How America Was Colonized: Linguistic Evidence

  • Johanna NicholsEmail author


America was colonized by Asian migrants who moved from northeastern Siberia into North America, either coastally or by an interior route through now-submerged Beringia, and from there spread southward eventually to settle in the entire hemisphere. Linguistic evidence can shed light on when colonization began; whether it was initially coastal, interior, or both; how many distinct populations were involved; and how rapidly the hemisphere was colonized. The time required to generate the historically attested number of languages and language families in the Americas can be estimated; frequencies of structural properties in areally defined linguistic populations can discriminate between populations and point to geographic origins; and attested and straightforwardly reconstructable rates of language spread can be used to estimate rates of migration and demographic spread. On the linguistic evidence, colonization must have begun before the Last Glacial Maximum. There were at least two distinct populations, perhaps corresponding to interior and coastal immigration routes, and in general, coastal immigration seems to have had a stronger and more varied impact on the linguistic population of the Americas than interior immigration did. The immigrants spread at not much over 1 km/year on average (depending on ecology), taking about 7,000 years to reach southern South America. The linguistic dates are robust and based on plentiful and carefully analyzed material, so they cannot be dismissed, although they conflict with the younger ages estimated in genetic, archaeological, and paleoclimatological work.


Settlement of Americas Coastal colonization Language spread Migration rate Language spread rate Pacific Rim 



I thank the Embassy of Kazakhstan, the Permanent Delegation of Kazakhstan to UNESCO, and the Harriman Institute (Columbia University) for making possible the second Great Migrations conference, which among other boons suggested some of the new lines of thought in this work. The research reported here was supported in part by the NSF and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig; support for the Autotyp database has additionally been provided by the Committee on Research of the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Leipzig, and the University of Zürich.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures: Historical linguisticsUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

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