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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kiwi researchers find key to origin of language

Linguists believe that the first speakers of the mother tongue, known as proto-Indo-European, were chariot-driving pastoralists who burst out of their homeland on the steppes above the Black Sea about 4,000 years ago and conquered Europe and Asia. A rival theory holds that, to the contrary, the first Indo-European speakers were peaceable farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, about 9,000 years ago, who disseminated their language by the hoe, not the sword.       

Biologists using tools developed for drawing evolutionary family trees say that they have solved a longstanding problem in archaeology: which of these marks the origin of the Indo-European family of languages.

Nicholas Wade, writing in the New York Times, reports that Anatolia is the winner, having been declared the cradle of Indo-European tongues. And the researchers who made this claim are New Zealanders.

An evolutionary biologist, Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, together with  colleagues, has taken the existing vocabulary and geographical range of 103 Indo-European languages and used a computer simulation on a grammar-based tree constructed by Don Ringe, an expert on Indo-European at the University of Pennsylvania, to walk them back in time and place to their statistically most likely origin.

The result, they announced in Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, is that “we found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin.” Both the timing and the root of the tree of Indo-European languages “fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago,” they report.

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