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PORTSIDE  August 2012, Week 4

PORTSIDE August 2012, Week 4

Subject:

First Indo-European Speakers Were Peaceable Farmers in Turkey

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Date:

Sun, 26 Aug 2012 22:47:11 -0400

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Family Tree of Languages Has Roots in Anatolia, 
Biologists Say
By NICHOLAS WADE
New York Times
August 23, 2012 
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/24/science/indo-european-languages-originated-in-anatolia-analysis-suggests.html

Biologists using tools developed for drawing
evolutionary family trees say that they have solved a
longstanding problem in archaeology: the origin of the
Indo-European family of languages.


The family includes English and most other European
languages, as well as Persian, Hindi and many others.
Despite the importance of the languages, specialists
have long disagreed about their origin.

Linguists believe that the first speakers of the mother
tongue, known as proto-Indo-European, were chariot-
driving pastoralists who burst out of their homeland on
the steppes above the Black Sea about 4,000 years ago
and conquered Europe and Asia. A rival theory holds
that, to the contrary, the first Indo-European speakers
were peaceable farmers in Anatolia, now Turkey, about
9,000 years ago, who disseminated their language by the
hoe, not the sword.

The new entrant to the debate is an evolutionary
biologist, Quentin Atkinson of the University of
Auckland in New Zealand. He and colleagues have taken
the existing vocabulary and geographical range of 103
Indo-European languages and computationally walked them
back in time and place to their statistically most
likely origin.

The result, they announced in Thursday's issue of the
journal Science, is that "we found decisive support for
an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin." Both the
timing and the root of the tree of Indo-European
languages "fit with an agricultural expansion from
Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago," they
report.

But despite its advanced statistical methods, their
study may not convince everyone.

The researchers started with a menu of vocabulary items
that are known to be resistant to linguistic change,
like pronouns, parts of the body and family relations,
and compared them with the inferred ancestral word in
proto-Indo-European. Words that have a clear line of
descent from the same ancestral word are known as
cognates. Thus "mother," "mutter" (German), "mat' "
(Russian), "madar" (Persian), "matka" (Polish) and
"mater" (Latin) are all cognates derived from the proto-
Indo-European word "mehter."

Dr. Atkinson and his colleagues then scored each set of
words on the vocabulary menu for the 103 languages. In
languages where the word was a cognate, the researchers
assigned it a score of 1; in those where the cognate had
been replaced with an unrelated word, it was scored 0.
Each language could thus be represented by a string of
1's and 0's, and the researchers could compute the most
likely family tree showing the relationships among the
103 languages.

A computer was then supplied with known dates of
language splits. Romanian and other Romance languages,
for instance, started to diverge from Latin after A.D.
270, when Roman troops pulled back from the Roman
province of Dacia. Applying those dates to a few
branches in its tree, the computer was able to estimate
dates for all the rest.

The computer was also given geographical information
about the present range of each language and told to
work out the likeliest pathways of distribution from an
origin, given the probable family tree of descent. The
calculation pointed to Anatolia, particularly a lozenge-
shaped area in what is now southern Turkey, as the most
plausible origin - a region that had also been proposed
as the origin of Indo-European by the archaeologist
Colin Renfrew, in 1987, because it was the source from
which agriculture spread to Europe.

Dr. Atkinson's work has integrated a large amount of
information with a computational method that has proved
successful in evolutionary studies. But his results may
not sway supporters of the rival theory, who believe the
Indo-European languages were spread some 5,000 years
later by warlike pastoralists who conquered Europe and
India from the Black Sea steppe.

A key piece of their evidence is that proto-Indo-
European had a vocabulary for chariots and wagons that
included words for "wheel," "axle," "harness-pole" and
"to go or convey in a vehicle." These words have
numerous descendants in the Indo-European daughter
languages. So Indo-European itself cannot have
fragmented into those daughter languages, historical
linguists argue, before the invention of chariots and
wagons, the earliest known examples of which date to
3500 B.C. This would rule out any connection between
Indo-European and the spread of agriculture from
Anatolia, which occurred much earlier.

"I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over
any evolutionary tree," said David Anthony, an
archaeologist at Hartwick College who studies Indo-
European origins.

Historical linguists see other evidence in that the
first Indo-European speakers had words for "horse" and
"bee," and lent many basic words to proto-Uralic, the
mother tongue of Finnish and Hungarian. The best place
to have found wild horses and bees and be close to
speakers of proto-Uralic is the steppe region above the
Black Sea and the Caspian. The Kurgan people who
occupied this area from around 5000 to 3000 B.C. have
long been candidates for the first Indo-European
speakers.

In a recent book, "The Horse, the Wheel and Language,"
Dr. Anthony describes how the steppe people developed a
mobile society and social system that enabled them to
push out of their homeland in several directions and
spread their language east, west and south.

Dr. Anthony said he found Dr. Atkinson's language tree
of Indo-European implausible in several details.
Tocharian, for instance, is a group of Indo-European
languages spoken in northwest China. It is hard to see
how Tocharians could have migrated there from southern
Turkey, he said, whereas there is a well-known migration
from the Kurgan region to the Altai Mountains of eastern
Central Asia, which could be the precursor of the
Tocharian-speakers who lived along the Silk Road.

Dr. Atkinson said that this was a "hand-wavy argument"
and that such conjectures should be judged in a
quantitative way.

Dr. Anthony, noting that neither he nor Dr. Atkinson is
a linguist, said that cognates were only one ingredient
for reconstructing language trees, and that grammar and
sound changes should also be used. Dr. Atkinson's
reconstruction is "a one-legged stool, so it's not
surprising that the tree it produces contains language
groupings that would not survive if you included
morphology and sound changes," Dr. Anthony said.

Dr. Atkinson responded that he did indeed run his
computer simulation on a grammar-based tree constructed
by Don Ringe, an expert on Indo-European at the
University of Pennsylvania, but that the resulting
origin was, again, Anatolia, not the Pontic steppe.

___________________________________________

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