New Insights into the Origin of the Indo-European Languages
Linguistics and Genetics Combine to Suggest a New Hybrid Hypothesis
For over two hundred years, the origin of the Indo-European languages has been a topic of debate among linguists and scholars. Two main theories have emerged: the "Steppe" hypothesis, which proposes an origin in the Pontic-Caspian Steppe around 6000 years ago, and the "Anatolian" or "farming" hypothesis, suggesting an older origin tied to early agriculture around 9000 years ago. However, conflicting conclusions have been drawn from previous phylogenetic analyses of Indo-European languages due to an array of factors. Now, researchers from the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have assembled a large team of language specialists to construct a new dataset in order to shed light on the origins of the Indo-European languages1.
In order to address the inaccuracies and inconsistencies found in previous studies, the research team compiled a new dataset of core vocabulary from 161 Indo-European languages, including 52 ancient or historical languages. This comprehensive and balanced sampling, combined with strict coding protocols, aimed to rectify the limitations and shortcomings of previous datasets. The researchers assembled an international team of over 80 language specialists to collaborate on this groundbreaking research.
Using ancestry-enabled Bayesian phylogenetic analysis, the team tested whether ancient written languages, such as Classical Latin and Vedic Sanskrit, served as direct ancestors to modern Romance and Indic languages respectively. Russell Gray, Head of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution and senior author of the study, emphasized the robustness of their methods and inferences. According to their analyses, the Indo-European language family is estimated to be approximately 8100 years old, with five main branches already split off by around 7000 years ago.
The results of this study do not align entirely with either the Steppe or farming hypotheses. Recent ancient DNA data suggests that the Anatolian branch of Indo-European did not emerge from the Steppe, but rather from an area near the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent. This challenges traditional assumptions and suggests that other early branches of Indo-European may have also spread directly from this region, rather than through the Steppe.
Building on the insights derived from both genetics and linguistics, the authors propose a new hybrid hypothesis for the origin of the Indo-European languages. This hypothesis posits an ultimate homeland south of the Caucasus with subsequent migration northwards onto the Steppe. It suggests that some branches of Indo-European entered Europe through later expansions associated with the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures. The combination of ancient DNA and language phylogenetics indicates that the resolution to the Indo-European language enigma lies in this hybrid of the farming and Steppe hypotheses.
The implications of this study are far-reaching, as it refines the time estimate for the overall language tree and enhances our understanding of the alignment between key archaeological events and shifting ancestry patterns seen in ancient human genome data. By integrating archaeological, anthropological, and genetic findings, this research takes a significant step forward in uncovering the origins of the Indo-European languages.
As we continue to delve deeper into the origins and development of human languages, collaborations between linguistic and genetic research fields will undoubtedly yield further discoveries. This study serves as a remarkable example of how combining different disciplines can lead to new insights and challenge long-held theories.
The origins of the Indo-European languages have long been the subject of debate, and recent advancements in both linguistics and genetics are shedding new light on this complex topic. By assembling a comprehensive dataset and employing sophisticated analysis techniques, researchers have proposed a new hybrid hypothesis that deviates from existing theories. The integration of ancient DNA with language phylogenetics has led to a more plausible model, aligning with key archaeological events and genetic findings. This study represents an important step toward unraveling the enigma of the Indo-European language family, showcasing the power of interdisciplinary research in unraveling the mysteries of human history and language evolution.
Heggarty, P., Anderson, C., Scarborough, M., King, B., Bouckaert, R., Jocz, L., Kümmel, M. J., Jügel, T., Irslinger, B., Pooth, R., Liljegren, H., Strand, R. F., Haig, G., Macák, M., Kim, R. I., Anonby, E., Pronk, T., Belyaev, O., Dewey-Findell, T. K., … Gray, R. D. (2023). Language trees with sampled ancestors support a hybrid model for the origin of Indo-European languages. Science (New York, N.Y.), 381(6656). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abg0818