Advanced features

Ancestral state reconstruction

You can use Ancestral State Reconstruction (ASR) to infer the values of linguistic features (either structural features of cognate judgements) at points of the phylogenetic tree other than the leaves (such as at the root, or at the MRCA of monophyletic clades). For example, in analysing WALS data you might be interested in inferring the word order of proto-Austronesian.

ASR can be enabled on a model-per-model basis, by using the reconstruct option in any [model] section of your config. The value of this option should be set to a comma-separated list of the particular features/meaning classes in that model which you would like to reconstruct values for. You can reconstruct all features in a model by setting reconstruct = *.


This reconstruction reports internal states of the model. For example, the internal hot states of the Binary Covarion model are shown in the output, so eg. when running ASR using the covarion model, you will see a for the hot-0 state and b for the hot-1 state, in addition to 0 and 1 for presence and absence of a class.

By default, all features specified in this manner will be reconstructed at the root of the tree. The option reconstruct_at can be used to modify this behavior.

You can specify one language_group, or multiple ones separated by comma, for reconstruct_at. The ancestral states will then be reconstructed for the most recest common ancestor (MRCA) of each of these groups of languages. Unless you also specify monophyly_constraints, the MRCA may vary widely between trees and may also be an ancestor of languages outside the language group you specified!

If you add ASR for one or multiple language groups to an analysis, in addition to the standard logs, a log with the suffix _reconstructed.log will be written, with sampled values for the reconstructed features included. This file contains tab-separated reconstructions for all features to be reconstructed, for each MRCA specified.


Currently, BEASTling uses a somewhat naïve way of logging ancestral states shipped with standard beast packages. Among other things, this AncestralStateLogger class does not permit more than one MRCA to be reconstructed and generates sub-par output.

Alternatively, it is possible to reconstruct ancestral states for every node in the tree. If you set reconstruct_at = *, BEAST will output a file ending in _reconstructed.nex, which a Nexus file with a (nonstandard) node annotation. Every node obtains a comment (some text between [& and ]), which is a comma-separated list of strings of the form feature1="0011, with each digit corresponding to one column of the alignment for feature1.


Given appropriate data, the following snippet

west_germanic = deu,eng,nld

[model vocabulary]
data = european_vocabulary
model = covarion
reconstruct = mountain,I
reconstruct_at = west_germanic

could be used to reconstruct the binary classes for the meanings ‘I’ and ‘mountain’ for the most recent common ancestor of these west germanic languages. If Flemish was included in the data and consistently grouped as sister language of Dutch, the reconstruction would occur in the common ancestor of German, English, Dutch and Flemish. The output might look like this:

Sample      west_germanic:mountain0 west_germanic:mountain1 west_germanic:mountain2 west_germanic:I0        west_germanic:I1
0   0       1 a     1       0
1000        0       b 0     1       0
2000        0       1 b     1       0
3000        0       1 0     1       0

and would idicate that class 0 for the meaning ‘mountain’ is reconstructed for this node in none of the sampled generations, class 1 in 100% of the samples (sometimes as a hot-presence), and class 2 in 25% of the trees (and then only hotly). For the two forms of ‘I’ observed in the data, the first (I0) is reconstructed in 100% of all cases, the other one never.

Path sampling

Model selection in a Bayesian framework is best performed using Bayes Factors (BFs). BFs between models are computed using each model’s marginal likelihood (the expected value of the likelihood when integrating over all model parameters, weighted by their prior probability). Unfortunately, marginal likelihoods are difficult and computationally expensive to compute reliably. The current gold standard is to use an approach known as path sampling. BEAST supports path sampling, but using it is not quite straightforward.

Path sampling involves running multiple MCMC chains. One of these samples from the posterior, just like a standard BEAST analysis. Another samples from the prior (just as if you’d added sample_from_prior=True to [MCMC]). The others sample from distributions which are somewhere inbetween these two - they provide a “path” from the prior to the posterior. The number of steps in the path can be customised (see below), but defaults to 8. Once all 8 chains are run, the logs from each are combined to get an estimate of the marginal likelihood. BEAST gives you a lot of control over how all this is performed.

The simplest possible approach to path sampling using BEASTling is to add path_sampling = True to the [MCMC] section of your configuration. This will produce a single XML file as usual, and when you tell BEAST to run using this file, BEAST will run all 8 MCMC chains, perform the log combination, and report the estimated marginal likelihood. This is just as easy as doing a standard BEAST run, with the downside that it takes much longer because all 8 chains have to run.

One way to speed things up is to run the 8 chains separately on different computers. This saves time, but has the disadvantage that BEAST can’t combine the different log files to calculate the marginal likelihood for you. You need to do this as a manual step yourself after all 8 BEAST runs have finished and you’ve moved the log files to the one location. To take this approach, add do_not_run = True to the [MCMC] section of your configuration. When you feed BEAST the resulting XML file, it will not run any of the analyses, but will create 8 individual XML files in a directory named (by default) basename_path_sampling, where basename is the value set in your [admin] section (the XML files will actually be in subdirectories step0, step1, step2, etc.). You can then run these XML files individually on separate computers, on a HPC cluster, etc. For a brief guide on how to manually combine the results after these separate runs, see the BEAST 2 website.

Regardless of whether you let BEAST run all of your chains or whether you do it manually, you can add the following options to your [MCMC] section to customise a path sampling analysis:

  • alpha: This parameter is used to control how the distributions sampled by the different chains move from the prior to the posterior. Each chain samples from the poduct of the prior raised to some power x and the posterior raised to the power 1-x. When x=0 we are sampling the posterior and when x=1 we are sampling the prior. If x is inbetween these two values, we are sampling some mix of the two. In path sampling, the different values of x are chosen from the quantiles of a Beta distribution with parameters alpha and 1.0. The default value is 0.3 and you shouldn’t change this unless you know what you’re doing.
  • log_burnin: percentage of samples from all chains except the first (see below) to discard as burnin before calculating marginal likelihood. Default is 50%.
  • preBurnin: number of samples (not percentage!) to discarded as burnin from the first chain. By default this is calculated using the regular burnin and chainlength options.
  • nrOfSteps: The total number of chains to use in forming a path from prior to posterior. Default is 8.