians shouldn’t be exaggerated, as 15,000 years isn’t so recent by human standards; also most people were living in very small and relatively isolated groups, so languages were probably changing and diversifying very fast.

    So I think the general strong linguistic homogenization trend in the Old World in the last several thousand years is very obvious even if we don’t have access to the pre-historical languages of the Old World (how can we ever have?!).

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “So I think the general strong linguistic homogenization trend in the Old World in the last several thousand years is very obvious…”

    Far from obvious. Your argument belongs to the class of arguments that attribute a systematic phenomenon in prehistory to human – nay, superhuman – agency. Another argument of this sort is that of human-induced megafauna extinctions. Although humans did hunt and did make their contribution, it’s the ecological changes that seem to have the decisive impact. (A couple of recent papers seem to be clear about it.) The wholesale language replacements in the Old World is not a sustainable explanation for the marked difference in linguistic diversity levels between the New World (Sahul included, as the Papua New Guinean example from above suggests) and the Old World. I would modify your argument to focus on long-term differences in population size between the Old World and the New World. Africa and Europe have been more densely populated in the Pleistocene (hence the particular visibility of human activity in the archaeological record), while America and Oceania were more sparsely populated (hence the difficulties with pinpointing human presence and the human behavioral “package” in those areas), with Asia falling in between. This maps nicely onto the gradient of genetic diversity between America and Africa (small Fst in Africa, large intrapopulation diversity tied to large effective population size vs. high Fst in America, low intrapopulation diversity tied to small effective population size). Larger population sizes in Europe and Africa led to greater connectivity and greater propensity for innovation, which in turn led to some technology- and economy-induced replacements. (At the same time, climate and ecology did play their part in keeping linguistic diversity in check in the New World.) Overall, however, you are putting the cart before the horse by attributing linguistic homogeneity in the Old World to technology and economy.

  • John Emerson

    In China, the Chinese (Han) languages are more diverse in the more recently settled South, and least diverse in the Northern areas which have been Han the longest. Frequent depopulation and repopulation in the North is one reason, and the mountainous, dissected geography of the South is another. This diversification took place in 3000 years at the most, and none of the Han groups were really isolated from the others. Enough diversification could take place in 12,000 years, especially since some groups were completely separated from others almost the whole time.

    To my knowledge, none of the new world expansions had anything like the scope of the Eurasian expansions.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “In China, the Chinese (Han) languages are more diverse in the more recently settled South and least diverse in the Northern areas which have been Han the longest. Frequent depopulation and repopulation is one reason, and the mountainous, dissected geography of the South is another.”

    Good point, John. This is a good observation when it comes to diversity within the single family. Hence, I still remain unconvinced that higher diversity of Austronesian languages in Taiwan signals their greater antiquity there. (Oceanic languages, for instance, are very diverse grammatically, while Formosan languages are not as much.) Geography and social factors may play a trick on linguists here. Nevertheless, when we’re talking about Amerindian language stock diversity associated with equally diverse and conservative grammatical and kin terminological patterns (see my book The Genius of Kinship) and we are forced to fit it all into a 15,000 years time frame and a narrow geographic area in the rather linguistically homogenous “Old World,” it looks highly unlikely.

  • John Emerson

    German, first of all, you can’t just say that archeological evidence might show up some day.

    Second, you seem to be saying two contrary things: first, that New World Settlement began as much as 40,000 years ago (based on language diversity), and second, that New World languages have some kind of relationship to the Caucasian and Sahul languages (a thesis that is not well supported). But if the separation took place that long ago, it’s unlikely that relationships would be detectable. Even those who try to link the Indo-European and Finnic languages or the IE and Caucasian languages have a hard time making a convincing argument. Rather than for early settlement, a convincing relationship between New World languages and Caucasian languages would argue for fairly recent (last 5,000 years) migration in one direction or the other.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “Enough diversification could take place in 12,000 years, especially since some groups were completely separated from others almost the whole time.”

    Not according to Nichols’s calculations: see “Linguistic diversity and the first settlement of the New World” // Language 66 (1990).

    “you can’t just say that archeological evidence might show up some day.”

    In certain contexts, when people continuously claim that the lack of evidence of human presence in the Americas constitutes the evidence of absence of humans, it’s a fair counterargument.

    “But if the separation took place that long ago, it’s unlikely that relationships would be detectable.”

