Understanding How Migration Patterns Shaped Native Ethnicity, Language
August 20, 2013

Understanding How Migration Patterns Shaped Native Ethnicity, Language

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

During the past 12,000 years, the rich diversity of Native American ethnic and language groups of California took shape as migrating tribes. They settled first on the lush Pacific coast and then in progressively drier, less-vegetated habitats, according to a new study led by the University of Utah and published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Trying to explain why linguistic diversity is high in some places and low in others has been a big issue in anthropology," says Brian Codding, an assistant professor of anthropology.

"For a number of years, people have shown a correlation between ecological diversity and linguistic diversity," he adds. "What we did in this study that was different was to look at it over time – to actually see the process through which different populations came to live side-by-side as neighbors or replaced one population with another. We're showing how the diversity actually developed over time."

Codding worked with Terry Jones, a professor of anthropology and chair of social sciences at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, to determine if the suitability of ancient California habitats correlated with when and where wave after wave of Native American immigrants settled during the past 12,000 years – a geologic epoch known as the Holocene. These waves of immigration resulted in prehistoric California's extreme diversity of Indian ethnicities and languages.

Codding and Jones focused on images from NASAs Terra satellite showing California's modern environmental productivity – known formally as net primary productivity – as a proxy for the suitability of habitat. The satellite images show the richness of vegetation as seen from space. This richness reflects not only plant life, but also the overall richness of the environment in terms of water, plants and animals.

Using this data, they built a map that estimated the distribution of the Native American groups at the time of first contacts with Europeans during the 1700s and 1800s. Although they were based on decades of linguistic, genetic and archaeological research, Codding says the map and estimates should not be misinterpreted as representing precise tribal boundaries.


Modern environmental productivity hasn’t changed much in millennia, which allowed the team to predict the order in which nine major prehistoric Native American ethnolinguistic groups migrated to California and colonized the state:

* Approximately 12,000 to 8,000 years ago – during the Early Holocene – the most suitable, lush habitats along the Pacific coast were colonized by the earliest settlers, which included the Chumash, Yukian and some Hokan language groups. Each language group includes multiple tribe names. These migrants particularly preferred estuaries and river mouths. These findings are consistent with an early theory coastlines were settled first as prehistoric people migrated to the New World.

* Around 8,000 to 4,000 years ago – during the Middle Holocene - "migrants settled in more marginal habitats.” The Native Americans took up residence farther and farther east in moderately productive inland habitats, such as California's Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada. These migrants included the Hokan speakers as well as people who left the Great Basin, fragmented and displaced the Hokan speakers: the Yok-Utian, Takic and Wintuan-Maiduan language groups.

* The colonization continued progressively inward over the last 1,000 years of the Late Holocene, which began 4,000 years ago. The Numic language group occupied relatively unproductive deserts of southeast California and the Great Basin, including parts of Nevada and Utah. The pattern changed somewhat as new migrants arrived – the Algic and Athabaskan language groups – and replaced lower-density populations in some coastal habitats. The researchers suggest this might have happened because the newcomers used more intensive fishing and hunting methods – nets and weirs, and bows and arrows – and outcompeted earlier residents who used hooks, lines and spears.

Codding said, "The final native people who came to California during the last 1,000 years – for whatever reason seem to have displaced people who had been in some of these highly productive places along the coast, particularly the northwest coast of California, from Mendocino north to Oregon."

He adds there is no evidence of violence during such population replacements. The researchers do believe, however, the later immigrants, such as Athabaskans, had developed a concept of private property and laid claim to coastal river mouths, where they would camp and intensively fish salmon.

"That allowed them to occupy the landscape at higher densities than people who were there before," and then to stay there for millennia, Codding says.


Codding and Jones note the replacement of earlier coastal populations with later ones created a "fragmentation of earlier groups and the development of one of the most diverse ethnolinguistic patterns in the Americas. Such a process may account of the distribution of ethnolinguistic diversity worldwide."

Codding added, "We can use these general results to try to understand how ethnic diversity builds over time in different areas. … If you look across the world, some places have a lot of different language families within a small area – New Guinea, for example – and others like the Great Basin just have one [Numic, used by Utes, Piutes and Shoshone peoples]. It suggests that where we see a lot of ecological diversity, migration patterns probably should result in the buildup of linguistic diversity.

"In a place like California, you have a great amount of ecological diversity that allowed some places to have a higher density of people and others to have a lower density of people," he adds.

The team noted their approach "may aid in the explanation of prehistoric hunter-gatherer migrations across the globe, including the initial spread of people out of Africa into Europe, Asia and across to Australia-New Guinea."

Other factors, such as marriage between groups, network of trade and warfare, could have complicated the general pattern that migrating groups occupy successively less productive habitats. These complications resulted in high language diversity in lush environments and low diversity in desert environments.

In areas other than North America and Australia-New Guinea, the more recent migrations of agricultural peoples erased the linguistic histories of earlier hunter-gatherers, according to the researchers. Using archaeological methods, however, along with the new environmental productivity approach may eventually "help to elucidate why and how humans spread across the planet, creating a patchwork of linguistic and ethnic diversity."