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The CECD is an AHRC funded research group dedicated to examining the evolutionary underpinnings of human cultural behaviour, past and present. more>

Page Title - projects
Phase 1: Ecological dimensions of cultural evolution: Project 002
Relation between species diversity and cultural/linguistic diversity


Clare Holden (Department of Anthropology, University College London)


Recent research on the processes of linguistic diversification has highlighted a number of similarities with the processes that give rise to biological diversity. For example, several studies have shown that latitudinal gradients in linguistic diversity parallel those observed in species diversity. Likewise, it is now widely accepted by linguists that languages, like species, arise through descent with modification. These similarities strongly suggest that linguistic evolution and biological evolution share processes in common. As such, models of speciation and evolutionary ecological techniques may help us reach a better understanding of linguistic diversity. In this project, we will test the hypothesis that the ecological processes that lead to the evolution of species diversity in animal populations are also responsible for the evolution of linguistic diversity among human groups. We will use newly developed phylogenetic techniques that enable us to test hypotheses not only about whether some traits are correlated with other traits across phylogenetically related species, but also whether certain traits cause one group of species to become more numerous or more likely to go extinct. The data sets used will be created from published databases of indigenous linguistic diversity prior to European colonisation, and analyses will be carried out on a continent-by-continent basis, with particular emphasis on Africa.

Holden, C. J. and Mace, R (2005).
The cow is the enemy of matriliny' using phylogenetic methods to investigate cultural evolution in Africa. In: Mace, R., Holden, C. J. & Shennan, S. J. (eds.) (ed\s) The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: A Phylogenetic Approach. UCL Press: London. 217-234.
Holden, C. J., Meade, A., and Pagel, M (2005).
Comparison of maximum parsimony and Bayesian Bantu language trees. In: Mace, R., Holden, C. J. & Shennan, S. J. (eds.) (ed\s) The Evolution of Cultural Diversity: A Phylogenetic Approach. UCL Press: London. 53-66.
Holden, C. J., Sear, R. and Mace, R (2003).
Matriliny as daughter-biased investment. Evolution and Human Behavior. Vol 24:99-112.

Invited talk "Bantu language trees and cultural evolution". Part of symposium on "Theoretical and methodological fundamentals of applying phylogenetics to the archaeological record" at the Society for American Archaeology 68th Annual Meeting April 9-13, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Invited talk "Spread of Cattle Led to the Loss of Matrilineal Descent in Africa". Part of session on "The archaeology and anthropology of subsistence transitions" at the European Association of Archaeologists 9th Annual Meeting September 10-14, St Petersburg, Russia.

Invited talk "The evolution of modern cultural variation". Part of session on Evolutionary Anthropology organised by John Gowlett (University of Liverpool) at the BA Festival of Science, September 8, University of Salford.

Invited talk "Language trees, history and adaptation in Africa". Population and Evolutionary Ecology Research Group, Department of Biology, University of Liverpool.

Interviewed for Science in Action, BBC World Service. October 3, broadcast October 4.

Bhattacharya, S. 2003. Cattle ownership makes it a man's world. New news service, October 1.