    This is true for surface structures such as lexicon, but grammar may contain more durable and slow-changing modules that can be compared across wider geographic distances, without postulating a direct genetic link but more of a areal-potentially-genetic historical link. I am aware of the fact that grammatical forms may also derive from parallel development. However, when we looks at the Caucasus, Sahul and the Americas, we notice not only elevated levels of stock diversity but also some surprising grammatical parallels. We don’t see anything of that sort in Siberia. It’s a rather old argument ( I think Sapir’s) that postulates that similarities across disconnected and widely separated geographic areas date back to older time periods, while similarities across contiguous areas are of more recent.

  • onur

    The wholesale language replacements in the Old World is not a sustainable explanation for the marked difference in linguistic diversity levels between the New World (Sahul included, as the Papua New Guinean example from above suggests) and the Old World.

    A number of those wholesale language replacements (I am also including relatively less important ones like the Uralic, Nilo-Saharan, ex-Bantu Niger-Congo, Mongolic, Tungusic, Japonic, Korean, Caucasian and most SE Asian language expansions), as John already pointed out, happened in historical times, and most of the rest show clear indications (linguistic, archaeological, etc.) that they happened in the few thousand years immediately prior to the appearance of historical records of or about the relevant territories and languages.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “A number of those wholesale language replacements (I am also including relatively less important ones like the Uralic, Nilo-Saharan, ex-Bantu Niger-Congo, Mongolic, Tungusic, Caucasian language and most SE Asian language expansions), as John already pointed out, happened in historical times, and most of the rest show clear indications that they happened in the few thousand years immediately prior to the appearance of historical records of or about the relevant territories and languages.”

    This doesn’t mean anything. Only in North America we have Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, Uto-Aztecan, Iroquois, Algic, Hokan showing signs of broad expansion and replacing pre-existing languages. We have no idea how many languages got replaced in either continent, not what their affiliation was. In any case, replacements in the Old World is no good explanation for linguistic diversity in the New World. Plus again, how can we dismiss the fact that small language families/populations and isolates are less resistant to environmental pressures than large language families/populations. Why do we assume that human-induced replacements over the past 10,000 years are more effective than environment-induced extinctions over the past 40,000?

  • John Emerson

    Linguistically the idea that New World languages have some kind of perceivable relationship with Caucasian and Sahul languages (Sahul: New Guinea and Australia) is more difficult to show than the Nostratic theory, which is by no means well established or widely accepted.

    Furthermore, as I just said, using it as part of an argument that the New World was settled far earlier than has been thought makes things more difficult, not less.

    Recently someone proposed a connection between the Yenisean language Kettish and the Na-Dene group of Amerindian languages, but this is geographically and historiclly plausible, whereas the Amerindian-Caucasian-Sahul connections, besides being linguistically unproven, are also historically and geographically implausible.

    The speed of language change and divergence is not known in general but with creolization followed by complexification within separated populations it could be a lot faster than has been thought. And it is generally accepted the migrants to the New World came in three different linguistic waves (Amerind, Na-Dene, and Inuit-Aleut in that order), and there’s no reason why the Amerind migrants have to be thought of as linguistically uniform.

  • onur

    This doesn’t mean anything.

    It may not mean anything to you, but serious linguists and scientists cannot dismiss them when dealing with past human movements.

    Only in North America we have Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, Uto-Aztecan, Iroquois, Algic, Hokan showing signs of broad expansion and replacing pre-existing languages.

    Of course, similar linguistic expansions happened in the Americas, but again as John pointed out, they cannot compete with the linguistic expansions in the Old World.

    Why do we assume that human-induced replacements over the past 10,000 years are more effective than environment-induced extinctions over the past 40,000?

    Last ~10,000 years of the human species was an exceptional period, as for the first time humans really began to control nature and eventually their own nature (the process is still going on and we don’t know what the future will bring).

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “you can’t just say that archeological evidence might show up some day.”

    One more thing on this. Although I agree that we can’t be flippant about what we might hope to find in the future, history shows that our biased readiness to except recent dates for entry into the New World stands in the way of achieving a true cross-disciplinary synthesis. When in the early 20th century Hrdlicka insisted on the 3-5,000 year timeframe for the peopling of the Americas (and he was as sure that he was right as today’s Clovis-I advocates), linguists built their first robust classifications of American Indian languages and documented their phenomenal diversity. In 1910, the gap between the archaeological vision and the linguistic vision couldn’t have been filled, and the two disciplines went their separate ways. So, in 1927, when Folsom/Clovis were accidentally discovered and the Pleistocene timeframe for the peopling of the America was established archaeologically, the integration with linguistics may have been well past due. If we continue to live with only today’s findings, without intelligently projecting the rate of archaeological discoveries from the past into the future, we may continue to miss opportunities to learn from other disciplines and approach the problem of human origins and the peopling of the Americas as a holistic anthropological problem.

