DNA May Support Linguist's Controversial Hypothesis

New DNA evidence seems to offer support for a controversial hypothesis about the origins of Native American languages put forward by linguist Joseph Greenberg in his 1987 book Language in the Americas. Greenberg hypothesized that all Native American languages could be grouped into three language families: Amerind, Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené, correlating with three separate migrations from the Old World into the New.

Most linguists have blown off the theory ever since, preferring instead to divide Native American languages into as many as 180 separate families. But now, an analysis of DNA, along with new radiocarbon analysis on coprolites found in caves in the American Northwest, may support his theory.

According to the New York Times, the new DNA study analyzed the entire genome of each DNA sample, providing a more complete picture than earlier studies which only examined a small portion. The scientists did find evidence for three migrations into the Americas, roughly correlating in most cases with Greenberg’s proposed language families.

However, they also found that genetically, the three original peoples had mingled substantially. There were also exceptions, like the Chipewyans of Canada, who speak a Na-Dene language but carry DNA primarily from the first, presumably Amerind-speaking migration. However, the DNA/language mismatch could be explained by conquest.

Of course, when it comes to studying ancient cultures, little is certain. As the New York Times notes, scholars have greeted the results of the study with cautious interest:

“This is a really important step forward but not the last word,” said David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University, noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples. Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, said the paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained.

Still, Dr. Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London, one of the study’s co-authors, told the New York Times, “Many linguists put down Greenberg as rubbish and don’t believe his publications. It’s striking that we have this correspondence between the genetics and the linguistics.”

Additionally, a separate DNA and radiocarbon analysis from the Paisley caves in Oregon showed that the people who lived there shared the continent about 13,000 years ago with the Clovis people, known for their distinctively shaped arrowheads and long thought to be the continent’s first inhabitants as well as the only group in the Americas at that time.

A separate New York Times article notes that this study also offers some support for Greenberg’s hypothesis, and quotes study leader Dennis L. Jenkins of the University of Oregon:

“These two distinct technologies were parallel developments, not the product of a unilinear technological evolution. The colonization of the Americas involved multiple technologically divergent, and possibly genetically divergent, founding groups.”

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