The People Who Went Down the Rivers: Origin of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

I recently received a question from Quas Lacrimas:

“What (if anything) do you make of the fact that Proto-Tibetan and Proto-Sinitic were sister languages, but Tibetans and Han are so genetically disparate?”

My first response was that, assuming the question itself was correct, then one group must have conquered the other group, imparting its language but not its DNA.

On further reflection, though, I decided it’d be best to check whether the question’s initial premises were correct.

Sino-Tibetan, it turns out, is a legit language family:

The Sino-Tibetan languages, in a few sources also known as Tibeto-Burman or Trans-Himalayan, are a family of more than 400 languages spoken in East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The family is second only to the Indo-European languages in terms of the number of native speakers. The Sino-Tibetan languages with the most native speakers are the varieties of Chinese (1.3 billion speakers), Burmese (33 million) and the Tibetic languages (8 million). Many Sino-Tibetan languages are spoken by small communities in remote mountain areas and as such are poorly documented.

Map of the Sino-Tibetan language family
Red: Chinese; Yellow: Tibetan; Brown: Karen; Green: Lolo-Burmese; Orange: Other

But the claim that Tibetans and Chinese people are genetically disparate looks more questionable. While the Wikipedia page on Sino-Tibetan claims that, “There is no ethnic unity among the many peoples who speak Sino-Tibetan languages,” in the next two sentences it also claims that, “The most numerous are the Han Chinese, numbering 1.4+ billion(in China alone). The Hui (10 million) also speak Chinese but are officially classified as ethnically distinct by the Chinese government.”

But the Chinese government claiming that a group is an official ethnic group doesn’t make it a genetic group. “Hui” just means Muslim, and Muslims of any genetic background can get lumped into the group. I actually read some articles about the Hui ages ago, and as far as I recall, the category didn’t really exist in any official way prior to the modern PRC declaring that it did for census purposes. Today (or recently) there are some special perks for being an ethnic minority in China, like exceptions to the one-child policy, which lead more people to embrace their “Hui” identity and start thinking about themselves in this pan-Chinese-Muslim way rather than in terms of their local ethnic group, but none of this is genetics.

So right away I am suspicious that this claim is more “these groups see themselves as different” than “they are genetically different.” And I totally agree that Tibetan people and Chinese people are culturally distinct and probably see themselves as different groups.

For genetics, let’s turn back to Haak et al’s representation of global genetics:

Haak et all’s full dataset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just in case you’re new around here, the part dominated by bright blue is sub-Saharan Africans, the yellow is Asians, and the orange is Caucasians. I’ve made a map to make it easier to visualize the distribution of these groups:

Asian, Australian, and Melanesian ethic groups (including Indian, Middle Eastern, and Chinese) from Haak et al’s dataset

This dataset doesn’t have a Tibetan group, but it does have the Nepalese Kusunda, Mongolic Tu (a Mongolic-language speaking people in China), and the Burmese Lahu. So it’s a start.

The first thing that jumps out at me is that the groups in the Sino-Tibetan language family do not look all that genetically distinct, at least not on a global scale. They’re more similar than Middle Easterners and Europeans, despite the fact that Anatolian farmers invaded Europe several thousand years ago.

The Wikipedia page on Sino-Tibetan notes:

J. A. Matisoff proposed that the urheimat of the Sino-Tibetan languages was around the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween, and Mekong. This view is in accordance with the hypothesis that bubonic plague, cholera, and other diseases made the easternmost foothills of the Himalayas between China and India difficult for people outside to migrate in but relatively easily for the indigenous people, who had been adapted to the environment, to migrate out.[68]

The Yangtze, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong rivers, as you might have already realized if you took a good look at the map at the beginning of the post, all begin in Tibet.

Since Tibet was recently conquered by China, I was initially thinking that perhaps an ancient Chinese group had imposed their language on the Tibetans some time in the remote past, but Tibetans heading downstream and possibly conquering the people below makes a lot more sense.

oh look, it’s our friends the Ainu

According to About World Languages, Proto-Sino-Tibetan may have split into its Tibeto- and Sinitic- branches about 4,000 BC. This is about the same time Proto-Indo-European started splitting up, so we have some idea of what a language family looks like when it’s that old; much older, and the languages start becoming so distinct that reconstruction becomes more difficult.

