Language and culture research

Core researchers in this group are world leaders in modelling and applying evolutionary processes in the cultural domain which has culminated in multiple publications in Science, Nature and PNAS.

Since Darwin, it has been recognised that human culture evolves in ways that “curiously parallel” biological evolution.

The analogy is not perfect, but these broad parallels of process mean that evolutionary biologists and those studying human culture are interested in similar questions and can often use similar tools to answer those questions. The methods and thinking from evolutionary biology can be productively adapted to shed light on human cultural diversity in domains as varied as language, religion and the fortunes of nation-states.

Origin of the Indo-European language family

New Zealand Genomic Observatory project aims to produce a comprehensive phylogenetic and environmental characterization of the terrestrial species in a well-defined New Zealand model ecosystem using modern sequencing, informatics, niche modelling and field ecology approaches. The project is a collaboration between several universities and research centres in New Zealand and Australia, the Department of Conservation, Auckland Council, and iwi, and internationally as part of the Network of Genomic Observatories. It also aims to provide a long-term research program structure for collaborative, interdisciplinary research projects at the intersection of ecology, evolutionary biology and genomics.

In this study, samples of an elevated series of soils were taken from 5 regions of Little Great Barrier Island. We evaluate a suite of environmental DNA (eDNA) markers coupled with next-generation sequencing (NGS) that span the tree of life, comparing them with traditional biodiversity monitoring tools within ten 20×20 meter plots along a 700-metre elevational gradient.

Using a soil-based eDNA approach, we demonstrate that standard phylogenetic markers are capable of recovering sequences from a broad diversity of eukaryotes, in addition to prokaryotes by 16S. The COI and 18S eDNA markers are the best proxies for aboveground biodiversity based on the high correlation between the pairwise beta diversities of these markers and those obtained using traditional methods.

About the researchers
Dr Remco Bouckaert (School of Computer Science)
Professor Russell Gray (School of Psychology)
Professor Quentin D Atkinson (School of Psychology)
Professor Alexei Drummond (School of Biological Science)

Origin of Austronesian settlers of the Pacific

Debates about human prehistory often centre on the role that population expansions play in shaping biological and cultural diversity. Hypotheses on the origin of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific are divided between a recent “pulse-pause” expansion from Taiwan and an older “slow-boat” diffusion from Wallacea.

We used lexical data and Bayesian phylogenetic methods to construct a phylogeny of 400 languages. In agreement with the pulse-pause scenario, the language trees place the Austronesian origin in Taiwan approximately 5230 years ago and reveal a series of settlement pauses and expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations.

These results are robust to assumptions about the rooting and calibration of the trees and demonstrate the combined power of linguistic scholarship, database technologies, and computational phylogenetic methods for resolving questions about human prehistory.

About the researchers
Professor Russell Gray (School of Psychology)
Professor Alexei Drummond (School of Biological Science)
Dr Simon Greenhill (Australia National University)