Tag Archives: Afro Asiatic

Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East

Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Semitic languages identifies an Early Bronze Age origin of Semitic in the Near East

The evolution of languages provides a unique opportunity to study human population history. The origin of Semitic and the nature of dispersals by Semitic-speaking populations are of great importance to our understanding of the ancient history of the Middle East and Horn of Africa. Semitic populations are associated with the oldest written languages and urban civilizations in the region, which gave rise to some of the world’s first major religious and literary traditions. In this study, we employ Bayesian computational phylogenetic techniques recently developed in evolutionary biology to analyse Semitic lexical data by modelling language evolution and explicitly testing alternative hypotheses of Semitic history. We implement a relaxed linguistic clock to date language divergences and use epigraphic evidence for the sampling dates of extinct Semitic languages to calibrate the rate of language evolution. 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, and further propose that contemporary Ethiosemitic languages of Africa reflect a single introduction of early Ethiosemitic from southern Arabia approximately 2800 years ago. pdf

While I know this is old news, I’m  having an Afro-Asiatic weekend, and I missed this last year. This isn’t a million miles away from the conclusion I got from examining the reconstructed proto words of proto Semitic a while ago; only about 750 years different (based on the presence of silver and antimony). 

I finally found my old work that records Ehret’s older date for proto Semitic as being the roughly similar to Proto Cushitic (about 10,500 bp to 10,000 bp). If this isn’t an admission that he’d seriously overestimated the dates in his earlier work on AA, I don’t know what isn’t. It supports my criticism of his dating of proto Cushitic as being about 40% out, considering how slashed the time frame for Semitic is (nearly half). This brings all his dates for AA languages into a Neolithic time frame if you apply the same rule to them as a group. I was amused to see him clinging onto an African origin for PAA like grim death, given that the DNA, archaeology and proximity of Semitic languages to PIE and Sumerian really doesn’t leave this as a viable option anymore. Essentially the ‘African origin’ needs to find a cultural or biological expansion from Africa dating to about 11k ago, and AFAIK so far the only suitable population movement across North Africa in that era goes from Asia into Africa (Capsian culture). Then it needs to find a really good reason why Nubians speak a Nilo Saharan language, when they apparently shared a common culture with Afro-Asiatic speaking upper Egyptians before the Neolithic hit Africa.

Some people (who shall remain nameless) are adamant that the E3b1 Y chr is the Y chr related to the expansion of Afro-Asiatic languages. This is incorrect in at least two cases, as Chadic is not at all associated with this, but with the R1b-V88, which arrived from Asia in the neolithic (or Holocene), and neither is Semitic which is Asian and associated with the spread of J1 (also non-African). Afro-Asiatic languages are associated with the expansion of Neolithic Y chromosomes, not E3b1. I’d also like to add that in expansions of this type, languages appear to be spread patrilinealy, not matrilinealy, the Bantu expansion and observations from other expanding farmers v hunter gatherers don’t have the maternal hunter gatherers language being preserved.

My main objections to an African origin for Proto Afro-Asiatic.

The nouns don’t reconstruct to a ceramic using African hunter gatherer landscape, but to an aceramic West Asian early Neolithic landscape. 

There are no population movements out of Africa known that are recent enough to have carried proto Semitic into Asia. The last one was about 22,000 years ago, traced by the expansion of the M78 Y chr and the Kebaran culture (the Mushabian’s origin is open for debate, but it’s also too early). This is just impossibly old. Anything more than 11,000 years and you can’t be in the same language family. So many accumulated changes will have occurred after that time that they will only bear the same level of relation to each other as two random non related language groups. 

The known population movements between Africa and Asia that could have carried the language between them in the relevant time frame all go into Africa from Asia. 

Proto Semitic shows a proximity to both Sumerian and Anatolian Neolithic proto Indo European, which places it in Asia about 9,000 years ago. Even if you think the Anatolian theory is junk, it has loan words into the later PIE about 5k ago. This leaves a narrow time frame for the movement between Asia and Africa (11k max language age – 9k for AN PIE=2,000 years), and the arrival of Neolithic farmers into Africa via the Sinai sits smack in the middle of this time frame. 

Corrected dating for Afro-Asiatic (see above comments on Ehret) shows its something like a maximum of 11,000 years old. The main supporter for the E3b1/Kebaran scenario, Ehret, is now slicing big chunks of time off his calculated dates. This places AA languages into an essentially late Holocene (if African) or early Asian neolithic scenario. Not a match for the Kebaran/E3b1 expansion.

