When did language evolve?

The smartest non-human primates, like Kanzi the bonobo and Koko the gorilla, understand about 2,000 to 4,000 words. Koko can make about 1,000 signs in sign language and Kanzi can use about 450 lexigrams (pictures that stand for words.) Koko can also make some onomatopoetic words–that is, she can make and use imitative sounds in conversation.

A four year human knows about 4,000 words, similar to an exceptional gorilla. An adult knows about 20,000-35,000 words. (Another study puts the upper bound at 42,000.)

Somewhere along our journey from ape-like hominins to homo sapiens sapiens, our ancestors began talking, but exactly when remains a mystery. The origins of writing have been amusingly easy to discover, because early writers were fond of very durable surfaces, like clay, stone, and bone. Speech, by contrast, evaporates as soon as it is heard–leaving no trace for archaeologists to uncover.

But we can find the things necessary for speech and the things for which speech, in turn, is necessary.

The main reason why chimps and gorillas, even those taught human language, must rely on lexigrams or gestures to communicate is that their voiceboxes, lungs, and throats work differently than ours. Their semi-arborial lifestyle requires using the ribs as a rigid base for the arm and shoulder muscles while climbing, which in turn requires closing the lungs while climbing to provide support for the ribs.

Full bipedalism released our early ancestors from the constraints on airway design imposed by climbing, freeing us to make a wider variety of vocalizations.

Now is the perfect time to break out my file of relevant human evolution illustrations:

Source: Scientific American What Makes Humans Special

We humans split from our nearest living ape relatives about 7-8 million years ago, but true bipedalism may not have evolved for a few more million years. Since there are many different named hominins, here is a quick guide:

Source: Macroevolution in and Around the Hominin Clade

Australopithecines (light blue in the graph,) such as the famous Lucy, are believed to have been the first fully bipedal hominins, although, based on the shape of their toes, they may have still occasionally retreated into the trees. They lived between 4 and 2 million years ago.

Without delving into the myriad classification debates along the lines of “should we count this set of skulls as a separate species or are they all part of the natural variation within one species,” by the time the homo genus arises with H Habilis or H. Rudolfensis around 2.8 million years ag, humans were much worse at climbing trees.

Interestingly, one direction humans have continued evolving in is up.

Oldowan tool

The reliable production of stone tools represents an enormous leap forward in human cognition. The first known stone tools–Oldowan–are about 2.5-2.6 million years old and were probably made by homo Habilis. These simple tools are typically shaped only one one side.

By the Acheulean–1.75 million-100,000 years ago–tool making had become much more sophisticated. Not only did knappers shape both sides of both the tops and bottoms of stones, but they also made tools by first shaping a core stone and then flaking derivative pieces from it.

The first Acheulean tools were fashioned by h Erectus; by 100,000 years ago, h Sapiens had presumably taken over the technology.

Flint knapping is surprisingly difficult, as many an archaeology student has discovered.

These technological advances were accompanied by steadily increasing brain sizes.

I propose that the complexities of the Acheulean tool complex required some form of language to facilitate learning and teaching; this gives us a potential lower bound on language around 1.75 million years ago. Bipedalism gives us an upper bound around 4 million years ago, before which our voice boxes were likely more restricted in the sounds they could make.

A Different View

Even though “homo Sapiens” has been around for about 300,000 years (or so we have defined the point where we chose to differentiate between our species and the previous one,) “behavioral modernity” only emerged around 50,000 years ago (very awkward timing if you know anything about human dispersal.)

Everything about behavioral modernity is heavily contested (including when it began,) but no matter how and when you date it, compared to the million years or so it took humans to figure out how to knap the back side of a rock, human technologic advance has accelerated significantly over the past 100,000 and even moreso over the past 50,000 and even 10,000.

Fire was another of humanity’s early technologies:

Claims for the earliest definitive evidence of control of fire by a member of Homo range from 1.7 to 0.2 million years ago (Mya).[1] Evidence for the controlled use of fire by Homo erectus, beginning some 600,000 years ago, has wide scholarly support.[2][3] Flint blades burned in fires roughly 300,000 years ago were found near fossils of early but not entirely modern Homo sapiens in Morocco.[4] Evidence of widespread control of fire by anatomically modern humans dates to approximately 125,000 years ago.[5]

What prompted this sudden acceleration? Noam Chomsky suggests that it was triggered by the evolution of our ability to use and understand language:

Noam Chomsky, a prominent proponent of discontinuity theory, argues that a single chance mutation occurred in one individual in the order of 100,000 years ago, installing the language faculty (a component of the mind–brain) in “perfect” or “near-perfect” form.[6]

(Pumpkin Person has more on Chomsky.)

