Essays on the history of writing II: The isolates of the Fertile Crescent

One can often find in the literature the idea that continents like South America or Africa differ fundamentally from Eurasia in terms of historical language expansions, and that one does not find in those continents a similar phenomenon to Indo-European, which covers nearly all of Europe and a considerable part of Asia. As I was thinking about that, and as I was writing the post about Mediterranean isolate languages, I realised something. If Indo-European has been expanding for the last 5,500 years or so, then it was only relatively recently in its history that it came to dominate all of Europe… or almost all, since Basque is still spoken today.

Etruscan was alive and well in (early) Roman times, as were the Rhaetic languages of the Alps and the unclassified languages of the Iberian Peninsula, including Aquitanian (probably related to Basque). Minoan probably continued to be spoken in Crete after the adoption of Greek, developing into the Eteocretan language. Not to mention the Lemnian and Eteocypriot languages (by the way, I completely forgot about the later in that post). And these are just the ones that left some written record. Who knows how many languages were spoken in Northern Europe at the same time? The point is: if we could map the distribution of language families in Europe 2,500 years ago, I am sure the map would be a lot more colourful.

Historical and modern isolated languages and small families in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus.

Of course, as I wrote before, there might have been one or two large families that expanded with the Neolithic in Europe. That is the nature of spread zones. But what about the area where agriculture originated? In line with what we saw in the Americas, areas of ancient cultural developments in the Old World should also be mosaics with high linguistic diversity. In the map above, I am showing some of the unclassified languages, isolated languages or small families of the Fertile Crescent (plus the languages of the Caucasus). Since Crete and Cyprus are still in the range of the map, maybe I should have included Minoan and Eteocypriot, but let’s focus on the Mesopotamia/Anatolia/Caucasus corridor for now.

There is no doubt that the cereals, pulses and animals that were the foundation of the Neolithic in Western Eurasia and Northern Africa were domesticated in this region, most likely in the highland Levant/Anatolia border. Was the spread of farming and pastoralism in the Fertile Crescent accompanied by the diffusion of a single language family, perhaps coinciding with the PPNA/PPNB cultures (or interaction spheres) that dominated much of the region between 11,500 and 8,000 years ago? I do not think so. In later times, most of the area shown in the map above would be covered by only two families: Indo-European (with Hittie and Luwian in Anatolia, Armenian in the Caucasus, and the Indo-Iranian languages to the East, including Persian) and Afro-Asiatic (namely Akkadian in Mesopotamia and all the other Semitic languages spoken from the Levant to Arabia). As in the European case, languages like Hattic, Urartian and Sumerian, that survived for some time while Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic were “conquering” the Near East, could be remnants of previous expansions, possibly since Neolithic times (although there are good Chalcholithic/Bronze Age candidates, like the Maykop culture in the Caucasus and the Ubaid culture in Mesopotamia…). But the fact is that they are too diverse to fit into a hypothetical single family.

Sumerian… and Euphratean?

The Royal Game of Ur. Like writing, board games were another Sumerian invention.

I have written enough about Sumerian in a few previous posts, so I will not elaborate on it anymore except for two crucial questions: the autochtonous origins of this mysterious language and the supposed Euphratean substratum. I have come across an extremely interesting paper that advanced the idea of Sumeria as a creole language born in the multicultural environment of Southern Mesopotamia. Among other things, the argument is that archaic cuneiform signs were constructed through a logic similar to modern creoles. For example, consider the signs sagka and gu7, meaning “head”, “mouth” and “ration” respectively. The last two are formed by slight modifications of the first. Specifically the last one is a combination of “head” and “bread”, and it can be argued that basic Sumerian nouns are very few, most of the others being derived in such way. However, the actual readings of those signs are sagka and gu respectively, so the creole-like derivation of nouns is mostly a phenomenon of the writing system, not of the language itself.

More interesting is the idea that an even earlier language preceded Sumerian(s) in Southern Mesopotamia. Many toponyms do not have a Sumerian etymology, and the phonetic reading of many cuneiform signs is of obscure origins. Most of the signs gained their phonetic values from the rebus principle, but some do not work that way. For example, the sign for “bird” muszen is read ḫu when used phonetically (instead of mušen), and the sign for “fish” ku is read ḫa (instead of ku). Some words, consisting of CV1C(C)V2C structure, do not fit the typical Sumerian structure. This is particularly the case of words for professions, like adgub adgub “reed weaver”, sipad sipad “shepherd” or engar engar “ploughman”. Many refer to farming or herding activities. Thus it is possible that Sumerians borrowed some specialised vocabulary from a society that was already well established in Southern Mesopotamia, but the theory remains speculative, and we know nothing else about this hypothetical language except for the few words in the alleged Sumerian substratum.


Linear Elamite

Spoken to the east of Mesopotamia, Elamite was the language of Susa, capital of a mighty state contemporary with the Sumerians, and later incorporated into the Persian empire. The Elamites got the idea of writing from the Sumerians, but developed their own “archaic” cuneiform signs that we cannot read phonetically (although we know something of the structure and possible content of the texts). Presumably, they recorded the same language as would be later written with the Assyrian syllabary.

“And thus says Darius, the king: Within these lands, whosoever was a friend have I protected…”

We have a large corpus for Elamite, and the language is understood relatively well. That is thanks to a number of bilingual inscriptions, the longest of which is the famous Behistun Inscription, where Darius I, king of Persia, announces his lineage and deeds in three languages: Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. Despite some efforts to connect Elamite with other language families, especially with the Dravidian languages of India, it remains an isolate. There are also interesting parallels with Afro-Asiatic, e.g. elti “eye” and kassu “horn” (although the later seems more like a Wanderwort). George Starostin has a paper with a review of such hypotheses, as well as a comparative 100-word list between Elamite and major language families.

Gutian and Kassite

Much less is known about the languages of two other neighbours of Mesopotamia, the Gutians and the Kassites, both of which inhabited the vicinity of the Zagros Mountains and invaded Mesopotamia to install their own dynasties of rulers. The Gutians reigned for a few generations ca. 2100-2000 BC after the collapse of the Akkadian empire. The names of theirs rulers are virtually all that is known of their language. Despite some comparisons with Tocharian (a very divergent Indo-European language once spoken near the border with China), the names of the Gutian kings mentioned in the Sumerian king list do not reflect any known family in the region. As for the Kassites, they conquered Mesopotamia after 1500 BC, and their language is marginally better attested, since a few Kassite-Akkadian glossaries were compiled by ancient scribes. Needless to say, the known Kassite words do not resemble Sumerian, Elamite, Akkadian, Hurrian or any other language of the region.

