Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution


Languages, like genes, are “documents of history”. A vast amount of information about our past is inscribed in the 7000 languages spoken today. Our inferences about human history are most powerful when independent lines of evidence from linguistics, archaeology and human genetics are used to “triangulate” claims. The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution will adopt an interdisciplinary approach to bridge the gap between history and the natural sciences. We will bring together linguists, biologists and social scientists to apply cutting-edge methods from the natural sciences while still utilising the insights that only come from maintaining close contact with the primary linguistic and cultural data. We will focus on answering big picture questions about linguistic and cultural history. We tackle these questions by developing novel language documentation methods, global linguistic and cultural databases, and analyses using evolutionary theories and computational methods. These new computational tools allow us to address research questions that were previously deemed difficult or even completely intractable.


Glottobank research team

Glottobank is an international research consortium established to document and understand the world’s linguistic diversity. Glottobank team members are pursuing this goal on two fronts. They established five global databases documenting variation in language structure (Grambank), lexicon (Lexibank), paradigm systems (Parabank), phonetic changes (Phonobank), and numerals (Numeralbank). In doing so, they seek to develop new methods in language documentation, compile data on the world’s languages and make this data accessible and useful. Second, we are developing methods to use this data to make inferences about human prehistory, relationships between languages and processes of language change. [more]

Vanuatu - the Galapagos of language evolution
Russell Gray, Prof., Ph.D. (Univ. Auckland), Dr. Aviva Shimelman

Two fundamental facts about language demand explanation - why are there approximately 7000 languages spoken today and why is their distribution across the globe so uneven? Vanuatu is famous for its rich cultural and linguistic diversity. With around 106 languages spoken across its islands Vanuatu has more languages per capita than anywhere else in the world (François 2012). It is the “Galapagos of language evolution” - the ideal microcosm to study what drives rapid linguistic diversification. This long-term project aims to document the diversity of languages in Vanuatu, and investigate the cultural factors and historical events that have driven that diversification.

Malakula, with its two major cultural groups and approximately 40 languages, is the ideal place to start this project. An interdisciplinary team of linguists and anthropologists will document variation in vocabulary, phonology and grammar in the languages spoken on the island, and investigate how this variation is related to cultural practices, demography and social networks. The project will develop “Next generation language documentation” methods with local communities using apps on mobile phones and tablets to both elicit and record their languages. The data will be made available via web accessible databases and an online interactive digital atlas. For some initial results see

CoBL: A new breed of databases on Cognacy in Basic Lexicon
Dr Paul Heggarty, Cormac Anderson

Ancient Greek

CoBL is a new database structure for exploring how languages within a family relate to each other on [Cognacy] in Basic Lexicon. Tailored for qualitative as well as quantitative research purposes, CoBL provides data-exploration websites to search the rich linguistic data covered:  cognate sets, orthography, morphology, phonemic and ipa phonetic transcriptions, and links to further sources. 

CoBL is a model extendable to any language family, but applied first to Indo-European as CoBL-IE, to succeed the IELex database by Michael Dunn (as used by Bouckaert et al. 2012, Chang et al. 2015).  Data are compiled through the CoBL data-entry website, by a consortium of branch experts across Indo-European, working together with cross-family cognacy specialists to assign cognate sets and sub-sets.  All contributors work to a new and very explicit set of lexeme selection guidelines, and an improved reference list of 200 precisely (re)defined comparison meanings. 

Please note that this database is not publicly available yet. It is still unter construction, and access is only provided to the research team members.


D-Place - a global Database of Place, Language, Culture and Environment
d-Place Research Team

D-PLACE helps to overcome four common barriers to understanding these forces: i) location of relevant cultural data, (ii) linking data from distinct sources using diverse ethnonyms, (iii) variable time and place foci for data, and (iv) spatial and historical dependencies among cultural groups that result in non-independent units of analysis. D-PLACE facilitates the visualisation of relationships among cultural groups and between people and their environments, with results downloadable as tables, on a map, or on a linguistic tree. D-PLACE can be used for exploratory, predictive, and evolutionary analyses of cultural diversity by a range of users, from members of the worldwide public interested in contrasting their own cultural practices with those of other societies, to researchers using large-scale computational phylogenetic analyses to study cultural evolution. We hope that D-PLACE will empower new lines of investigation into the major drivers of cultural change and global patterns of cultural diversity.

Sound Comparisons: exploring diversity in phonetics across language families
Dr Paul Heggarty

Sound comparison "Four"

Sound Comparisons is a website structure for exploring diversity in phonetics across language families from around the world. It already covers hundreds of regional languages, dialects and accents across the Romance , Germanic , Slavic and Celtic families of Europe, Quechua , Aymara and Mapudungun in the Andes, the Austronesian languages of Malakula island in Vanuatu, and accents of English.  Just hover the mouse over any map or table view to hear instantaneously the different pronunciations of the same 100-250 words [‘cognate’] across that family, recorded in our fieldwork campaigns. 

These databases serve as input to linguistic research to measure how phonetic divergence arose through the histories of these language families (see Heggarty et al. 2010).  The website offers powerful tools for linguist researchers (to search and filter the database, download all detailed phonetic transcriptions and sound files, create citable links, etc.), but is also multilingual and user-friendly for the general public who actually speak all of these languages, many of them endangered.

