Navigation auf


UFSP Sprache und Raum

Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter–gatherer populations

Derungs, Curdin; Köhl, Martina; Weibel, Robert; Bickel, Balthasar (2018). Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter–gatherer populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 285(1885):20172851.

Distribution of languages (a) and language families (b) in the Glottolog database (see Material and methods). Both distributions show substantial spatial clustering, as revealed by the maps (a and b) and through assessing normalized nearest-neighbour distances (c,d and electronic supplementary material, S1), where 1 (horizontal line) indicates a fully random distribution and 0 full co-location. Strong spatial clustering characterizes food-producing (FP) and hunter–gatherer (HG) populations alike (c), and holds for language families of various sizes, including the largest families (d, colour-matched to the map in b).


Linguistic diversity is a key aspect of human population diversity and shapes much of our social and cognitive lives. To a considerable extent, the distribution of this diversity is driven by environmental factors such as climate or coast access. An unresolved question is whether the relevant factors have remained constant over time. Here, we address this question at a global scale. We approximate the difference between pre- versus post-Neolithic populations by the difference between modern hunter–gatherer versus food-producing populations. Using a novel geostatistical approach of estimating language and language family densities, we show that environmental—chiefly climate factors—have driven the language density of food-producing populations considerably more strongly than the language density of hunter–gatherer populations. Current evidence suggests that the population dynamics of modern hunter–gatherers is very similar to that of what can be reconstructed from the Palaeolithic record. Based on this, we cautiously infer that the impact of environmental factors on language densities underwent a substantial change with the transition to agriculture. After this transition, the environmental impact on language diversity in food-producing populations has remained relatively stable since it can also be detected—albeit in slightly weaker form—in models that capture the reduced linguistic diversity during large-scale language spreads in the Mid-Holocene.