Above, some of the Gutian names from the Sumerian king list in the Weld-Blundell prism. Below, part of the Kassite-Akkadian glossary of the Hormuzd Rassam tablet.


“Argishti, son of Menua, built this temple and this fortress, called Irbuni…”

In the 15th century BC, Hurrian was the language of the powerful kingdom of Mitanni to the north of Mesopotamia. Together with the language of their neighbours, the kingdom of Urartu, near modern Armenia, they form the Hurro-Urartian family. Inscriptions in Hurrian and Urartian are written in the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary. They are found, for example, in the Fortress of Erebuni, modern Yerevan, announcing its foundation by the king Argishti I. The inscription names the fortress irbuuni Ir-bu-u-ni, which is in the origin of modern Armenian Երեւան Yerevan, a name that resisted 2800 years!

The most convincing proposed genetic affiliation of Hurro-Urartian is that it would be related to the Caucasian languages. The geographic location of Hurro-Urartian, its phonology, and a few cognates speak in favour of that connection. For example, Hurrian words consist predominantly of a (C)V(C) structure (pa- “to build”, a- “name”, un- “to come”, ar- “to give” etc.) adhering to the typical pattern of the Northern Caucasus. The shortness of the words is compensated by a seemingly complex consonant inventory. Caucasian languages are famous for having very few vowels, but 50 or 60 different consonants (remember this theory linking phonology and climate?). In line with that, it appears that the Assyrian cuneiform syllabary was ill-suited for rendering the Hurrian language. From what we can reconstruct, scribes had to resort to signs like pi pi and ip ip to represent –w-, -v-, -f and combinations thereof. Moreover, the personal pronouns bear a remarkable resemblance with the Northern Caucasian sets. Compare, for instance, Hurrian 1sg. iša-/šo– and 2sg. fe– with Kabardian 1sg. sa, 2sg. wa and 2pl. fa.

Hattic and Kaskian

The supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis of Indo-European origins forget that the Hittites were newcomers to the region. Their predecessors in Anatolia spoke an unrelated language, conventionally called Hattic. Very little is known of the language, as bits of it were only recorded by the Hittites. Evidently, the hypothesis of a Caucasian connection has been proposed by the Russian school. Comparisons with the hypothetical Sino-Caucasian family (including North Caucasian, Sino-Tibetan and Yenisseian) show some interesting cognates, but the validity of Sino-Caucasian is what is disputed in the first place. The Kaskian language later spoken in the northern coast of Anatolia was presumably related to Hattic, and could be the language of the descendants of the first settlers dislodged by the Hittites.

Deep connections? Not quite

As I was first planning this post, I believed there should be some deep relationship between all the “colours” in the map at the beginning of the post. That was the logical conclusion: these were islands of (a) previous expansion(s) later blurred by Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. Reality is not so simple: let’s have a look at the basic vocabulary of some of those languages:

* The reconstructions in bold are Starostin’s Proto-North-Caucasian. The ones not in bold are reconstructed for the Proto-Northeast-Caucasian level only.

A few isolated resemblances can be found here and there (e.g. “eye” in Elamite and Proto-North-Caucasian, “tongue” in Sumerian and Proto-North-Caucasian), but these might as well be due to chance. The words for “horn” in Elamite, Hattic and Caucasian might be related. To that we must add Proto-Indo-European *k’era(w)- and Proto-Afro-Asiatic *ḳar-. This means the resemblance in the table above is not unique of those languages, and we might in fact be dealing with a Wanderwort.

Perhaps we should not give so much weight to vocabulary. As I explained previously, there are some intriguing morphological similarities between various Eurasian isolates located thousands of kilometres apart. Curiously enough, the same does not apply to this group of relatively close languages in terms of geographical distance. Let’s review the crucial features that distinguish Eurasian isolates in opposition to the large families that surround them: 1. a predominance of prefixes; 2. ergative alignment when marking the pronouns in the verb; 3. possessive pronouns identical to one of the sets used with the verbs; and 4. complex “chains” preceding the verb root. In the table below, I show a quick comparison between the Mesopotamian-Anatolian isolates and Kabardian, a good representative of the Northwest Caucasian family.


Personal pronoun prefixes are marked in red, and suffixes in blue, as usual. Kabardian is the only language that actually conforms perfectly to the aforementioned pattern. Sumerian comes close, especially in relation to the verbal chain, but even it employs a good number of suffixes. Elamite is not even an ergative language, and Hurrian is as prolific in the use of suffixes as a Turkic or Uralic language. Finally, there is almost no resemblance in the actual pronoun particles, except perhaps between Hurrian and the Caucasian languages (more evident with the independent pronouns, as I said above).

What conclusions can we draw from all this? I would like to end with a very simple idea: before the Bronze Age, when large scale warfare – propelled by better weapons but also by the horse – became a major factor in population expansions, the Fertile Crescent was a linguistic mosaic with higher population densities than its surroundings and a long history of ancient cultural innovations, including agriculture. Languages expanded from it, not into it. It is pointless to look for the origins of Indo-European in the first farmers of Anatolia, who spoke Hattic before the Hittites arrived. Neither could the Neolithic peoples of the Levant have spoken Afro-Asiatic, the only Eurasian branch of which (Semitic) having reached the area in relatively recent times. We will never know the language of PPNA, and there might have been many. Perhaps the dwellers of Çatal Höyuk and worshippers at Göbekli Tepe spoke an ancestor of Hattic, or perhaps it was yet another language that contributed to the huge diversity of this ancient cultural mosaic.


Spread Zones: Europe and the Neolithic Survivors

I have been away for too long, due to other writing activities that kept me extremely busy. In spite of that long gap, this will not be a new cycle of posts, but the end (at least momentarily) of a series of previous topics. I will, however, touch on a variety of subjects and express my opinion about the most contentious question of European linguistics and archaeology – the timing of the spread of Indo-European languages. My opinion on this problem has been decided (for now) by the evidence provided by Basque and the isolated languages of the Mediterranean.

From the now classic Guns, Germs and Steel to the more recent Prisoners of Geography, the idea that the terrain inhabited by a group largely determines the events of their history has become widespread among the general public. Although reality is much more intricate than that, the same principle is the basis of mosaic x spread zone models: large navigable rivers and extensive flat plains will tend to experience wave over wave of language replacement. In contrast, mountainous areas, islands and other inaccessible terrains tend to be refugia where millennia of uninterrupted development result in a myriad of languages disconnected from large families. Obviously there are exceptions – as in the Andean case that I examined previously.

