I started off this post: “I started off this post: ‘The NY Times has another language story [...] and if you’re an aficionado of these things you will have guessed that 1) the story is by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade…’” And yes, the Times has another story by the muddled but ever plucky Nicholas Wade. This time it’s about “a recent proposal that the ancestors of Native Americans were marooned for some 15,000 years on a now sunken plain before they reached North America”:
This idea, known as the Beringian standstill hypothesis, has been developed by geneticists and archaeologists over the last seven years. It holds that the ancestors of Native Americans did not trek directly across the land bridge that joined Siberia to Alaska until the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. Rather, geneticists say, these ancestors must have lived in isolation for some 15,000 years to accumulate the amount of DNA mutations now seen specifically in Native Americans. [...]
Linguists have until now been unable to contribute to this synthesis of genetic and archaeological data. The first migrations to North America occurred between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, but most linguists have long believed that language trees cannot be reconstructed back further than 8,500 years. Vocabulary changes so fast that the signal of relationship between two languages is soon swamped by the noise of borrowed words and fortuitous resemblances.
But in 2008, Edward Vajda, a linguist at Western Washington University, said he had documented a relationship between Yeniseian, a group of mostly extinct languages spoken along the Yenisei River in central Siberia, and Na-Dene. [...]
Building on Dr. Vajda’s success, two linguists, Mark A. Sicoli of Georgetown University and Gary Holton of the University of Alaska, have assessed the relationship of the two language families based on shared grammatical features, rather than vocabulary.
In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on Wednesday, they report their surprising finding that Na-Dene is not a descendant of Yeniseian, as would be expected if the Yeniseian speakers in Siberia were the source population of the Na-Dene migration. Rather, they say, both language families are descendants of some lost mother tongue. Their explanation is that this lost language was spoken in Beringia, and that its speakers migrated both east and west. The eastward group reached North America and became the Na-Dene speakers, while the westward group returned to Siberia and settled along the Yenisei River.
Now, I’m suspicious of this on all sorts of grounds, but everything I know about Na-Dene and Yeniseian I’ve learned from commenters here, and I’m hoping some of them will weigh in on the proto-Beringian theory. (Thanks, Eric!)