An archeological dig site cordoned off
An archeological dig site cordoned off

DNA Analyses Illuminate Origins of Farming, Ancestral Languages

The findings suggest a new hypothesis of Indo-European language evolution.

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Andy Carstens

Andy Carstens is an intern at The Scientist. He has a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a master's in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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Aug 26, 2022

ABOVE: The studies include genetic sequences of 26 individuals from the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages found in this necropolis in Karashamb, Armenia. Pavel Avetsiyan, Varduhi

New genetic evidence provides more clues to the origins of farming in Anatolia and suggests an alternate hypothesis to a long-held theory regarding where Indo-European languages began. A trio of studies published yesterday and today (August 25 and 26) in Science suggests that farmers didn’t solely descend from hunter-gatherer ancestors from Anatolia, an area that connects West Asia with Europe and overlaps with modern-day Turkey, but that they also came from people who entered the region in two distinct migrations, reports Science. Furthermore, the studies find that Indo-European languages may have begun in the Caucasus mountains, near modern-day Armenia, rather than emerging from the steppes north of the Black Sea as previously assumed, the outlet reports.

The three studies are all coauthored by David Reich, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard. One focuses on Mesopotamia, another on Anatolia, and a third on Southern Europe and West Asia.

The combined genetic analysis represents a four-year effort and includes DNA from more than 700 individuals spanning 10,000 years of history and across a geographical range that stretches from Croatia to Iran, according to Science. “The sample size is phenomenal, and fascinating,” Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who was not part of the research, tells the outlet. “The beauty of this is it’s bringing it all together in a bigger narrative.”

Looking down on the site of an archeological dig
A cave trench in Areni, Armenia, with relics dating to the Chalcolithic Period in the late 5th millennium BCE. The pots contained food offerings, and three of them each had a secondary burial of a child; their genomes indicate the early appearance of Eastern hunter-gatherer ancestry in West Asia.
Boris Gasparian

Researchers sequenced dozens of genomes of people from ancient Anatolia and found that between 10,000 and 6,500 years ago, two separate migrations into the region occurred: one from today’s Iraq and Syria and the other from the Eastern Mediterranean coast, reports Science. Comparing the genomes to those of earlier hunter-gatherer populations indicated the first people in the region to farm wheat and domesticate goats and sheep descended from the hunter-gatherers and those who later migrated to the region. In addition, the researchers found that hunter-gatherers from the Caucasus mountains entered the area about 6,500 years ago followed by the Yamnaya—nomads from the steppes north of the Black Sea—about 5,000 years ago, according to the outlet.

“This fits really well with archaeological data,” Barbara Horejs, a director at the Austrian Archaeological Institute who was not part of the team, tells Science.

For more than a century, linguists have linked the origins of the Indo-European language family, from which most European and all Indian languages emerged, to the Bronze Age Yamnaya, reports Haaretz. But research from 2018 cast doubt on that hypothesis by revealing that people from ancient Anatolian cultures who spoke languages derived from the Indo-European family lacked Yamnaya DNA. According to Haaretz, the new research seems to confirm that the Yamnaya arrived in the area after people in the area began speaking Indo-European languages.

Because ancient Anatolians and Yamnaya share common hunter-gatherer ancestors in the Caucasus Mountains, the researchers go on to posit that the most likely origin of the Indo-European languages is that region, possibly near modern-day Armenia, reports Science.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however. Guus Kroonen, a linguist at Leiden University, tells Science that people from the Caucasus were familiar with farming and likely had a rich farming vocabulary, while in contrast, the early roots of Indo-European languages have very few words related to farming. “The linguistic evidence and the genetic evidence don’t seem to match.”