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Spread of languages facilitated after hunter-gatherers learned to use horses

last modified May 10, 2018 11:09 AM

Members of the Durbin Group, of the Department of Genetics, are part of a wide collaborative project which has resulted in the publication of a paper in Science on 9 May : 'The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia'.

The domestication of the horse was one of the most important milestones in human history because it allowed people and their languages to move further and faster than ever before and it led to widespread farming and horse-powered war. Horses were first domesticated by hunter-gatherer descendants in Kazakhstan who left no direct modern trace.

By looking at various studies of Europe in the Bronze Age, the researchers can now offer important new insights on how population and language spread across Asia. They have demonstrated that the oldest known written evidence of Indo-European language, Anatolian Hittite, did not result from a massive population migration from the Eurasian Steppe as previously claimed.

Their findings, collectively analysed and interpreted by geneticists, historians, archaeologists and linguists, all pointed  to increased interaction between the steppe and the Indus Valley during the Late Bronze Age as the most plausible time of entry of Indo-European languages in South Asia.

Furthermore, by analysing the sedentary Copper Age Namazga farmer culture from what is now Turkmenistan, the authors found that while the Yamnaya expansion did not leave a traceable genetic impact in South Asia, an earlier migration from the farming Namazga population, or a related source, brought western Eurasian genetic ancestry to South Asia.

Dr Rui Martiniano, from the Department of Genetics and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and one of the lead authors, said:

“The spread of the Indo-European languages into Europe, Northern India and Pakistan is likely to have been facilitated by the increased mobility brought by the domestication of the horse. The Yamnaya left a great genetic impact in Europe, but we now know that they had a more limited direct impact in Asia. Instead, subsequent migrations occurring around the late Bronze Age may have been responsible for the introduction of these languages in South Asia.”

Group Leader Professor Richard Durbin, who jointly led the study, commented:

“Now is an extremely exciting time when the computational analysis of ancient and modern genome data is refining and revising our view of human history.”

>> The paper can be read here : http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2018/05/08/science.aar7711