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, 9 (3), e91722

Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration From Beringia to Asia


Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration From Beringia to Asia

Mark A Sicoli et al. PLoS One.


Recent arguments connecting Na-Dene languages of North America with Yeniseian languages of Siberia have been used to assert proof for the origin of Native Americans in central or western Asia. We apply phylogenetic methods to test support for this hypothesis against an alternative hypothesis that Yeniseian represents a back-migration to Asia from a Beringian ancestral population. We coded a linguistic dataset of typological features and used neighbor-joining network algorithms and Bayesian model comparison based on Bayes factors to test the fit between the data and the linguistic phylogenies modeling two dispersal hypotheses. Our results support that a Dene-Yeniseian connection more likely represents radiation out of Beringia with back-migration into central Asia than a migration from central or western Asia to North America.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. NeighborNet Splits Graph for Dene-Yeniseian Typological Features.
The splits graph shows several clear clusters with rectilinear webbing within clusters showing regions of conflicting signals for specific taxa. Primary divisions in the splits graph are indicated with dashed lines separating primarily coastally distributed languages on the right with interior languages on the left. Colored shading highlights clusters. Within the coastal region of the network there are groupings for Pacific Coast Athabascan (PCA), Tlingit and Eyak, with Tlingit’s branch length long relative to Eyak. The Yeniseian languages Ket and Kott group tightly with each other on the right side of the network and show a long branch length indicating a high degree of differences from the others. In Interior we see several clusters: Plains-Apachean, including Sarsi (Tsuut’ina) in Canada; two groupings labeled Alaska-Canada-1 and Alaska-Canada-2 plus the smaller West Alaska and South Alaska groups. The clusters generally agree with established divisions between Na-Dene subfamilies and the rectilinear webbing is suggestive of the long history of language contact within Na-Dene. The average delta score is 0.367 and the average Q-residual score is 0.0492.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Consensus Tree Summaries of MCMC Runs.
Splits in these trees occurred in greater than 50% of 3001 trees sampled. Numbers at nodes and line shading indicate clade credibility in percentages. Bracketing and labels highlight groupings. The unrelated isolate Haida is included as an outgroup to root the tree. Tree (a) on the left was produced under a taxonomic constraint in which Yeniseian Split off before the diversification of Na-Dene. It was a substantially weaker hypothesis than tree (b) on the right in which there is no hierarchical relationship between Yeniseian, Tlingit and South PCA. In comparison with tree (a), tree (b) had substantial support with a Bayes factor 8.5 log units greater.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Consensus Network Summary of MCMC Run.
Network summarizes all splits with at least 10% support in 3001 trees sampled. Longer branch lengths indicate higher probabilities for splits. Rectilinear webbing indicates lower frequency splits. Primary divisions in the network are indicated with dashed lines separating Coast languages in the upper portion and Interior languages in the lower portion. Colored shading highlights cluster groupings.
Figure 4
Figure 4. Dene-Yeniseian Out-of-Beringia.
This polar projection map of Asia and North America shows the approximate terminal Pleistocene shoreline. The center of geographic distribution of Yeniseian and Na-Dene language is in Beringia. From this center burgundy arrows extend toward the North American coast and into Siberia. A blue arrow indicates Interior dispersals of Na-Dene.

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Grant support

Financial support was provided by Alaska EPSCoR for an RA in Mark Sicoli's lab. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.