In any case, it is undeniable (as Russia well knows) that from the Asian steppe to Central Europe there is really no geographical barrier – as long as one keeps south of the Urals. The diffusion of Indo-European languages into Europe did not need to overcome all that distance, moving only from the surroundings of the Caspian Sea to the West (assuming a Yamna origin!). Curiously, the Neolithic diffusion followed a different path altogether, from the Levant, through Anatolia, to the Mediterranean, resembling part of the (much later) silk road. The big question is whether these two events (Neolithic and Indo-European) coincide, as proposed originally by Colin Renfrew. I assumed this theory to be pretty much dead, at least among linguists, but I was mistaken (see Gray and Atkinson’s paper and, more recently, Bouckaert and colleagues’). Fortunately, genetics have been playing a major role in redefining our views about ancient migrations, and I became convinced that genetic evidence does not support a Neolithic age for Indo-European. Nevertheless, given the difficult association between genes and languages, I am sure the matter will continue to be hotly debated for years to come.

Map of the 5th principal component of 94 genes in Europe (from History and Geography of Human Genes)

The Pre-Indo-European languages of Europe (and their speakers) offer formidable clues to the problem. I have written about the isolates of Eurasia in a previous post, but let us explore some more facts about the last speakers of a Pre-Indo-European language: the Basques. Even before the modern DNA studies, the Basques were known to be different from their neighbours. For example, using only blood types, it was noticed that Basques were predominantly O and had the highest incidence of Rh- in Europe. With the first DNA analyses of a large number of European populations, it became clear that Basques were indeed genetically distinct. I have previously shown some maps of principal component analyses, and here I reproduce the map of the 5th principal component for Europe, based on the 94 genes analysed by Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues. This principal component peaks at the Basque country, which is at the opposite extreme from most of Northern/Central Europe and the Balkans, although with some similarity to the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula.

Keeping in mind that the first principal component shows a gradient from Greece to the northwest (Neolithic?) and the second principal component radiates from the north of the Black Sea (Bronze Age/Yamna?), I believe there are only two ways Cavalli-Sforza’s data can be interpreted:

  1. The Basques are Paleolithic/Mesolithic “survivors” (ergo Neolithic migrants spread the Indo-European languages);
  2. They are Neolithic “survivors” (ergo Indo-European languages arrived during the Bronze Age).

By the way, I am assuming here that the massive genetic legacy of the Neolithic and Bronze Age expansions (see below) must have had a linguistic correlate. In theory, one can imagine a situation in which large numbers of migrants arriving at a region, becoming culturally dominant and having children with locals do not imply language replacement, but I would like to see real world examples of that. In fact, it seems that one only needs a small number of “conquering” migrants with minimal genetic impact to change the language of whole regions (that is the case in some Latin American countries and, further back in time, was the case of Hungary).

Fortunately, we have advanced much since Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues’ original work. For example, it is clear now that the Neolithic expansion in Europe did involve population movement, and that migrations from Anatolia were indeed the source. In my opinion, the most significant genetic piece of evidence is the discovery that modern Basques are the closest living population to Neolithic skeletons from the same region. Sardinians were also found to be very close and, in fact, Sardinians appear in every study cited here as the closest modern match to Neolithic DNA samples. Their status as a “relic” population in Europe due to isolation was noticed long ago, when Cavalli-Sforza left Sardinians out of the PCA due to their singularity within Europe. The genetic similarity between Sardinians/Basques and Neolithic samples deserves special attention.


One important aspect that has been taken into consideration recently is the distribution of haplogroups in Europe. Unlike the autosomal data referred to above, which tells us about the admixture in the ancestry of an individual, Y-chromosome and mtDNA haplogroups are specific mutations that are passed down over generations and preserve the histories of migrations of particular male and female lineages. The Y-chromosome haplogroups most closely associated with the Neolithic are E1b1b and G2a. Both of them are rare in modern Europe as a whole, but G2a was the dominant haplogroup among Neolithic farmers of Central Europe, France and Spain. Both E1b and G originate outside of Europe, in the Levant and the Caucasus respectively, and must have been brought to Europe by Neolithic migrants. I will not reproduce the beautiful maps from Eupedia, but in the map above I highlight the areas where E1b and G are nowadays more common. The Mediterranean (including Sardinia) and the Balkans are modern refugia of those two haplogroups, but what happened to Central Europe? In fact, paternal lineages from most of Central and Western Europe were later replaced by haplogroups R1a and R1b, carried by Bronze Age migrants (confirmed by the fact that Yamna samples were recently shown to be R1a). Surprisingly, most modern Basques actually belong to haplogroup R1b (maybe “bottleneck effects” could easily lead to the replacement of Y-chromosome lineages over a few generations in such an isolated population?).

In summary, the Neolithic expansion in Europe involved considerable population movements, the genetic signature of which can still be seen and is most noticeable in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. These areas were somewhat less impacted by the later Bronze Age migrations, which also changed considerably the genetic make-up of Central and Western Europe. The fact is that, since there is no other major language expansion after Indo-European, this event must have occurred during the Bronze Age. Some supporters of the Anatolian hypothesis do not deny that fact, arguing that several waves of Indo-European expansion could have occurred. Using the principle of Occam’s razor, I would immediately discard this explanation as being too complicated. The question then is: would the Neolithic expansion also have involved the diffusion of a single, widespread language family?

Pre-Indo-European languages in relation to the major cultural traditions of the Neolithic.

In the map above, I am showing some of the main Neolithic cultures of Europe in relation to the isolated languages that we know about. The Linearbandkeramik (LBK) has taken advantage of the plains that extend from Ukraine to France – a huge spread zone – and it is difficult not to imagine that it was accompanied by the diffusion of a single language [family] around 7000 years ago. At the same time, the Cardial/Impressed culture spread along the Mediterranean shores. Both ultimately stem from the Greek Neolithic (with clear origins in Anatolia), but seem to be local developments. Whether both involved the expansion of the same language [family], I will not dare to speculate, as there is no clue to what the LBK people spoke (perhaps it is in the substrate of the Germanic languages). But could there be a connection between the other Pre-Indo-European languages recorded in Southern Europe?

