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11/16/2016

Words and bones tell a similar story about deep history

Ancient language families linked to anthropological features, say Tübingen researchers

Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler der Universität Tübingen fanden Belege dafür, dass die Ausprägung bestimmter Schädelknochen darauf schließen lässt, welcher Sprachgemeinschaft der Tote angehörte. Dazu wurden Schädel aus Afrika, Asien und Ozeanien anhand von verschiedenen Messpunkten (gelb markiert) verglichen. Foto: Alle Rechte Universität Tübingen.
Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler der Universität Tübingen fanden Belege dafür, dass die Ausprägung bestimmter Schädelknochen darauf schließen lässt, welcher Sprachgemeinschaft der Tote angehörte. Dazu wurden Schädel aus Afrika, Asien und Ozeanien anhand von verschiedenen Messpunkten (gelb markiert) verglichen. Foto: Alle Rechte Universität Tübingen.

University of Tübingen researchers have found evidence that common descent of human populations is reflected both in their cranial features and their linguistic affiliations over vast geographic distances. The formation of different languages and language groupings appears to have happened in the same broad period and geographical locations as the development of facial features in various human populations, according to linguistics professor, Gerhard Jäger, and paleoanthropologists, Professor Katerina Harvati and Dr. Hugo Reyes-Centeno. In their study, the researchers examined 265 skulls from Africa, Asia, and Oceania and the vocabularies of more than 800 languages and dialects from those regions. Their findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.

If these findings are confirmed in further investigations, it would give researchers a characteristic which would help them to follow the development of various language families as far back as the early development of mankind. The linguists developed a method to measure the degree of similarity between two languages in a completely automatic way by comparing the words those languages use in their core vocabulary. Likewise, the anthropologists found ways to quantify the similarity between the phenotypic characteristics of humans using the cranial measurements of skulls just a few centuries old. “We can assume that the language does not change significantly in such a relatively short time,” says Jäger. They reasoned that on average, the similarity between populations should decrease with geographical distance, both with respect to their linguistic and their biological characteristics. They also postulated that, on average, populations that are linguistically similar should also be biologically similar and vice versa. If these correlations also hold between populations that split up more than 10,000 years ago, this would provide evidence that language preserves a deeper historical signal than commonly thought.

In their study, the authors demonstrate that both expectations are met, and that they also hold across the boundaries of language families. They also found that linguistic distances correlate more strongly with the facial features of the cranium than with the neurocranium, which may reflect different rates of evolution of the traits regarded, where language and facial features change faster than neurocranial features.

According to the prevailing wisdom in historical linguistics, it is only possible to demonstrate languages to be related if their latest common ancestor was spoken up to 10,000 years ago. Individual researchers have tried to push this boundary further back in time, but their efforts have generally been met with skepticism by the experts. Jäger, Harvati and Reyes-Centeno may now have succeeded in opening a door on our distant past by tackling this issue with statistical techniques relying on linguistic and anthropological data. The three researchers are at the core of Tübingen University's Humanities Centre of Advanced Studies “Words, Bones, Genes, Tools. Tracking Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Trajectories of the Human Past” established last year, thanks to German Research Foundation funding. “We expect our future work to shed more light on the processes through which languages evolved,” they say.

Publication:

Hugo Reyes-Centeno, Katerina Harvati & Gerhard Jäger: Tracking modern human population history from linguistic and cranial phenotype. Scientific Reports, DOI 10.1038/srep36645, http://www.nature.com/articles/srep36645

Contact:

Professor Dr. Katerina Harvati
University of Tübingen
Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment
Head of Paleoanthropology
Phone +49 7071 29-76516
katerina.harvati[at]ifu.uni-tuebingen.de
http://www.geo.uni-tuebingen.de/arbeitsgruppen/urgeschichte-und-naturwissenschaftliche-archaeologie/palaeoanthropologie.html

Professor Professor Gerhard Jäger
University of Tübingen
Institute of Linguistics
Phone +49 7071 29-77302
gerhard.jaeger[at]uni-tuebingen.de
http://www.sfs.uni-tuebingen.de/~gjaeger/

Words, Bones, Genes, Tools Tracking Linguistic, Cultural and Biological Trajectories of the Human Past (FOR 2237)
http://www.wordsandbones.uni-tuebingen.de/

Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen
Public Relations Department
Dr. Karl Guido Rijkhoek
Director
Janna Eberhardt
Research Reporter
Phone +49 7071 29-76753
Fax +49 7071 29-5566
janna.eberhardt[at]uni-tuebingen.de
www.uni-tuebingen.de/aktuell

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