But if we look at the available genetic data a little more closely, we see that there are some major differences between Tibetans and their Sinitic neighbors–most notably, many Tibetan men belong to Y-Chromosome haplogroup D, while most Han Chinese men belong to haplogroup O with a smattering of Haplogroup C, which may have arrived via the Mongols.

According to Wikipedia:

The distribution of Haplogroup D-M174 is found among nearly all the populations of Central Asia and Northeast Asia south of the Russian border, although generally at a low frequency of 2% or less. A dramatic spike in the frequency of D-M174 occurs as one approaches the Tibetan Plateau. D-M174 is also found at high frequencies among Japanese people, but it fades into low frequencies in Korea and China proper between Japan and Tibet.

Also:

It is found today at high frequency among populations in Tibet, the Japanese archipelago, and the Andaman Islands, though curiously not in India. The Ainu of Japan are notable for possessing almost exclusively Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes, although Haplogroup C-M217 chromosomes also have been found in 15% (3/20) of sampled Ainu males. Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes are also found at low to moderate frequencies among populations of Central Asia and northern East Asia as well as the Han and Miao–Yao peoples of China and among several minority populations of Sichuan and Yunnan that speak Tibeto-Burman languages and reside in close proximity to the Tibetans.[5]

Unlike haplogroup C-M217, Haplogroup D-M174 is not found in the New World…

Haplogroup D-M174 is also remarkable for its rather extreme geographic differentiation, with a distinct subset of Haplogroup D-M174 chromosomes being found exclusively in each of the populations that contains a large percentage of individuals whose Y-chromosomes belong to Haplogroup D-M174: Haplogroup D-M15 among the Tibetans (as well as among the mainland East Asian populations that display very low frequencies of Haplogroup D-M174 Y-chromosomes), Haplogroup D-M55 among the various populations of the Japanese Archipelago, Haplogroup D-P99 among the inhabitants of Tibet, Tajikistan and other parts of mountainous southern Central Asia, and paragroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades (probably another monophyletic branch of Haplogroup D) among the Andaman Islanders. Another type (or types) of paragroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades is found at a very low frequency among the Turkic and Mongolic populations of Central Asia, amounting to no more than 1% in total. This apparently ancient diversification of Haplogroup D-M174 suggests that it may perhaps be better characterized as a “super-haplogroup” or “macro-haplogroup.” In one study, the frequency of Haplogroup D-M174 without tested positive subclades found among Thais was 10%.

Haplogroup D’s sister clade, Haplogroup E, (both D and E are descended from Haplogroup DE), is found almost exclusively in Africa.

Haplogroup D is therefore very ancient, estimated at 50-60,000 years old. Haplogroup O, by contrast, is only about 30,000 years old.

On the subject of Han genetics, Wikipedia states:

Y-chromosome haplogroup O3 is a common DNA marker in Han Chinese, as it appeared in China in prehistoric times. It is found in more than 50% of Chinese males, and ranging up to over 80% in certain regional subgroups of the Han ethnicity.[100] However, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Han Chinese increases in diversity as one looks from northern to southern China, which suggests that male migrants from northern China married with women from local peoples after arriving in modern-day Guangdong, Fujian, and other regions of southern China.[101][102] … Another study puts Han Chinese into two groups: northern and southern Han Chinese, and it finds that the genetic characteristics of present-day northern Han Chinese was already formed as early as three-thousand years ago in the Central Plain area.[109]

(Note that 3,000 years ago is potentially a thousand years after the first expansion of Proto-Sino-Tibetan.)

The estimated contribution of northern Hans to southern Hans is substantial in both paternal and maternal lineages and a geographic cline exists for mtDNA. As a result, the northern Hans are the primary contributors to the gene pool of the southern Hans. However, it is noteworthy that the expansion process was dominated by males, as is shown by a greater contribution to the Y-chromosome than the mtDNA from northern Hans to southern Hans. These genetic observations are in line with historical records of continuous and large migratory waves of northern China inhabitants escaping warfare and famine, to southern China.

