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Research Overview

The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution aims to answer big picture questions about human history. Our focus is on describing and explaining the major patterns of linguistic and cultural variation across the globe. To achieve this aim we bring together anthropologists, computer scientists, evolutionary biologists, linguists and social scientists. Together we tackle these questions by developing novel language documentation methods, global linguistic and cultural databases, and analyses using evolutionary theories and computational methods. This thoroughly interdisciplinary approach enables us to combine the quantitative rigour of the natural sciences while still utilising the insights that only come from maintaining close contact with the primary linguistic and cultural data.

Research Areas

The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity

Three fundamental facts about language demand explanation:

  • Why are there approximately 7000 languages spoken today?
  • Why is their distribution across the globe so uneven?
  • Why do they differ so much?

We address these questions with linguistic databases (e.g. Glottolog and Dictionaria), computational analyses (CALC) and targeted fieldwork (CoOL). The database projects include the Glottobank— with three of our flagship databases (Grambank, Lexibank and Numeralbank) — our work on the origin and expansion of the major language families such as Austronesian (ABVD), Bantu, Indo-European (IE-CoR), Sino-Tibetan and Uto-Aztecan language families. We are building detailed quantitative family trees for twelve different language families/regions, capturing a substantial component of the world’s linguistic diversity. Our fieldwork focuses on the languages of the Pacific, especially Vanuatu - the country with the most languages per capita of anywhere in the world (Vanuatu Voices).

The Evolution of Cultural Diversity

Recent decades have seen a blossoming of multidisciplinary research on human culture and cultural change from an evolutionary perspective. Major questions for the field include:

  • Are there general patterns in the cultural evolution of social systems?
  • What factors drove the evolution of complex stratified societies?
  • What role has religion played in human history?
  • What role have ecological factors played in human history?
  • What is the relationship between linguistic and cultural diversity?
  • What is the relationship between genetic and cultural diversity?

We bring together researchers from the social and biological sciences to work on fundamental questions in cultural evolution at both the macro and the micro level. We document cultural diversity across world regions and throughout human history using both primary and secondary data sources. Our projects focus on demographic and anthropological data collection, and on building large-scale quantitative cross-cultural databases of historic and contemporary cultures. We apply a wide range of computational and statistical methods with comparative cultural data to test hypotheses about cultural evolution, and combine these with contemporary and historical ethnographic work. We provide access to our data via the following web apps: Pulotu (a database of religious beliefs and practices in the Pacifc),  D-PLACE (a global cross-cultural ethnographic database), and GeLaTo (a database linking genetic and linguistic diversity).