Phylogenetic tools and myths: reconstructing human prehistory.
By Julien d'Huy
Similar myths with a sufficiently complex set of traits that could not be the product of many independent inventions can be found around the world. Moreover, certain myths evolve very slowly and their emergence probably date back to the Palaeolithic age. These myths may also spread together with the first human migrations. They carry an unequivocal phylogenetic message and computational methods derived from evolutionary biology have been used to reconstruct phylogenetic trees and protoforms for some of them (e.g. d'Huy 2012a-d, 2013a-j).
We can construct a binary data matrix where the rows correspond to the various cultural areas being analyzed and the columns correspond to different types of complex oral tales that are present in each area. There are numerous extensive motif and tale-type indices to help us in this task, at the local or global level. An effort should be made to exclude recent borrowings. We can then apply phylogenetic methods to extract a signal that could be converted into trees (e.g. Neighbor joining, maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood or Bayesian analysis), networks (e.g. Neighbor-net) or clusters. Among other things, this could serve to assess to what extent mythological and genetic histories are congruent, to test hypothesis about human prehistory (e.g. to reconstruct the early human migrations) or to understand what drives mythological diversification and disparity.
Published: 14 Feb, 2015
Readers interested in this kind of phylogenetic "tree-thinking" in a variety of fields are invited to browse the bibliography I prepared some years ago, "Trees of History in Systematics, Historical Linguistics, and Stemmatics," available now on SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2540351
Robert O'Hara · 1 Apr, 2015