A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, summarized in a Los Angeles Times news article, argues that there is a strong correlation between the linguistic diversity and ecological diversity of various parts of prehistoric California. Using satellite images of plant growth in different areas of the state and comparing it with known or hypothesized distributions of linguistic groups, the authors, Brian Codding and Terry Jones, argue that to understand the density of languages in some areas of the state and the relative sparseness of languages in others, ecological variables such as environmental productivity need to be taken into account. Specifically, they argue that waves of migration to ecologically attractive areas produce dense areas of language diversity, whereas ecologically unproductive environments are less diverse.
Now, I should say right up front that I’m not convinced by this study or by the media account of it. I’m not going to go into all the reasons here (yet), because my students and I are going to talk about this study on Tuesday. I think it embodies some of the more serious problems with studies of the language-culture intersection, and some of the more serious problems with science reporting. Figuring out how to ask relevant analytical questions about material like this is, I believe, a critical step in advancing not only anthropology in the media, but the science as a whole.