Five languages — Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Tungusic and Turkish — belonging to the Transeurasian family are claimed to have emerged from a common ancestor who farmed northeast China some 9,000 years ago, according to a new study.
Key findings: Using linguistic, archeological and genetic evidence, an international team of researchers from Asia, Europe, New Zealand, Russia and the U.S. found that the languages can be traced back to the beginning of millet cultivation in China’s West Liao River. Over time, these millet farmers — who belong to the Amur gene pool — migrated to neighboring regions and left their descendants admixing with other populations.
- Whether the five languages descended from one common ancestor has long been a subject of debate. However, recent studies have shown “a reliable core of evidence” supporting the theory, the researchers said.
- The spread of the languages reportedly involved two major phases. The first phase, which occurred in the early to middle Neolithic Ages, saw the spread of Amur-related millet farmers in the West Liao River to contiguous regions. The second phase, which occurred in the late Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages, saw the mixture of their descendants with Yellow River, western Eurasian and Jomon people. During this period, they also started farming rice and western Eurasian crops in addition to raising livestock.
- A qualitative analysis using data from 250 vocabulary concepts in 98 Transeurasian languages allowed the researchers to identify which words emerged in particular regions at a particular time. For instance, ancestral languages that separated during the Neolithic Age — the final division of the Stone Age — used words related to millets but not other crops.
- Aside from linguistic analysis, the researchers studied data from 255 archaeological sites in northern China, Japan, Korea and the Primorye in Far East Russia. They also conducted genome analyses of 19 ancient individuals from Korea, Kyushu, the Amur and the Ryukyus and combined them with existing data on those who lived in north and east Asia between 9,500 and 300 years ago.
Why this matters: The study, published in the science journal Nature, reflects how agriculture after the Ice Age fueled the dispersal of Transeurasian languages, one of the world’s major language families. It also highlights the complexity of a shared origin of cultures regarded as unique from each other today.
- “Accepting that the roots of one’s language — and to an extent one’s culture — lie beyond present national boundaries can require a kind of reorientation of identity, and this is not always an easy step for people to take,” lead researcher Martine Robbeets said in a statement. “But the science of human history shows us that the history of all languages, cultures, and peoples is one of extended interaction and mixture.”
- Robbeets, who heads the Archaeolinguistic Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, added that merging linguistics, archeology and genetics allowed the team to gain “a more balanced and richer understanding” of Transeurasian migration. In their paper, the researchers said such a process of triangulation specifically supported their farming hypothesis and concluded that agriculture had driven the early spread of Transeurasian speakers.
- Still, the researchers believe further study is needed to deepen the knowledge on human migrations in Neolithic Northeast Asia. They also recognized the need to understand the influence of succeeding pastoralist population movements.
- “There was far more to the creation of the Transeurasian language family, as an ultimate whole, than just one primary Neolithic pulse of migration,” said Mark Hudson, a co-author from the Archaeolinguistic Research Group. “There is still so much to learn.”
Featured Image via Singapore Management University