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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 a combination of linguistic databases (Glottobank, IE-CORTransNewGuinea.org, Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database, Tsammalex, Glottolog, Dictionaria), computational methods (CALC), carefully targeted fieldwork, and sociohistorical methods (CoOL).

Projects exploring linguistic diversity:


Glottobank is an international research consortium established to document and understand the world’s linguistic diversity. We are developing methods to use this data to make inferences about human prehistory, relationships between languages and processes of language change.



Glottolog is a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s languages, language families and dialects (languoids). It assigns stable identifiers to all languoids, shows their location and provides links to other resources on the world’s languages. In addition, it gives numerous bibliographical references on all languages. Glottolog is being constantly updated with the help of the worldwide community of linguists.



Dictionaria is an open-access journal that publishes high-quality dictionaries of languages from around the world, especially languages that do not have a large number of speakers. The dictionaries are published not in the traditional linear form, but as electronic databases that can be easily searched, linked and exported.


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:

  • How and why does cultural diversity emerge?
  • What processes maintain and stabilise cultural variability, boundaries and identities?
  • What causes cultural diversity to be lost?

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. Please click the links below to see more about our research on the evolution of religion, and the D-Place database of world cultures.