Geneticists Track Indo-European Languages

By Hoppe, Kathryn | Science News, August 22, 1992 | Go to article overview

Geneticists Track Indo-European Languages


Hoppe, Kathryn, Science News


Linguistic tongues may soon wag over a study that correlates genetic traits with native languages throughout Europe, giving a new twist to old disagreements about the origins and distribution of the first Indo-Europeans.

Researchers have long debated the exact beginnings of different Indo-European languages, which include such diverse tongues as English, Greek, Russian, and Iranian.

These and 140 other modern languages are generally believed to have diverged from one ancestral language spoken more than 6,000 years ago, says linguist Merritt Ruhlen, an independent researcher in Palo Alto, Calif.

Currently two main theories, based primarily upon archaeological evidence, attempt to trace the spread of these languages into Europe.

Most experts favor the theory that the first Indo-European speakers invaded Europe f rom the Pontic Steppes - an area north of the Black Sea in what is now the southern Ukraine-starting around 4,500 B.C.

An alternative theory gives Indo-Europeans a longer European history suggesting that early farmers brought agriculture and their language from ancient Turkey beginning approximately 7,000 B.C.

Because none of these early cultures had yet developed writing, such debates remain difficult to resolve with traditional archaeological methods. However, if biological divergence mirrors linguistic branchings, then researchers can look for evidence of ancient migrations in the genetic patterns of modern populations (SN: 6/9/90, p.360).

In the first such attempt focused specifically on Europe, geneticist Robert R. Sokal and his co-workers from the State University of New York at Stony Brook have now compared genetic traits with linguistic patterns.

The team analyzed existing data on the relative abundance of 25 genetic traits (such as blood proteins) examined in 2,111 studies from across Europe. …

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