  • onur

    there’s no reason why the Amerind migrants have to be thought of as linguistically uniform

    As they probably began to arrive in the Americas ~15,000 years ago, this statement is especially plausible, as the Old World was probably linguistically much much more diverse than today and than even 5,000 years ago.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “serious linguists and scientists cannot dismiss them when dealing with past human movements.”

    Onur, you’re trying to attribute your speculative view of prehistory to anonymous “serious linguists.”

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “The speed of language change and divergence is not known in general…”

    Absolutely agree. Same for the molecular clock.

    “And it is generally accepted the migrants to the New World came in three different linguistic waves (Amerind, Na-Dene, and Inuit-Aleut in that order)…”

    This theory put forth by Zegura, Greenberg and Turner in 1987(?) has been dismissed multiple times on both genetic and linguistic grounds. Genetics shows that American Indians are rather uniform across the three linguistic divisions of ZGT, while linguistics shows that they are very diverse and the 100+ stocks within Amerind don’t ladder up to Amerind that Greenberg dated (based on the archaeological consensus at 12,000 years).

    “Recently someone proposed a connection between the Yenisean language Kettish and the Na-Dene group of Amerindian languages, but this is geographically and historiclly plausible, whereas the Amerindian-Caucasian-Sahul connections, besides being linguistically unproven, are also historically and geographically implausible.”

    You’re confusing a purely genetic argument, which can be established only on the basis of regular surface similarities/correspondences between lexical items and the phonemes that comprise them, and a mixed areal/genetic argument that doesn’t depend on them. The Nostratic proposal claims to establish a genetic connection, the Sahul-Caucasus-Amerindian “proposal” (not really a proposal, but a set of observations based on, say, Nichols’s Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time and other works of populational linguists) argues for a mixed genetic/areal. It’s geographically implausible only if you assume the recency of American Indians. If American Indians are not a recent population, then they partake of an earlier Eurasian substratum best preserved in such remote refugia as Sahul and the Caucasus.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Also, regarding Edward Vajda’s Ket-Na-Dene theory, the strongest argument – and this theory was “approved” by several independent linguists, including Nichols and Hamp, – came from the similarities between Ket and Na-Dene verbal paradigms (and associated lexical items). So in essence it was a grammatical match that contained the seeds of a breakthrough. Lexical similarities are pretty systematic but not as compelling, by themselves, especially in the light of the fact that proto-Na-Dene hasn’t been reconstructed, as the grammatical ones.

  • onur

    Onur, you’re trying to attribute your speculative view of prehistory to anonymous “serious linguists.”

    I just expressed a basic fact. Speculative nature of the studies of prehistorical linguistic processes and phaenomena doesn’t make them worthless, a healthy dose of speculation is always needed in such studies. Your own views of prehistory are speculative too.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “I just expressed a basic fact. Speculative nature of the studies of prehistorical linguistic processes and phaenomena doesn’t make them worthless, a healthy dose of speculation is always needed in such studies. Your own views of prehistory are speculative too.”

    What is this “fact” again? That in the Old World population replacements in the past 10,000 years resulted in the massive extinction of linguistic stocks? (not just languages, mind you, but language stocks), while during roughly the same time the New World accumulated their 140 stocks (compare only 20 in Africa) out of thin air and retained them against all the odds of colonizing a new continent? This is not a healthy speculation but a convenient fantasy.

  • onur

    German, as far as I know, what I am telling is the consensus view, broadly speaking. Though it seems you have a problem with consensuses. It is fine with me, consensuses should be open to challenge, especially in speculative fields like historical (including prehistory) linguistics.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “as far as I know, what I am telling is the consensus view, broadly speaking.”