More specifically, we might say that this single chance mutation created the capacity for figurative or symbolic language, as clearly apes already have the capacity for very simple language. It was this ability to convey abstract ideas, then, that allowed humans to begin expressing themselves in other abstract ways, like cave painting.

I disagree with this view on the grounds that human groups were already pretty widely dispersed by 100,000 years ago. For example, Pygmies and Bushmen are descended from groups of humans who had already split off from the rest of us by then, but they still have symbolic language, art, and everything else contained in the behavioral modernity toolkit. Of course, if a trait is particularly useful or otherwise successful, it can spread extremely quickly (think lactose tolerance,) and neither Bushmen nor Pygmies were 100% genetically isolated for the past 250,000 years, but I simply think the math here doesn’t work out.

However, that doesn’t mean Chomsky isn’t on to something. For example, Johanna Nichols (another linguist,) used statistical models of language differentiation to argue that modern languages split around 100,000 years ago.[31] This coincides neatly with the upper bound on the Out of Africa theory, suggesting that Nichols may actually have found the point when language began differentiating because humans left Africa, or perhaps she found the origin of the linguistic skills necessary to accomplish humanity’s cross-continental trek.

Philip Lieberman and Robert McCarthy looked at the shape of Neanderthal, homo Erectus, early h Sapiens and modern h Sapiens’ vocal tracts:

In normal adults these two portions of the SVT form a right angle to one another and are approximately equal in length—in a 1:1 proportion. Movements of the tongue within this space, at its midpoint, are capable of producing tenfold changes in the diameter of the SVT. These tongue maneuvers produce the abrupt diameter changes needed to produce the formant frequencies of the vowels found most frequently among the world’s languages—the “quantal” vowels [i], [u], and [a] of the words “see,” “do,” and “ma.” In contrast, the vocal tracts of other living primates are physiologically incapable of producing such vowels.

(Since juvenile humans are shaped differently than adults, they pronounce sounds slightly differently until their voiceboxes fully develop.)

Their results:

…Neanderthal necks were too short and their faces too long to have accommodated equally proportioned SVTs. Although we could not reconstruct the shape of the SVT in the Homo erectus fossil because it does not preserve any cervical vertebrae, it is clear that its face (and underlying horizontal SVT) would have been too long for a 1:1 SVT to fit into its head and neck. Likewise, in order to fit a 1:1 SVT into the reconstructed Neanderthal anatomy, the larynx would have had to be positioned in the Neanderthal’s thorax, behind the sternum and clavicles, much too low for effective swallowing. …

Surprisingly, our reconstruction of the 100,000-year-old specimen from Israel, which is anatomically modern in most respects, also would not have been able to accommodate a SVT with a 1:1 ratio, albeit for a different reason. … Again, like its Neanderthal relatives, this early modern human probably had an SVT with a horizontal dimension longer than its vertical one, translating into an inability to reproduce the full range of today’s human speech.

It was only in our reconstruction of the most recent fossil specimens—the modern humans postdating 50,000 years— that we identified an anatomy that could have accommodated a fully modern, equally proportioned vocal tract.

Just as small children who can’t yet pronounce the letter “r” can nevertheless make and understand language, I don’t think early humans needed to have all of the same sounds as we have in order to communicate with each other. They would have just used fewer sounds.

The change in our voiceboxes may not have triggered the evolution of language, but been triggered by language itself. As humans began transmitting more knowledge via language, humans who could make more sounds could utter a greater range of words perhaps had an edge over their peers–maybe they were seen as particularly clever, or perhaps they had an easier time organizing bands of hunters and warriors.

One of the interesting things about human language is that it is clearly simultaneously cultural–which language you speak is entirely determined by culture–and genetic–only humans can produce language in the way we do. Even the smartest chimps and dolphins cannot match our vocabularies, nor imitate our sounds. Human infants–unless they have some form of brain damage–learn language instinctually, without conscious teaching. (Insert reference to Steven Pinker.)

Some kind of genetic changes were obviously necessary to get from apes to human language use, but exactly what remains unclear.

A variety of genes are associated with language use, eg FOXP2. H Sapiens and chimps have different versions of the FOXP2 gene, (and Neanderthals have a third, but more similar to the H Sapiens version than the chimp,) but to my knowledge we have yet to discover exactly when the necessary mutations arose.

Despite their impressive skulls and survival in a harsh, novel climate, Neanderthals seem not to have engaged in much symbolic activity, (though to be fair, they were wiped out right about the time Sapiens really got going with its symbolic activity.) Homo Sapiens and Homo Nanderthalis split around 800-400,000 years ago–perhaps the difference in our language genes ultimately gave Sapiens the upper hand.

