Speaking of the Ice Age

University of Virginia linguistic anthropologist Mark A. Sicoli and colleagues are applying the latest technology to an ancient mystery: how and when early humans inhabited the New World.

Their new research, which uses “big data” techniques to analyze more than 100 linguistic features, suggests complex patterns of contact and migration among the early peoples who first settled the Americas.

The diversity of languages in the Americas is like no other continent of the world, with eight times more “isolates” than any other continent. Isolates are “languages that have no demonstrable connection to any other language with which it can be classified into a family,” Sicoli said.

Linguists have identified 26 isolates in North America and 55 in South America, mostly strung across the western edge of the continents, compared to just one in Europe and nine in Asia.

“The high number of isolates in America suggests that there may have been related languages that went extinct without documentation,” Sicoli said. “Linguists are now asking the question of how to infer the existence of these missing languages from their effects on languages they were in contact with.”

Read more: UVA Today

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