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Linguistic Study Shows Evidence of 'Back-Migration' When Early Native Americans Left Beringia


Early Native Americans settled in the middle of a land bridge connecting Asia and Alaska, but a new study shows that not all of them went on to North America.

According to LiveScience, the researchers believe that part of the group settling on Beringia "back-migrated" to their home. The early people also likely stayed on Beringia for 10,000 years before it eventually disappeared into the ocean and the land bridge is now known as the Bering Strait.

"Incorporating [methods from computational phylogenetics] into linguistics can increase the dialogue between linguistics, archaeology, biology, and ecology in developing our understanding of prehistory," study co-author Mark Sicoli, of Georgetown University, told LiveScience.

Sicoli and co-author Gary Holton, of the University of Alaska - Fairbanks, used data on the ancient language of the Native Americans for their study. Analyzing the Native American Na-Dene language and the Yeniseian languages of Central Siberia, they used a technique called computational phylogenetics.

The technique works as a family tree and making ancestral connections based on shared traits. The researchers used this technique to track all the different mutations and adaptations of the Na-Dene and Yeniseian languages as they spread across North America and Asia.

"We used computational phylogenetic methods to impose constraints on possible family tree relationships modeling both an Out-of-Beringia hypothesis and an Out-of-Asia hypothesis and tested these against the linguistic data," Sicoli said in a press release. "We found substantial support for the out-of-Beringia dispersal adding to a growing body of evidence for an ancestral population in Beringia before the land bridge was inundated by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age."

Published in the journal PLOS One, the study does not dispute the land bridge theory of migration into North America, but does suggest that not everyone who used it made the entire journey. The study is also an example of how to use linguistics to solve migratory and evolutionary mysteries.

"It seems to be quite consistent with the genetic analysis that led to the Beringia standstill hypothesis," Dennis O'Rourke, anthropological geneticist at the University of Utah who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. "There's at least one or two mitochondrial lineages."

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