Just as farming appears to have emerged relatively independently in several different locations around the world at about the same time, so behavioral modernity seems to have taken off in several different groups around the same time. Of course we can’t rule out the possibility that these groups had some form of contact with each other–peaceful or otherwise–but it seems more likely to me that similar behaviors emerged in disparate groups around the same time because the cognitive precursors necessary for those behaviors had already begun before they split.

Based on genetics, the shape of their larynges, and their cultural toolkits, Neanderthals probably did not have modern speech, but they may have had something similar to it. This suggests that at the time of the Sapiens-Neanderthal split, our common ancestor possessed some primitive speech capacity.

By the time Sapiens and Neanderthals encountered each other again, nearly half a million years later, Sapiens’ language ability had advanced, possibly due to further modification of FOXP2 and other genes like it, plus our newly modified voiceboxes, while Neanderthals’ had lagged. Sapiens achieved behavioral modernity and took over the planet, while Neanderthals disappeared.



Guest Post from Pusat Sesi on Turkic Languages and Culture

Pusat Sesi recently had some interesting comments on Turkic languages and culture, which I thought it a shame to leave buried on an old post that few people are likely to read, so we’re transforming it into a guest post (the pictures are my additions):

560Hello, I am a Turkish citizen and my family members are descendants from Crimea during the Ottoman era. We are called Turkmen in our village and I personally look like our Asian relatives with my slanting eyes. I am able to read and write old Turkic Alphabet (I mean Orkhon Alphabet where you mention in this article). I just wanted to make a few contributions. Let me list them as below:

Orkhon, or old Turkish alphabet
Orkhon, or old Turkish alphabet

1) Turk or Turkic is a term used for people who speak a Turkic language as native whatever the race he/she belongs to.

2) Turks were never a homogenous racial group in the history except the time they emerged as a clan in the world (a hypothetical existence on earth, nobody can know the origin of the Turks but my guess is that the first Turkic people were a tribe that left their ancestral lands. Those ancestors of course should be one of Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Mongol people.)

3) Turks were a warrior nation due to their nomadic lifestyle and most of the time they were a minority among the people where they invaded/occupied/migrated/dwelled. So it is very normal that genetically they were mixed with the locals and mostly melted away as a race in the society. For

The "Phrygian cap" appears frequently in US and French symbolic art
The “Phrygian cap” appears frequently in US and French symbolic art

example in Turkey there were Greeks and Romans in western Anatolia but in the center there were Hittites and Phrygians, in the South-west there were Lydians, in the South east Mesopotamians, in the north Caucasus people and in the east Armenians etc. But what happened? They all became Turkic and you see many different hair, skin, eyes color, in Turkey today. Simply, the minority Turkic people mixed with local people genetically but most of the time culturally those crowded local people were Turkified and adopted the Turkic culture.

4) Turkic people mostly preserved the Turkic identity (this is not racial but cultural identity) and I think there is only one reason for this: the language. Admit or not, Turkic language should be somehow a powerful, dominant language wherever it goes. Even Gokturks (first ever state using the name Turk and owner of Orkhon inscriptions) were a federation with many different people from different tribes and races. Even in the Orkhon inscriptions some of these nations are given by their names. But the language was the only common factor that bring them together as a single identity. As an example fort he importance of language is the situation of Egyptians today. Think that they are descendants of the old great empire of Egypt, lands of pharaohs and builders of pyramids. Today they have almost no connection with their past except for the skin color. The reason is that they are completely Arabized with the influence of Arabic language.

Map of Turkic-language speaking peoples
Map of Turkic-language speaking peoples

5) The language of Turkic people was until the 20th century were highly mutually intelligible (during 1900s Soviet, Chinese, Western influences are very high among Turkic languages). I was in China a few years ago and talked in Uyghur restaurant with my Turkish, while they spoke in Uyghur language. Not even a single misunderstanding happened among us. Because the basic words are the same as thousands of years ago… When we talked with our own accents neither they found it odd, nor I did. And we smiled when we see that we can understand each other easily. Think about thousands of miles and thousands of years between a Turkish and Uyghur and see the power of language. It is not the DNA that makes us Turkic, it is the language despite all the loan words and pronunciation differences.

5) About the Orkhon inscriptions: I said I can read and write with this alphabet and it took only 6 hours for me to learn the rules and use of it🙂 because it is up to now the most Turkic thing I have ever seen in my life. I will explain but first I should examine your assumption in the article. When the Orkhon inscriptions were read for the first time, many theories also emerged for the origin of these monuments. One of them assumed that this alphabet was derived from Sogdian and there were a few similar letters. The main reason is that a nomadic tribe/people cannot have such a writing system because they don’t need it. So they should have borrowed the alphabet from some other civilized people which should be Iranians in the vicinity since obviously there is no relation with Chinese characters. I strongly oppose this assumption. Here is why:

a) Although some characters are similar to Sogdian, the sounds of the letters are completely different.

