Prior to the 1980′s, individual attributes like gender, age and ethnicity were assumed to be biological traits that manifested themselves in different cultural ways. In archaeology this meant that if we found a grave filled with weapons, but the skeleton too degraded to do an analysis of sex, we could assume it was male.
In 1985, the body of Josef Mengele, one of the last Nazi war criminals still at large, was unearthed in Brazil. The ensuing process of identifying the bones in question opened up what can now be seen as a third narrative in war crime investigations—not that of the document or the witness but rather the birth of a forensic approach to understanding war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the period coinciding with the discovery of Mengele’s skeleton, scientists began to appear in human rights cases as expert witnesses, called to interpret and speak on behalf of things—often bones and human remains. But the aesthetic, political, and ethical complications that emerge with the introduction of the thing in war crimes trials indicate that this innovation is not simply one in which the solid object provides a stable and fixed alternative to human uncertainties, ambiguities, and anxieties.
The evolution of languages provides a unique opportunity to study human population history. The origin of Semitic and the nature of dispersals by Semitic-speaking populations are of great importance to our understanding of the ancient history of the Middle East and Horn of Africa. Semitic populations are associated with the oldest written languages and urban civilizations in the region, which gave rise to some of the world’s first major religious and literary traditions. In this study, we employ Bayesian computational phylogenetic techniques recently developed in evolutionary biology to analyse Semitic lexical data by modelling language evolution and explicitly testing alternative hypotheses of Semitic history. We implement a relaxed linguistic clock to date language divergences and use epigraphic evidence for the sampling dates of extinct Semitic languages to calibrate the rate of language evolution. Our statistical tests of alternative Semitic histories support an initial divergence of Akkadian from ancestral Semitic over competing hypotheses (e.g. an African origin of Semitic). We estimate an Early Bronze Age origin for Semitic approximately 5750 years ago in the Levant, and further propose that contemporary Ethiosemitic languages of Africa reflect a single introduction of early Ethiosemitic from southern Arabia approximately 2800 years ago.
Bayesian phylogenetic methods, originally developed for biology, have been increasingly -and successfully- applied to linguistic data in recent years (e.g., for Indo-Europeans, Melanesians, and Austronesian speakers from the Pacific).
Diane France, Ph. D., D-ABFA is certified as an expert by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and was the president of that board for several years. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the director of the Laboratory for Human Identification at Colorado State University and is a of NecroSearch, International, a multidisciplinary team dedicated to helping law enforcement search for clandestine graves and recovering evidence from crime scenes. She is published on several topics related to forensic anthropology and frequently lectures around the country and the world.