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Dating proto-languages is obviously something we can't do precisely, but we can offer reasonable ranges. For example, Proto-Indo-European can't really be much younger than 5 millennia, and let's say that 9 is an upper bound that would satisfy even the Indo-Anatolian and Anatolian Urhemeit proponents.

For Proto-Afrasian, Wikipedia gives an incredibly wide range of 7500 BC - 16000 BC, with dates before 10000 BC seemingly contested by lexical evidence. In any case, this is certainly older than PIE. Among generally accepted and proven language families (eg. not anything strictly containing Indo-European) what are the others with a remarkable time depth? Are there any which are possibly as deep or even deeper than Afrasian?

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    The Trans New Guinea 'phylum' has been hypothesised to have begun spreading around 10,000 BP, in association with the first development of agriculture on the island of New Guinea. Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 11:33
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    I find this exercise a bit odd. Any proto-language we can name had ancestors we cannot name, and none of those we can name is dated to anywhere near the theorised time of origin of human language. Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 16:48
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    @A.M.Bittlingmayer: It wasn't an excercise in naming proto-languages though, but rather a question about the greatest depth currently achieved by the comparative method. This is why I specifically asked about well-established language families and not about their named or unnamed ancestors.
    – user54748
    Commented Feb 13, 2018 at 21:58
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    @user54748 Makes more sense. In that case then it is largely a function of how many divergent branches of the primary language family happened to survive or at least leave a record. Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 10:25

2 Answers 2

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For the true believers there is proto-world (known under different terms, too) dated somewhere between 100.000 and 200.000 BC. Greenberg and Ruhlen even dare reconstruct some proto-world words like *dik "finger".

If you buy Greenberg's idea of Amerind, it must be around 15.000 BC.

Proto-Niger-Kongo (not yet constructed, but assumed to be feasible to reconstruct) is ca. 10.000 BC.

On more secure grounds, there are:

Proto-Sino-Tibetan: 6.000 BC
Proto-Austronesian: >4.000 BC

I could not find dates for proto-Tai-Kadai or proto-Pama-Nyunga. Proto-Dravidian is estimated at ca. 3.000 BC.

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    Various authors have suggested dates for proto-Pama-Nyungan ranging from 4,000–6,000 years BP, so a long way short of the time depths the OP is interested in. Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 10:40
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    If it existed, Proto-World is oldest by definition, and in the same manner is any hypothesized proto-language older then it's descendants :) Thank you for the data on Proto-Niger-Kongo and the rest though, and @Gaston for the Pama-Nyungan. I thought it would be older than that too.
    – user54748
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 16:32
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    Who estimated Proto-Dravidian at 500BC? We have Dravidian loans into Vedic Sanskrit that are older than that (Krishnamurti, "The Dravidian Languages", 2003:6). Almost every glottochronological estimate for Proto-Dravidian I've seen places it in the third millennium BC (Krishnamurti 2003:15, 27 for example)
    – abhishek
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 14:54
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    and Old Tamil is attested as far back as maybe the 3rd century BC. By 500BC, Tamil and Telugu were almost definitely already different (Korada Mahadeva Śāstri, in "Early Inscriptional Telugu", dates Prehistoric Telugu to 600-200BC)
    – abhishek
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 14:59
  • 梁敏 and 张均如 (1996) estimate Proto-Tai-Kadai at before 3000 BCE (i.e. 5000 YBP). I can't read Chinese, so I haven't bothered to track it down to check their reasoning.
    – cmw
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 17:02
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Groups that could possibly contest such dates could be: a) "Old European" (call it whatever you like) in the sense of a group of languages being spoken in central and west Europe before the spread of Celtic and Germanic. b) The group that included the languages (eastern mediterranean substratum?) that were spoken by the first farmers of Anatolia who also crossed into Europe (esp. Crete and the Greek mainland). However, let me raise a caution as we have not enough material to reconstruct those yet, at least not in the same level as we have for Proto-Afrasian. All you got is the pre-Celtic substratum (100 words?) on one end and pre-Greek / Linear A / Eteo-Cypriot on the other end (good luck understanding those). Any dating would be hypothetical. Also, I would be very careful with whatever theories include Basque and Etruscan, their grouping and dating.

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