Indo-European languages came from Turkey
Anna Salleh, 27 November 2003
Evolutionary biologists have waded into the stormy debate over when and where Indo-European languages originated.
Dr Russell Gray and PhD student Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland in New Zealand have calculated this group of 87 languages – as diverse as English, Lithuanian and Gujarati – arose between 8000 and 9500 years ago.
Their findings were reported in today’s issue of the journal Nature and support the theory that Indo-European languages arose around this time among farming communities in Anatolia, now known as Turkey.
The main competing theory to the Anatolian farmer theory is that these languages originated 6000 years ago among nomadic Kurgan horsemen sweeping down from the Russian Steppes. Some researchers say they spread their language and genes across Europe “through the sword” and through the use of horses and horse-drawn vehicles, Gray told ABC Science Online.
“People have been puzzled since at least Sir William Jones noticed in 1786 that Sanskrit, an ancient language in India, bore striking similarities to Greek and to Latin and to English. Where did all those languages come from and when did they split up?” he asked. “What we’ve been doing is to try and answer that question and in particular to test the two current major views about the origins of the European languages.”
While evidence of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles supported the “power of the sword” Kurgan theory, Gray said the fact that certain genes become rarer as you get further away from the Turkish region supported the “much kinder, gentler” Anatolian farmer theory.
“People have had huge arguments about that,” said Gray, who decided to try and settle the question using a technique from a branch of research called molecular phylogenetics. This computational and statistical method compares genes and builds family trees by inferring when different biological organisms diverged during evolution.
“Language like biological species diverge with time,” Gray said.
Using vocabulary and grammar instead of genes, the researchers used the same method to build a “family tree” of Indo-European languages. This was the first time methods like these have been applied to finding the roots of Indo-European languages.
Gray said his study came up with a root date that agreed with the Anatolian farmer theory “unbelievably closely”. The researchers checked and double-checked their findings: “We did everything we could possibly think of, like changing different assumptions, to try and see if we could get a different date range.”
Evolutionary biologist Gray said the findings were bound to inflame rather than settle the debate and said there had been some “fairly vigorous responses” to the findings so far: “Some linguists have been fairly kind of agitated I guess, having people come in from the outside and saying look we can solve these problems.
I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised.