Mapping the Origin of Indo-European

University of Auckland research published today in the journal Science tackles a 200-year old question and supports the controversial hypothesis that Indo-European languages originated in Anatolia 8,000 to 9,500 years ago and spread with the expansion of farming.

Using methods developed to trace the geographic origin of viral outbreaks such as HIV and H1N1, the research shows that the spread of the languages is consistent with an origin in Anatolia in present-day Turkey.

“If you know how viruses are related to one another you can trace back through their ancestry and find out where they originated,” explains lead researcher Dr Quentin Atkinson from the Department of Psychology. “We’ve used those methods and applied them to languages.”

Dr Atkinson worked with researchers from Europe and North America as well as with computer scientists Dr Remco Bouckaert and Associate Professor Alexei Drummond and fellow psychologist Professor Russell Gray, all from The University of Auckland.

The study examined basic vocabulary terms and geographic information from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages. The location and age of the languages’ common ancestor supported the Anatolian hypothesis.

The findings are consistent with the expansion of agriculture into Europe via the Balkans, reaching the edge of western European by 5,000 years ago. They are also consistent with genetic and skull-measurement data which indicates an Anatolian contribution to the European gene pool.

The work follows a 2003 Nature paper from the same research group, which first used methods from evolutionary biology to build the languages’ family tree. The age of the tree was consistent with Anatolian origins as opposed to the more conventional view that the languages emerged thousands of years later near the Caspain Sea.

“The two competing theories imply two different ages and locations for the origin of the language family. We initially used the age of the family to test the theories,” says Dr Atkinson of the original work. While the findings made a strong case for the Anatolian hypothesis, some members of the research community remained unconvinced.

The current research, which includes both geographic and historical data, confirms the languages’ Anatolian origins. “It reinforces our earlier findings, and applies exciting new methods from epidemiology to study languages,” says Dr Atkinson. “We’ve developed an entirely new methodology for inferring human prehistory from language data. It allows us to place these language family trees on a map in space and time and play out histories over the landscape.”

The Indo-European languages, a family of several hundred languages and dialects, are spoken by almost three billion native speakers and include languages such as English, Spanish, French, German, Hindi and Bengali.

The conventional “steppe hypothesis” posits that the languages originated in the Pontic steppe region north of the Capsian Sea, and were spread into Europe and the Near East by Kurgan semi-nomadic pastoralists beginning 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. The “Anatolian hypothesis” argues that the languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.

For more information:

Professor Russell Gray, the University of Auckland
Phone:  +64 (0)9 923 8525
Email:  rd.gray@auckland.ac.nz
Website:  http://language.cs.auckland.ac.nz/