 Nubian is not Afro-Asiatic. Nubians and upper Egyptians shared a common culture in the Holocene with each other and the western desert ceramic cultures, but they apparently didn’t speak even remotely related languages by the time of state formation in Egypt. This is suggestive of Afro-Asiatic replacing the original pre-Badarian languages, leaving Nubians isolated like an island in a sea of Afro-Asiatic. It also nails the arrival of Afro-Asiatic in upper Egypt to a time after the ceramic Nilo-Saharans got there (which was about 10,500 bp) fixing it to a younger age than this. The only influx after this into the area that we know about is the arrival of the Neolithic from Asia about 7,000 BP in upper Egypt. Nilo Saharan has a very  similar age to Afro-Asiatic (Holocene), and matches pretty well to the spread of the first ceramic using people across the Sahara and down the Nile, including upper Egypt. It’s fragmented distribution is very suggestive of a much wider territory, now occluded by later waves of Afro-Asiatic. The isolation of the Nubian NS language, when using corrected dates, comes into an era when the Neolithic pastoralists arrived from Asia into NE Africa.  

The distribution of Afro-Asiatic in Africa has a very strong relationship to the spread of Neolithic Y chromosomes (particularly Chadic and Berber). Asian ones that enter via the Sinai mainly moved into East Africa and Lake Chad. NE African Y chr M81 shows a match to the old spread of Berber languages (from the Nile Delta in the Neolithic) prior to Arabization .

 Proto Cushitic, and all the African and Asian AA languages,  reconstruct with nouns for sheep and goats, Asian animals that don’t even appear in Africa until 8,000 BP. Archaeology tracks these pastoralists moving from the Nile Delta with their herds into North West Africa, East Africa and  Lake Chad, with large chunks of their male ancestry traceable to Neolithic Asia. Using the archaeology to correct the dates for proto Cushitic means it can only be of a Neolithic age, possibly be in the 5k-6k date range. This does not support a Holocene or older date for PAA in Africa, and is more evidence connecting it to the Asian Neolithic.

 So…what are you are left with in support of an African origin? Not a lot really. That there’s more diversity and structure in Africa, but that’s about it. Omotic as a pre-agricultural AA language doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, with several publications suggesting they originally spoke Nilo Saharan but adopted Afro-Asiatic in the Neolithic, or of it being an off shoot of Cushitic, or not even Afro-Asiatic. The main supporter for an ancient African origin for Afro-Asiatic tied to E3b is slashing huge amounts of time off his estimated dates (about 45% for proto Semitic).

The real issue for anyone claiming an African origin for PAA is to show some population/cultural movement from Africa into Asia about 11,000 to 10,000 years ago, or even any time close. This is the real ‘brick wall’ the claims for an African urheimat run into. Until someone can explain how it managed to ‘swim upstream’ against the arrival of the Capsian and Neolithic arrivals from the Levant, IMO the claims for an African origin for PAA jus don’t fit the biological or archaeological evidence.

Just a few reading links for Afro-Asiatic

I’ve been hitting Google books-love that service.

Archaeology and Language: Language change and cultural transformation

On the work that suggests AA is associated with Dravidian and Sumerian. It comments that Afro Asiatic (not just Semitic) seems to have some very early loan words into Caucasian.

Archaeology, language, and the African past,

 pg 146 for the Militarev tree, and the other attempts at organising AA. I now feel less embarrased at my multiple attempts, as they can’t agree on anything either.

A big assed argument between Keita/Ehret and Bellwood over PAA.

One of the things I got from this was that Diakonoff also wasn’t a fan of Omotic as an AA language. Also the quotes..

Militarev’s reconstructed proto-Afroasiatic vocabulary (5), whether “agricultural” or not, is also peopled with animals and plants of Levant, not African, origin and matches a Natufian cultural landscape.


There is no significant archaeological evidence for a population movement from Africa into the Levant, whether Mesolithic or Neolithic, at the time in question. 


Which discusses how similar Semitic and Egyptian are- as I recall Ehret groups Semitic, Berber and Egyptian onto one branch with each other. Saving the lazy a long read…

Egyptian and Semitic are related languages, with astounding resemblances and disturbing dissimilarities. Their high age of attestation brings the two Afroasiatic branches closer together. But they still are separated by a prehistory of several thousand years, and it was only a comparatively short timespan, beginning with the fourth millennium, that brought them together in areal contact.

