Language Detectives of the Americas

Shelf Life: The Language Detectives

This episode of the Shelf Life video series details how two curators at the American Museum of Natural History, Peter Whiteley and Ward Wheeler, have been working to trace the evolution of Native American languages.

From the American Museum of Natural History

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.

From farmers to hunters, city-dwellers to nomads, the native people of the Americas are bound together by an ancient linguistic tradition. Whiteley and Wheeler believe that understanding their languages may help researchers learn more about how people and cultures spread throughout the Americas.

Shelf Life is an original web series, produced by the American Museum of Natural History by prior agreement.