What does it take to solve a mystery about an ancient Native American language group? 16th-century missionary texts, DNA sequencing methods, and lots of algorithms.

This month’s Shelf Life details how Museum curators Peter Whiteley, an anthropologist, and Ward Wheeler, a computational biologist, joined forces to trace the evolution of Native American languages by applying gene-sequencing methods to historical linguistics.

The researchers focused on the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, which have been spoken in Central and North America for millennia. Languages from this group were used in the bustling streets of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan—a city larger than 16th-century London—and spoken by nomadic groups tracking herds of bison across the plains of North America. Some Uto-Aztecan languages disappeared long ago while others, like Hopi, which Dr. Whiteley has studied for decades, are still spoken today.


Learn more about this topic on the Shelf Life website, or watch episodes 1-6.