    It’s not a consensus at all. Not among the linguists. It’s an elephant in the room. The problem is that linguists are rarely an integral part of the continental level of prehistoric analysis – either because they are not interested or because they are not interesting to archaeologists or geneticists. But those who put some thought into it end up scratching their heads: why are there so few language isolates in Africa if Africa is the oldest continent with an ancient population substructure and why are so many different language stocks and isolates in the Americas if it’s the most recently colonized continent founded by a small group of migrants? And linguists openly resist Greenberg’s reductionist model of Amerindian linguistic diversity, which was purposefully retrofitted into the recent archaeological timeframe. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1182033/

  • John Emerson

    The difference between Vajda’s theory and yours is that his is a well-argued theory and yours is a speculation that goes against a lot of the evidence. I wasn’t confusing anything with anything else.

    I can’t tell what your argument against ZGT is. What I take from that theory is that after the earliest migration (from which most American Indians descend) there were two later migrations, one of Na-Dene and one od Inuits and Aleuts. As it’s been conveyed to me in rather summary form, no claims have been made about the dating of the first migration or migrations, just the distinction from the second and third. Do you disagree with that?

    The Nostratic hypothesis is controversial because it is rather weakly grounded in evidence , even though geographically historically plausible. Your theory seems to be equally conjectural but much less plausible. Calling it “areal” makes no sense; what kind of “area” is it that includes the Caucasus, New Guinea and Australia, and North and South America? It’s like you’re looking for the first Ur-language of Eden or the Noble Savage . Likewise, the long time frame you claim you need to explain the diversity of Amerindian languages works against the idea that correspondences between these three groups can be perceived after 40,000 years of separation.

    There’s no difficulty in the idea that whole language stocks might disappear. Five of the six Yeniseian languages have gone extinct in the last two centuries, and Kettish has one fewer than 500 speakers left.

  • John Emerson

    Why are there so few language isolates in Africa if Africa is the oldest continent with an ancient population substructure and why are so many different language stocks and isolates in the Americas if it’s the most recently colonized continent founded by a small group of migrants?

    I’d say it’s because your theory that language diversity is evidence of great age is no good. Are you also denying the “Out of Africa” theory in favor of an “Out of America” theory?

    I’m starting to wonder if this is a practical joke.

  • Matt

    Onur & John, this paper may interest you – http://www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/daniel.nettle/pnas.pdf. I’m sure German has already read it.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “I can’t tell what your argument against ZGT is. What I take from that theory is that after the earliest migration (from which most American Indians descend) there were two later migrations, one of Na-Dene and one od Inuits and Aleuts. As it’s been conveyed to me in rather summary form, no claims have been made about the dating of the first migration or migrations, just the distinction from the second and third. Do you disagree with that?”

    I don’t know who gave you this “summary” but if you go to the original paper “The Settlement of the Americas: A Comparison of the Linguistic, Dental and Genetic Evidence” and open p. 494, you’ll see the date 20,000 for suggested “departure” from Asia, with other two migrations following at later points in time. If you open Wells’s “The journey of man”, p. 143 you’ll see the date of 12,000 for Amerind divergence with reference to Greenberg. On p. 333 of Greenberg’s “Languages in the Americas” you’ll find a direct tie-in of Amerind with Clovis and the dates of 11-12,000 YBP.

    “The Nostratic hypothesis is controversial because it is rather weakly grounded in evidence , even though geographically historically plausible. Your theory seems to be equally conjectural but much less plausible. Calling it “areal” makes no sense; what kind of “area” is it that includes the Caucasus, New Guinea and Australia, and North and South America? It’s like you’re looking for the first Ur-language of Eden or the Noble Savage . Likewise, the long time frame you claim you need to explain the diversity of Amerindian languages works against the idea that correspondences between these three groups can be perceived after 40,000 years of separation.”

    I don’t understand what “geographically historically plausible” means. Two solutions are compatible with it: borrowings that require geographic proximity and common descent. Parts of Nostratic, such as Altaic, is often dismissed as maybe borrowing-induced. I admit “areal” may be a misnomer but the very idea that similarities across vast distances may represent survivals from the time the ancestors of the speakers of these languages lived in close geographic proximity with each other (with two possible solutions, see above) is perfectly fine, I think. And in fact population genetics showed on a number of occasions that populations found in geographically distant areas can be genetically connected. And comparative method allows for the following assumption: while surface similarities disappear early on, deeper similarities may linger longer.

    “There’s no difficulty in the idea that whole language stocks might disappear. Five of the six Yeniseian languages have gone extinct in the last two centuries, and Kettish has one fewer than 500 speakers left.”

