Something I really should have done for proto Semitic before I did the larger post on Afro Asiatic – but you live and learn.
Essentially, if a language has certain technologies in it, you can use the known dates for the age of the technology to give a date for the language. With proto Indo European the mega giveaway is the multiple number of words for wheel, which essentially stick an oldest date (so far) of 5,300 BP on the last common dialect of proto Indo European; making the claimed 9k date for the last common dialect of PIE pretty unlikely to say the least. It’s not impossible that Anatolia was the home of the older ancestral language to this later ‘node’, so I have reconciled the Anatolian and steppes locations by assuming one is Neolithic PIE and the later is Bronze age PIE. There do appear to have been a substantial number of loanwords from Semitic into PIE, and this works best with PS being a neighbour to N-PIE rather than BA-PIE, which places the history of proto Semitic back in the North of the Levant a very long time.
I did this for Indo European, but was a bit remiss in not doing it for proto Semitic, which now means I need to re-do an older entry (doh). Most notable here is the absence of the roots for wheel, axle, cart and chariot, which really puts a tight time limit on proto Semitic.
Wheel /chariot/cart/axle – absent/not found; Oldest date for this tech is 5,300 BP in Slovenia, about 4,600 BP in Mesopotamia.
Silver – oldest known 5,000 BP, Aegean/Asia minor.
Antimony –oldest 5,000 BP in Tello, Chaldea, Iraq, reaching Egypt 500 years later.
Camel –native to West Asia, domesticates appear 4,000 BP in Arabia, about 2,000 years ago in East Africa.
Horse- native in West Asia/Iran; the Capsian horse dates back to 5,000 Bp
The dating of silversmithing to 5,000 BP (no older date as yet) and antimony at 5,000 BP sets an upper limit for proto Semitic (and PIE too). The horse is not a native African animal isn’t seen there until they arrive in Nubia at the end of the Egyptian middle Kingdom, about 3,800 BP, still later in Ethiopia.
I’m assuming that the wheel hadn’t reached there yet- although I see the oldest wheel down as 5,500 years old in Mesopotamia I can’t find a single reputable source for it, so the oldest known wheel is from Slovenia at 5,300 years. But the slightly later languages like Assyrian and Babylonian have words for wheel, so the expansion of Semitic languages can just be squeezed in between the appearance of the wheel and the appearance of antimony/silver. About 5,000 BP to 4,600 BP, would be my guess (using the standard of Ur for known wheel dating).
The appearance of the root word for camel puts a large dent in theories suggesting East Africa as a home for proto Semitic, as the camel is quite a recent appearance there, at about 2,000 years old, which places East Africa well out of the range of the possible, since Semitic languages appear in writing well before this date in Asia. The same is true of the root word for horse; it appears in East Africa after Semitic writing in Asia has begun.
Adding this all up; East Africa is effectively dumped out as an urheimat for PS, by the use of the words for camel and horse -written Semitic is older than camels and horses existing in East Africa.
Bitumen and Naptha – available in West Asia (link) in antiquity, Iran Iraq and Syria mainly.
Pistachio and Almond – West Asia into North Africa
Sorghum – African
Fig– (ficus Carica) – Asia, Mediterranean and West Asia
Vines/grapes – West Asia
Oak tree – Common to the Zagros mountains, not seen in Africa
Mountain – two words, one for mountain, one for mountain with a vineyard
Hill – Five words for hill-pretty exceptional and an indicator of a hilly surrounding
Ice- yes, there is a word for ice in proto Semitic, not really seen much in Africa
Sea/ocean – one word
Boat/ship– two words, but terms for sail and oar are lacking
River- a few words that also have other meanings, and one for riverbank
Stream – two different words for rivulet and narrow stream bed
The animals and flora described are unfortunately not specific to any area in Asia in the Neolithic, although the med coast seems favoured by the flora, and by the camel and horse, neither of which arrive in Africa until after Semitic languages are being written in Mesopotamia. Pistachios, figs and almonds are not tropical trees and won’t grow in East Africa. Although sorghum is from Africa, it arrived in Asia in roughly the same era as PS appeared, and the root word is also used for beans and wild corn. The presence of petroleum derived products like bitumen and naphtha, which just aren’t found lying around in East Africa, also points towards West Asia, specifically the more Northern part of the possible range. The presence of oak trees and ice certainly doesn’t support any kind of African origin, and oak rees are really only found in cooler mountainous areas of West Asia. The particularly large number of words for hill, and two words for mountain do suggest somwhere particularly hilly. There is a word for ‘wave’ and a word for lake that is interchangeable with sea, suggesting familiarity with a really big lake. The forested areas of the Zagros are mainly oak, pistachio and almond trees, all three are part pf the PS language.
All of this does raise the possibility that the Proto Semitic loan words into proto Indo European (for barley, goat, bull) were from an earlier stage of the language’s evolution, back in the early Neolithic. It also suggests a very old vintage for the word wine (wayn) as it travelled with the very early domesticates into the PIE homeland.
So as a conclusion… proto Semitic can be dated to somewhere before 4,600 BP (no wheels ), as my best guess, and probably more around the 5,000 BP date. And located in West Asia, in the Syria/Iran/Mesopotamia arc; it’s the only place with naphtha (bitumen travels well, naphtha doesn’t) and oak trees, and enough familiarity with ice to need a word for it, and lots of hills. I would suggest that it was probably quite closely related to the Akkadian and Eblaite languages, and may just be a dialect of that region that expanded out for some unkown reason, as the 5,000 ya date is a few hundred years older than old Akkadian.
Tree of Semitic languages.
As a mionr interest, Eblaite is variously classified as both East and West Semitic, and it’s oldest dating is to 4,250 BP. it’s very similar to Akkadian, which suggests to me that these two may branch straight off from proto Semitic. In fact, a study of Eblaite (book link, page 5) reveals that non-Semitic names/nouns are very rare in it, which suggests a long residence in the Syria are for Semitic languages (nouns and place names from older languages are often retained when a new language appears). So I’m going to suggest a home for proto Semitic as somewhere near Ebla and the Zagros mountains, about 4,800 years ago.
Recent work has sugested:
Our statistical tests of alternative Semitic histories support an initial divergence of Akkadian from ancestral Semitic over competing hypotheses (e.g. an African origin of Semitic). We estimate an Early Bronze Age origin for Semitic approximately 5750 years ago in the Levant,
Which I can live with, as on reflection one of the dating nouns I used, ass, could be referring to the wild asses that were native to Asia. So, this removes the major reasoning for the more recent age I have here. I can live with a date of 5,750 years. Also from the same paper:
Ethiosemitic languages of Africa reflect a single introduction of early Ethiosemitic from southern Arabia approximately 2800 years ago.
Which is also no surprise, as no-one really took an African origin for Semitic seriously. I will comment that the age for PS in Asia (tracing back 9k if it was next to Neolithic Anatolian PIE) really does nothing for an African origin for proto Afro-Asiatic. The maximum age of a language group seems to be less than 11,000 years, and the only bio-cultural movements that we know of in that era are moving into Africa and not out of it.