A long pdf  about the role of Semitic and Vasconic languages on Indo European.

A pdf on Cushitic

Which will have to do for now.




Y chromosomes are against an African origin for Afro Asiatic.

I used to agree with the old Ehret/Kieta model for the E3b1 Y chr as a marker for Afro Asiatic, but its become apparent that all the population movements into the near East involving this Y chromosome are too ancient to be tacked on to any modern language group. A few months of rolling this idea around, and the DNA evidence and dating seems to support an Asian origin a lot better.

Against an African origin-

The Genetics

Once it  became apparent that Omotic as an Afro Asiatic language was dubious, with it being shown to be a language isolate by several linguists- it turned out all the African Afro Asiatic speakers show Neolithic Y chromosome input from the near East, in some cases overwhelmingly. The main examples for this are the Ouldeme and other Chadic speaking tribes in Cameroon, who have tested as having an outstandingly high percentage of the Y chromosome R1b, a Eurasian Y chromosome that fits the spread of Chadic languages like a glove. As far as I can tell, the ultimate point of origin for this seems to be SE Turkey, which is within the origin area of the agricultural Neolithic expansion. So, most Chadic male ancestry traces back to the origin point of the Neolithic, which is a big supporter of an Asian origin for Afro Asiatic.

Another Y chromosome that shows a population movementthat tracks Afro Asiatic is from the Nile delta – the M81 Y chromosome. The advent of this mutation is extremely close in time to the entry of R1b’s entry into North East Africa, and it appears to have spread out into North Africa with the Neolithic farmers, and also as far as Somalia, where it is found at a very low rate, but just enough to confirm a Neolithic movement from North to South along the Nile.aae10


The language and its dates

Mainly my gripes are based on Dr Ehret’s work on AA languages. His inclusion of Omotic as an Afro Asiatic language was always speculative, and now it appears that it shows no more than a chance relationship to the Cushitic languages (Theil). I suspect he was keen to include it as an AA language as it shores up the African origin by providing him a pre agricultural Afro Asiatic language in East Africa- which now seems to be wishful thinking on Ehrets part.

Looking at Dr Ehret’s dates for the Afro Asiatic group, one major flaw leaps out. He dates proto Cushitic at 10,000 BP, which he describes as an African pastoralist language with goats and sheep. This is impossible, as goats and sheep do not enter Africa until 2,000 years after this date.  If it were correct as a date, this would locate proto Cushitic in the North of the Levant. Assuming that the Cushitic branch is native to East Africa, the arrival of ovicaprines to the area is first known about 5,500 BP in the Sudan. Assuming that the Cushitic branch moved along the coastal areas ( the joining dialects between Egypt and East Africa later wiped out by Asian Semitic languages, and a Nilo Saharan block to them in Nubia), a date of about 6,000 BP for the separation of Cushitic in East Africa would be more likely. This casts major doubt on Ehret’s dating methods for all his work, and really casts a big shadow over his dating of technologies by dating the proto language (the basis of most of his claims for early pastoralism in Africa). This would probably mean Nilo Saharan was the indigenous language group of East Africa prior to the Neolithic.

The dates for proto Cushitic mean his 14,000 BP date for proto Erythraic (ditching the older 15k date for PAA as the Omotic Branch is now defunct) corrects to 10,000 BP assuming his rate of miscalculation is stable at 40%. As a minor note, I’ve seen text books place a maximum date of 10k for any language family, which makes me query Ehret’s work on dates for yet another reason. This 10k age limit would also support all his dates being 40% too old, which would also re-date Cushitic to about 6,000 BP- which agrees with my own estimation.

All the known population movements in this 10k time frame are into  Africa, matching the expansion of the Neolithic, which also matches the expansion of the Y chromosomes R1b and M81 in Africa. There’s no known cultural expansion out of Africa  that could fit this time frame or  movements of African Y chromosomes/mt DNA dated to this era in the near East.

The ancient presence of Semitic in Asia.

Then there is the proximity of Semitic and proto Indo European languages. Numerous agricultural terms turn up in PIE, words for barley, bull etc, that are all suggestive of the Semitic family being present close to the origin point of IE languages when they adopted farming (I’m not ignoring that they may possibly have had the same root dialect at one time). After reconciling the ‘Turkish’ and ‘North of the  Black sea’ origins for proto Indo European (the older IE languages seem to be Anatolian, the last node was ‘Kurgan’) this would place Semitic in contact with older PIE dialects around 9,000 BP. Bearing in mind the age for PAA is needs to be about 10,000 BP for at least two good reasons, this is also not supportive of an African origin for Afro Asiatic.

