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Euro languages migrated from the east – new study

5 March 20150 comments
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The English language and most other European tongues may be the result of a mass migration of people from the Cossack lands of the eastern steppes, according to a new study.

DNA scientists who conducted the study now believe that Stone Age Russian farmers spawned the Indo-European languages that are spoken by almost half of today’s global population.

Researchers from 25 international institutions analysed DNA from 69 ancient Europeans who lived between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago. Similarities in the DNA of specimens from Hungary, Germany and Spain suggest they all had a common origin.

The study, published this month in Nature magazine, aimed to understand the genetic make-up of Europeans but ended up producing evidence that explains the origins of our language.

While ancient DNA is silent on the question of languages spoken by preliterate populations, it does provide evidence about processes of migration that relate to debates on Indo-European language dispersals.

After the Early Neolithic period when farmers established themselves in Europe, it was thought that the population base was so large that it would be impervious to subsequent turnover.

As major language replacements require large-scale migration, a common theory was that Indo-European languages arrived in Europe from Anatolia 8,500 years ago.

However, the new study shows that 4,500 years ago a major turnover did occur, and that  migrants from the steppes replaced three quarters of the ancestry of central Europeans.

The findings show that DNA associated with the Yamnaya people appeared strongly in what is now northern Germany. The Yamnaya people were herders that lived in the steppe north of the Black and Aral Seas.

This input of DNA indicates that a massive migration into the heartland of Europe from its eastern periphery must have taken place.

A long standing debate among linguists is whether Indo-European languages came to Europe with farmers migrating from the Middle East or from another group, such as the Yamnaya.

The researchers believe their findings will influence the debate around the origins of Indo-European tongues that form the basis of modern languages such as English, German and Russian.

One of the study’s authors Wolfgang Haak says that though the aim of the study was not to explore language origins, the evidence produced is a breakthrough for the debate.

“What came out of it matched well with the idea of a later spread of Indo-Europeans from the steppes. We saw something so massive that it would be a candidate to carry a language across space,” said Dr Haak, of the University of Adelaide’s Ecology and Environmental Science department.

The researchers said the study’s results show that it is no longer plausible to believe all Indo-European languages derive from Anatolia.

“Our results make a compelling case for the steppe as a source of at least some of the Indo-European languages in Europe,” they said.


Ruby Brown
AMES Staff Writer