Language Evolution

Out of Asia: Integrating Genomic, Linguistic and Cultural Evidence on Early Human Migration Paths in the North Pacific Coast of Eurasia

Kentaro Shimizu (EBES), Balthasar Bickel (IVS), Frank Rühli (IEM), Marcelo Sánchez (PIM)

Recent genetic and archeological work has traced the human settlement of the Americas out of Asia with ever increasing resolution. At the same time, recent linguistic research has detected several signals that these processes have left in the distribution of linguistic grammatical structures. However, progress in these fields is hampered by a lack of materials to study the core region through which humans migrated out of Asia: The North Pacific coast of Eurasia. We focus on two key populations having isolated languages, the Ainu and the Nivkh. The project will extend the genome data supported by a URPP Evolution pilot study to nearby populations and integrate them with paleogenomic and linguistic data. Specifically, we reconstruct migration and diffusion events, and test hypotheses emerging from ongoing work in our group suggesting that the grammatical structure of language evolves slowly and corresponds to genome-wide divergence, whereas phonology evolves quickly and vertically by contact with nearby populations together with recent gene flow. On a more exploratory level, we will compare the results to what emerges from research on early cultural diffusion in music around the Pacific [panflute and songs] and ancient DNA because independent lines of evidence are critically important in evolutionary anthropology. Beyond its contribution to reconstructing the population histories immediately before and during the first migrations out of Asia, this project will also strengthen methodologies across three UZH faculties and disciplines and, more specifically, advance our understanding of the effects of demography on languages and cultures.

Postdoc: Chiara Barbieri