Indo European Language Origins

27 Aug 2012

In one of those news flash episodes, we are told by the mass media, the heavy brigade with the big floppy pages, and the BBC and assorted science correspondents, that the origins of the language are in Anatolia (basically, modern Turkey and some land further to the east but minus the bit of Turkey in Europe). The story can also be found at ... 'Indo European language originated in Anatolia, research suggests' - not 'did' as in definitely so. This is of course very close to the theory of Colin Renfrew some years past now and it has been highly influential, and it appears he may have been vindicated (on the face of it). Reality is always a little more complicated.

The paper is published in the journal Science (2012) 337 (6097): 957 DOI:10.1126/science.1219669, authored by Bouckaert, Lemey, Dunn, Greenhill, Alekseyenko, Drummond, Gray, Suchard and Atkinson, 'Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family' ... and uses Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Indo European linguistic and spatial data in an attempt to put at rest the idea Indo European languages originated on the steppe zone spread by successive invasions to the west, east, and south. In the Renfrew theory the language was spread by Neolithic farmers who moved out of Anatolia some 8000 plus years ago. However, going to John Hawks weblog (palaeoanthropology, genetics, and evoltion) at ... we can find he was not perhaps so very impressed by the above research - and why? He notes that diffusion models applied to spatial modelling tend to place the origins at the centre of the present geographical distribution. It assumes people behave like random particles, spreading out from a centre. Hawks makes the point that languages do not necessarily spread by diffusion - and the results are based on 'what we know' about ancient language which is not necessarily the whole story. In other words, the point of diffusion, using Bayesian methodology, may pan out in Anatolia but archaeology might expand that to include Iran also. Basically, the researchers set up an opposition between two hypothesis - an origin in Anatolia (Renfrew) and an origin on the steppes (Gimbutas). However, the researchers left a caveat that might be overlooked, he comments, which reads, 'despite support for an Anatolian Indo European origin, we think it unlikely agriculture serves as the sole driver of language expansion on the continent. The five major sub families - Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Balto-Slavic, and Indo-Iranian, all converged as distinct lineages between 4000 and 6000 years ago, contemporary with a number of later cultural expansions evident in the archaeological record, including the Kurgan expansion' and 'languages we sampled began to diversify between 2000 and 4000 years ago, well after the agricultural expansion had run its course'. Hawks says this is the most important part of the paper and reading between the lines the origination point does not address the archaeological record or the possibility of secondary expansion. Both theories may in fact be correct, the language spreading out of Anatolia around the northern shores of the Black Sea and later expanding out of that zone long after the initial expansion 8000 years ago. Genetic evidence has suggested the first farmers in Europe were not much like recent Europeans so later migrations are a necessity and archaeology provides the answer.