Nov 10 (Reuters) – A study combining linguistic, genetic and archaeological evidence has traced the origins of family languages including modern Japanese, Korean, Turkish and Mongolian and the people who speak them to millet farmers who inhabited a region in northeastern China approx. 9,000 years ago.
The findings, presented on Wednesday, document a shared genetic lineage for the hundreds of millions of people who speak what researchers call trans-Eurasian languages over an area that stretches more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km).
The results illustrate how humanity’s embrace of agriculture after the ice age drove the spread of some of the world’s great language families. Millet was an important early crop when hunter-gatherers switched to an agricultural style.
There are 98 trans-Eurasian languages. These include Korean and Japanese as well as: various Turkish languages including Turkish in parts of Europe, Anatolia, Central Asia and Siberia; various Mongolian languages including Mongolian in Central and Northeast Asia; and various linguistic languages in Manchuria and Siberia.
The origins of this language family were traced to Neolithic millet farmers in the Liao River Valley, an area that includes parts of the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin and the Inner Mongolia region. As these peasants moved across Northeast Asia, the descendants’ languages spread north and west into Siberia and the steppes and east into the Korean Peninsula and across the ocean to the Japanese archipelago for thousands of years.
The research emphasized the complex beginnings of modern populations and cultures.
“Accepting that the roots of one’s language, culture or people lie outside the current national boundaries is a kind of surrender of identity, which some people are not yet prepared to do,” says comparative linguist Martine Robbeets, leader of the Archaeolinguistic Research Group at Max Planck Institute for Science of Human History in Germany and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
“Powerful nations such as Japan, Korea and China are often portrayed as representing a language, a culture and a genetic profile. But one truth that makes people with nationalist agendas uncomfortable is that all languages, cultures and people, including those in Asia, are mixed,” he said. added Robbeets.
The researchers developed a data set of vocabulary concepts for the 98 languages, identified a core of inherited words related to agriculture and created a language family tree.
Archaeologist and co-author Mark Hudson of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said the researchers examined data from 255 archeological sites in China, Japan, the Korean Peninsula and Russia in the Far East, and assessed similarities in artifacts including pottery, stone tools and plant and animal remains. They also counted the dates of 269 ancient harvests from different places.
The researchers determined that farmers in northeastern China eventually supplemented millet with rice and wheat, an agricultural package that was transferred when these populations spread to the Korean Peninsula around 1300 BC. and from there to Japan after about 1000 BC.
The researchers performed genomic analyzes on ancient remains of 23 people and examined existing data on others who lived in North and East Asia as long as 9,500 years ago.
For example, a woman’s remains found in Yokchido, South Korea, were 95% descended from Japan’s ancient Jomon people, indicating that her most recent ancestors had migrated across the sea.
“It’s surprising to see that ancient Koreans reflect the origins of Jomon, which until now had only been discovered in Japan,” Robbeets said.
The origins of modern Chinese languages arose independently, but in a similar way with millet involved. While the ancestors of the trans-Eurasian languages cultivated broom millet in the Liao River Valley, the authors of the Chinese-Tibetan language family cultivated foxtail millet at about the same time in the Chinese Yellow River region, paving the way for a separate spread of the language, Robbeets said.
Reporting by Will Dunham in Washington, editing by Rosalba O’Brien
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