From the blog OnTurk.com: Orkhon letter Ok
From the blog OnTurk.com: Orkhon letter Ok

b) The letters are artificial (I mean they are not natural shapes) based on the characteristics of the Turkic language. The alphabet doesn’t seem that it is borrowed, rather it was created for a specific purpose. Since I am a Turkic myself I can see the differences with today’s Latin alphabet. I will try to explain you in a most effective way. As an example: there is a letter read as “ok” in Orkhon alphabet. “Ok” means “arrow” in Turkic and guess what… The letter’s shape is an arrow🙂 There is another letter read as “eb”. “Eb” means “house” in Turkic and guess what… The letter’s shape is a “tent”. Turks were nomadic people and lived in tents, remember? There is a letter read as “ab”. “Ab” means “water” in Turkic and guess what… The letter’s shape is a “water bottle” . There is a letter read as “ay”. “Ay” means “moon” in Turkic and guess what… The letter’s shape is a half moon🙂 There is a letter read as “er”. “Er” means “person” in Turkic and guess what… The letter’s shape is a person with arms🙂 This list goes on like this.

Another special thing with Orkhon alphabet is that it is very suitable for “pure Turkic word structure.” But none of the alphabets Turkic people used today has the same capabilities. What do I mean by this “pure Turkic word structure”? Turkic language has two sounds for one letter, one is soft (with a front vowel) and the other is thick (with a back vowel). So if a word starts with a soft letter, then all the syllables should also be soft. For instance, if the word “computer” were Turkic, it should be written as “komputar”. I will also use what I wrote above while giving my previous examples. There are two letters like “-eb” (house) and “-ab” (water) in Orkhon. These are in fact the letter “b” in Latin but for Turkic language there should be two “b”s and this is indeed valid for also other letters. Only Orkhon alphabet can satisfy such a need. So my point is that, the Orkhon alphabet was created specifically for Turkic language needs at that time rather than borrowed one from another language. Some shapes can be borrowed and modified but the alphabet is an original one.

6) As a summary: race for Turkic nations is not important. Even though there are differences, the only thing that makes a person Turkic is the Turkic language he/she used as a native language. So Turkey is not very Turkic in DNA but very Turkic in every other aspects.

Turkey: Not very Turkic (a genetic history of the Turkic peoples)

Ironic, isn’t it? The geographic distribution of Turkic languages is amazingly vast-yet-splotchy, extending from the eastern border of Bosnia to the far western end of Siberia, where Russia approaches Alaska: Carte_peuples_turcs (I’d really like to see this map laid atop a topographic map, because that might explain some of the splotchiness–not a lot of people speaking anything in the Taklamakan Desert, for example.) Our oldest known Turkic inscription–thus, our first known use of the Turkic language–comes from the Orkhon Valley, which is located smack dab in the middle of Mongolia. Which, you may have noticed, is not today a Turkic-language speaking place. The Mongolian Language family is, ironically, much less widespread than the Turkic-family:


Given that the Mongols recently conquered almost all of Asia, decimating local populations and leaving behind their genetic legacy (polite speak for “raping all the women,”) they’ve made remarkably little linguistic impact. If we want to get controversial, some linguists propose that the Mongolian family and the Turkic family might be related to each other within a broader “Altaic” language family, which makes plenty of geographic sense, but might not make true linguistic sense. Being me, I always root for nice fancy language family trees, but we’re going to have to call this one “just a theory some guys have and some guys oppose” for now. (The difficulty with reconstructing proto-Turkic or proto-Altaic or the like is that there aren’t a ton of old inscriptions in either family, and not many linguists are trained in them.) Languages get complicated because they can contaminate each other in unexpected ways. To use a familiar example, even though English is a Germanic language, our “do” constructions, eg, “Do you walk?” “I do walk!” and “Do walk with me,” appear to come not from Old or Proto-Germanic, but from Celtic languages. When the Anglo Saxons moved to England and conquered the Celtic peoples living there and made them start speaking Anglo-Saxon, the Celts retained some of their old grammatical structures. But Celtic and Germanic languages are not all that different; they’re both Indo-European, after all. Imagine what craziness you could get by combining peoples who originally spoke languages separated by much vaster gulfs of time.