That Basque was part of a larger language family in the past is well accepted, but what was its extension? Some have suggested the widespread occurrence of Basque-like elements in the toponymia of Europe: e.g. the connection between Val D’Aran in Spain, Arundel in England and Ahrntal in the Alps would be the Basque word aran “valley”. There have also been some attempts to connect Basque to the extinct Pre-Indo-European language of Sardinia – which we can call “Paleo-Sardinian” but is also known as “Nuraghian”. Beyond genetic isolation, the linguistic isolation of Sardinia is clear even in (relatively) recent times: for example, whereas all Romance languages have turned Classical Latin C into /tʃ/, /ʃ/ or /s/, in Sardinian it is still pronounce as a hard /k/. As for the Paleo-Sardinian language, we have no record of it except for words that entered modern Sardinian or the toponyms in the island. It is based on those that Blasco Ferrer proposes parallels with Basque – e.g. the triad Lur-beltz, Lur-gorri and Lur-zuri meaning “black”, “red” and “white earth” respectively, which appears in the island as Duru-nele, Lúr-kuri and Lu-tzurró.

Among the well-known Pre-Indo-European isolates is the Etruscan language. There is a possibility that it is actually connected to Rhaetic, a language or group of languages preserved on a few inscriptions around the Alps. Given the small corpus, it is unlikely that it will ever be “deciphered”, but formally there are some resemblances with Etruscan – e.g. a common ending -ce or -ke that, in the later, marks the past tense. Another candidate to form a family together with Etruscan is Lemnian, attested in a few inscriptions in the Greek island of Lemnos. If Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian are indeed part of a single family, later fragmented by the spread of Indo-European, then we are potentially dealing with yet another group of Neolithic “relics”. Then, the location of those languages in relation to the Cardial/Impressed culture and to the modern distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroups E1b1b and G2a, as can be seen in the maps above, starts to make sense.

Finally, let us consider the Pre-Indo-European languages (directly or indirectly attested) from the region closest to the origins of the Neolithic. One of the most interesting things about the Greek language is that it absorbed a large amount of non-Indo-European vocabulary. These are wοrds that have no cognates in other Indo-European languages and are also easy to spot based on their distinctive phonology/morphology. Interestingly, they tend to be cultural items – words like σῦκον “fig”, ἔλαιον “olive”, θάλασσα “sea” and βασιλεύς “king” (in Linear B qa-si-re-u). It is not impossible that, like the Linear B syllabary, the substratum in Greek might be related to the language once spoken in Crete and partly preserved in the Linear A script. This language, which we may call Minoan, is probably never going to be fully deciphered given the small size of the corpus and the fact that most of it consists of accounting tablets full of personal names and toponyms. Names of products are written with logograms, so it is impossible to know how they were pronounced. A few transaction words (see below) and inflected forms (like the famous ja-sa-sa-ra-me that I mentioned previously) offer a window into Minoan, but the known vocabulary is so small that the language is destined to remain unclassified.

In summary, it is likely that all these languages are remnants of a once widespread Neolithic family (or families), diffused together with the Cardial/Impressed culture along the Mediterranean. We simply do not have enough material to show how they are related, although a convincing case can be made for Etruscan, Lemnian and Rhaetic. Basque could be related to this phenomenon or be part of a different family spread further west, perhaps in association with the Megalithic traditions of the Atlantic Neolithic. It is almost certain that the LBK expansion brought a single language or language family to their vast territory, but whether it was also related to the Mediterranean variants is impossible to tell.

Example of a Linear A tablet, now at the museum of Heraklion. Logograms are transcribed with latin words (vir for man, fic for fig). Most of the words spelled with the syllabary are personal and place names. In this tablet, you can see some of the exceptions: ki-ki-na seems to be an adjective describing the figs, or maybe it is the word for fig itself repeated after the logogram. Transaction words usually appear as headers or at the end of the tablet. In this example, a-du and ki-ro could mean something like “balance”. Ku-ro is followed by a number that is the sum of all previous items and must mean “total”.

Spread Zones: South America

As the reader might have guessed by now, one of the theories that I find most attractive in linguistic geography is the opposition between spread and mosaic zones. In the form developed by Nichols, this theory posits that some areas – in general, broad plains with few natural barriers – are prone to the dispersal of single languages or families, whereas other regions (islands, mountain chains) tend to accumulate isolates and small families. Not only specific languages stretch over the spread zones, but also linguistic features. Just look at Eurasia and you will see layer over layer of prehistoric (and more recent) spreads. There is a long East-West axis that served as a corridor for the Indo-European, Uralic, Turkic and Mongolic languages, pretty much along the same steppe that brought Attila and Genghis Khan to the doors of Europe. All the language families in this area also share similar features – as opposed, for example, to the languages of the Caucasus or to the Sino-Tibetan family. The big question is: what are the archaeological correlates of a spread zone? The answer is in the horizon!

Archaeological horizons are geographically extensive phenomena – a ceramic style, a particular form of architecture, or iconography – whose spread happened very fast but whose persistence was often relatively short-lived. If we are trying to identify the periods when some large language families reached their territorial zenith, then we must look for archaeological horizons rather than for very localised cultures. Moreover, it is likely that cultural horizons they corresponded to linguistic spread zones, whereas mosaic zones should be characterised by a myriad of local traditions. Curiously, in South America, the spread zones are very different from the Eurasian case – partly due to the absence of extensive grassy plains with no obstacle to movement (the Argentinian pampas being the obvious exception, although they are not as important a communication route as the Eurasian steppe that connects the continent’s long East-West axis). Instead, the South American spread zones are large river systems (the Amazon and the La Plata Basins) and the Andean cordillera. Yes, mountains are spread zones in South America!

To the left, linguistic mosaic zones (green) and spread zones (pink) in South America. To the right, the major archaeological horizons and some localised cultures.

On the Andean side of the debate, the most important question pertains to when the largest language families in the region – Quechua and Aymara – were diffused. Once thought to be closely related in a “Quechumaran” family, the resemblance between the two is now known to be the result of extensive contact. Quechua is much more widespread than Aymara, partly because it was adopted as the language of the Inca empire (although it was already used over a broad territory even before that), but both functioned as linguae francae in different parts of the Central Andes. As correctly pointed out by Paul Heggarty, Quechua and Aymara must have spread during the Early and Middle Horizons of Andean Prehistory (the Late Horizon corresponds to the Inca expansion, but Quechua was already  widespread by then). These are periods when shared architecture and/or iconography diffused throughout the coast and the cordillera – presumably, hand in hand with new ideas and, of course, languages. The Andean Horizons are separated by periods of fragmentation, called the intermediate periods, when local cultures flourished.

