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New Method Puts Elusive Indo-
European Homeland in Anatolia- ( partially Kurdistan)

Among all the world’s language families,
Indo-European is by far the most global.
Today its more than 400 languages are
spoken by some 3 billion people on every
inhabited continent. But who were the first
Indo-European speakers, and where did they
come from? Researchers have argued fiercely
over two major competing candidates: Neolithic
farmers who carried their agricultural
know-how with them as they pushed out
from Anatolia, chiefly in modern Turkey; or
Bronze Age horse masters from the Eurasian
steppes, who spread into Asia and Europe
with advances such as the wheel.

Now an international research team has
borrowed a computational approach from
biology to shed new light on the problem.
Using models originally created to trace
the origins of viral pathogens, such as avian
influenza, during outbreaks, evolutionary
psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University
of Auckland in New Zealand and his
colleagues report on page 957 of this issue
that they have found decisive support for the
Anatolian hypothesis. “I think we’ve put forward
the best case yet for where the Indo-
European languages came from,” Atkinson
says. “And we’ve also shown that languages
can be used to retrace human history in both
time and space.”

If the findings stand, they hold key implications
for everything from human migrations
to the role of agriculture in ancient language
expansion. “This is a major breakthrough,”
says archaeologist Colin Renfrew of the University
of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
But in this divisive field, the team’s methods
and findings are already drawing fire. “This
article raises more questions than making

substantive points,” says archaeologist David
Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta,
New York. “There are a lot of curious and surprising
results that they don’t explain.”

Charles Darwin noted in 1871 that languages,
like plants and animals, could be
classed into related groups. Each language
arose only once, in one place, and modern
languages descended with modification from
ancestral ones. The proofs of language and
species evolution “are curiously parallel,” he
wrote in The Descent of Man.

Atkinson and colleagues applied Darwin’s
analogy to the Indo-European language
family, which includes varied but related
tongues such as English, Italian, Albanian,
Persian, and Hindi. Linguists have long
sought clues to the origins and spread of
these languages by analyzing their vocabulary,
sounds, and grammar, and by studying
the archaeology of ancient migrations. Evidence
marshalled by Renfrew in the 1980s
suggested an Anatolian homeland, the same
land from which the first farmers spread 8000
or 9000 years ago. But recent archaeological
and linguistic data have pointed to an origin
on the steppes north of the Black and Caspian
seas, where seminomadic herders known as
the Yamnaya expanded into Europe and Asia
with domesticated horses and wheeled carts
beginning perhaps 5000 years ago.

Enter Atkinson and a research team
drawn largely from the fields of biology,
computer science, and psychology. They
focused on vocabulary, specifically the gain
and loss of cognates, or words in related
languages—such as “mother” in English and
“mutter” in German—that stem from a single
ancestral root. The team used cognates

Ground zero? With tools from the study of virus outbreaks,
a team traced Indo-European languages to an
ancestral homeland chiefly in modern Turkey (red).

from other studies on 103 ancient and modern
Indo-European languages. They considered
this data set analogous to molecular
sequence data, with the rate of cognate gain
and loss akin to the rate of nucleotide substitution
in viral evolution.

Atkinson’s team also added published
data on the geographical ranges of all 103
languages, plus historical dates for language
divergence, such as the breakup of the Roman
Empire, which triggered the evolution of
Romance languages from a type of Latin. The
computer model then worked back in time,
inferring possible ancestral relationships and
patterns of diffusion, and generating possible
homelands. Then the team compared “how
often the origin locations fell into the range
proposed for the Anatolian theory versus the
Steppe theory,” Atkinson says. The Anatolian
hypothesis won hands down.

The analogy to virus evolution is “clever
and insightful,” says linguist Paul Heggarty
of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who
thinks the study will prompt other linguists
to try the method. He says the study will give
supporters of the Steppe hypothesis “plenty
of explaining to do.”

Other researchers, however, take strong
issue with the findings. Anthony notes that
Atkinson and his colleagues limited their
study to vocabulary, just one of three subsets
of linguistic data, “something you are
really not supposed to do,” he says. In addition,
the authors rooted their model in geography
mainly using modern distributions of
languages. “The results don’t tell you much
about the past,” Anthony concludes.

The paper makes many inferences on
matters such as the rates of language change
and how languages diffuse, says Victor Mair,
a Chinese language expert at the University
of Pennsylvania. “There is so much about
this paper that is arbitrary,” he says. By comparison,
he says, the Steppe hypothesis “is
based heavily on archaeological data such as
burial patterns, which are directly tied to datable

Atkinson counters that archaeologists
struggle to link their finds to particular cultures.
“Peering back into human prehistory
is not easy,” he says. “It’s like holding a dim
candle over a dark abyss, and you need to use
every piece of information that you can.”


Heather Pringle is a contributing editor at Archaeology

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