Category Archive 'Indo-European'

25 Aug 2012

Origin Point of Indo-European: Anatolia?

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The New York Times reports another classic example of reasoning by computer program. This time the result is support for the “peaceful agriculturalist and Anatolian” theory of the origins of Indo-European.

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.

Results of these kinds of automated analyses inevitably derive from assumptions already programmed in. I’m afraid I think it seems abundantly obvious that peoples speaking Indo-European languages, though they may engage in farming, are historically anything but peaceful. Still, all this is interesting enough to give it a look over.

09 Sep 2008

Horses’ Teeth and the Indo-European Homeland

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Andrew Lawler describes an interesting approach to linguistic archaeology.

Measuring teeth from dead horses in upstate New York seems an unlikely way to get at the truth behind some of the most controversial questions about the Old World. But David Anthony, a historian and archaeologist at Hartwick College, discovered that by comparing the teeth of modern horses with their Eurasian ancestors, he could determine where and when the ancient ones were ridden. And answering that seemingly arcane question is important if you want to explain why nearly half the world today speaks an Indo-European language.

The origin of Indo-European tongues has roiled scholarship since a British judge in eighteenth-century Calcutta noticed that Sanskrit and English were related. Generations of linguists have labored to reconstruct the mother from which sprang dozens of languages spoken from Wales to China. Their bitter disputes about who used proto-Indo-European, where they lived, and their impact on the budding civilizations of Mesopotamia, Iran, and the Indus River Valley are legion.

That contentious debate, says Anthony, has been “alternately dryly academic, comically absurd, and brutally political.” To advance their own goals, Nazi racists, American skinheads, Russian nationalists, and Hindu fundamentalists have all latched on to the idea of light-skinned and chariot-driving Aryans as bold purveyors of an early Indo-European culture, which came to dominate Eurasia. So the search for an Indo-European homeland is now the third rail of archaeology and linguistics. Anthony compares it to the Lost Dutchman’s mine—“discovered almost everywhere but confirmed nowhere.”

Read the whole thing.

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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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