New study offers hybrid hypothesis for the origins of Indo-European languages

A groundbreaking achievement in our understanding of the origins of Indo-European languages has been made by an international team of linguists and geneticists led by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. This significant breakthrough has been published in the esteemed journal Science.

For over two centuries, the origin of the Indo-European language family, spoken by nearly half of the world’s population, has been a subject of debate. The two main theories in recent times have been the “Steppe” hypothesis, suggesting an origin in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe around 6,000 years ago, and the “Anatolian” or “farming” hypothesis, proposing an older origin tied to early agriculture about 9,000 years ago.

Conflicting conclusions have arisen from previous analyses of Indo-European languages due to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the datasets used, as well as limitations in the way ancient languages were analyzed using phylogenetic methods.

To address these issues, the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology formed an international team of over 80 language specialists. Their focus was on constructing a new dataset of core vocabulary from 161 Indo-European languages, which included 52 ancient or historical languages. By adopting more comprehensive and balanced sampling methods and implementing strict protocols for coding lexical data, the team rectified the problems present in previous studies’ datasets.

This new research promises to shed light on the age and origins of the Indo-European language family, bringing us closer to understanding the linguistic history of a language group that impacts a substantial portion of the world’s population.

Indo-European estimated to be around 8,100 years old

In their research, the team employed advanced ancestry-enabled Bayesian phylogenetic analysis to investigate whether ancient written languages, like Classical Latin and Vedic Sanskrit, directly served as ancestors to modern Romance and Indic languages, respectively.

Russell Gray, the Head of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution and senior author of the study, emphasized the team’s commitment to robust inferences. “We ensured the reliability of our chronology by testing it against various alternative phylogenetic models and sensitivity analyses,” he asserted. According to their analyses, the Indo-European family is estimated to be around 8,100 years old, with five primary branches already diverging approximately 7,000 years ago.

The study’s findings do not fully align with either the Steppe or farming hypotheses. Paul Heggarty, the first author of the study, pointed out that “recent ancient DNA data suggest that the Anatolian branch of Indo-European did not originate from the Steppe but from further south, possibly near the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent—as the earliest source of the Indo-European family. Our language family tree topology and lineage split dates indicate the possibility of other early branches that might have also spread directly from that region, rather than through the Steppe.”

New insights from genetics and linguistics

The study’s authors have put forward a new hybrid hypothesis regarding the origins of the Indo-European languages. According to this hypothesis, the ultimate homeland of the Indo-European languages was situated south of the Caucasus. Subsequently, there was a branch that expanded northwards onto the Steppe, with some branches of Indo-European entering Europe through the later Yamnaya and Corded Ware-associated expansions.

Gray expressed that the combination of ancient DNA and language phylogenetics points towards this hybrid scenario as the solution to the Indo-European enigma, which has puzzled researchers for two centuries.

Wolfgang Haak, a Group Leader in the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, stressed the significance of the study’s findings in terms of refining the time estimate for the overall language tree. Moreover, the proposed tree topology and branching order have crucial implications for aligning with key archaeological events and the shifting ancestry patterns observed in ancient human genome data. By moving away from the previously mutually exclusive scenarios, this new hypothesis offers a more plausible model that integrates archaeological, anthropological, and genetic evidence.

Source: Max Planck Society

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