How can a mountain chain like the Andes have served as a spread zone for languages in the past? One possible explanation is that the population in the whole “spine” of South America has always been connected through river valleys that often link the highlands to the coast. Some of them are extensive, like the Callejón de Huaylas (near Chavín), a major trade route throughout the Andean prehistory.

The Early Horizon, around 900 B.C., is the time of Chavín de Huantar – a labyrinthic pilgrimage ceremonial centre in the highlands once thought to be the “mother culture” of the Andes, but now known to be just one manifestation of a broadly shared tradition. For Heggarty, this is when Aymara started to spread. The reasoning behind that is that there are “islands” of Aymara, as well as place names, in what is now a “sea” of Quechua (including in the region around Chavín), i.e. Aymara must have spread first. I have some doubts about this hypothesis, especially because the family seems a bit shallow (the two other languages, Jaqi and Aru, spoken in central Peru, are not that different from the southern Aymara varieties). However, I admit that it is the most parsimonious explanation. This leaves us with the Middle Horizon as the time when Quechua first expanded. Starting around A.D. 600, the Middle Horizon is the time when two major centres made their influence felt over a wide sphere in the Andes: to the North, Wari, and to the South, Tiwanaku. Although the latter is usually associated with Aymara in most people’s imagination, we know that this language only arrived recently in the region. Could the original one have been Quechua? The linguistic diversity in this area points to other possibilities, including Uru, Chipaya and Puquina. Finally, with the onset of the Late Horizon by A.D. 1450, the Incas continued to propel the expansion of Quechua, as did the Spanish after the conquest. What is important to keep in mind is that there are clear correlates of a linguistic spread zone in the archaeological horizons of the Andes.

The famous Shipibo art style looks like a direct descendent of the Amazon Polychrome Tradition. But does that tell us anything about languages in the past?

Let’s move now to the East, to the lowlands of South America. Here, there are two related phenomena whose continental scale grants them the status of archaeological horizons: in the Amazon river, the Polychrome Tradition; in the other large rivers and Atlantic coast, the (distantly) related TupiGuarani Tradition. Starting around 500 B.C., the TupiGuarani Tradition spread from southwestern Amazonia, bringing with it virtually identically decorated ceramics, among other traits. The distribution of the sites and their chronology coincide almost perfectly with the historical extent and depth of the TupiGuarani language family. Thus, unlike in the Andean case, here we know exactly with which languages to associate an archaeological culture. The issue with the Amazon Polychrome Tradition is not so simple. Starting around A.D. 1000 or maybe a few centuries earlier, this tradition rapidly spread over the basin. Some suggest it might also be associated with TupiGuarani languages, based on the fact that the historical Kokama and Omagua, who spoke languages of that family, were still producing similar designs during colonial times. I would really like that to be true, as it would confirm the Spread Zone nature of the main South American waterway. However, there are other groups producing similar pottery until the present, like the Shipibo-Conibo, who are Pano-speakers. Of course, the adoption of the pan-Amazonian polychrome designs does not necessarily imply the diffusion of a single language. However, because the Kokama and Omagua languages apparently result from an ancient TupiGuarani-based lingua franca, I would take that as a serious hypothesis.


Following on the tradition of showing a little bit of the languages in question, the examples above offer a brief comparison of some widely spaced Quechua and TupiGuarani languages. I have selected sentences with similar structures, though I could hardly find identical ones. The Quechua of Pastaza and Napo, spoken in the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the Quechua of Santiago del Estero, spoken in northwestern Argentina, are separated by over 3,000 km. Kayabi, spoken near the Xingu river, southern Amazon, and Mbyá, spoken in southern Brazil and neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay, are separated by nearly 2,000 km. Yet, the similarities are striking. Moreover, although the two families are completely distinct in terms of morphology (as expected form the west-east divide in South America), they tend to have simpler phoneme inventories and “easier”, more regular structures than many languages that remained in the mosaic zones (see a few examples of isolates and other South American families here). Quechua, in particular, has a regularity reminiscent of an artificial language. I would tentatively suggest that this is a characteristic of languages that succeed in disseminating over the spread zones.

What about the archaeological correlates of linguistic mosaic zones? As I said in a previous post, these tend to be areas rich in localised archaeological cultures. I have highlighted a few of them in the map at the beginning of this post. North- and southwestern Amazon are typical mosaic zones. Recently, the southern fringe of the Amazon has been shown to hide a myriad of archaeological sites with earthworks, ditches, enclosures and roads. Among these are the Geoglyphs of the state of Acre and the “Garden cities” of the Upper Xingu. The Llanos de Mojos, about which I wrote previously, is another example. However, these are very different archaeological cultures, and even within one of these regions there is enormous variety. Therefore, they are perfect correlates of linguistic mosaic zones: there is not a widespread ceramic style or other material trait over these areas, which is matched by their linguistic diversity.

Satellite imagery with added plans of a Geoglyph site (left) and one of the “garden cities” of the Upper Xingu (right).

Language Isolates Part IV (North America)

North America: the gateway to the New World (assuming colonisation through the Behring strait) and, as such, a land of enormous linguistic diversity. If we take seriously (which we should not) Greenberg’s classification, North America was home to two of the three macro-families of the Americas: Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dené. Both of these have proposed links with the Old World, under some versions of the Nostratic (or ‘Eurasian’) hypothesis and according to the Dené-Yeniseian (or even broader ‘Dené-Caucasian’) theory. Language distribution in North America has some features that distinguish it from South America. First, like Eurasia, some language families are very widespread, covering enormous continuous territories (even the largest families fo South America, like Tupi and Arawak, tend to have discontinuous, ‘dendritic’ distributions, e.g. along major rivers). The  Na-Dené and Algic families occupy particularly large areas, and this is partly due to a simple matter of geography: a large landmass of North America lies in cold, high latitudes, where populations tend to be smaller and more widespread – and, with them, their languages. In contrast, only a narrow strip of land in the Southern Cone lies in high latitudes, most of the continent being in the tropics – where mosaics of small language families seem to be the rule.

