From English and Russian to Bengali and Punjabi, billions of us around the world speak Indo-European languages. And in the same way that we all came from a common ancestor, all of these languages evolved from one single dialect – the so-called Proto-Indo-European language.
But where did this language come from in the first place, before it spread with our ancestors across much of the world? Well, there are two main theories – either it originated on the western Eurasian steppe or somewhere further south, like the Fertile Crescent.
The two proposed locations are divided by the Caucasus mountains, which are found between the Black and Caspian Seas. In today’s geography, the mountains cover parts of Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
To find out whether the ancient language came from north or south of these mountains, a team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History looked at the bones of 45 ancient humans from the Caucasus region, and analyzed their DNA. These people lived in the area between 3,200 and 6,500 years ago.
Interestingly, from looking at their genes, the researchers determined that these ancient people seemed to be moving predominantly in one direction – they were heading north. This suggests that, contrary to what was previously believed, the first Indo-European language might actually have arisen south of the Caucasus mountains, only spreading to other parts of Europe and Asia as people migrated north from this region. The findings are currently available on BioRxiv.
We know that the Proto-Indo-European language appeared somewhere between 5,500 and 9,000 years ago, and the study suggests it only spread to Europe about 6,500 years ago. Therefore, this lost language could have originated south of the Caucasus.
What’s more, the ancient people analyzed had similar genetic signatures to prehistoric farmers who once lived in western Iran. Therefore, the ancient version of many of our languages may have first evolved in ancient Iran, before spreading with the people who first spoke it, and their ancestors, as they radiated north of the Caucasus mountains to the Eurasian steppe.
However, there are still many who favor the conflicting theory – that the Proto-Indo-European language arose in the Eurasian steppe. But this would only take the language back about 4,800 years – when people moved from the Eurasian steppe into Europe – and specialists think the language is significantly older. The idea that it first sprung up in Iran about 6,500 years ago follows this assumption.
However, the paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, so it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Additionally, quite a bit more research will be needed to back up the findings, so the debate won’t be settled anytime soon. Nevertheless, the study provides some fascinating evidence that could one day help solve the puzzle of where the languages so many of us speak first came from.
[H/T: New Scientist]