WILDLIFE AND LANGUAGE
MEETING OF MINDS An overlap between populations of grizzly bears and Indigenous groups points to a wider phenomenon known as ‘biocultural diversity’
When scientists started to work in the dense pine forests of British Columbia to analyse the DNA of grizzly bears, they discovered three distinct, genetically different groups. The bears were spread across an area of 23,500 square kilometres – land that falls within the territories of the Nuxalk, Haílzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv Indigenous nations, groups associated with three Indigenous language families. This latter fact proved to be hugely significant.
According to Lauren Henson, a researcher at the Rainforest Conservation Foundation, who co-led the study, none of the geographical divides that you might think would explain the formation of three different bear groups – water barriers, terrain ruggedness, ice or snow – turned out to have any real relevance. Instead, ‘the
6 . GEOGRAPHICAL
genetic groups of grizzly bears actually corresponded to the spatial locations of Indigenous language families.’ She believes that this is the first time that a species’ genetic co-occurrence with human language has been documented. The research indicates that both bears and people maintain familial links to territories that have been passed down through generations. It suggests a parallel in the resources used by both bears and people, but also a cultural equivalency between the two. This phenomenon, part of what is called ‘biocultural diversity’ (the idea that there are links between biodiversity and cultural diversity) has long existed. Larry Gorenflo, a professor at Penn State College in Pennsylvania, is fascinated by the concept. In 2012, his research team analysed the geographic ranges of more than 6,900 human languages to examine their overlap with biodiversity. A total of 3,202 languages, nearly half of those on Earth, were found to occur within just 35 ‘biodiversity hotspots’ – regions with an abundance of endemic species. Small biodiversity hotspots in the East Melanesian Islands, the Guinean Forests of West Africa, IndoBurma, Mesoamerica and Wallacea each harboured more than 250 different languages. There are two main theories that seek to explain the high numbers of languages within biodverse areas. The first holds that because humans living in rich, biodiverse areas would have had access to more resources when languages were evolving, the ability to communicate across a wide area would have been less important. ‘You can keep your own thing going on instead of learning somebody else’s language,’ says Gorenflo. The second, more global theory, suggests that the expansion of people, crops and diseases from Europe gradually reduced cultural and