Major language families and language isolates from North America

I need to mention that this will be a quick post, just pointing out some major trends in North America, as I will soon move, in a next post, to a discussion about Greenberg’s Amerind proposal. First, it is obvious from the map above that a smaller number of families accounts for most of the continent than in the case of South America, even though North America occupies a larger area. Thus, the linguistic situation is a bit more similar to Eurasiama non troppo. Although, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, a simple matter of population density could explain the distribution of some families, the extremely diffused ones in Eurasia like Indo-European have hardly anything to do with that, and historical factors should come into play. Another important thing are the disparities in language diversity: the southwestern coast of North America has a disproportionate number of isolates and small language families (numbers 3 to 6 on the map). We noticed something similar in South America, with an equally astonishing diversity in the western flanks of the Amazon basin.

Before examining those patterns, let’s do the basic exercise of comparing the major language families of the continent:

Seven words in North American languages

Compared basic vocabulary in the major language families of North America. The selected seven words are the same as for the South American example, and are pretty stable in the languages of that continent. Notation is, again, a relaxed form of the IPA with y instead of j as is usual in the Americas. There might be some affixes that I failed to analyse: e.g. Pawnee nouns all end with an -uʔ, whereas many Cherokee body parts start with a ga-.

It seems to me that the broad similarities noticed among the South American families cannot be found here, even with wishful thinking (except perhaps for ‘water’). The supposed uniqueness of Eskimo and Na-Dene in the Amerind context is also not justified, at least in terms of vocabulary (they are as different as any two other families are from each other). However, the evidence of widespread areal features, as noticed in South America, also holds true for North America. For example, consonant inventories tend to be very complex in the western coast (see the Sliammon word list above and the Shuswap examples below) compared to eastern families like Iroquoian or Caddoan. Curiously, the South American ‘Andean-Patagonian’ group that I tentatively identified in a previous post, also concentrated on the western part of the continent, has larger consonant inventories than the typical ‘Amazonian’ (eastern) languages. Even more surprising is the distribution of suffixes vs. prefixes in North America:


We can see that, in verb morphology, languages of the southwestern coast (Shuswap, Siuslaw [an isolate!]) tend to cross-reference the arguments with suffixes, whereas the others tend to rely on prefixes. It must be said, of course, that exceptions exist. Actually, many ‘eastern’ languages make use of both prefixes and suffixes – such is the case with Cree, or with Lakhota. Languages like Shuswap actually use prefixes for marking the possessive pronouns. Thus, the picture is a bit mixed, but I believe that two groups can still be clearly discerned. Eskimo-Aleut, evidently, is an outlier: it is separated from the southwestern coast by Na-Dené, which is heavily prefixing. Perhaps the proximity of Eskimo-Aleut to Eurasia accounts for that. Another lesson that can be derived from this example is that isolates, as in South America, tend to acquire areal features from their neighbours (see Siuslaw above).

The fact that the same east-west division in phonological and morphological features exists in North and South America is, in itself, extremely puzzling. That might be explained by geography alone: I have been mentioning a few studies that link language and climate, for example suggesting a connection between the warm, humid climate of the tropics and the emergence of tones, or proposing a relationship between dry, cold regions and large consonantal inventories. Whether we believe them or not, it must be pointed out that the western part of both North and South America has a similar mountainous, dry landscape in comparison to their eastern forested lowlands.

Clovis points were widespread in North America around 13,000 years ago.

However, as you might have guessed by now, I prefer a historical explanation – either common genetic inheritance or diffusion in linguistic areas – and will propose an archaeological correlate for the west-east division. I have previously mentioned that there is genetic evidence for a colonisation of the Americas using a western, Pacific route. If the western coast of North America has a greater antiquity of occupation, that might explain the huge linguistic diversity of this region (including the cluster of isolates in the map at the beginning of this post). Furthermore, this western region seems to have been left out of the Clovis horizon ca. 13,000 years before present. This truly continental horizon (for which we have no parallel in South America) was once thought to represent the first settlers of the New World, though it’s becoming increasingly clear that people were here long before. Whether we see Clovis as the expansion of new people or just the diffusion of new technology, the fact is that it represents interactions at a continental scale – but, as one can see in the maps of the Paleoindian Database, it’s a phenomenon most frequent in the eastern half of North America. Could that be a correlate for the eastern linguistic area vs. the Pacific one?

The cultural and linguistic ‘hot spots’ of North America

When we examined the distribution of isolates in South America, an interesting pattern emerged that is repeated in North America. First, clusters of isolates appear in areas that appear to be of very ancient colonisation. This is precisely the case with the western coast if we assume a colonisation along the Pacific. This region is not only full of isolates, it also includes several very small language families. In fact, some widespread families like Algic actually have a western origin.

Pueblo Bonito, one of the major archaeological sites that flourished in Chaco Canyon after AD 900.

Second, it is clear that most isolates in the map at the beginning of this post resemble the Eurasian distribution, having been ‘pushed’ to the edges of the continent by later language spreads. However, the location of some isolates also coincides with cultural ‘hot spots’, as was the case in South America. One of them is the Southwest, where we find the isolate Zuni, together with representatives of many families (Uto-Aztec, Keresan, Kiowa-Tanoan, Na-Dené). Archaeologists are increasingly recognising the importance of such multi-ethnic formations and migrations for the prehistoric Pueblo groups that settled in the region around a thousand years ago. These groups are known for their constructions of massive settlements with small squarish rooms and large circular sunken courts (kivas) for ritual (see the Google Earth image of Pueblo Bonito above). Perhaps the existence of Zuni is just a remnant of such great linguistic diversity in the past, precisely at this cultural ‘hot spot’ in North America. Let’s have a look at Zuni in comparison with one of its neighbours, Hopi (Uto-Aztec):


The Southwest is a language area with several diffused features (e.g. phonology). We can see from the examples above that both Zuni and Hopi are nominative-accusative languages: compare the 1st person pronoun hoʔ / niʔ (nominative) and hom / niy (accusative). The nominative form is used for the subject of both transitive and intransitive verbs. There is little marking of arguments in the verb through affixes, with Zuni exhibiting an interesting feature: it only specifies whether the subject and object are singular or plural (e.g. ʔi- and -nap for plural object and subject, respectively). Thus, once again we see that in the Americas it is common for isolates to absorb features form the linguistic areas in which they are situated.

Moundville, Alabama, one of the major Mississippian centres in the South.

