The Languages of Our Ancestors

Category: Culture

This blog is taken from a presentation given by Dr. Spencer Wells at a conference in San Francisco, CA in April, 2010. A previous version of this presentation was also recorded by TED in 2007. 

Ever wonder where you come from? Not where your grandfather or even your great, great, great, great grandmother came from, but where your ancestors from ten thousand years ago came from. Ever wonder when and how those ancestors migrated and how the languages they spoke evolved and in turn, influenced other languages? What about our diversity and conversely, what about our similarities?

It’s all being determined, one DNA swab at a time. The Genographic Project of the National Geographic Society has taken up the task of the human journey; and so far has hundreds of thousands of DNA samples from around the world to conduct the research.

It all began with Dr. Spencer Wells, a genius rock star geneticist, who starred in the 2002 PBS documentary The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. After completing his globetrotting journey for the documentary, The National Geographic Society asked Wells what he wanted to do next. Well, he wanted more DNA — tens of thousands of swabs so he could learn how we as a species populated the world.

In 2005 they began The Genographic Project and Wells received the über cool title of Explorer-in-Residence. The project’s goal is to get large numbers of DNA samples from two groups of peoples:

  1. Indigenous and traditional groups who have very little interaction with other races (i.e. the Toubou of northern Chad)
  2. The general public

The project uses this genetic information to learn about the last 10,000 years. The importance of learning about our recent past (vs. when homo sapiens first evolved between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago) is that this is a period of great transition and migration resulting in intermarriage, lifestyle change (from nomadic to agricultural to urban) and language loss.

We’re in the midst of a “cultural mass extinction,” according to Wells. At the end of this century, 90% of the world’s languages will be gone. We currently lose a language every two weeks. So we’d better learn sooner rather than later about our origins, along with our differences and similarities.

This is truly Science Project 2.0 — interactive and collaborative. National Geographic thought only several thousand people would buy the $99.95 DNA swab kits. Everyone was surprised by the interest and willingness to submit their DNA to the anonymous database. To date, over 350,000 kits have been sold and people have submitted DNA from over 130 countries. In addition, geneticists have taken over 54,000 samples of DNA from indigenous groups.

Profits made from the kit helps fund the project itself as well as the Legacy Fund, which works to raise awareness of indigenous and traditional communities around the world, with projects such as the revitalization of languages, archiving traditional music and preservation of oral histories.

Is the genetic crowdsourcing data useful to linguists and language enthusiasts? Yes, according to Wells, who says that with this large amount of data, you can find answers. The Hungarian language, unrelated to any language near its borders, has been a linguistic mystery, but now Wells and team have an idea of how the language came to Eastern Europe.

With genetic information, they found that 2-3% of all Hungarians are actually of Asian ancestry (much to the shock of the Hungarians). Wells traced a migration of eastern Siberians (who are linguistically related to Hungarian) to modern day Hungary. A similar migration and subsequent linguistic evolution can be seen in certain African languages. Now, if he can only figure out the origins of Basque…