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The peoples of the steppes between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea spread the Indo-European languages through central and southern Asia between 4,000 and 3,500 years ago, according to a study with the participation of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE, a joint center of the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) and the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).
With 523 prehistoric samples, the work, published in the journal Science, is the largest ancient genomic study conducted to date. Thanks to a broad international interdisciplinary collaboration, led from Harvard University (USA), researchers have contextualized genomic results through archaeological, linguistic and historical records.
According to research, the descendants of the Yamnaya peoples of the steppes, who reached the Iberian Peninsula through Europe 5,000 years ago and spread the Indo-European language across the continent, they also brought Sanskrit, the classical language of India, South Asia.
“Thanks to this study we have been able unravel the complex pattern of migrations that have shaped the genetic diversity of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The results indicate that the peoples from the steppes could contribute to the decline of the so-called Indus Valley civilization, which is together with Egypt and Mesopotamia one of the three oldest great civilizations of humanity, ”explains Carles Lalueza-Fox, of the IBE.
Origin of the castes
Researchers have found that current populations in the northern Indian subcontinent have a remarkable percentage of steppe ancestry. With the exception of one, all these populations have historically been priestly groups, such as the Brahmins, one of the higher castes of the Indian social system, which since ancient times have been in charge of guarding the texts written in Sanskrit.
The finding that Brahmins often have greater steppe ancestry than other groups in South Asia provides the study authors with a new argument in favor of the steppe origin of Indo-European languages in South Asia.
[Tweet "Today's speakers of the Indo-Iranian and Baltic Slavic branches of Indo-European are descended from a subgroup of herders who migrated to Europe about 5,000 years ago"]
"The fact that the upper castes are more closely related to the peoples of the steppes would indicate that they could have established this strict social stratification," adds Lalueza-Fox.
For decades specialists have debated how Indo-European languages were able to reach regions so distant and remote from each other. There were two main hypotheses: that Indo-European spread through the nomadic herders of the Eurasian steppe or that, on the contrary, it traveled with the agricultural groups of the Anatolian Peninsula (modern Turkey) who migrated east and west.
This new study shows, through genetic, archaeological, linguistic and historical data, that the inhabitants of South Asia are hardly related to farmers from Anatolia.
"We can rule out a large expansion in South Asia of farmers from Anatolia, which is the centerpiece of the Anatolian hypothesis, which proposed that migrations of peoples from the west brought both agriculture and Indo-European languages to the region," comments Harvard University researcher David Reich.
Researchers have found that present-day speakers of the Indo-Iranian and Baltic Slavic branches of Indo-European are descended from a subgroup of pastoralists who migrated to Europe almost 5,000 years ago and then expanded from there in a westerly direction to central and southern Asia in the next 1,500 years.
"This provides a simple explanation in terms of ancient migrations for the puzzling common linguistic characteristics of these two branches of Indo-European, which are now separated by vast geographic distances," Reich concludes.
Vagheesh M. Narasimhan et al. «The formation of human populations in South and Central Asia«. Science. DOI: 10.1126 / science.aat7487.
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