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Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter–gatherer populations


Derungs, Curdin; Köhl, Martina; Weibel, Robert; Bickel, Balthasar (2018). Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter–gatherer populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 285(1885):20172851.

Abstract

Linguistic diversity is a key aspect of human population diversity and shapes much of our social and cognitive lives. To a considerable extent, the distribution of this diversity is driven by environmental factors such as climate or coast access. An unresolved question is whether the relevant factors have remained constant over time. Here, we address this question at a global scale. We approximate the difference between pre- versus post-Neolithic populations by the difference between modern hunter–gatherer versus food-producing populations. Using a novel geostatistical approach of estimating language and language family densities, we show that environmental—chiefly climate factors—have driven the language density of food-producing populations considerably more strongly than the language density of hunter–gatherer populations. Current evidence suggests that the population dynamics of modern hunter–gatherers is very similar to that of what can be reconstructed from the Palaeolithic record. Based on this, we cautiously infer that the impact of environmental factors on language densities underwent a substantial change with the transition to agriculture. After this transition, the environmental impact on language diversity in food-producing populations has remained relatively stable since it can also be detected—albeit in slightly weaker form—in models that capture the reduced linguistic diversity during large-scale language spreads in the Mid-Holocene.

Abstract

Linguistic diversity is a key aspect of human population diversity and shapes much of our social and cognitive lives. To a considerable extent, the distribution of this diversity is driven by environmental factors such as climate or coast access. An unresolved question is whether the relevant factors have remained constant over time. Here, we address this question at a global scale. We approximate the difference between pre- versus post-Neolithic populations by the difference between modern hunter–gatherer versus food-producing populations. Using a novel geostatistical approach of estimating language and language family densities, we show that environmental—chiefly climate factors—have driven the language density of food-producing populations considerably more strongly than the language density of hunter–gatherer populations. Current evidence suggests that the population dynamics of modern hunter–gatherers is very similar to that of what can be reconstructed from the Palaeolithic record. Based on this, we cautiously infer that the impact of environmental factors on language densities underwent a substantial change with the transition to agriculture. After this transition, the environmental impact on language diversity in food-producing populations has remained relatively stable since it can also be detected—albeit in slightly weaker form—in models that capture the reduced linguistic diversity during large-scale language spreads in the Mid-Holocene.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > Department of Comparative Linguistics
06 Faculty of Arts > Center for Linguistics
08 Research Priority Programs > Language and Space
08 Research Priority Programs > Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems
Dewey Decimal Classification:490 Other languages
890 Other literatures
410 Linguistics
Language:English
Date:2018
Deposited On:05 Sep 2018 15:10
Last Modified:05 Sep 2018 15:20
Publisher:Royal Society Publishing
ISSN:0962-8452
OA Status:Closed
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2851

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