Virus-tracking technique pinpoints origin of languages

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Using methods originally developed to track the spread of viruses, researchers say they've found evidence that Indo-European languages originated in Anatolia - present-day Turkey - 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The Indo-European languages, of which there are several hundred, include  English, Spanish, French, German, Hindi and Bengali.

The conventional 'steppe hypothesis' suggests that they originated north of the Caspian Sea, and started spreading into Europe and the Near East thanks to Kurgan semi-nomadic pastoralists around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

But the 'Anatolian hypothesis' argues that the languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,000 years ago.

And when Dr Quentin Atkinson from the University of Auckland and his team examined basic vocabulary terms and geographic information from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages, they found that the location and age of the languages’ common ancestor supported the Anatolian hypothesis.

"If you know how viruses are related to one another you can trace back through their ancestry and find out where they originated," he says. "We’ve used those methods and applied them to languages."

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

"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."