    Of course, they do but you can’t use an isolated example as a foundation for a theory. In America, hundreds of languages disappeared in the 19-20th century. While in Siberia, Yeniseian, AFAIK, is the only example. Again, empirically, the trend you are invoking is working against your argument.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Matt, thanks for reminding me of Nettle’s paper. It’s based on a very instructive logical flaw: Nettle observes that the older the continental population is (on the basis of archaeological finds), the fewer and larger language stocks it contains. And then he concludes that linguistic data is consistent with a recent entry to the Americas. The argument is clearly circular. Taken at face value, his data supports a very early date for the peopling of the Americas. In addition, Nettle somehow assumes that Eurasia has earlier dates than Sahul because Eurasia has fewer language stocks than Sahul, while archaeologically it’s clearly not true. Lower linguistic diversity in Europe correlates nicely with the fact that it was colonized from eastern Eurasia, as both archaeology and genetics seem to indicate.

    Another paper of interest is by Roger Blench: http://www.rogerblench.info/Linguistics%20papers%20opening%20page.htm#Amerind

  • John Emerson

    German, do you reject the Out of Africa theory in favor of an Out of America theory? Because that’s what the logic of your argument leads to.

    America / more diversity = settled early; Africa / less diversity = settle later.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    do you reject the Out of Africa theory in favor of an Out of America theory? Because that’s what the logic of your argument leads to.”

    No matter how outlandish it looks to you, John, I wouldn’t dismiss this possibility. Working under an assumption that America was peopled relatively recently, archaeology, over the past 150 years, hasn’t produced a consistent explanation of the origin of Paleoindian cultures from Asian Paleolithic (not surprisingly, scholars now entertain trans-Atlantic contacts to explain the Clovis phenomenon). We also now know that pre-Clovis existed. So, the door is wide open for alternatives. The data suggests that Africa and Europe have significantly less linguistic diversity than America, parts of Asia and Sahul. A simple out of Africa scenario of human migrations whereby a small subset of African populations left Africa to colonize the rest of the world flies in the face of this rather stubborn fact. How can linguistic (and other cultural forms of diversity such a kinship, myths, music, etc.) progressively increase from the supposedly oldest continent out, if populations that left Africa and then populations that left Siberia were small subsets of their original populations? What’s important is that this odd evolutionary process, whereby a small original population ends up exceeding the linguistic diversity in its parental population, while still showing clear signs of a genetic bottleneck, supposedly happened twice over the past 40-60,000 years. And the second time around the magnitude of this linguistic outburst exceeded the one that took place during the first wave of colonization. I can’t accept this. What I think may have happened is that at 12,000 years there was a backflow of Amerindian populations into Siberia and at 40,000 years there was a backflow of Asian populations into Europe and Africa (with European Upper Paleolithic deriving from such South Siberian sites as Kara-Bom that show similar technology at a slightly earlier date). This scenario of backflow admixtures at the two junctions where we see “bottlenecks” leaves us with a Sub-Saharan population, an Asian population and an Amerindian population at 40-60,000 locked in their respective continents.

  • John Emerson

    Well, it’s been real.

  • Nom de Plume

    Well, speaking as a lowly layperson, I’ve gotta say that an “Out of America” hypothesis has got balls, if nothing else. If only you didn’t have that massive barrier of paleontology and DNA evidence throughout the world to overcome.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “If only you didn’t have that massive barrier of paleontology and DNA evidence throughout the world to overcome.”

    Nom de Plume, you’ll be surprised to know that in early mtDNA studies all regional haplotypes radiated from what was referred to as “morph 1.” And this morph 1 was found at highest frequencies in the Americas, with all other populations showing a number of derived haplotypes that weren’t detected in American Indians. See, e.g., Fig 4 in “Mitochondrial DNA Polymorphism among Five Asian Populations”, S. Harihara // Am. J. Hum. Genet. 43:134-143, 1988. Then geneticists “re-thought” it and placed this formerly nodal haplotype all the down to the end of a MP tree (See Fig. 4 in that paper). But remained odd is that that haplotype was geographically most widely spread (highest frequencies in America, lowest in Africa, intermediary in Asia), so it couldn’t have been the most derived. That early tree looks identical to the one that DNA Tribes put together for the autosomes. See http://www.dnatribes.com/populations.html (Map of Interconnected Regions). I’m not affiliated with them in any way but I was struck how their tree is built around a primary split between the New World and the Old World and not between Africans and non-Africans.

