Process-based modelling shows how climate and demography shape language diversity

Aim Two fundamental questions about human language demand answers: why are so many languages spoken today and why is their geographical distribution so uneven? Although hypotheses have been proposed for centuries, the processes that determine patterns of linguistic and cultural diversity remain poorly understood. Previous studies, which relied on correlative, curve-fitting approaches, have produced contradictory results. Here we present the first application of process-based simulation modelling, derived from macroecology, to examine the distribution of human groups and their languages. Location The Australian continent is used as a case study to demonstrate the power of simulation modelling for identifying processes shaping the diversity and distribution of human languages. Methods Process-based simulation models allow investigators to hold certain factors constant in order to isolate and assess the impact of modelled processes. We tested the extent to which a minimal set of processes determines the number and spatial distribution of languages on the Australian continent. Our model made three basic assumptions based on previously proposed, but untested, hypotheses: groups fill unoccupied spaces, rainfall limits population density and groups divide after reaching a maximum population. Results Remarkably, this simple model accurately predicted the total number of languages (average estimate 406, observed 407), and explained 56% of spatial variation in language richness on the Australian continent. Main conclusions Our results present strong evidence that current climatic conditions and limits to group size are important processes shaping language diversity patterns in Australia. Our study also demonstrates how simulation models from macroecology can be used to understand the processes that have shaped human cultural diversity across the globe.