Language & Culture

Since Darwin, it has been recognised that human culture evolves in ways that “curiously parallel” biological evolution.

The analogy is not perfect, but these broad parallels of process mean that evolutionary biologists and those studying human culture are interested in similar questions and can often use similar tools to answer those questions. The methods and thinking from evolutionary biology can be productively adapted to shed light on human cultural diversity in domains as varied as language, religion and the fortunes of nation states.

Core researchers in this group are world leaders in modelling and applying evolutionary processes in the cultural domain which has culminated in multiple publications in Science, Nature and PNAS. 

Some of the projects include: 

Origin of Indo-European language family

We identified the homeland of the Indo-European language family by adapting ‘phylogeographic’ methods initially developed by epidemiologists to trace the origins of virus outbreaks. Instead of comparing viruses, we compare languages and instead of DNA, we look for shared cognates – words that have a common origin, such as “mother,” “mutter” and “madre” – across various Indo-European languages. We use the cognates to infer a family tree of the languages and, together with information about the location of each language, we trace back through time to infer the location at the root of the tree – the origin of Indo-European.

To read more on the Indo-European question and the step-wise process we took to answer this question, click here

Paper: Bouckaert, R., Lemey, P., Dunn, M., Greenhill, S. J., Alekseyenko, A. V., Drummond, A. J., Gray, R. D., Suchard, M. A., Atkinson, Q. D. (2012). Mapping the origins and expansion of the Indo-European language family. Science, 337:957–960.

Researchers: Dr Remco Bouckaert, Prof Alexei Drummond, Prof Russell Gray, A/Prof Quentin Atkinson 


Mapping of the origin of Indo-European language

Origin of Austronesian settlers of the Pacific

Debates about human prehistory often center on the role that population expansions play in shaping biological and cultural diversity. Hypotheses on the origin of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific are divided between a recent “pulse-pause” expansion from Taiwan and an older “slow-boat” diffusion from Wallacea.

We used lexical data and Bayesian phylogenetic methods to construct a phylogeny of 400 languages. In agreement with the pulse-pause scenario, the language trees place the Austronesian origin in Taiwan approximately 5230 years ago and reveal a series of settlement pauses and expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations.

These results are robust to assumptions about the rooting and calibration of the trees and demonstrate the combined power of linguistic scholarship, database technologies, and computational phylogenetic methods for resolving questions about human prehistory.

Paper: Gray., R. D., Drummond, A. J., Greenhill, S. J. (2009) Language phylogenies reveal expansion pulses and pauses in Pacific settlement Science 323:5913 pp. 479-483 doi: 10.1126/science.1166858

Researchers: Prof Russell Gray, Prof Alexei Drummond, Dr Simon Greenhill


Austronesia language