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Linguistics: Agricultural roots for Transeurasian languages

Nature

November 11, 2021

The Transeurasian language family, which comprises Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic and Turkic, may have originated in China around 9,000 years ago and its spread was driven by agriculture, a Nature study reveals. The research helps to clarify an important period in eastern Eurasian linguistic history.

The Transeurasian language family is spread all across Eurasia, from Japan, Korea and Siberia in the east to Turkey in the west. Despite its prevalence, however, the origins and spread of this language family are hotly debated, with population dispersals, agricultural expansions and linguistic dispersals all introducing complications.

Martine Robbeets and colleagues combine three disciplines — historical linguistics, ancient DNA research and archaeology — to reveal that Transeurasian languages can be traced back around 9,000 years to early millet farmers in the Liao valley of northeast China. As the farmers then moved across Northeast Asia, the languages spread north and west into Siberia and the steppes, and east into Korea and Japan.

The findings challenge the ‘pastoral hypothesis’, which proposes a more recent origin for this language family, around 2000 to 1000 BC, and a dispersal that was led by nomads as they migrated away from the eastern steppe.

doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-04108-8

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