TIMELINES FOR LANGUAGES. Reports here (New York Times), here (Economist), and here (Wall Street Journal) summarize a recent study by Quentin Anderson on the history of languages. There is considerable skepticism among linguists about whether much of anything can be learned about traces of language going back more than 10,000 years. Dr. Atkinson’s study does so and argues that all of the 6000 modern languages are derived from a single language spoken in Africa between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. The study fits with current genetic research which supports a timeline with modern humans emerging in Africa about 200,000 years ago and a small number of them moving out and colonizing the rest of the world from 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. One finding of genetic studies is that human genetic diversity is smaller the farther the colony is from Africa. which supports the theory that humanity began in Africa. Descendants of small groups of recent migrants are more likely to be “inbred”—to have less genetic diversity. (An earlier study by Dr. Atkinson used methods from evolutionary biology to support the theory that Indo-European languages diversified —formed into separate languages— in Europe beginning 10,000 years ago along with the spread of agriculture rather than 6000 years ago through an invasion from the steppes.) I find it wonderful that we can establish some kind of timeline for events that would seem lost in prehistory.

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