The English example reminds us of another difficulty in attempting to use linguistics to tell us something about groups and their histories: widely disparate groups can speak the same language. Not only are the English, despite speaking a “Germanic” language, only about 10% German by ancestry (more or less;) but the US has almost 40 million African Americans who all speak English and aren’t genetically English. Even though most people learn to talk by imitating their parents, people have picked up and promulgated many languages that weren’t their ancestors’.

We have a similar situation with Turkey, where the majority of the population clearly speaks a Turkic language, but the genetics shows far more in common with their local Middle Eastern neighbors:

Click for full size
From Haak et al.

Zooming in on the relevant portion:

TurkishDNA2fromHaak ChechenDNAfromHaak

I like Turkey’s DNA because it’s always easy to spot in these charts. Turkey has some real variation in the distribution of different ancestral populations–the Japanese population, by comparison, is far more genetically homogenous.

The really anomalous guys in the Turkish sample are easily explained–they’re just Greeks, (and the anomalous guys in the Greek Sample are Turks.) Turkey ruled over Greece for quite a while, so it’s not surprising that some Greeks live in Turkey and some Turks live in Greece.

Chechens through Kumyks are all groups from the Caucus Mountains area, which is just north of the Turkish-Iranian border, so it’s not too surprising that all of these groups resemble each other. The Greeks, though, are much closer to their neighbors to the north, like the Albanians.

The Chechen and Lezgian languages are from the “Northeast Caucasian” language family (aka Caspian language family). Remarkably, this geographically tiny splotch of languages (and the similarly named but apparently not linguistically similar Northwest Caucasian language family, [aka Pontic language family,]) is considered, like Indo-European, one of the world’s distinct language groupings:

Primary_Human_Language_Families_MapThe Adygei (or Adyghe) speak a Northwest Caucasian language.

The Balkars and Kumyks speak Turkic languages, and the Ossetians speak an Indo-European language, (Indo-Iranian branch.)

Remarkably, even though these Caucasian groups speak languages from four different language families–one of which may have originated in far-off Mongolia–they are genetically quite similar to each other.

from Haak et al.

The Iranians have a small but noticeable chunk of bright green, which shows up in tiny quantities in some of the other populations in this group. The bright green is highly characteristic of India, where it is found in large quantities.

Iran speaks an Indo-European language, of the Indo-Iranian branch. (Given present politics, it is a bit of a wonder that the Aryan Nation and its ilk are actually named after the Muslim nation of Iran, but there you go, that’s history for you.) So I suspect that Iran got its language due to a small group of Indians conquering the place, imposing their language, and marrying into the local population, but this isn’t really supposed to be a post on the history of Indo-European.

What about Turkey’s neighbors to the south? How much do Turks resemble them? Here are some folks in the local vicinity (Syria and Iraq border Turkey to the south, but Iraq doesn’t seem to have made it into this dataset):


The most noticeable thing here are the big chunks of purple, which reach their maximum in the Bedouins. However, I suspect the purple is (in some manner) related to the dark blue which it replaces; if you glance up at the dataset used for the image at the top of the blog, you’ll note that it shows the same basic ancestral DNA groups for the Middle Easterners as Europeans (albeit in different proportions.) The technical differences between these two data sets aren’t worth getting into; suffice to say that I think the Haak dataset is just showing us a finer grained level of detail, which is why I am primarily leaning on it.

At any rate, the purple is distinctive. The Turks (and Iranians) have some purple, but not a lot; the Caucasians very little. The Middle Easterners also have a bit of pink (and a touch of blue) which hail from Africa. These colors, interestingly, appear not to have made it into the Turkish samples at all.

So while the Turks are similar to the Syrians and other neighbors to the south, I hold that they are genetically more similar to their neighbors in Iran and the Caucuses.

DNA from various Asian peoples

But what about the red and yellow bits? Those come from central Asia. Russia has similar levels of red, which is found all over Siberia and northern Eurasia, including the Sami; Yellow is common across far east Asia, including China, Japan, and Mongolia. Most of the countries that Americans mean when they say “Asian” have a mix of red and yellow.

Since the first written Turkic we have comes from the middle of Mongolia, it is sensible that folks in Turkey, today, might have DNA that appears to have come from the region. However, they don’t have a lot of this DNA, suggesting that the overall number of migrants or conquerors, (Turkic or Mongolian or of some other Asian origin,) was relatively low compared to the rest of the population. Today’s Turks, therefore, are probably descended primarily from the ancient Anatolian population that was there before the Turks, Mongols, Indo-Iranians, or other folks showed up.

Geographically, Turkey is located on a plateau and markedly greener than its neighbors to the south. That alone may account for differences between the Turkish people and their southern, more desert-dwelling neighbors.

What about the other Turkic peoples?

