Anthropologists, biologists and linguists have all noted an apparent coincidence in species diversity and human cultural or linguistic diversity. We present, to our knowledge, one of the first quantitative descriptions of this coincidence and show that, for 2° × 2° grid cells across sub–Saharan Africa, cultural diversity and vertebrate species diversity exhibit marked similarities in their overall distribution. In addition, we show that 71% of the observed variation in species richness and 36% in language richness can be explained on the basis of environmental factors, suggesting that similar factors, especially those associated with rainfall and productivity, affect the distributions of both species and languages. Nevertheless, the form of the relationships between species richness and language richness and environmental factors differs, and it is unlikely that comparable mechanisms underpin the similar patterns of species and language richness. Moreover, the fact that the environmental factors considered here explain less than half of the variation in language richness indicates that other factors, many of which are likely to be historical or social, also influence the distribution of languages.