Another area of interest is the Deep South, where a surprisingly large number of isolates can be found, from Natchez in the Mississippi area to Timucua in Florida. This is also a ‘busy’ region in archaeological terms. The most recent prehistoric developments in the area relate to the Mississippian horizon, with its square mound and plaza centres – of which Cahokia is the largest example. The Mississippian culture extended around a thousand years ago through an enormous territory, over 1,500 km North-South. Although it could have been associated with the diffusion of a single language, the sheer linguistic diversity of the region today means that it probably was not. In fact, the Mississippian is only the latest development in a long trajectory of cultures devoted to building earthen monuments in Southeastern United States: this uninterrupted trajectory goes back to over 3,000 years before present with Poverty Point and other monuments of Louisiana during the late Archaic period. In summary, linguistic diversity in North America, which can be mapped by the concentration of isolates and small families, coincides with 1) areas of potential early colonisation, and 2) ‘hot spots’ of cultural diversity, thus confirming the pattern that we noticed in South America.

Language Isolates Part III (Eurasia)

This post is going to be a jump across the Atlantic (or Pacific?) from the American case studies, but I intend to go back to North America shortly. For now, it is time to have a look at Eurasia. This is the continent where most models were created. Historical linguistics as a discipline itself was born from the similarities noticed between Sanskrit and its European classical relatives. The farming-language dispersal hypothesis was based on the Indo-European spread with the Neolithic from Anatolia into Europe (alternative models, such as elite dominance, were equally developed to account for that same expansion, this time from the Pontic steppe during the Bronze Age). Finally, Johanna Nichols’ distinction between spread and friction zones is derived from the Eurasian language distribution. Perhaps a good exercise would be to try to think of Eurasia as a (giant) exception rather than the rule in terms of language distribution.

Major language families and isolates of Eurasia

First of all, a very small number of language families (less than ten) accounts for almost all of the nearly 55 million km2 of the continent. Indo-European alone can be found at all the extremes (north, south, east and west) of Eurasia. The number of language isolates and small families is reduced when compared to the Americas. Some of the isolates shown on the map above are no longer spoken, but we are fortunate enough to have written records of them (in fact, for Sumerian, we have the earliest written records). Isolates in Eurasia appear in all parts of the continent, but prevail in mountainous areas (Basque, Burushaski, Kusunda) and the extremities of the continent (Nivkh, Ainu).

I tried to be inclusive in the map above, showing historical isolates together with living ones. Vedda, in Sri Lanka, is notably absent, since the language of those hunter-gatherers is based on Sinhalese with an unknown substratum (i.e. there is really no evidence about their original language). Korean is technically an isolate, but I didn’t find it fair to include it side-by-side with, let’s say, Burushaski, given the large area where the first is spoken (my criteria are a bit arbitrary, I admit).

Now, let’s briefly review the situation of Eurasia. From west to east: Basque is probably the remnant of a Neolithic language family once spoken in western Europe (I have briefly commented on that on my first post about language isolates). The other major isolate of mainland Europe is Etruscan, the cultural antecedents of the Romans from whose language Latin borrowed so many words (even frequent ones that made it to English, like person). Etruscan could have been part of a hypothetical family called Tyrsenian, together with languages once spoken in the Alpine region.

I have included Minoan, the language of the Bronze Age palaces of Crete before Greek was introduced. Although there have been attempts of connecting it to the Semitic languages, it is still undeciphered, and fits very well with the typical isolate setting (it was spoken in an island, after all!). It could have survived until the classical Antiquity, as there are in the island a few inscriptions in Greek alphabet rendering a mysterious language called Eteocretan. Not far away, the region of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, cradle of civilisation and home to astonishing developments since the Neolithic, was itself home to quite a few isolates. I shall comment a bit more about Sumerian below.

Knossos, Crete. The island was home to a language isolate, Minoan, until Greek was introduced and borrowed the native syllabic script (Linear A).

In the Himalayas and surroundings we have Burushaski, nowadays very geographically restricted to two river valleys of northern Pakistan (where the armies of Alexander the Great once marched), and Kusunda, a language still spoken in Nepal but until recently believed to be extinct. Ket, spoken in the Yenisei valley of Siberia, was once part of the Yeniseian family – and now famous due to the supposed demonstration by Edward Vajda of the Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis, that connects it to languages spoken in North America. Finally, at the easternmost shores of the continent, Ainu is most likely another Neolithic survivor, descending from the languages of the Jomon culture later pushed to the north when Japanese was introduced from the mainland.

All these languages are very different from the more widespread families that surround them, so let us do the same exercise as in the South American case from a previous post and have a look at some basic vocabulary.

Seven words in Eurasian languages

Comparison of seven basic words in the major language families of Eurasia. The words are the same as in the Basque example from the first post and have a high retention rate in the Indo-European languages. Instead of IPA, I decided to use the standard spelling or transliteration for each language.

The similarities are more evident in the left half of the table (compare name in Indo-European and Uralic, or tongue in Uralic and Mongolic). Nevertheless, all families with the exception of Sino-Tibetan are part of the Nostratic proposal of Illich-Svytich and, later, Dogopolsky and Bomhard. Another famous shared word that could be quoted is water (from PIE *wodr-) and Finnish vesi (from PU *wete). Both this supposed cognate and the one for ‘name’, however, might well be ancient loanwords. The basis for the Nostratic hypothesis, of course, is not just shared vocabulary, but some significant similarities in the pronoun system and inflectional morphology.

My favourite Nostratic etymology (Bomhard’s reconstruction is given in parentheses after Dolgopolsky’s). The word for ‘body of water’ is found in a ‘belt’ across Eurasia.

For example, the first and second persons in the Indo-European and Uralic languages are quite similar: compare Spanish me / te (acc.) and Finnish minä / sinä (sg.) or even me / te (pl.). The resemblance can also be noted in the verb conjugation: compare modern Greek ξέρ-ουμε (we know), ξέρ-ετε (you [pl.] know) and Finnish puhu-mme (we speak), puhu-tte (you [pl.] speak). To that, we might add Turkish geli-yor-um (I come), geli-yor-sun (you come). Thus, the pair m : t (1st, 2nd person) appears in independent pronouns and as verb suffixes. Curiously, a parallel (n : m) was also proposed as being almost ubiquitous among the Amerind languages (since I did not write about that in the South American posts, I might have to wait for a future post on the New World). Finally, it is worth mentioning that the most widespread Eurasian families are heavily suffixing (e.g. Turkish inan-ma-d[ı]-ın.ız [] ‘you did not believe’), a contrast with the typically prefixing American pattern.

