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Linguistic Diversity of the Americas Can Be Reconciled with a Recent Colonization

Daniel Nettle
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Vol. 96, No. 6 (Mar. 16, 1999), pp. 3325-3329
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/47535
Page Count: 5
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
Linguistic Diversity of the Americas Can Be Reconciled with a Recent Colonization
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Abstract

The Americas harbor a very great diversity of indigenous language stocks, many more than are found in any other continent. J. Nichols [(1990) Language 66, 475-521] has argued that this diversity indicates a great time depth of in situ evolution. She thus infers that the colonization of the Americas must have begun around 35,000 years ago. This estimate is much carlier than the date for which there is strong archaeological support, which does not much exceed 12,000 years. Nichols' assumption is that the diversity of linguistic stocks increases linearly with time. This paper compares the major continents of the world to show that this assumption is not correct. In fact, stock diversity is highest in the Americas, which are by consensus the youngest continents, intermediate in Australia and New Guinea, and lowest in Africa and Eurasia where the time depth is greatest. If anything, then, after an initial radiation, stock diversity decreases with time. A simple model is outlined that predicts these dynamics. It assumes that early in the peopling of continents, there are many unfilled niches for communities to live in, and so fissioning into new lineages is frequent. As the habitat is filled up, the rate of fissioning declines and lineage extinction becomes the dominant evolutionary force.

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