According to a recent study conducted researchers at the University of Utah, the highly diverse Native American ethnic and language groups found in California emerged over the past 12,000 years, as tribes migrated on the heavily-vegetated Pacific coast and then moved further inland to much less lush habitats. The study, led by assistant professor of anthropology Brian Codding, appears online in the August 19 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Global patterns of ethnolinguistic diversity vary tremendously. Some regions show very little variation even across vast expanses, whereas others exhibit dense mosaics of different languages spoken alongside one another. Compared with the rest of Native North America, prehistoric California exemplified the latter,” wrote the authors in the study’s abstract.
According to Codding, the principal author on the study, “Trying to explain why linguistic diversity is high in some places and low in others has been a big issue in anthropology. For a number of years, people have shown a correlation between ecological diversity and linguistic diversity. What we did in this study that was different was to look at it over time – to actually see the process through which different populations came to live side-by-side as neighbors or replaced one population with another. We’re showing how the diversity actually developed over time.”
Along with colleague Terry Jones, a professor of anthropology and chair of social sciences at California Polytechnic State University, the researchers sought to determine if the suitability of prehistoric California habitats linked with the mass migration of Native American tribes during the Holocene epoch.
Codding and Jones established that modern environmental productivity forecasts the order in which nine prehistoric Native American ethnic and language groups migrated to California and colonized the state.
According to Codding, “The final native people who came to California during the last 1,000 years – for whatever reason seem to have displaced people who had been in some of these highly productive places along the coast, particularly the northwest coast of California, from Mendocino north to Oregon.”
In addition, Codding and Jones discovered that the replacement of earlier coastal populations with later such populations resulted in “fragmentation of earlier groups and the development of one of the most diverse ethnolinguistic patterns in the Americas.” What’s more, the researchers write, is that “Such a process may account of the distribution of ethnolinguistic diversity worldwide.”
To conclude the study, the researchers acknowledged that their examination of prehistoric Native American tribes “may aid in the explanation of prehistoric hunter-gatherer migrations across the globe, including the initial spread of people out of Africa into Europe, Asia and across to Australia-New Guinea.”
Codding and Jones also write that, in areas other than North America and Australia-New Guinea, the more recent migrations of agricultural societies eliminated the language histories of much earlier hunter-gatherer societies.
“Through repeated migration events, incoming populations replaced resident populations occurring at lower densities in lower-productivity habitats, thereby resulting in the fragmentation of earlier groups and the development of one of the most diverse ethnolinguistic patterns in the Americas. Such a process may account for the distribution of ethnolinguistic diversity worldwide,” the authors concluded.
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