Sound Comparisons

Religion presents an explanatory challenge to evolutionary theorists - it is both costly and prevalent. Costs include the reproductive costs of abstinent nuns, the resource costs of ritual offerings and the opportunity costs of time spent praying. While scholars have debated naturalistic theories of religion for thousands of years, only recently have these theories been empirically tested. Our research group on the cultural evolution of religion focuses on using rigorous, quantitative cross-cultural methods to identify how and why religion has evolved. We have constructed a major database of traditional Pacific religions named Pulotu and used phylogenetic comparative methods to test functional theories about the role of religion in human prehistory. Recently we have tested how the structure of human social systems has co-evolved with features of religion such as Big Gods and ritual human sacrifice.


Maintaining diversity: demography, culture and economic life in Vanuatu
Dr. Heidi Colleran

Vanuatu is justly famous for its rich cultural and linguistic diversity. However, relatively little is understood about how people maintain this variation while interacting with each other across linguistic and other cultural boundaries. How do cultural, demographic and economic patterns coevolve? How do social and economic connections between individuals and across different kinds of groups scale up to influence both the demography and the culture of those groups? How do reproductive decisions in different cultural contexts influence the structure and dynamics of those populations? This long-term anthropological and demographic project will study questions of fundamental importance for understanding how cultures and populations evolve, and how diversity is generated, maintained and lost.

Gene-culture coevolution
Dr. Adam Powell

Our group works on the interactions between human genetic and cultural evolutionary systems, integrating methods and data from population genetics, anthropology, archaeology, historical linguistics and quantitative history. Gene-culture coevolution is the comprehensive study of human evolutionary history, drawing from a range of disciplines to infer the uniquely human processes underlying the distribution of modern or ancient genetic variation. We develop simulation and statistical inference methods, including geographic and palaeoenvironmental modeling, to create a unified framework for human demographic inference.
Simon Greenhill, Ph.D. (Univ. Auckland) is a database of the Trans-New Guinea language family and friends. The Trans-New Guinea language family currently occupies most of the interior of New Guinea. This family is possibly the third largest in the world with 400 languages and is tentatively thought to have originated with root-crop agriculture around 10,000 years ago. However, vanishingly little is known about this family’s history. This project aims to reveal the prehistory of New Guinea using the linguistic comparative method combined with novel computational phylogenetic methods.

The Genetic Identity of the Bangande People  "The Secret Ones"
Dr. Hiba Babiker

This project explores the genetic structure and evolutionary history of the Bangande people who speak the Bangime language. Bangime is a language isolate spoken in seven villages among the Dogon language cluster in the extreme Northwest of the Bandiagara Escarpment in Central Eastern Mali. Even though it is surrounded by Dogon speakers, there is (11%) of Bangime's vocabulary that shares roots with Dogon terms. This small percentage may simply be due to borrowing of words from the neighboring Dogon. Further evidence for Bangime distinctiveness stems from the finding that it's grammar is very different from the other languages spoken by Dogon groups. However, on other ways, Bangande people share cultural habits with Dogon including the clothing, accessories and the use of Tellem structures for the storage of grains and as burial space.

Bangime appears to be the only language isolate in Africa that is not spoken by a traditionally hunter-gatherer population (i.e., agriculturalists and pastoralists expanded their range and resulted in a family of related populations/languages today, but this population on the isolated Dogon plateau did not), making the study of Bangande people open to more complex and interesting questions. The outcomes of this project will be critical for reconstructing African demographic history and modern human origins. It will also have insights on the origin of language isolates and hence rethinking about the classification system and language diversity in Africa.

Grammar of Tool Manufacture
Dr. Natalie Uomini

One theory about the co-evolution of language and culture - particularly material culture - is that they share a "grammar of action". While humans are considered to have the most complex tool cultures and languages of any animal, there are other species whose tool cultures also have the potential for action grammars. This project documents: 1) the grammatical structure of tool behaviours in New Caledonian crows, and 2) the communication of New Caledonian crows. This will allow: 3) comparison with the action grammars and linguistic structures of other tool-using animals such as chimpanzees, sea otters, and humans past and present.

Genomic insights into Inca expansions and the diffusion of Quechua languages 
Dr. Chiara Barbieri, Dr Paul Heggarty

The history of the Incas represents one of the best case studies for both the development and spread of complex societies and for the correlations proposed between expansive processes in the archaeological and linguistic records. The Incas drove the last great phase of the expansion of the Quechua language family, but did they do so by moving people or by promoting cultural assimilation – or by which complex mix of the two? And how much of the present time language distribution is influenced by the most recent European contact? This project will focus on the geographical spread of the Inca state, analyzing the diversity of regions where different varieties of Quechua are spoken over discontinuous territories, and the relationship between Inca and pre-Inca societies. This genetic analysis, explicitly informed by the archaeological, historical and linguistic contexts, will address anthropological questions pivotal for the understanding of these critical phases in shaping South American population prehistory.

Research with dogs
Dr. Juliane Bräuer

The domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is a very interesting model for investigating a broad range of questions about the evolution of cognitive abilities. The main focus of the exclusively non-invasive research at the MPI-SHH is on the evolution of communication, cooperation and megacognitive abilities.

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