Here in the 21st century the planet’s natural resources  have become endangered. Now it is widely accepted that the biosphere–the  sum total of the planets flora and fauna–is in great peril of collapsing  as human populations begin to make a massive impact on the natural world.  But what is not widely known is that the human cultural “biosphere”–the sum total of all human cultures living on the planet today–is in even more peril.

Of the seven thousand languages spoken today by cultures around the planet over half are not being passed onto the next generation. This ensures that within a generation these unique languages will not be spoken, soon to be forever lost. About every two weeks somewhere on the planet an elder dies and with him or her goes a language–a huge repository of knowledge, scientific data, and cultural wisdom. This fact confirms that a siginificant portion of the sum total of oral human knowledge will soon collapse and disappear with the death of the world’s indigenous, elderly last speakers.

In fact, most human knowledge on the planet remains entirely oral, that is, it has never been written down or recorded.  Embedded within oral languages and cultures is the understanding of complex ecosystems and scientific data—codified and gathered over thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Take, for example, the Australian Aborigine dreamtime culture with its rich tapestry of knowledge that dates back 50,000 years. Elders from communities scattered across the Australian outback are passing away and taking with them their rich understanding of the sacred ecosystem of the dreamtime.

We stand at a precipice in human history. We are losing huge repositories of human knowledge with the demise of every language, every culture, and every elder who holds the key to their language. And within these languages are complex understandings of our own ecosystem–the same ecosystem that we are trying to understand fully to survive.  The passing of an elder last speaker is equivalent (in the loss of knowledge to humanity) to burning down a sacred library of unique and profoundly important information.

 It is imperative that at the very least we now preserve for future generations this knowledge that lies embedded within these unique languages.

Over half of the world's 7,000 languages spoken today are likely to disappear this century, and with them we will lose a wealth of knowledge about human history, culture, and the natural environment. Most of what humans know about nature is encoded only in oral languages. We face an immense knowledge gap: Indigenous people often know more about local life forms than do scientists, who have not yet documented over 80% of the world’s visible flora and fauna. Languages contain an irreplaceable knowledge base about our connection to land, animals, and the ecosystem.

Under the National Geographic Society’s Enduring Voices Project, scientists will visit journey to meet with last speakers, listen to their stories, document their languages with film, pictures, and audio to help preserve their knowledge of species, landscapes and traditions before it vanishes. In addition, the Enduring Voices Project, where invited, will assist indigenous communities in their efforts to revitalize and maintain their threatened languages. By using video, still photography, audio recorders, as well as access through the Internet, the Enduring Voices Project will help empower communities to preserve ancient traditions with modern technology. The Director of and Visual Anthropologist for the Enduring Voices Project is Chris Rainier. Linguists Greg Anderson and David Harrison accompany Chris on expeditions and conduct scientific research.

Where on the planet do we find the greatest threat of language extinction and how can we prioritize resources to respond to the crisis? To address this challenge, the Enduring Voices Project is introducing the Language Hotspots List.

Language Hotspots was conceived and developed by Dr. Greg Anderson and Dr. David Harrison at the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages. It is a radically new way to look at the distribution of global linguistic diversity, to assess the threat of extinction, and to prioritize research. We define hotspots as concentrated regions of the world having the highest level of linguistic diversity (see below), the highest levels of endangerment, and the least-studied languages. Rather than simply counting languages, Hotspots take into account the number of language families (which we call "genetic units") represented in an area to calculate linguistic diversity. Click here for more on Language Hotspots and our Expeditions and the Expedition Team.

March 2007 map

Minimal set of 13 hotspots, July 2007

older hotspots map

Full set of 18 hotspots, August 2007

(Click here for older versions of the hotspot maps)

Research Team & Mission Statements (video clips to be streamed from here)

Chris Rainier Greg Anderson David Harrison