Although the validity of Nostratic (or Greenberg’s ‘Eurasian’, an even more inclusive macro-family encompassing, for example, Eskimo-Aleut) as a genetic grouping has been highly questioned, I like to see all the ‘clues’ above as indicating at least a shared history of contact between some language families (e.g. those of the Nostratic proposal) at the expense of others (e.g. Sino-Tibetan). I also like to think of the Amerind evidence as pointing to pretty much the same scenario (another, more ‘extreme’ example may be Australia – if Dixon’s theory of punctuated equilibrium is right, millennia of convergence of previously unrelated languages could create the illusion of genetic relatedness).

Unlike some of the South American cases, the isolates in Eurasia are distinguished not only by vocabulary, but also by generally exhibiting an unusual morphology, clearly standing out in relation to the languages that surround them. I have briefly mentioned a few examples of Basque, including a compared basic vocabulary, in the introductory post, but I would like to be more specific now. Let’s see how the structure of Basque compares to Spanish with a few sentences rendered in both languages:


Unlike Spanish, Basque marks the definite with a suffix (-a). Furthermore, unlike most European languages, Basque is an ergative language, marking the agent of a transitive verb (e.g. ‘to see’) with the suffix -k, and leaving the object or the subject of an intransitive verb (‘to come’) unmarked. Finally, the verb morphology is quite different from Spanish and most European languages, with affixes referencing both agent and patient (n- ‘me’). As can be seen in the sentences above, English and Spanish are, in contrast with Basque, almost identical in structure.

Jomon and the Ainu

Let us move to another example, Ainu, which is in a similar situation to Basque. Ainu was probably part of a wider family of languages that once extended throughout Japan. The archaeological correlate of that is Jomon, a Mesolithic culture that developed one of the oldest ceramics of the world (ca. 12,000 years ago) even before the advent of farming (several other ancient ceramics appear associated with fishing cultures in Asia). Later, around 2,300 years before present, the Yayoi culture brought Bronze artefacts with Chinese-inspired motifs to Japan, together with rice agriculture – and, presumably, the Japanese language – pushing the Jomon to the north. Now, the Ainu, descendants of the Jomon, live in Hokkaido and the Sakhalin island, and are genetically quite distinct form the Japanese, although a lot of admixture has been noticed.


There is not much resemblance except maybe for the numerals in Ainu and Korean (these are, like in Japanese, the ‘native’ numerals and not the Chinese loans that were adopted by both languages). Both Korean and Japanese follow the typical Eurasian pattern, making heavy use of suffixes. This is evident in the verbal system, e.g. in the degrees of politeness and honorifics (Japanese tabe-ta / tabe-mashi-ta ‘[I] ate’; Korean meok-da / meok-seumni-da ‘[I] eat’). As can be seen in the Japanese examples above, suffixes are added for a variety of meanings, and the persons are not really marked in the verb. In contrast, Ainu has prefixes both for agents and patients (k- 1st person, echi- 2nd person).

EME-GIR (Sumerian)

A couple of examples of Sumerian, illustrating the verb chain and ergativity. First example is from the story ‘the dream of Dumuzi’.

The final example I want to discuss is Sumerian, which, like Basque, also displays ergativity. The verb morphology is complex. A chain of affixes precedes and follows the verbal root, with conjugation prefixes and cross-referencing of subject and object. See the examples on the right: mu- and ga– are conjugation prefixes of debated meaning. Both agent (-e- 2sg) and patient (-b- 3rd person inanimate) can be marked on the verb. There are even prefixes such as -na- to indicate that some previous word is in the dative case. The same can be said of Ket and Burushaski. I will comment on these interesting parallelisms in the final (?) post about language isolates, after dealing with North America and writing a bit more about the ‘Amerind’ hypothesis. For now, I will conclude with some remarks on the geographical situation of isolates in Eurasia and their cultural and archaeological significance. Before that, just because Sumerian is an extremely interesting language, here is an extended word list. Can you find any similarities with other language families?

Twenty words in Sumerian


One of the peculiarities of Sumerian is that it was largely a monosyllabic language. We don’t know whether a tone system was in place, as in Mandarin or other monosyllabic languages, but homophonous words are now distinguished in the transliteration by numbers subscript to the word. To the list above, we should add that the same sign and word for ‘blood’ 2 also means ‘to die’. The sign for ‘nose’ is the same, though pronounced differently, for ‘mouth’ (ka) and ‘tooth’ (zu2). The cuneiform for ‘tongue’ eme consists in the same sign with a little extra stroke, in the same way as ‘moon’ itud is a modified sign for ‘sun’. I will comment on how these came to be in a future post about writing and its origins around the world.


Language diversity in the cradle of civilisation

I have commented in the past about how South American isolates tend to cluster in areas of high archaeological diversity and very ancient developments. I also compared these areas to ‘mosaic zones’, where the origins of some widespread language families can be found. Interestingly, something similar happens in Eurasia.

First, needless to say, there are a number of historical isolates in the fertile crescent and its neighbourhood. Minoan, Hattic, Sumerian and Elamite were all spoken in relative proximity, and are all unrelated to each other and to any other family (tentative classifications notwithstanding). There is no doubt that this is one of the oldest centres of origin of farming in the world, as well as having been home to the earliest urbanism and writing in Eurasia, both with the Sumerians around 5,000 years ago.

Everything in Çatal Höyük is fascinating, a unique window into our deep past when sedentary village life had just begun. This mural depicts the world’s oldest map: a volcano (the double-peaked mountain in the background) overshadows the settlement (squarish compartmented little houses).

Second, long before that, Anatolia (where Hattic, the isolated language that preceded the Indo-European Hittite, was spoken) witnessed the emergence of some of the largest Neolithic settlements in prehistory, such as the famous Çatal Höyük, around 9,000 years before present. Third, it is worthy of notice that, even before the Neolithic, this region saw the construction of what is possibly the world’s oldest temple – Göbekli Tepe, also in Turkey – complete with a circle of stones engraved with various animals.

Finally, the nature of this mosaic zone is confirmed by linguistic evidence alone: the origins of many language families can be postulated to lie somewhere in the fertile crescent and its surroundings. This is the case of Indo-European, if the Anatolian hypothesis is correct (by the way, I have not written about the Indo-European problem here, as I am planning a future series of posts on mosaic zones, spread zones, and language expansion), as well as Afro-Asiatic and possibly Dravidian and Altaic. This, at least, is the situation envisioned by Colin Renfrew in his introduction to Dolgopolsky, and fits particularly well with the Nostratic proposal that implies that all those families were in geographical proximity in the past.