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Stanford Report, November 11, 1998

Study on migration of Native Americans: 11/98

Linguistic evidence suggests Native Americans may have come from Siberia


The ancestors of some Native American tribes may have migrated from Siberia, according to a new study that for the first time links two language families on both continents.

An article published in the Nov. 10 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled "The Origin of the Na-Dene," by human biology lecturer Merritt Ruhlen, provides linguistic evidence that the Yeniseian family of languages, spoken in central Siberia, is related to the Na-Dene language family, which is mostly spoken in northwestern North America. Previously, each language family was considered to be an "isolate," with no known relatives among the world's past and present languages.

According to the article, Ruhlen's hypothesis locates the source of one of the three human migrations that peopled the Americas. "The implication of this proposal for pre-history is that the Na-Dene represent a distinct migration from Asia to the Americas," he writes. This probably took place about 7,000 years ago, after the first migration of Amerinds around 11,000 years ago and before the Eskimo-Aleuts arrived about 3,000 years ago.

"I'm interested in how everybody got where they got to in the world," said Ruhlen, who earned a doctorate in linguistics from Stanford in 1973 and has studied language classification for 20 years. "This unravels one little bit of human pre-history. It simply connects two populations together that never had been connected before." Ruhlen said he came across the connection between the two families while working on other research in Stanford's Green Library. "I just happened to bump into it," he said. Ruhlen has not done fieldwork in either region.

The article explains that the Yeniseian family consists of one surviving language, Ket, which is still spoken by about 550 people in Central Siberia. Five other related languages became extinct in the 19th century. The Na-Dene family has four branches, three of which are single languages ­ Haida, Tlingit, Eyak ­ that are spoken on the coastline of western Canada and southern Alaska. The fourth branch is the Athabaskan family, spread over interior Alaska and western Canada. It also extends to the Pacific coast of Oregon and California and to the American Southwest where it includes Navajo and Apache.

Ruhlen's research includes 36 sets of similar-meaning words having to do with basic vocabulary such as "children" and "hunger," in addition to words for body parts such as "foot," flora and nature such as "lake" and "birch bark," fauna such as "deer" and cultural artifacts such as "boat."

"It is difficult to imagine that similarities of this nature could exist between language families that do not share a common origin," Ruhlen argues. He rules out other possible explanations: "Borrowing is excluded because there is no evidence that people speaking the Yeniseian and Na-Dene languages have ever been in contact; onomatopoeia is ruled out because the terms are clearly not sound symbolic; and chance is ruled out by simple probability. Two language families might share one or two accidental resemblances, but they would not share 36, so the only plausible explanation for these resemblances is common origin." SR