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 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, Indo- Burma, 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 linguistic diversity around the planet, but disproportionately affected less biodiverse areas. ‘Temperate zones were colonised by Europeans, who were more comfortable there than in the tropics,’ Gorenflo explains.
Either way, ‘understanding the relationship is important because linguistic diversity and biodiversity loss are co-occurring,’ says Gorenflo. Language loss in many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, such as the Americas, has reached 60 per cent in the last 35 years. ‘The connections are so entwined that I’m not sure we can conserve biodiversity without conserving cultural and linguistic diversity.’
Many conservationists point to this co-occurrence as a manifestation of Indigenous people’s deep connections with natural landscapes. In British Columbia, for example, ‘the first Five Nations Indigenous peoples have been stewarding the land for thousands of years,’ says Henson. She and Gorenflo both advocate for increased involvement of Indigenous communities within conservation programmes; the grizzly bear study was conducted with the involvement of the governments of the relevant Indigenous nations.
It’s a subject that has long been debated in conservation circles and was brought to the fore once again at the recent COP26 climate conference. Some Indigenous people have pointed to the fact that the hurried creation of new protected areas could lead to displacement of Indigenous groups, removing the people with the deepest understanding of the landscape. Many would like to see legal ownership of such territories given to Indigenous peoples. Gorenflo believes that this would serve the dual purpose of preserving the cultural integrity and linguistic diversity of such groups, while ceding control to communities who better understand the land and its inhabitants.
In some areas, such a conservation strategy is already proving effective. Earlier this year, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation released a report showing that Amazonian deforestation rates were significantly lower in areas where Indigenous and tribal land rights had been formally recognised. Moreover, areas managed by Indigenous peoples have the highest abundance of wildlife. A 2019 study of more than 15,000 geographical areas across Canada, Brazil and Australia found that the total numbers of birds, mammals and amphibians are highest on lands that are managed by Indigenous communities.
‘Not all have the same outlook,’ says Gorenflo. ‘But in many cases, Indigenous peoples don’t want to exploit natural resources. If you know that your and your descendants’ futures depend on the way you manage natural resources, you’ll probably take better care of them.’