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In this talk, I will describe how the new science of genome-wide ancient DNA can provide insights into past spreads of language and culture. I will discuss five examples: (1) the spread of Indo-European languages to Europe and South Asia in association with Steppe pastoralist ancestry, (2) the spread of Austronesian languages to the open Pacific islands in association with Taiwanese aboriginal-associated ancestry, (3) the spread of Austroasiatic languages through southeast Asia in association with the characteristic ancestry type that is also represented in western Indonesia suggesting that these languages were once widespread there, (4) the spread of Afroasiastic languages through in East Africa as part of the Pastoral Neolithic farming expansion, and (5) the spread of Na-Dene languages in North America in association with Proto-Paleoeskimo ancestry. I will highlight the ways that ancient DNA can meaningfully contribute to our understanding of language expansions—increasing the plausibility of some scenarios while decreasing the plausibility of others—while emphasizing that with genetic data by itself we can never definitively determine what languages ancient people spoke.
David Reich, PhD, is a Professor in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and an Associate Member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He received the 2019 Wiley Prize In Biomedical Sciences, the 2019 National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology, the 2018 Fabio Frassetto International Prize for Physical Anthropology, the 2017 Dan David Prize in Archaeology and Natural Sciences, and was named by Nature as one of the “Nature 10 - Ten who made a difference in 2015.
Dr. Reich focuses on realizing the potential of ancient DNA to shed light on biology, and his work has established the central role of population mixture in our species. He led the analyses of the Neanderthal and Denisovan genomes proving interbreeding between archaic and modern humans. By implementing a series of technical improvements, his lab has produced than half of the world’s published ancient genomes. His team’s analyses have highlighted the power of ancient DNA to reveal previously unknown events, for example showing that “whites” are a mixture of four groups as different as Europeans and East Asians; that Europe and South Asia were both impacted by massive migration from the Eurasian Steppe after 5,000 years ago; and that there were equally large population turnovers in East Asia, the Americas and Africa. He also works on using ancient DNA to track how biological traits evolved in the last 50,000 years, and on making ancient DNA technology accessible to all scholars interested in using it.