Theorised tree for Afro Asiatic (my fifth revision)…


The population movements suggest to me that the African AA languages all came from a common tongue at the Nile delta, and then split up from each other and differentiated very quickly as the pastoralist groups moved away more swiftly than the farmers. This might explain why proto Afro Asiatic has been such a bugger to reconstruct; it’s right on the maximum age, and some of the root words for crops and farming implements etc could have been lost by the rapidly moving pastoralist groups who never grew crops.

The main reason I’ve focused on the R1b is the ‘sore thumbness’ of its presence in central/West Africa, and the M81 because of its Neolithic age and Egyptian place of origin. I’ve steered clear of the J1 and J2 Y chromosomes in this entry, as at present it isn’t very clear what entered East And North Africa in the Capsian, what with the Neolithic and what with the Arabs. J seems to have arrived in  Africa in three waves. Really it needs an in-depth going over by a specialist study to untangle it, but some papers do discuss J arriving into Africa with the Neolithic, and it is seen in East Africa as far as Somalia, so it’s not impossible one minor J hg also matches the distribution of AA languages in Africa too.

I’ve been having a rethink about Afro Asiatic origins

I’m having a rethink about Afro Asiatic’s origin after having a good look at the reconstructed nouns.

Particularly those dealing with with animals. I had a brief look through the nouns for PAA, and quite striking was the number of words for goats and sheep. Also included were horses  and camels. Since goats, horses and sheep and camels were not native to Holocene Africa prior to the neolithic, I’m reconsidering my support of an African origin for proto Afro Asiatic. Although, as has been kindly pointed out, the reconstructions are all pretty hazy for PAA, but still it’s suspicious.

Another factor making me reconsider is the dating suggested for the languages.  The presence of goats and sheep (many and varied terms) also gives an oldest possible date to the last node  (a languages TMRCA) for Cushitic, which is a pastoral language of sheep, goat and cattle herders. Since Cushitic is sub Saharan, very relevant is the oldest known date for the arrival of ovicaprines in the Sudan, which is about 5,500 years BP ( Esh Shaheinab, Sudan). This would suggest the proposed 10k date for proto Cushitic is off by about 45%- although this may just be it’s last node and the 10k date for it’s seperation may be correct. 

Relevant to this is the R1b Y chromosome present in the Ouldeme and the Hausa, both Chadic speaking groups, one in Cameroon and one in the Sudan. The Hausa have R1b ( R-P25* (R1b1*) at about 41%, and Ouldeme at 95%. This is quite a bizarre find for groups in the middle of Africa, as R1b is typically European and West Asian. It would be a logical suggestion that the Ouldeme and Hausa are quite closely related paternally, and may point to an East to West route for Chadic speakers- suggested by Blench in the ‘The Westward wanderings of Cushitic Pastoralists’- although there have been suggestions the Hausa moved from West to east recently, which would make the R1b in Cameroon possibly from  a north to south route across the Sahara.

This particular branch of R1b has been dated to an entry of about 4,000 years ago- but bearing in mind the older (2002) papers tend to seriously underestimate the date of the Y chromosomes – a pet peeve- the oldest entry date for it at 8,000 BP would be more reasonable, and a good match for the Neolithic sheep and goat pastoralists arriving in Africa from West Asia. It doesn’t do my older theory of M78/M1 being linked to the spread of Afro Asiatic any good though. Oh well.

The coalescence age of the African haplotype 117, which we estimated as 4,100 years (95% CI 2,400–8,060 years), could thus represent a date for such an expansion and a lower limit for the time of entry into Africa.

From this paper.

This all has some relevance to Ehrets dating of Proto Nilo Saharan (both families dated by glottochronology). He gives the same 15k date for Nilo Saharan as for proto Afro Asiatic.. so I’m thinking 10-9,000 bp for Nilo Saharan too. This also brings proto Northern Sudanic into the outer estimate for the Neolithic in Africa (7,000) although it’s unlikely as they have a dearth of terms for pastoralism and agriculture. His dates seem to vary from 35% to 45%  off the possible, which may be due to the difference in geographical points of origin in proto Cushitic and Proto Sahelian, so I’m assuming proto Sahelian is a little more Northerly in origin than proto Cushitic and have adjusted the dates for it  for a ‘best fit’. Even if it does give a close date for age of separation fro the sub groups, Ehret never seems to take into account there may have been more recent nodes to account for the pastoralist terms.