  • gcochran

    This guy is a Renaissance idiot. Out of America – humans presumably descended from howler monkeys. Much greater time depth of human occupation in North America than any known human skeleton or datable artifacts. Mass extinctions of megafauna that all happened right after people arrived, at wildly different times – the Americas about 12k ago, the Caribbean about 7k ago, Australia 46k, Pacific islands and New Zealand in the last thousand to 15oo years – somehow not caused by human hunting.

    Let me guess: the dinosaurs committed suicide, too. And the continents don’t drift, right?

    Who will rid me of this turbulent idiot?

  • Matt

    “Matt, thanks for reminding me of Nettle’s paper. It’s based on a very instructive logical flaw: Nettle observes that the older the continental population is (on the basis of archaeological finds), the fewer and larger language stocks it contains. And then he concludes that linguistic data is consistent with a recent entry to the Americas. The argument is clearly circular.”

    You’re welcome. Though his argument to me seems to run “There is no observable relationship between the archaeological record and linguistic diversity, in any region, except a slightly negative one; Therfore, as the archaeology is our only sure guide as to the time depth of habitation, we can’t infer anything about the time depth of habitation from linguistic diversity”.

    That doesn’t seem very circular. You need some objective measure of time depth of habitation then you need to compare that to linguistic diversity before you can prove that linguistic diversity has any relationship with time depth of habitation. Otherwise you’d just be making a circular argument where you assume that linguistic diversity correlates with time depth of habitation without any empirical basis. This is true even if you have an empirical basis to make the assumption re: linguistic diversity over short time scales.

  • dave chamberlin

    I was wondering when German was going to provoke the Wrath of Kahn or the Crush of Cochran. German I don’t think you are a turbulent idiot (although I like the phase and may use it someday) you are a sincere and passionate intellectual who has made the age old mistake best phrased by one Mark Twain who said “when the only tool you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail.”
    Linguistic diversity is your favorite tool German and a facinating tool it is but you are misusing it. You are trying to ignore that there are other variables causing linguistic diversity besides time, the seperation of peoples being the most obvious one that comes to mind. There is the sad tale of horrible parents locking two children in a room for ten years, completly isolating them from the outside world for ten years except for food passed under the door. When they were rescued these poor young things had invented their own language. In the Americas pre 1491 and in New Guinea there was a proliferation of languages because of time plus almost total seperation of peoples. These were two locations that had both geological boundries that seperated people and violence ingrained in the people so severe commonly the first thought upon seeing a stranger was to kill him.
    This made for people living in close proximity to each other and developing seperate languages. Your error in logic German is to make time the only variable in language creation.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    khan, not kahn :-)

    more seriously, i haven’t followed this closely. my main objection to german’s thesis is simply that water is more likely to flow uphill with cultural phenomena (language diversity) than physical ones (archaeology, genetics). secondarily, i don’t believe that german’s thesis of deep commonalities of languages as he’s positing is currently in the linguistic mainstream, so it’s not even a symmetric comparison of archeology and linguistics.

    ‘s all i’ll say to that.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    A good range of opinions, everybody. Thank you.

    Gcochran: The difference between you and me is likely only in the level of risk tolerance. Some people call the doctor after a single sneeze, others climb the Everest while blind. From the short note you sent along, I figured that you believe that Pleistocene extinctions were caused by humans. This is an old myth that you picked up from a trusted book, I understand. Please refer to more up-to-date research such as this one: Judy R. M. Allen et al., Last glacial vegetation of northern Eurasia. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2010, in which an ecological change is the key factor in Pleistocene extinctions. Human hunting was part of the process just because humans did hunt 10,000 years ago as they do now, but it’s not the cause for the extinction. To divine human prehistory on the basis of our putative destructive behavior is a mistake. There are two kinds of prehistoric myths: one attributes causes for a major observable fact to a natural catastrophe (Toba eruption, a supernova), the other to disproportionate human impact (megafauna extinctions in the New World, the mass replacement of foragers by agriculturalists in the Old World). I prefer to stay away from these stereotypes and only look at facts.

    By the way: do you believe that the Sun rotates around the Earth? Not to be presumptuous, but I have a feeling you may look at Copernicus as another Renaissance idiot.

