What language the Mal’ta boy spoke

What song the sirens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture.

Thomas Browne. Urn burial

24,000 years ago

In the mid-twentieth century, Soviet archeologists excavated a site at Mal’ta near Lake Baikal that included the remains of of a 3-4 year old boy. Recent ancient DNA tests on the boy are one piece of evidence that is shaking up our understanding of how populations differentiated once Homo sapiens left Africa. (News story here.) It now looks like, back in the day, there was a widespread ancient population – people have been calling them Ancestral North Eurasians or ANE – that was already clearly differentiated from East Asians, and from populations in Southwest Asia. This population would eventually make a significant contribution to the ancestry of both American Indians and Europeans. American Indians seem to get most of their ancestry from a population ancestral to modern East Asians, but a large minority (about 25%) from ANE. And we’ll see when we get to Indo-European origins and the Indo-European expansion that ANE is a significant factor there as well.

These genetic findings dovetail neatly with work on historical linguistics by Joseph Greenberg. In Indo-European and its closest relatives: The Eurasiatic language family, Greenberg argued for a Eurasiatic language family, ancestral to more generally accepted families including Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Japanese-Korean-Ainu, Gilyak, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Eskimo-Aleut. He argued that the closest relative of this macrofamily was another macrofamily, dubbed “Amerind,” embracing most American Indian languages.

Greenberg’s proposal has not met with universal acceptance. One linguist (Don Ringe, a heavyweight in Indo-European studies) wrote “One is seldom asked to review a book that contains nothing of value, but that is unfortunately true of this volume.” The gold standard for historical linguists is being able to reconstruct an ancestral language, and the systematic sound changes leading to its descendants. Instead of this, Greenberg could only offer a mass of suggestive similarities. But the close correspondence between Greenberg’s farflung Eurasiatic family (and its Amerind sister) and the recent genetic results suggest that he was onto something. Either that, or he made a surprisingly lucky guess.

We see another remarkable fit between alleged distant language affinities (Melanesia and southern South America) and recent genetic results in September, when we get to the earliest human settlement of the Americas.

2 thoughts on “What language the Mal’ta boy spoke

  1. Pingback: Natufians | Logarithmic History

  2. Pingback: Clovis and before | Logarithmic History

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