Dr. Simon J. Greenhill:

The evolution of languages and cultures

I’m a senior scientist in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany.

I was previously an ARC Discovery Fellow in the School of Culture, History & Language and ANU College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Before that I was a post-doctoral research fellow in the Psychology Department and Computational Evolution Group at the University of Auckland.

My main research focus is the evolution of languages and cultures. I have applied cutting-edge computational phylogenetic methods to language and cultural evolution, and used these methods to test hypotheses about human prehistory and cultural evolution in general. The questions I have explored so far include how people settled the Pacific, how language structure and complexity evolve, the co-evolution of cultural systems in the Pacific, and how cultural evolution can be modeled.

Research Interests

Human Prehistory

Languages are the archives of history. They not only provide us with a system for communicating historical information, but their elements — such as lexicon and grammar — carry historical signal about the people who spoke these languages and their cultures.

My research into this area has been covered in
The New Zealand Herald, The Sydney Morning Herald, New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine, Le Monde, Russian Newsweek, among others.

Language Evolution

Apart from using language information to explore prehistory, I am interested
in broader questions about how languages evolve over time.

Cultural Evolution

Since the publication of Darwin’s (1859) Origin of Species there has
been an ongoing debate about how evolutionary ideas can be applied to cultural
and linguistic changes. I have been using evolutionary methods to help understand
how cultures evolve.


One of the major driving factors in biology over the last 20 years has been the development of large-scale databases of biological information. I believe that anthropology and linguistics can benefit immensely from taking a similar approach and constructing open-access, interoperable databases of linguistic and cultural information. To this end, I constructed the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. This database currently contains lexical information from almost 700 languages making it one of the largest cross-cultural linguistic databases in the world.