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Science. 2011 Apr 15;332(6027):346-9. doi: 10.1126/science.1199295.

Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa.

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Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.


Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder-effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.

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