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DNA and ‘wheel’ trace cultural beginnings of European language

The debate has been whether European languages began south of the Black Sea or north of the Black Sea. The debate focused primarily on where the root of European languages originated. DNA sampling on ancient skeletons and new linguistic analysis of root words in steppe and European languages have shifted the debate from where to who.

Who Are the Contenders?

The traditional contenders for the originators of languages that developed across Europe, from the Mediterranean to the Scandinavian peninsula, are the groups in Anatolia, at 8,000 years ago, south of the Black Sea, and dwellers on the steppes, at 6,000-5,000 years ago, above the Black Sea (steppes now associated with Ukraine and Russia).

DNA Samples from Yamnaya and Corded Ware People

Geneticists used DNA samples (while linguists used word samples) from between 50 and 100 skeletons of individuals who lived across Europe (not from any one area) between 8,000 to 3,000 years ago. In these DNA samples were nine from ancient skeletons of steppe dwellers, herders called Yamnaya people, and four from ancient skeletons of a central European culture, called Corded Ware people, who left evidential traces in their unique lined pottery from Switzerland to the Volga River and from Scandinavia to Central Europe.

Results Join Steppe Yamnaya to European Corded Ware People

DNA analysis produced a surprising result connecting the Yamnaya and Corded Ware DNA sample sets. All four of the Corded Ware European people showed a three-quarters match with the Yamnaya steppe people. Two astounding conclusions are drawn from this discovery.

Genetic Conclusions

The first conclusion is that since the Corded Ware culture spread through most regions of Europe and since most Europeans have genetic signature linking them to Corded Ware people, then these same Europeans have genetic linkage to Yamnaya steppe people.

The second conclusion, which is pertinent to the origin of the root of European languages, is that a previously unknown massive migration from the steppe to central Europe occurred about 4,500 years ago and, in this migration, an early form of Indo-European (IE) language, a language that began about 6,000 years ago, was carried and spread throughout Europe. This conclusion places the origin of European languages with the Yamnaya peoples of Pontic-Caspian steppe, or the present-day Ukraine and Russian steppe, to the north of the Black Sea.

Linguistic Root-Meaning Samplings

Meanwhile, linguists examined 200 word sets from 150 living and dead Indo-European languages to reconstruct how various words were derived from Indo-European root words held in common. The 200 word sets included ones associated with wheels and wheeled vehicles. Linguistically derived words are new words made from a common root word, e.g., pet– for ‘fly’, but with very different kinds of suffixes added on, e.g., pet– plus –ra leading to English ‘feather’ versus pet– plus –na for Latin penna meaning ‘feather’.

The Importance of the Wheel

Wheel-related words couldn’t have appeared until after wheeled vehicles were invented. This helps date the emergence and divergence of words in Indo-European languages. Linguistic statistical modeling of the occurrence and divergence of these word sets points to the first use of ‘wheel’ root words at around 6,500 years ago.

Linguistic Conclusions

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this. The first is that the root language, known as the proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, of Indo-European languages originated with a people who used wheeled vehicles pulled by horses that could help migration to rapidly expand.

The second conclusion is that the spread of Indo-European language is not consistent with a farming related migration around 8,000 years ago out of Anatolia south of the Black Sea. The Anatolian farming migration was two thousand years earlier than the migration of the Yamnaya herders from the steppe around 4,500 years ago.

DNA and Linguistic Breakthroughs

DNA Genetics

The work of geneticists David Reich and Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard Medical School and of Wolfgang Haak of Australia’s University of Adelaide has led to a breakthrough understanding of the complex makeup of European genetic structure. He has demonstrated a vital connection between the ancient Yamnaya and modern Europeans. He has also shed light on the development and spread of Corded Ware people, named because of the intricate lined, or corded, pottery they made and left in burial mounds called kurgans. Corded Ware cultures have been identified all across Europe. Reich’s work now shows that genetics (and language) spread with them, leaving marks on modern cultures that are even more significant than the pottery they left behind.

Linguistic Family Tree

The work of linguists Will Chang, Chundra Cathcart, David Hall and Andrew Garrett has led to a breakthrough in knowledge about Indo-European languages. Although not as definitive as genetic data, Chang’s team has constructed a concrete new family tree of Indo-European languages. Their groundbreaking work assumed some direct ancestral connections not recognized as fact before. For example, they included the assumption as a certainty of Latin as the direct ancestral connection to French, Italian and Spanish, while also including the assumption as a certainty of Vedic Sanskrit as the direct ancestral connection to the Indo-Aryan languages of India.

Using these assumptions in their phylogenetic analysis — the construction of the evolutionary history of language — Chang’s team constructed a new family tree of the evolution of Indo-European languages that traced word sets, like the ‘wheel’ word set, back to the proto-Indo-European (PIE) language that was beginning root all Indo-European languages. The linguistic origination point was the Yamnaya people on the Ukraine-Russian steppe, or the Pontic-Caspian steppe, north of the Black Sea, around 6,500 years ago.

Yamnaya and Europeans: “Let’s Get Together”

Riech’s team and Chang’s arrived at the same people at the same place at the same epoch while traveling form very different directions. While some may still question the assumptions Chang et al made about direct ancestral connection, when DNA and linguistic analyses wind up with the same group of people at the same place and at the same time, it is a clear sign that the debate is almost put to rest and that it tends in favor of the Yamnaya, north of the Black Sea, about 6,500 to 6,000 years ago. The following timeline, combining DNA and linguistic results, may help bring it into focus.

Timeline

Anatolian farming migration -> 8,000 years ago; steppe language PIE -> 6,500 years ago; Yamnaya early IE -> 6,000 years ago; Yamnaya herder migration into Europe with wheels and horses -> 4,500 years ago.

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