Sowing The Seeds Of Language

Interdisciplinary research suggests the Transeurasian language family was started and spread by a group of early farmers in China around 9,000 years ago.

AsianScientist (Nov. 15, 2021)Mother, mama, madre, am’mā, Have you ever wondered why some words sound nearly the same in different languages? That’s because in some ways, language behaves like a genetic trait: it moves with people and can be traced across human history, sharing common features because of a shared heritage.

One such group is the Transeurasian language family, which includes modern Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic languages. Now found all across Eurasia, the Transeurasian family is one of the most widely distributed language families, but exactly where it came from and how it spread are questions that researchers have debated for years.

Now, an interdisciplinary study published this month in Nature suggests the common ancestor of the Transeurasian language family may have originated in China around 9,000 years ago and its spread was driven by agriculture.

To answer the question of how the Transeurasian family got its start, a research team led by Martine Robbeets of Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History combined three disciplines: linguistics, archaeology and genetics.

The team used vocabulary concepts from 98 Transeurasian languages, a database of Neolithic-Bronze Age sites in northeast Asia and a collection of ancient genomes from 23 individuals that lived in ancient Korea and Japan to trace the pattern of language, agricultural, and genetic expansions in the area.

Analysis of the three datasets revealed the common ancestry and primary dispersals of Transeurasian languages could be mapped to early millet farmers who lived in the Liao valley in northeast China around 9,000 years ag0. As the farmers’ descendants moved across Northeast Asia, they brought their language with them, spreading it north and west into Siberia and the steppes and then east into Korea and Japan.

“Although some previous research regarded the Transeurasian zone as beyond the area of farming, our research confirms that the farming/research dispersal hypothesis remains an important model for understanding Eurasian population dispersals,” the researchers wrote.

These findings challenge the ‘pastoralist hypothesis’ which proposed that the language family was spread by livestock-rearing nomads as they migrated away from the eastern steppe. 

Instead, Robbeet’s discovery that the movement of the language mirrored agricultural and genetic dispersal suggests a new ‘farming hypothesis’ for the start and spread of one of the world’s largest language families.

The article can be found at: Robbeets et al. (2021) Triangulation supports agricultural spread of Transeurasian languages.


Source: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; Photo: Shutterstock.
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