Linking by language

Archaeologists think that human beings crossed from Eurasia ("the old world") into North America ("the new world") via the Bering Strait, where a "land bridge" once existed, about 15,000 years ago.

Genes and languages are now as informative as archaeology in tracing historical migrations. Languages evolve like living species. Common ancestors separate, adapt to new environments and change. The more recent the split, the closer the relationship. Human beings are closer to chimpanzees than to starfish; and so Spanish and Portuguese sit nearer to each other than to Mandarin.

Geneticists now borrow statistical tests derived by linguists. The world's 7,000 languages cluster into families of common descent. English is in the Indo-European family, part of the Nostratic superfamily. It was a conundrum that Native American languages, the Amerind family, could not readily be linked to the Nostratic group.

Recently, however, statistical tests on the phonetic roots of the minority Yeniseian languages from Siberia linked them to the Amerindian Na-Dene language group. Five thousand miles separate the regions. The new findings support the theory that a small group of hunter-gatherers crossed the Bering Strait before the ice melted, and then founded the population discovered 14,000 years later in the second Eurasian colonisation of the Americas.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.