    Matt: I agree there’s a danger of reifying “linguistic diversity” as an objective measure of time. And we do need to stay away from circular arguments. This is something to keep in mind. But one can’t, like Nettle does, assume that archaeology always provides the right picture, while linguistics has validity only if archaeology allows. Archaeology has a different pace of evolution: the finds are usually accidental and sporadic and don’t stop coming at the year 2010. Any find can challenge the beliefs “founded” on the previous find. There are plenty of examples thereof from recent and remote past. Linguistics directly works with a fundamental human faculty that differentiates us from hominins and it directly describes the extant populations whose origins we’re investigating. It needs to be explained in the context of human dispersals, evolution and adaptation. Archaeology works with circumstantial evidence. It benefits from the security of radiocarbon dating but by itself it furnishes no secure timeline for what we’re trying to understand. Modern human behavior, of which language is key, begins having identifiable archaeological correlates only at 45-40K throughout the Old World. This is close to the upper bound of linguistic diversity estimates in America in Nettle’s paper (and in Nichols’s paper that he tries to criticize).

    Dave Chamberlin: Don’t you think that the expression “when the only tool you have is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail” best fits the archaeological/paleontological perspective on human evolution: if I don’t have a “record” of you, you’re not real? A series of comments on a blog post may make me argument look like a one-sided advocacy for one single parameter, namely “linguistic diversity.” It’s more complex than that. In “The Genius of Kinship” I identified several major lines of evidence converging toward some big theoretical alternatives to the out of Africa model. Plus what I think the levels of linguistic diversity reflect is a historical interaction of age, distance from homeland and population size. Africa and Europe are low in linguistic diversity because they are the furthest removed from the center of expansion, the colonization involved large expanding populations and they didn’t have enough time to accumulate enough new linguistic diversity after leaving the homeland.

    For those who may be interested in some background, please check out http://anthropology.net/2008/05/12/the-genius-of-kinship-human-kinship-systems-and-the-search-for-human-origins/

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “i don’t believe that german’s thesis of deep commonalities of languages as he’s positing is currently in the linguistic mainstream..”

    Razib, it’s hard to identify what a linguistic mainstream is in this case. Greenberg’s Amerind has been rejected by all mainstream linguists, and I concur. Cavalli-Sforza’s attempt to map genes on Greenberg’s classification of world languages was criticized for using the wrong linguistic approach to justify genetic phylogenies. And I concur. An alternative approach to deep prehistory from the point of view of historical linguistics is Johanna Nichols’s “Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time.” In this book, she contrasted Europe and Africa with America, Asia and Sahul and concluded that our perspective on the earliest forms of human grammatical organization (specifically, head-marking with a long list of associated features) come from the latter and not from the former. This is entirely consistent with what I presented in “The Genius of Kinship” from the kinship studies perspective. And Nichols’s book was very well received.

  • onur

    Matt, thanks for Nettle’s paper. I have just read it. I think he does a good job of refuting Nichols’ thesis. His own thesis isn’t as strong as his refutation though. But that is the general problem with linguistics, as there is no secure way of using it for dating purposes. This is one of the reasons of my objection to German’s thesis, as he puts too much trust in linguistics-based dating. All he has been saying in this thread so far is basically that linguistic diversity increases with time, but he has put forward no evidence to support this unproven claim (just like Nichols). Until he puts forward evidence for that, his arguments will remain unproven and circular.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “All he has been saying in this thread so far is basically that linguistic diversity increases with time, but he has put forward no evidence to support this unproven claim (just like Nichols). Until he puts forward evidence for that, his arguments will remain unproven and circular.”

    Nettle’s counter-argument is no good because archaeological findings increase with time. On all continents. Some continents just accumulate these finds faster than others. It’s a plain fact. He assumes that they are fixed for good. Nichols’s argument (and I’m afraid you haven’t read her very carefully researched studies) predicts that more earlier findings are due to emerge in the New World. To question that linguistic diversity increases with time means denying the very basic principles underlying the discipline, namely that languages evolve through time and isolation. There are other factors, of course, but they haven’t been shown to be systematic. the onus is on you, onur, to prove this different.

  • onur

    To question that linguistic diversity increases with time means denying the very basic principles underlying the discipline, namely that languages evolve through time and isolation. There are other factors, of course, but they haven’t been shown to be systematic.

    As you admit that there are other factors (like language extinctions due to agriculture and other technology and economy-based factors or other factors like wars, climate, epidemics, etc.), we shouldn’t automatically assume that linguistic diversity increases with time. So the onus is also on you to prove your unproven claim.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “So the onus is also on you to prove your unproven claim.”