This doesn’t really support Omotic as an afro Asiatic language, as it shows no proto words for pastoralism before it’s split. But it has been pointed out by several linguists that it has no more in common with Afro Asiatic than it does with it’s other neighbouring language groups, so it’s AA status is pretty suspect to start with.


A little more DNA evidence has come out showing a pre Neolithic population movement into North and East Africa  dating to 11-10k ago, involving J1 (Y) and H (mt DNA) which coincide with the IM/Capsian transition in North Africa.  This could be the reason for the odd structure of the tree; Cushitic languages are the result of an earlier AA population expansion into East Africa from the near East. This expansion (as far as I can tell) seems to start about 13,500 BP from southern Turkey?  I’ll need to dig into it a bit more. This cultural expansion may have been of a food ‘managing’ culture as opposed to food gathering or producing cultures, a proto Neolithic expansion wave of people that kept wild animals (a domestication step) and harvested and planted seeds from the wild. There are domesticated seeds from Syria at 12,500 BP so the people of the Turkey/near East area were definitely doing something along those lines at the right date.

Is Omotic Afroasiatic? And other links.

I’ll add to this as I find resources for it. What reading I’ve done today suggests that Omotic predates agriculture, and that Cushitic split off from it during the Neolithic, as it has words for sheep/goat etc in it which arrive then. Quite interesting was a Blench book that pointed out North and South Omotic and Cushitic all have different roots for cattle, suggesting that pastoralism was foreign to them prior to the arrival of Asian neolithic domesticates, which doesn’t help the case for an early independant domestication of cattle in Africa. This also rather dents any claims to agriculture in the area prior to the split wth Cushitic, which dates to the arrival if ovicaprines (neolithic era, 7,500 bp or later).

I see Omotic clasified as Afro Asiatic, but there does seem to be a fair bit of dispute over this, with a couple of scholars pointing out it shares just as much in common with the other language groups around it. Difficult to tell.

Is Omotic Afroasiatic? A Critical Discussion.

The conclusion is..

My conclusion is that Omotic should be treated as an independent language family. No convincing alternative has ever been presented. Hayward (1995: 11) writes that «[i]t is, of course, a relief not to have Omotic as an isolate; we do not need a whole family of ‘Basques’ on our hands!» An alternative point of view is possible. Africa is the cradle of mankind. Why are there no language isolates on a continent where humans have lived since language was invented?

Omotic livestock terminology and its implications for the history of Afroasiatic

Chadic languages.

A collection of pdfs etc for reference.

The Westward wanderings of Cushitic pastoralists.


A paper about Afro Asiatic and inparticular Chadic. From the paper…

Chadic is clearly the most intemally diversified subgroup of Afroasiatic and perhaps for that reason might be considered as the most ancient branching. However. linguistic geography suggests rather strongly that it is indeed an intrusive group reaching the region after the establishment of the Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo phyla (see maps in Perrot 1988; Crozier & Blench 1992; Blench 1993a, 1997a). Since its nearest relatives are geographically remote (Berber or Cushitic) it has often been suggested that speakers of the Proto-Chadic were mobile pastoralists of some type.

Of passing interest is that these Chadic speakers  (like the Ouldeme and Hausa) can show exceptionally high levels of R1b, a Y chromsome derived from Eurasia, probably a trace back to the neolithic pastoralists from West Asia/Asia minor.

Having done a little quick reading on Chadic, it seems to have proto words for goat and sheep which would take it into the Neolithic for dating. Other sources I have place as a relative of Berber languages, not some ancient branch that’s been evolving in isolation for aeons.

Another pdf on Chadic.


Links between Cushitic, Omotic, Chadic and the position of Kujarge

Semitic, Elamite and Afro Asiatic, pdf links etc

Root extension and root formation in Semitic and Afrasian-Alexander Militarev

A pdf for those interested in Afro Asiatic and Semitic. It’s for reference and not exactly light reading, so feel free to skip it without feeling guilty.


A lot more readable, about the Elamite languages and it’s proposed connection to Dravidian and Afro Asiatic. The Elamite language shares a  lot of words with Afro Asiatic, but it’s not clear if it’s from loan or a genetic relationship. the only thing really supported is that Elamites had some kind of proximity to Afro Asiatic languages to pick up the large number of words they had in common, from such a small available vocabulary for Elamite.


Looking into Elamite names, and some history of the Elamite area