The title refers to ideas of the cosmos held by indigenous inhabitants of Mesoamerica, the US Southeast, and the US Southwest in prehistoric and historic times.  Mesoamerican influences in the Southwest include, of course, the domestication of the main crops.  Other influences are well known from the first millennium BCE until post-conquest times; in the Southeast they seem to have been important even in the second millennium BCE and perhaps earlier.  It is only rarely that experts get together to discuss all three regions at the same time.

It is, of course, difficult to learn about the world views of prehistoric Indians.  Still, it is possible to gain some understanding from customs and languages and mythology recorded in historic times, from architecture and artifacts in archaeological sites, from the few manuscripts and inscriptions in Mesoamerica (the ones that can be read), and from knowledge of prehistoric climatic and other environmental changes and of the domestication of plants and animals.

All these sources of information can be discussed by the scholars with widely varying interests and backgrounds that are drawn together in this project.  They hunt for general themes that may characterize the entire geographical area under study or else particular parts of it.  Do such themes correlate with the many language groups that are present or do they cut across those groups?  Can the simultaneous study of, say, pottery, other artifacts, architecture, mythology, and plants and animals yield new insights into prehistoric ideas?  Can treating the Southwest and the Southeast together cast new light on the interactions with Mexico?

Quantum Mechanics

Murray Gell-Mann and James Hartle have been working for years on developing their interpretation of quantum mechanics. They have written several articles describing how the work has progressed.  Now that it is almost finished, they are writing a series of new papers outlining the whole set of ideas involved.  The first of those has been accepted for publication in Phys. Rev. A.

The usual “Copenhagen interpretation” emphasizes the role of a human experimenter, outside the system being discussed, making measurements, typically on multiple copies of the system.  Such an interpretation is hardly suitable for describing the universe, and thus quantum cosmology would be excluded.  It was, by the way, Hartle and Stephen Hawking who gave quantum cosmology an important boost with their paper “The Wave Function of the Universe.”

The Copenhagen interpretation also presents difficulties in dealing with the many billions of years when there were no physicists.  Was quantum mechanics not applicable then?

The “modern interpretation” of Gell-Mann and Hartle de-emphasizes measurement by a living creature and concentrates instead on alternative possible histories of the universe, coarse-grained in such a way that they are decoherent, i.e., they do not interfere with one another.  They can then be assigned probabilities.  When one out of N alternative possibilities occurs, the probabilities collapse to a one and N-1 zeroes, just as they do classically, for example at a horse race when one horse wins.  There is no mysterious “collapse of the wave function” peculiar to quantum mechanics. Instead of actual measurements by physicists, one deals with “measurement situations,” in which some variable comes into very strong correlation with a set of quasi-classical histories.  If some living thing comes along and notices that a particular alternative has occurred (for example the direction of a track in mica made by the spontaneous fission of a uranium impurity), that is fine but in no sense necessary.  The track is there anyway. The authors have shown (and emphasized in the Phys. Rev. article in press) that the coarse graining suitable for quasi-classical histories is closely related to the coarse graining in statistical mechanics that gives rise to the usual entropy of physics and chemistry.

The Evolution of Human Languages (EHL)


Comparative and historical linguists have succeeded in classifying attested languages in families, each of which consists of daughter languages  descended from a common proto-language spoken a long time ago.  Occasionally that proto-language is itself attested (like Latin, the ancestor of the Romance languages).  Otherwise, it has had to be reconstructed by linguists from their knowledge of the daughter languages.  Much of the work consists of comparing items of basic vocabulary (words or meaningful parts of words) of similar meaning. 

In classifying languages this way, one is concerned with “vertical transmission” of language from parent (or other care giver) to child.  One has to watch out for “borrowing” or “horizontal transmission” from other languages, which can complicate the picture.  In addition, there are more or less regular sound changes over the generations, different in different branches, that are studied carefully by historical linguists.  For example, in the Indo-European family of languages, an original initial p sound becomes an f sound in the Germanic languages but remains a p sound in Latin and the Romance languages.  Compare Latin pater and English father or Latin pullus and English foal.

The oldest universally recognized families (except in Africa) go back some seven thousand years (like Indo-European ).  A few linguists, such as the ones involved in the EHL project, go beyond this stage and classify the families into super-families and even super-super-families, where the age of the proto-language may be ten or even fifteen thousand years.  These “long-range” relationships are not accepted by most “mainstream” linguists in North America and Western Europe, although treated quite seriously in Russia and Eastern Europe.  For some reason the four African super-families are exempt from condemnation by the “mainstream” crowd and so articles on them appear in the standard encyclopedias, which do not have similar articles on the superfamilies of Eurasia, which are carefully studied  by EHL linguists.  Yet the African super-families could be criticized on the same grounds as the others.  What are those grounds?  Mainly that when the age of the superfamily is ten or twelve thousand years or more, it is thought to be too difficult to weed out borrowing, similarity by accident, and faulty detection of the patterns of sound change.  But if that objection were correct, then, as the age of the proto-language increases, there should be a steady decrease in the amount of information available for language classification, and at seven thousand years the evidence for families such as Indo-European should have dwindled to a small amount, in order that it be inadequate at ten or twelve thousand years.  That, however, is not the case.  The evidence for the Indo-European family is in fact overwhelming.  If it were reduced by a factor of ten, it would still be convincing.

