Linguistic evidence for migration to the Americas from Siberia

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1st Americans came over in 4 different waves from Siberia, linguist argues:  The languages of the earliest Americans evolved in 4 waves, according to one expert.

By Kristina Killgrove, Live Science (May 3, 2024)

Killgrove reports:

Indigenous people entered North America at least four times between 12,000 and 24,000 years ago, bringing their languages with them, a new linguistic model indicates. The model correlates with archaeological, climatological and genetic data, supporting the idea that populations in early North America were dynamic and diverse.

Nearly half of the world's language families are found in the Americas. Although many of them are now thought extinct, historical linguistics analysis can survey and compare living languages and trace them back in time to better understand the groups that first populated the continent.

In a study published March 30 in the American Journal of Biological Anthropology, Johanna Nichols, a historical linguist at the University of California Berkeley, analyzed structural features of 60 languages from across the U.S. and Canada, which revealed they come from two main language groups that entered North America in at least four distinct waves.



The known languages of the Americas comprise nearly half of the world's language families and a wide range of structural types, a level of diversity that required considerable time to develop. This paper proposes a model of settlement and expansion designed to integrate current linguistic analysis with other prehistoric research on the earliest episodes in the peopling of the Americas. Diagnostic structural features from phonology and morphology are compared across 60 North American languages chosen for coverage of geography and language families and adequacy of description. Frequency comparison and graphic cluster analysis are applied to assess the fit of linguistic types and families with late Pleistocene time windows when entry from Siberia to North America was possible. The linguistic evidence is consistent with two population strata defined by early coastal entries ~24,000 and ~15,000 years ago, then an inland entry stream beginning ~14,000 ff. and mixed coastal/inland ~12,000 ff. The dominant structural properties among the founder languages are still reflected in the modern linguistic populations. The modern linguistic geography is still shaped by the extent of glaciation during the entry windows. Structural profiles imply that two linguistically distinct and internally diverse ancient Siberian linguistic populations provided the founding American populations.

Final two paragraphs

The results are compatible with the two-origin analysis (Two Main Biological Components, or 2MBC) of Walter Neves and various colleagues (Neves & Pucciarelli, 1991; Neves et al., 2007; Hubbe et al., 2010; Hubbe et al., 2020, and several others; overviews in Rothhammer & Dillehay, 2009; Hubbe, 2015; von Cramon-Taubadel et al., 2017), which infer a distinction of early versus later populations in South and Central America from craniometric data; the early population has Australasian/Melanesian affinities while the later one has Siberian affinities. Skoglund et al., 2016 find South American genomic evidence for two populations and the same affinities. These findings are a good match for the distinction here of early versus late strata. Whether the physical diversity matches the linguistic diversity is not yet clear. The start times implied are too late, but this is probably not essential. The geographically patterned structural distribution is not addressed as Neves and colleagues deal only with Central and South America, and Skoglund et al., 2016 find too little data for North America. Pitblado, 2011 reviews other evidence for two origins.

Thus the modern facts speak for a structurally differentiated linguistic population in ancient Siberia. Its descendants entered through a chronologically and geographically sequenced series of openings beginning in the peak LGM, first coastal and then inland, rapidly moving well to the south and well inland. Whether the early and late South American populations continue the North American early and late strata, and whether the North American geographical patterning continues to South America, warrant further work.

I am particularly intrigued by the stated Australasian/Melanesian affinities, and would want to know how these groups crossed the Pacifi


Selected readings

[Thanks to William Triplett]


  1. bks said,

    May 19, 2024 @ 4:28 am

    "Early humans spread as far north as Siberia 400,000 years ago

    A site in Siberia has evidence of human presence 417,000 years ago, raising the possibility that hominins could have reached North America much earlier than we thought"

  2. Doctor Science said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 1:48 pm

    They didn't have to cross the Pacific: Beringia was a land bridge until 10,000 years ago. It's very possible that they moved along the coast in part by boat, but they wouldn't have gone out of sight of land.

  3. Mike Maxwell said,

    May 21, 2024 @ 9:07 pm

    "I am particularly intrigued by the stated Australasian/Melanesian affinities, and would want to know how these groups crossed the Pacifi…" Thor Heyerdahl thought he had an answer to that (although I think he thought the connection was in the reverse direction). I don't think his theories were ever seriously considered plausible.

  4. Terry Hunt said,

    May 24, 2024 @ 10:52 am

    I suspect that the "Australasian/Melanesian affinities" imply that elements of the earlier population spread both east around the NE Asian and Berengian coasts and south towards Australasia, rather than that an A/M population migrated across the Pacific. However, IANAP (Paleoanthropologist).

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