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 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.
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.
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.
From the foods we eat and the houses we construct, to our religious practices and political organization, to who we can marry and the types of games we teach our children, the diversity of cultural practices in the world is astounding. Yet, our ability to visualize and understand this diversity is limited by the ways it has been documented and shared: on a culture-by-culture basis, in locally-told stories or difficult-to-access repositories. D-PLACE, the Database of Places, Language, Culture, and Environment is an expandable and open-access database (accessible at d-place.org). It brings together a dispersed corpus of information on the geography, language, culture, and environment of over 1400 human societies. The aim of this project is to enable researchers to investigate the extent to which global patterns in cultural diversity are shaped by different forces, including shared history, demographics, migration/diffusion, cultural innovations, and environmental and ecological conditions.
Sound Comparisons: exploring diversity in phonetics across language families
Dr Paul Heggarty
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.
The Cultural Evolution of Religion
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.
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.
TransNewGuinea.org 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.
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.
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.