In DepthANCIENT DNA

Indo-European languages tied to herders

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Science  20 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6224, pp. 814-815
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6224.814

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Summary

Despite their allegiances to 47 different nations, 87 ethnic groups, and countless football teams, Europeans have a lot in common. Most speak closely related languages that are members of the great Indo-European language family. A new study uses ancient DNA to suggest that a massive migration of herders from the east shaped the genomes of most living Europeans—and that these immigrants may have been the source of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the mysterious ancestral tongue from which the more than 400 Indo-European languages sprang. Based on DNA gathered from dozens of ancient skeletons, the study,​ described last week in a preprint posted on the bioRxiv server, reveals when and where different groups of people arrived in Europe and interbred with each other. One surprise is that a migration of herders from the steppes of today's Russia and Ukraine about 4500 years ago significantly shifted the genetic makeup of today's Europeans. Many living Europeans retain traces of this influx, which the authors link to an ancient culture of steppe herders known as the Yamnaya. The team behind the study further suggests that the Yamnaya people spoke either PIE or an early form of Indo-European language and brought it to central Europe, coming down on one side of a long-standing debate about the origins of PIE. That idea is supported by a second paper published this week in Language, which uses changes in words instead of genes to claim that the steppelands were the likely homeland for the origins of many Indo-European languages. But some researchers aren't convinced and ​say the genetic ​data aren't strong enough to connect ancient people known by their DNA to any particular language.