The Indo-European language family is one of the world’s largest, encompassing languages as diverse as English and Hindi. Linguists have managed to reconstruct quite a bit of Proto-Indo-European , but the origins of the language family remain shrouded in mystery. Who spoke it, and how did it spread across two continents, and eventually the world?
There are two competing hypotheses regarding how Proto-Indo-European began to spread and fragment. The first, and most popular, hypothesis has the language family originating in the steppes of eastern Europe, among the warlike Kurgan people. The underdog hypothesis has the language family originating in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), among early adopters of farming, and spreading along with agriculture.
Now, a group of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe they might have solved the puzzle, using a computer-driven analysis that relies on techniques used to track the spread and mutation of viruses in epidemics. After analyzing the similarities and differences in the vocabularies of 103 Indo-European languages, including both living and extinct languages, the researchers concluded that the Anatolian hypothesis is the most likely to be correct.
As study author Quentin Atkinson explained to Voice of America,
“So the argument is that agricultural populations were able to increase their population density relative to hunter gatherer populations around them, and so they expanded out generation by generation.”
But does language really evolve in the same way a virus does? Not to so fast, say some scholars.
Advocates of the steppe hypothesis point to the fact that as currently reconstructed, Proto-Indo-European has an entire vocabulary to deal with chariots, wagons and other wheeled vehicles. Therefore, the language couldn’t possibly have begun to fragment until after the use of such vehicles became widespread: about 3500 B.C, well after those Anatolian farmers began to go forth and multiply.
As archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College told the New York Times, “I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over any evolutionary tree.”
Cue the back-and-forth sniping between rival academic factions, with Dr. Anthony calling the computer analysis ““a one-legged stool” and Dr. Atkinson calling his objections “hand-wavy.”
Meanwhile, study co-author Michael Dunn is taking the long view, expecting that history will eventually vindicate the team. He told the Washington Post:
“These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory. You just can’t explain away the data.”
What do you think?