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The journey of our language in prehistoric times

For decades, scholars have wondered about the development and dissemination of languages around the world. What are the odds that peoples living thousands of miles apart speak varieties of Indo-European languages that are closely related? This riddle has now partly been solved thanks to an international and interdisciplinary collaboration between geneticists, archaeologists and Leiden linguists, supervised by Guus Kroonen. The crowning glory of the work so far is an article in the leading journal Science Magazine that appeared on 9 May.

Archaeological DNA

For several years now, it has been possible to acquire DNA from prehistoric skeletons. Various labs in the world have quantities of this archaeological DNA at their disposal. By analysing this material, geneticists have come to the conclusion that in the third millennium BC, groups from the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas moved to Europe. Not only did they take their wagons, horses and nomadic culture, they also brought the actual words for them. This information allows us to map the journey of the Indo-European proto-language.

Language migration

The collaboration between the areas of genetics, archaeology and linguistics unravels many mysteries. Guus Kroonen, university lecturer in Linguistics at Leiden University– together with a number of international authors – published an article about this in the prominent Science Journal. Kroonen coordinates the linguistic side of the research and is passionate about the results. ‘Intensive international collaboration, some unique DNA samples from Bronze Age Anatolia, archaeological finds and intense academic debates have led to many insights into language development, prehistoric times and DNA affinity. The spread of languages doesn’t necessarily correspond with the distribution of material culture or genes, but we now have a whole new toolkit to determine in which situations this is or isn’t the case. In Anatolia, the arrival of the Indo-European language couldn’t be traced from the archaeology or genetics of the region. However, we did find genetic support for the assumption that speakers of Indo-European languages migrated from South Asia via the Ural Mountains. We saw for instance that Indian and Iranian languages use the same word for chariot. And if archaeologists in the Southern Ural Mountains discover chariots from 2000 BC, along with the DNA of skeletons from that area that is found later in India, the evidence for migration, parentage and the domestication of horses is piling up.’

Geneticists, archaeologists and Leiden linguists solve ancient riddles.

A new scientific field

‘Increasingly blurring boundaries between disciplines and interfaculty collaboration are giving rise to a completely new scientific field. Geneticists with an interest in linguistics have made important contributions to linguistic and archaeological research and vice versa. It’s great to see how age-old questions from Humanities inspire researchers in other disciplines. Thanks to this and additional research, the decade to come will give answers to many more questions about the origins and developments of Indo-European languages and linguistics in general. We’ve only just begun!’ says Kroonen.

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