There are a lot of them:

The term Turkic represents a broad ethno-linguistic group of peoples including existing societies such as the Turkish people, Azerbaijanis, Chuvashes, Kazakhs, Tatars, Kyrgyz, Turkmens, Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Bashkirs, Qashqai, Gagauz, Altai, Khakas, Tuvans, Yakuts, Crimean Karaites, Krymchaks, Karakalpaks, Karachays, Balkars, Nogais and as well as past civilizations such as Yenisei Kirghiz, Dingling, Tiele, Chuban, Pannonian Avars, Göktürks, Bulgars, Kumans, Kipchaks, Turgeshes, Khazars, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, Mamluks, Timurids, Khiljis, and possibly Huns, Xiongnu, Wusun, Tauri and the Tuoba.

And we don’t have time to run through all of them. We will mention those who are included in Haak’s dataset, though:

TurkishDNAfromHaakNogai balkar Chuvash Kumyk Kyrgyz Turkmen Altaian yakut

(Chuvash? Are you sure?)

These guys have a lot in common–most of them have, at least broadly, similar varieties of DNA–but not enough to be considered a single ethnic group. Like most groups, they tend to be more closely related to their neighbors than to folks far off, and the Turkic peoples are pretty scattered. The especially odd thing about them, though, is that none of these–at least, none of the folks in Haak’s dataset–look like the Mongols, despite the Turkic languages having probably originated somewhere near Mongolia. (And the Mongolian-like DNA they do have might be more easily explained by Mongolian expansions than by Turkic ones.)

Wikipedia comes to a similar conclusion:

The physical characteristics of populations of speakers of Turkic language stretch across a range as wide as the land they inhabit. The Turkic peoples in Europe look European – with the exception of some Crimean Tatars and Turkics in the Caucasus (Kumyks, Nogays, etc.) who look European+Northeast Asian, while Turkics in the Middle East resemble the peoples of the Middle East, those in Central Asia mostly look mixed but have mostly northeast Asian features. Turkics in northeast Asia resemble populations in that region. In trying to answer such questions as what “race” were the Proto-Turkic speakers, neither anthropometric nor genetic studies have been of much assistance to date. What few DNA analyses have been done arrive at the problem as an answer: affinity to primarily western populations in the west, eastern in the east, and a mixture on a gradient from east to west or vice versa in between.[2] These biological circumstances suggest that racial evolution over the region is earlier than can be considered in the time of the distribution of languages; i.e., the languages may have evolved among populations that were already mixed.

The extremes of the Eurasian continent–Europe, India, SE Asia–have wide zones with a fair amount of genetic homogeneity (even where there are multiple ancestral groups.) In between these zones, however, we get a mixing zone, where different groups come together and new ethnicities are born. All of the Turkic groups here have, to greater or lesser degrees, the tri-color pattern typical of Europe (orange, teal, dark blue) and the di-color pattern typical of SE Asia (red and yellow,) though this is greatly attenuated at the extremes of Turkey and the Yakut. Some groups also have the green characteristic of Indo-Iranians, probably due to bordering those zones.

The Turkic language groups may therefore represent a kind of genetic mixing zone between the large, homogenous zones to their east, west, and south. How long have the steppes (and the mountains to their south) been mixing zones? We don’t know. But the idea that the Turkic peoples were ethnically mixed and heterogenous long before they began speaking Turkic languages at all seems reasonable.

But if Turks aren’t particularly Turkic, why do they speak a Turkic language at all?

Surprisingly, the Turks didn’t even exert military dominance over Turkey until about the 1,000. Prior to this, Anatolia, as we may call the pre-Turkic area–was ruled by the Byzantines, eastern successors to the Roman Empire. The local population was Greek-speaking Christians.

The origins of the Turkic peoples are shrouded in mystery, mostly because of the lack of good written records. There is much speculation, for example, about whether or not the Huns were Turkic, but unless someone can come up with a Hunnic dictionary, we’ll probably never truly know.

The first confirmably Turkic group we know of was the aptly-named Goturks, who lived in parts of China and Mongolia, beginning around the 500s. They apparently controlled a rather large region:


We know of the Goturks because they left behind written records of themselves (beginning in the early 700s,) the Orkhon inscriptions. Interestingly, these Old Turkic inscriptions are written in an alphabet derived from Aramaic (which is, in turn, derived from Phoenician):


What were a bunch of nomadic herders doing making a bunch of monuments inscribed with a derivative form of the Aramaic alphabet up in the middle of Mongolia in the 700s? For that matter, why weren’t they using something derived from Chinese, who lived much nearer?

