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Department of Geography Geographic Information Systems

Mobility and Cultural Evolution

We study how culture evolves in space and time, focusing on the evolution of language. We explore how languages spread, reconstruct past human interaction and reveal the influence of geography on cultural evolution.

Expansion, migration, and diffusion

Mobility and cultural evolution

Over the past 10,000 years, some language families have spread over enormous areas: Indo-European in Europe and Asia, Bantu in sub-Saharan Africa, Sino-Tibetan in Asia or Austronesian in Oceania. Phylogeography, a sophisticated statistical method, promises to reconstruct the spread of language families and find their homeland. But does phylogeography work?

Our recent publication shows that phylogeography fails to recover migration, where languages leave one place for another. However, it works well when languages gradually expand their territory, for example, to cultivate more crops and sustain a larger population.



Mobility and cultural evolution

When speakers of different languages interact, they are likely to exchange properties. The English word language, for example, was borrowed from French. We develop statistical tools to find traces of cultural contact in language evolution.

Recently, we published sBayes, a Bayesian spatial clustering algorithm to find hidden spatial clusters in space and identify areas of language contact. 


The influence of geography on evolution

Mobility and cultural evolution

Geography influences the distribution and the characteristics of languages. Spatially isolated languages, for example, tend to be more complex than centrally located languages with many neighbours.

In a recent publication, we identified a deep-time correlation between the genetics of a population and the grammar of their language, suggesting that grammar might be a cultural indicator of genetic history. Initially, we feared that the relationship might be an artefact of the influence of space, specifically the spatial neighbourhood of the populations. With the help of spatial statistics, we could show that spatial interaction fails to explain the correlation, confirming that the relationship between grammar and genes goes way back in time


Further information
The Spatial Data Science Group

Weiterführende Informationen

Mobility and cultural evolution

The First Law of Geography - and why it is a Nuisance

"Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." The first law of geography applies to countless spatial phenomena. But did you know that it can make a geographer's life very difficult?  …