    Let’s split the burden. We all have to prove something, otherwise science is meaningless. The fact that America was peopled at 15,000K and that Africa is the region with hominin continuities needs to be proven, too. People just forget about it.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    “Much greater time depth of human occupation in North America than any known human skeleton or datable artifacts.”

    The obsession of prehistory buffs with skeletons and artifacts is rather noteworthy. There are two forms of cultural transmission: vertical (from generation to generation, from father to son) and horizontal (within a generation, from a friend to a friend). Languages are transmitted mostly vertically with some horizontal interference. Archaeological artifacts don’t belong to either type. They are objects that are left behind by the users (not passed down or along to other users) and deliberately collected by future non-users. Hence, archaeological artifacts constitute the most artificial datasets, whose relevance to the issues of origin, migration, evolution or common descent of naturally evolving human populations is rather tangential. Hence, going back to Nettle’s unfortunate article, benchmarking a language chronology by an archaeological chronology involves comparing apples and oranges, or better apples and tennis balls.

    “Out of America – humans presumably descended from howler monkeys.”

    Unlikely. But I would turn your attention to an interesting piece of research on human lice DNA. http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.0020340. Especially, the phylogeny on Fig. 2.

  • http://www.kinshipstudies.org German Dziebel

    Here’s a great quote that, in a nutshell, illustrates all the serious problems with the mainstream human origins story. “The case for dispersal of projectile-using humans to the Levant suffers from some of the same weaknesses as the diffusion hypothesis; namely, the lack of an artifactual “trail” linking the EUP of the Levant to another region. Fortunately, artifacts are not the only evidence for population dispersal. The hominin fossil and recent human genetic records (Grine et al. 2007; Kivisild 2007) strongly support the hypothesis that there was a dispersal of Homo sapiens populations from Africa and southern Asia to western Eurasia at around the same time as EUP assemblages began to be deposited. That the specific forms EUP projectile armatures took do not replicate African precursors does run counter to models for detecting “migration” derived from recent contexts (Clark 1994), but this is not necessarily a crucial flaw. Populations dispersing into new territories do develop novel artifact forms unknown in their donor region. For example, it is beyond serious scientific dispute that the Americas were first populated by humans dispersing there from northeastern Asia, and yet few specific artifact-types connect these two regions (Meltzer 2009).” Shea. Sisk, “Complex Projectile Technology and Homo sapiens Dispersal into Western Eurasia” // PaleoAnthropology 2010.

    Clearly, there’s no archaeological evidence for an out-of-Africa migration. Scholars acknowledge it. But, lo and behold, they use nothing else but the peopling of the New World as the justification for this lack of archaeological evidence for an out of African migration. In a perverse logic, they absolve archaeology from the need to provide material evidence for the peopling of the Americas and rely on a speculative but firm consensus that this peopling event somehow happened. This speculative consensus is then made to look like “science” and is exported back as a yardstick for the archaeological standard needed to prove the out-of-Africa model. Seeing the gap in the archaeological record, they nod in the direction of craniology and genetics. But the study of the Hofmeyer skull that they quoted (Grine et al. 2007) actually showed that this 35,000-year-old South African specimen looks nothing like modern Khoisans, Pygmies or Negroids. It looks fully Eurasian (!) just like a bunch of Cromagnon skulls from the same period that are in fact related to modern European through straightforward morphological continuities. The genetic data they invoke, again, shows exactly the same biogeographic gap between African and Eurasian haplotypes with no “trail” connecting the two. For instance, mtDNA macrohaplogroup N is not indigenous in Africa, it expands in East Asia and shows up in Africa only in the form of derived clades such as N1 and U6. So we have a huge geographic gap between a putative African ancestor and the first non-African descendants. mtDNA macrohaplogroup M shows virtually the same pattern: it’s not indigenous in Africa, it expands in South/East Asia and it’s attested in Africa only in the form of a derived clade, namely M1.

    So we have a perfect match between archaeology and genetics but the one that doesn’t support the out-of-Africa model but in fact directly contradicts it.

    The cross-disciplinary support for the out-of-Africa model is therefore patched together with rumors and not facts. This, in turn, opens up a window of opportunity for an alternative model that is indeed based on facts, among which are the fact that there’s no archaeological evidence for the peopling of the Americas and there’s no archaeological trail for an out of Africa migration.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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