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No. 51: May-Jun 1987

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How many migrations were there?

One way of determining the directions and strengths of human migrations is through language analysis. People carry words along with them and, even after centuries of modification, traces of their original languages survive. In 1492, an estimated 30- 40 million Native Americans spoke more than 1,000 different languages. Can anyone discern patterns in such a hodgepodge? Careful study reveals many similarities. For example, all New World languages can be classified into three groups:

  1. The Eskimo-Aleut or Eurasiatic group, which is related to Indo-European, Japanese, Ainu, Korean, and some other languages.

  2. The Na-Dene family, related to a different set of Old World languages, such as Sino-Tibetan, Basque, (North) Caucasian, and others.

  3. The Amerind family.

"The origins of the Amerind family are the most baffling, but there are a number of apparent cognates with language families of Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Oceania. For example, the root 'tik,' meaning 'finger, one, to point,' is found in Africa, Europe, and Asia, as well as in the Americas. The Amerind words for 'dog' bear a striking resemblance to the Proto-Indo-European word..."

Can the language analysts answer the question in our title above? Based upon the above grouping, they say: "No more than three." (Ruhlin, Merritt; "Voices from the Past," Natural History, 96:6, March 1987.)

Comment. While the people carrying the roots of the Eskino-Aleut and Na-Dene language groups may well have come across the Bering Land Bridge, those bringing the Amerind languages could have come from just about anywhere.

From Science Frontiers #51, MAY-JUN 1987. 1987-2000 William R. Corliss