The EHL project consists of several parts. One is the continued growth of the database, covering the languages of most of the world and their relationships.  Nearly all the languages of Eurasia, Northern Africa and the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands (except for some in the vicinity of New Guinea and Australia), have been found to form four super-families, which in turn form a single super-super-family.  Some of the indigenous languages of the Americas certainly fit into this scheme, and it may turn out that all of them fit into the afore-mentioned super-super-family.  One important EHL activity consists of reviewing the evidence on the classification of the American languages.  Another important activity involves seeing whether a relationship can be established with the two major super-families of  Black Africa, Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Kordofanian.

It is important to improve the arguments for acceptance of long-range relationships, especially by critical examination of the arithmetical arguments that have been put forward as allegedly showing that the observed similarities of lexical items in super-families could be explained by chance.

A fascinating topic is the prevalence of “bottlenecks.”  For example, the native Australian languages form a family that appears to be less than twelve thousand years old, judging by lexical similarities.  However, there have been modern humans in Australia since the first successful explosion out of Africa, which peopled almost all of the Old World.

That took place around fifty thousand years ago, and the Australian language family is certainly not fifty thousand years old.  The most appealing explanation is that a particular language, spoken either by a group of Australians or else by a group of invaders from New Guinea, spread their language over the whole continent, leaving only minor traces of the earlier languages .

It is conceivable that a similar bottleneck involved all or nearly all of the world’s languages.  Say that some eighteen or twenty thousand years ago, at the height of the last ice age, when there were very few refugia for human beings on the planet, one of the languages then spoken eliminated all or most of the others. We would then see a number of lexical similarities over all or most of the world.  In fact, there is some evidence for such “global” words and roots.  It is important to follow up these clues and see if they withstand careful (but not bigoted) examination. Etymological dictionaries are being produced covering some large families and some superfamilies as well. 

This project employs quite a few people, some in the US,  some in Russia, and one or two who commute between Santa Fe and Moscow.  They perform various tasks, including putting dictionary information into the database, working out language relationships based on lexical information, interacting with specialists in other fields, refining the ideas of lexicostatistics and glottochronology (measuring closeness of relationships and times of separation of languages by using overlaps in basic vocabulary), etc.

The project convenes workshops every couple of years at which the linguists interact with leading geneticists, archaeologists, physical and cultural anthropologists, and earth scientists. The object is to understand the migrations of early modern humans and the relation of those migrations to the history of languages. 

Regularities in Human History

Two different groups of SFI researchers (resident and external) have convened workshops at SFI on searching for regularities, especially quantitative ones, in human history.  Each of those meetings involved some historians, some social scientists, and some natural scientists.  Also, Murray Gell-Mann gave three lectures at Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Human Future, and those emphasized various quantitative regularities.  It would seem to be desirable to integrate these various activities. 

While it may be presumptuous to try to find “laws of history,” it is certainly permissible to look for regularities. Here is a partial list of topics that may be worth pursuing.  They are not comparable in scope, nor are they similar in character.  Perhaps we can think of them as a partial laundry list:

1) The formation of states from ancient to modern times.  Henry Wright of our external faculty is a very perceptive student of this subject and has made special investigation of cases in Madagascar, the ancient Monte Alban culture of Mexico, and the rise of the earliest states in Mesopotamia. The rise and fall of empires.  Again we would have to study many examples in detail.  Several books have already been or soon will be published on this subject.  It is of special interest to those historians who see an American empire and compare it to others such as the Roman Empire.

2) Regularities in the appearance and use of new technologies. The success of using logistic curves to describe cumulative casualties in wars and plagues, cumulative fertility of women in particular societies, the cumulative productivity of visual artists, composers, scientists, and so forth.

3) The success of using the rate of change of world population as approximately proportional to the population squared, with two correction terms, one of which cuts off the infinity at a particular time and the other of which corrects the results for very early times, when there were few people and small fluctuations made a huge difference.

4) The success of “Guttman scaling” in describing cultural traits in various societies, especially traditional or tribal societies.  There is strong evidence that many traits can be ordered in time and are acquired cumulatively.  A scale of cultural complexity emerges from this work.  Attempts are being made to understand the broad sweep of European history in the medieval and early modern periods using demographic, economic, military, and social variables. 

For further information regarding Dr. Gell-Mann’s research or for further information about research at the Santa F Institute, please contact the Santa Fe Institute at:


Santa Fe Institute

1399 Hyde Park Road

Santa Fe, NM  87501

  1. (505) 984-8800