My best guess is that the alphabet arrived with some eastern variant of Christianity, spread by Christian missionaries through the Persian empire and beyond. (Remember, Iran wasn’t conquered by the Muslims until 651; before that, Christianity had a much larger foothold in the East.) This is not to say that the Goturks were Christians in the way that we typically practice it today, (shamanism focused on the sky god Tengri, whom they shared with the Mongols, appears to have been the dominant religion,) but that they may have had contact with Christian missionaries or religious texts.

At any rate, it looks like the Turkic peoples get on too well with the Chinese, and probably weren’t too keen on the Mongols, (no one was too keen on the Mongols,) which may have inspired them to start migrating. (Or perhaps they were always migrating. They were nomads, after all.)  Either way, by the 800s, a Turkic-speaking people called the Seljuqs had pitched their yurts north of the Caspian sea.

From there they migrated southward, encountering Muslims in Iran, (where they picked up Islam,) and eventually reaching Turkey around the year 1,000. (These migrations probably should not be thought of as single, organized movements of people, but of many migrations, mostly of tribes simply wandering in search of pastures for their animals, conquering neighbors, fleeing conquerors, and generally being a complicated, disorganized bunch of humans.)

At any rate, the Seljuk Empire, founded in 1037, absorbed the crumbling Persian Empire, and invaded the Byzantine Empire in 1068. By 1092, it stretched from the Bosphorus, down through Palestine, across Iran, around Oman, through several -stans, and up to the far western end of China:


This all helped inspire the Crusades, launched in 1096 to help the Byzantines repel the Seljuks, but that is a story for another day. The Mongols showed up around 1243, but by the 1400s, the Turks were in charge again. In 1453, the Ottomans took Constantinople–now Istanbul (which is really just a slight corruption of the Greek for “to the city,” “εἰς τὴν πόλιν”)–ending the last vestige of the once vast Roman Empire.

An observer described the looting:

Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge. …

Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten. Priests were led into captivity in batches, as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. …

Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged … sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints’ shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind.

The Wikipedia estimates that 4,000 were killed and 30,000 deported or sold into slavery. 4,000 sounds like a low estimate to me, given the nature of warfare, not to mention reports like Barbaro’s:

Barbaro described blood flowing in the city “like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm”, and bodies of the Turks and Christians floating in the sea “like melons along a canal”.[50]

As I have mentioned before, I strongly recommend not getting conquered.

The Ottoman Empire continued to expand, reaching its greatest extent in 1683:


The few small Turkic-speaking communities in Europe today probably owe their genesis to the Ottoman empire, though some might have arrived on their own, via more northerly routes.

And as for the guys in Siberia? They probably just decided to try walking north instead of south.

These are a few of my favorite things (Indian DNA)


People often make the mistake of over-generalizing other people. We speak of “Indians,” “Native Americans,” or better yet, “Indigenous Peoples,” as though one couldn’t tell the difference between a Maori and an Eskimo; as though only two undifferentiated blocks of humanity existed, everywhere on the globe: noble first people who moved into the area thousands upon thousands of years ago, sat down, and never moved again, and evil invaders who showed up yesterday.

In reality, Group A has conquered and replaced Group B and been conquered and replaced in turn by Group C since time immemorial. Sometimes the conquered group gets incorporated into the new group, and years down the line we can still find their DNA in their descendants. At other times, all that’s left is an abrupt transition in the archeological record between one set of artifacts and skull types and another.

Even “Indigenous” peoples have been migrating, conquering and slaughtering each other since time immemorial. The only difference between them and Europeans is that the Europeans did it more recently and while white.

When we take a good look at the Indians’ DNA, we find evidence of multiple invasion waves, some of them genocidal. The Sururi, Pima, and Chippewyans are clearly distinct, as are the Eskimo and Aleuts:

DNA of the Eskimos and related peoples
DNA of the Eskimos and related peoples
DNA of the Aleuts and related peoples
DNA of the Aleuts and related peoples

(all of the charts are from Haak et al’s charts:

Click for full size

Please note that Haak’s chart and the chart I have at the top of the blog use different colors to represent the same things; genetic admixture of course does not have any inherent color, so the choice of colors is entirely up to the person making the graph.)

The Karitiana are one of those mixed horticulturalist/hunter-gatherer tribes from deep in the Amazon Rainforest who have extremely little contact with the outside world and are suspected of having Denisovan DNA and thus being potentially descended from an ancient wave of Melanesians who either got to the Americas first, or else very mysteriously made it to the rainforest without leaving significant genetic traces elsewhere. I’m going with they got here first, because that explanation makes more sense.