Interestingly, the page on Tibetans notes, ” It is thought that most of the Tibeto-Burman-speakers in Southwest China, including the Tibetans, are direct descendants from the ancient Qiang.[6]

On the Qiang:

The term “Qiang” appears in the Classic of Poetry in reference to Tang of Shang (trad. 1675–1646 BC).[14] They seem to have lived in a diagonal band from northern Shaanxi to northern Henan, somewhat to the south of the later Beidi. They were enemy of the Shang dynasty, who mounted expeditions against them, capturing slaves and victims for human sacrifice. The Qiang prisoners were skilled in making oracle bones.[15]

This ancient tribe is said to be the progenitor of both the modern Qiang and the Tibetan people.[16] There are still many ethnological and linguistic links between the Qiang and the Tibetans.[16] The Qiang tribe expanded eastward and joined the Han people in the course of historical development, while the other branch that traveled southwards, crosses over the Hengduan Mountains, and entered the Yungui Plateau; some went even farther, to Burma, forming numerous ethnic groups of the Tibetan-Burmese language family.[17] Even today, from linguistic similarities, their relative relationship can be seen.

So here’s what I think happened (keeping in mind that I am in no way an expert on these subjects):

  1. About 8,000 years ago: neolithic people lived in Asia. (People of some sort have been living in Asia since Homo erectus, after all.) The ancestors of today’s Sino-Tibetans lived atop the Tibetan plateau.
  2. About 6,000 years ago: the Tibetans headed downstream, following the course of local rivers. In the process, the probably conquered and absorbed many of the local tribes they encountered.
  3. About 4,000 years ago: the Han and Qiang are ethnically and linguistically distinct, though the Qiang are still fairly similar to the Tibetans.
  4. The rest of Chinese history: Invasion from the north. Not only did the Mongols invade and kill somewhere between 20 and 60 million Chinese people in the 13th century, but there were also multiple of invasions/migrations by people who were trying to get away from the Mongols.

Note that while the original proto-Sino-Tibetan invasion likely spread Tibetan Y-Chromosomes throughout southern China, the later Mongol and other Chinese invasions likely wiped out a large percent of those same chromosomes, as invaders both tend to be men and to kill men; women are more likely to survive invasions.

Most recently, of course, the People’s Republic of China conquered Tibet in 1951.

I’m sure there’s a lot I’m missing that would be obvious to an expert.

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9 thoughts on “The People Who Went Down the Rivers: Origin of the Sino-Tibetan Language Family

  1. China has had periods of internal migration from war, civil wars and more peaceful reasons. Sichuan, one of the South-Western provinces for instance was depopulated during a civil war and repopulated from other provinces. The map of where Mandarin is spoken, seeing as it originated in the North plains implies it has spread from North to South, which was my understanding. I think the North East, Manchuria only began speaking Mandarin after the Qing conquered China. Truthfully I don’t know much about Chinese history either. Also I think most overseas Chinese historically were from the non-Mandarin south.

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      • My understanding is that they share a common origin as they both tended to populated primarily from emmigrants from the south, also some overseas Chinese communities predate the Chinese settlement of Taiwan. Taiwanese are like overseas Chinese and most originate from the non-Mandarin south, their ancesteral language(?) is mostly Hokkien, while most traditional overseas Chinese speak Cantonese, Hokkien or some other Southern Chinese languages. For the map below Cantonese is language/dialect of Yue while Hokkien is language/dialect of Min.

        https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6a/Map_of_sinitic_languages_cropped-en.svg

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  2. It’s funny in the Himalayan section of India how there’s a bit of gradation, but you more-or-less go from one village where everybody looks North Indian to another village where everybody looks East Asian, with those little red circles on their cheeks to tell you they’re Tibetan/Himalayan.

    As for cultural distinction- I’m sure Chitral/Kalash people are culturally very distinct from almost every European group, but I’d also be very surprised if their language and genetics didn’t show lots of evidence of connection.

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