Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution

The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution focuses 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 by traditional linguists. Our inferences integrates evidence from linguistics, genetics, archaeology and anthropology to disentangle the relative roles and timing of major events in human history.

Research Outline

The historian W. S. Holt observed, the study of human history is “a damn dim candle over a damn dark abyss”. And yet evolutionary biologists routinely make inferences about events millions of years in the past. Our ability to do this was revolutionized by Zuckerkandl and Pauling’s insight that molecules are “documents of evolutionary history”. Molecular sequences have inscribed in their structure a record of their past. Languages, like genes, are also “documents of history”. A vast amount of information about our past is inscribed in the 7500 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 a thoroughly integrated, 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 utilizing the insights that only come from maintaining close contact with the primary linguistic and cultural data.

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