New research is peering into the shared past of the Transeurasian (or ‘Altaic’) family of languages. According to the findings, the hundreds of millions of people who speak one such language today can trace their shared legacy back to a single group of millet farmers that lived 9,000 years ago in what today is northeast China.
This family of languages includes peoples and countries all across Eurasia, with notable members including Japanese, Korean, Tungusic, Mongolic, and Turkic. As such, it is definitely a very populous language family. Exactly how Transeurasian languages came to be, however, is still a matter of heated debate. This history is rife with expansions, population dispersals, and linguistic dispersals, making it exceedingly difficult to trace back and determine its origin.
New research, however, aims to shed light on this topic. The study combined three disciplines — historical linguistics, ancient DNA research, and archaeology — to determine where Transeurasian languages first originated. According to the findings, its roots formed around 9,000 years ago in modern China and then spread alongside the development and adoption of agriculture throughout Eurasia.
Hard to pinpoint
“We developed a method of ‘triangulation’, bringing linguistics, archaeology, and genetics together in equal proportions in a single approach,” Prof. Dr. habil Martine Robbeets, the corresponding author of the paper, said for ZME Science. “Taken by itself, linguistics alone will not conclusively resolve the big issues in the science of human history but taken together with genetics and archaeology it can increase the credibility and validity of certain scenarios.”
“Aligning the evidence offered by the three disciplines, we gained a more balanced and richer understanding of Transeurasian prehistory than each of the three disciplines could provide us with individually.”
The origin of Transeurasian languages can be traced back to a group of millet farmers — the “Amur ” people — in the Liao valley, according to the team’s findings.
These languages spread throughout Eurasia in two major phases. The first one took place during the Early–Middle Neolithic (Stone Age), when sub-groups of the Amur spread throughout the areas around the West Liao River. During this time, the five major branches of the Transeurasian linguistic family started to develop among the different groups, as the distance between them allowed for the creation of dialects.
The second phase involved contact between these five daughter branches during the Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age. This phase was characterized by these intergroup interactions as well as genetic inflows (and possible linguistic imports from) populations in the Yellow River area, western Eurasian peoples, and Jomon populations. Agriculturally speaking, this period also saw the adoption of rice farming (from the Yellow River area), the farming of crops native to west Eurasia, and pastoralism.
Although the spread of Transeurasian languages was largely driven by the expansion of a single ethnic group, it was not limited to a single one. Several peoples mixed together with the descendants of those millet farmers from the Liao River over time to create the rich tapestry of language, customs, and heritages seen in Eurasia today.
“Our [results] show that prehistoric hunter-gatherers from Northeast Asia as well as Neolithic farmers from the West Liao and Amur all project within the cluster of present-day Tungusic speakers. We call this shared genetic profile Amur-like ancestry,” explains Dr. Robbeets for ZME Science. “Turkic and Mongolic speakers and their ancestors preserve some of this Amur ancestry but with increasing gene flow from western Eurasia from the Bronze Age onwards.”
“As Amur-related ancestry can also be traced back to speakers of Japanese and Korean, it appears to be the original genetic component common to all speakers of Transeurasian languages. So the languages spread with a certain ethnic group, but this ethnic group got admixed with other ethnic groups as it spread across North and East Asia.”
Although we can trace these interactions in the genomes of individuals from across Eurasia, there are still a lot of unknowns. For example, we can’t estimate the degree or direction of linguistic and cultural exchanges between different groups. We can tell that there was an increasing degree of Yellow River genetic legacy woven into the peoples of the West Liao River, but there is no record after which we can gauge whether there was an exchange of words or cultural practices between these groups. Similarly, we can’t estimate the magnitude of the influence this exchange had on the two groups.
Still, one of the topics that Dr. Robbeets wants to underline with these findings is that, in order to truly understand the history of languages in Northeast Asia, a different approach is needed compared to what is being performed today.
“Archaeology and linguistics in Northeast Asia have tended to be conducted within the framework of modern nation-states,” she explained in an email for ZME Science. “Accepting that the roots of one’s language, culture, or people lie beyond the present national boundaries is a kind of surrender of identity, which some people are not yet prepared to make. Powerful nations such as Japan, Korea, and China are often pictured as representing one language, one culture, and one genetic profile but a truth that makes people with nationalist agendas uncomfortable is that all languages, cultures, and humans, including those in Asia, are mixed.”
“Our results show that a much more flexible and international framework is needed.”
Another more direct implication of these findings is that it implies that sedentarism and agriculture took root in the area much earlier than assumed up to now. Previously, the emergence of the Transeurasian family of languages was believed to have coincided with the adoption of livestock herding in Asia’s Eastern Steppes. Tying it to agricultural practices in the Liao River area, however, pushes the timeline of its emergence back roughly 4,000 years.
The paper “Triangulation supports agricultural spread of the Transeurasian languages” has been published in the journal Nature.