Language Study Lends Support to Native American ‘Out-of-Beringia’ Theory

New linguistic evolutionary analysis supports a relationship between Native North American and Siberian languages.

Researchers who have conducted a new comparative phylogenetic study of the Yeniseian language group of Siberia and the Na-Dene languages of North America are shedding new light on our understanding of ancient migration patterns of people between Asia and North America thousands of years ago, suggesting that Native American origins may be somewhat more complex than a one-time, direct eastward migration of people out of Asia into North America via the Bering Land Bridge.
As related in a paper* published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on March 12, 2014 by Mark Sicoli from Georgetown University and Gary Holton from University of Alaska Fairbanks, the researchers applied a phylogenetic analysis method that was previously developed to investigate human evolutionary relationships, a technique that involves constructing a “tree” to indicate ancestral relationships based on shared traits. Using 40 languages that diffused across North America and Asia, they coded a linguistic dataset from the languages, and then modeled the relationships between the data. They then modeled the results against two popular migration patterns that have been proposed by scientists, one involving a simple direct migration from Asia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge, and an alternative that proposes a multi-directional radiation of people into Asia and North America out of Beringia, a landmass that once existed, connecting North America with Asia during the Pleistocene ice ages.
Their results supported the latter hypothesis. Said Sicoli, “We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age.” They cite a DNA study outlined in a recent Perspective article in Science magazine by John Hoffecker of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (see Before They Were Native Americans, They Were Native Beringians published in Popular Archaeology) wherein a similar theory is advanced, suggesting a 5,000 – 10,000-year “Beringian Standstill” of people in the ancient, now inundated Bering Land Bridge area before their early coastal migration into North America and back-migration into Asia. 


This polar projection map of Asia and North America shows the approximate terminal Pleistocene shoreline. The center of geographic distribution of Yeniseian and Na-Dene language is in Beringia. From this center burgundy arrows extend toward the North American coast and into Siberia. A blue arrow indicates Interior dispersals of Na-Dene. Credit: Mark A. Sicoli; doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722.g004
The study authors emphasize that this research does not weaken the popular paradigm of people entering the New World out of Asia across the Bering Land Bridge, but it does suggest that the migration was not a simple, unidirectional event from Asia into North America. They also suggest that, going forward, more phylogenetic studies and evolutionary modeling such as this can be useful in studying ancestral origins.

* Sicoli MA, Holton G (2014) Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91722. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722.


Cover Photo, Top Left: Map showing greatest extent of Beringia.


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