Links between language diversity and archaeology?

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

A recent study finds high linguistic variability in areas that also have high biodiversity. As LJ Gorenflo and his co-authors observe:

Gorenflo et 2012 Fig 1B Americas

New World portion of Gorenflo et al.’s Figure 1(B), originally captioned “Geographic distribution of indigenous and nonmigrant languages in 2009.”

Of the more than 6,900 languages currently spoken on Earth, more than 4,800 occur in regions containing high biodiversity. As both hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas are defined by biological criteria and amount of natural habitat loss, there is no obvious reason why either would host large numbers of languages. (p. 8035)

The researchers go on to hypothesize why language and biological diversity might co-occur. (Why do you think so? Generate your own hypotheses, then see what the researchers say here.) Then they observe:

Regardless of the functional connection between linguistic and biological diversity, or the role that human movement and associated impacts have (or have not) had on one or both measures of diversity, the tendency for both to be high in particular regions suggests that certain cultural systems and practices, represented by speakers of particular indigenous and nonmigrant languages, tend to be compatible with high biodiversity. Independent inquiries support the view that indigenous economies and management practices essentially enable high biological diversity to persist. (p. 8037)

Shortly thereafter, they note:

Although different processes may have given rise to the diversification of languages, cultures, and species in different areas, similar forces currently appear to be driving biological extinctions and cultural/linguistic homogenization. Broad changes in the form of habitat loss because of large-scale human impacts from an expanding industrialized global economy also represent potential risks to languages and their associated cultures…. (p. 8037)

If these researchers are right that geographic regions with high natural biodiversity are places that now have higher linguistic diversity, do you think this held in the past? How much biodiversity do you think Georgia has—and had over the last 20,000 years or so? What does this suggest for the linguistic diversity of the native peoples living here in the past? What are the implications of this for the diversity of material culture in the past? (Material culture is the term archaeologists sometimes use for the remains that past peoples leave behind, including things (artifacts), and indications of their activities, like features.

Gorenflo, LJ, Suzanne Romaine, Russell A Mittermeier, and Kristen Walker-Painemilla, 2012, Co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity in biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (21) 8032–8037. {Online here.]