The Pima People of southern Arizona had extensive trade and irrigation networks, and are believed to be descended from the Hohokam people, who lived in the same area and also built and maintained irrigation networks and cities, and are probably generally related to the Puebloan Peoples, who also built cities in the South West. An observer wrote about the Puebloans:

When these regions were first discovered it appears that the inhabitants lived in comfortable houses and cultivated the soil, as they have continued to do up to the present time. Indeed, they are now considered the best horticulturists in the country, furnishing most of the fruits and a large portion of the vegetable supplies that are to be found in the markets. They were until very lately the only people in New Mexico who cultivated the grape. They also maintain at the present time considerable herds of cattle, horses, etc. They are, in short, a remarkably sober and industrious race, conspicuous for morality and honesty, and very little given to quarrelling or dissipation … Josiah Gregg, Commerce of the Prairies: or, The journal of a Santa Fé trader, 1831–1839

Linguistically, the Pima speak an Uto-Aztecan language, connecting them with the Soshoni to the north, Hopi to the east, and the Aztecs to the south (and even further south, since the family is also spoken in Equador):

Map of Uto-Aztecan language distribution
Map of Uto-Aztecan language distribution

The Aztecs, as you probably already know, had a large empire with cities, roads, trade, taxes, etc.

In other words, the Pima were far more technologically advanced than the Karitiana, which suggests that the arrow of conquering here goes from Pima-related people to Karitiana-related people, rather than the other way around.

Now, obviously, the Pima did not travel down to Bolivia, kill a bunch of Karitiana people living in Bolivia, rape their women, and then head back to Arizona. More likely, the ancestors of the Karitiana once lived throughout much of South and Central America, and perhaps even further afield. The ancestors of the Pima then invaded, killing a bunch of the locals and incorporating a few of their women into their tribes. The Karitiana managed to survive in the rainforest due to the rainforest being very difficult to conquer, and the Pima failed to mix with other groups due to being the only guys interested in living in the middle of the Arizona desert.

The Chipewyan people (not to be confused with the Chippewa people, aka the Ojibwe,) live in northwest Canada and eastern Alaska, and are members of the Na-Dene Language family:


Map of Chipewyan Language Distribution
Map of Na-Dene Language family Distribution

Those guys in the southern branch of the family are the Navajos and Apache. These languages are speculated to be linked to Siberian languages like the Yeniseian.

(I think the Chilote people are from Chile.)

The Algonquin people (of whom the Ojibwe are part,) come from the North East US and Canada:

Map of Algonquian Language Family distribution
Map of Algonquian Language Family distribution

There also exist a couple of languages on the California coast which appear to be related to the Algonquin Family, possibly a case of Survival on the Fringes as a new wave of invaders migrated from the Bering Strait.

The Algonquins appear to have been semi-nomadic semi-horticulturalists. They grew corn and squash and beans, and also moved around hunting game and gathering wild plants as necessary.

Where we see red admixture in Haak’s graph, that means Siberian people. Where we see dark blue + orange + teal, that’s typical European. Most likely this means that the Algonquins in Haak’s data have some recent European ancestors due to a lot of inter-marriage happening over the past few hundred years in their part of the world. (The Chipewyans live in a much more isolated part of the continent.) However, some of that DNA might also have come with them when they migrated to North America years and yeas ago, due to their ancient Siberian ancestors having merged with an off-shoot of the same groups that modern Europeans are descended from. This is a likely explanation for the Aleuts and Tlingit peoples, whose dark blue and teal patches definitely look similar to those of other Siberian peoples. (Although, interestingly, they lack the red. Maybe the red was a later addition, or just didn’t make it over there in as large quantities.)

The Eskimo I have spoken of before; they appear to have wiped out everyone else in their immediate area. They live around the coastal rim of Alaska and northern Canada.

The Aleuts likely represent some kind of merger between the Eskimo and other Siberian peoples.


My summary interpretation:

Wave One: The Green People. Traces of their DNA appear to be in the Ojibwe, Eskimos, and Chileans, so they may have covered most of North and South America at one time.

Wave Two: The Pink People. They wiped out the vast majority of the Green people throughout North America, but as migration thinned their numbers, they ended up intermarrying instead of killing some of the Greens down in Central and South America.

The Green People only survived in any significant numbers deep in the rainforest, where the Pink People couldn’t reach. These Greens became the Karitiana.

Wave Three: The Brown people. These guys wiped out all of the Pink people in northwest Canada and Alaska, but as migration to the east thinned their numbers, they had to inter-marry with the local Pinks. This mixed group became the Algonquins, while the unmixed Browns became the Chipewyans.

Few Browns managed to push their way south, either because they just haven’t had enough time, or because they aren’t suited to the hotter climate. Either way, most of the Pink People went unconquered to the south, allowing the Pima and their neighbors to flourish.

Wave Four: The Eskimo, who wiped out most of the other people in their area.