There are two conflicting theories about the dispersion of the people speaking proto-Indo-European (by which I mean the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages, excluding Hittite and other related Anatolian languages), one seeing it around 5000-6000 Before Present (BP), the other one much earlier, between 7500 and 10000 BP. I know that the first one (5000-6000) had the support of most historical linguists, and I know many of the arguments supporting it (like the fact that there is a reconstructed word in proto-IE for the wheel, and archeology tells us the wheel was not invented much earlier than 5500 BP). The second hypothesis, often linked with the hypothesis of an Anatolian homeland for proto-IE, was revivified in 2003 when Gray and Atkinson published in Nature a paper using computational methods inspired from biology to reconstruct the tree of Indo-European languages, and the date of the dispersion of proto-IE around 7900 BP (and the separation of the pre-proto-IE ancestor of proto-IE and Hittite around 8700 BP).

Now I know that Gray and Atkinson's findings, especially the dating, were not accepted at that time by the majority of linguists. But it was 11 years ago, and I'd like to know:

Have the positions of the community on the date of proto-IE changed since then? Is there a consensus or a quasi-consensus on the question? What is it?

I would also be interested by any pointer to a recent (say from the last five years) article or survey on it. I have found none addressing this question of dating.

I wonder in particular if other people working like Gray and Atkinson with computational methods, but with a different dataset or methodology, have found a date more in line with the traditional view of 5000-6000 BP. Or if, on the contrary, traditional linguists have changed their mind and began to accept a much earlier date (but I would be surprised if this was the case).

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    Great summary. Hoping someone will come up with an answer. – Dominik Lukes May 27 '14 at 11:26

You might be interested in a rather recent criticism on Gray & Atkinsons model by Martin W. Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jHsy4xeuoQ

I agree with Anixx's answer, that (Pre)-Proto-Greek and other late PIE dialects give us a quite safe time depth.

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  • Dear Midas, I myself agree that the dates of 5000-6000 BC is the only one reasonable. As a mathematician, I am extremely wary of mathematical arguments that I don't understand fully, such as Gray-Atkinson, especially when their conclusions are so bizarre. Your you tube video seems interesting, thanks. I am going to watch it. But back to the arguments of proto-Greek and other PIE dialects, I don't find them very convincing by themselves: see my comments to Annix. – Joël May 27 '14 at 13:11
  • @Joël: Thank you! I hope you enjoy it. I can agree on 5000 BC as it can take into considerations other factors that might have slowed down the language change process. However,anything proposed by the Anatolian hypothesis and Gray & Atkinson, needs to provide an explanation for a FREEZE of PIE in terms of language change. We should have more IE languages today, if the timespan went that far back (> 7000 years).As for Proto-Greek, it is a stage after what Annixx meant I believe. There should be one or two previous stages from PIE to Proto-Greek. Please see my answer to Annixx below for details. – Midas May 27 '14 at 13:23
  • I have watched this 2012 video, and it is really great! Thanks, and I advise anyone interested to watch it. So the conclusions regarding my questions are : the controversy is not dead, and on the contrary is still very much heated. Gray and Atkinson at least have not backed down and still maintain that they have essentially proved the anatolian hypothesis and the earlier date for proto-IE. Historical linguists (at least some of them) consider their work as worthless and refute point by point (conclusively IMHO) many of the assumptions and conclusions of Gray and Atkinson. – Joël May 27 '14 at 15:05
  • @Joël: You are welcome! I am grad you liked it. I have to second what you said that historical linguists do not agree with the theory. First of all we do know that Anatolia was a home to other extinct language groups that included Hurrian and Hattic. This language group seems to have left imprints on the Anatolian languages and the Aegean, but they are completely absent further than that. Hence, we cannot assume they had been neighbouring PIE for a longer time. On the contrary PIE had long contacts with other language groups of the steppes. – Midas May 27 '14 at 17:37
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    Another problem with the Anatolian origin hypothesis is that the Anatolian languages all form a distinct branch of IE and are similar enough to each other that this branch is unlikely to be very old. If IE languages had been in Anatolia since 7000 BC you'd expect greater diversification. – TKR May 27 '14 at 19:20

There is a consensus that all stages of PIE from oldest (Indo-Hittite) to the latest fit into the interval from 4000 BC to 3000 BC. There is no room to stretch this interval in any way.

We know that, say, Proto-Greek was so much similar to late PIE that there is no doubt that there was no more than a few centuries separating the both.

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  • Dear Annix, thank you for your answer. But I don't think it is true that Proto-Greek is considered very similar to late PIE. The Proto-Greek vocabulary is known for example to be very different from IE, with many more innovations that most other IE languages, probably borrowings for the language(s) spoken in Greece before the arrival of the Greeks. Anyway, how do you date proto-Greek? Because the oldest texts in Greek we have are Linear B tablets from around 1300 BC (3300 BP) and even if you place proto-greek around 2000BC, it is more than a "few centuries away" from late PIE in 3000BC latest – Joël May 27 '14 at 13:03
  • @Joël Proto-Greek is a reconstructed language, which was never spoken in Greece. It was speken before the Hellenes entered Greek paninsula, mostly in the Balkans. – Anixx May 27 '14 at 13:05
  • @Anixx: that is pre-Proto-Greek if we want to be accurate. Proto-Greek should be the language that formed within Greece, by the fusion with pre-Greek and after its separation from the parent group (Graeco-Phrygian-Armenian???). It is a matter of definition, but I generally agree with your points on dating. – Midas May 27 '14 at 13:11
  • Dear Anixx, as I said in a comment to Midas' answer, I myself agree with the dates 6000-5000 BP (but being myself not a linguist, that's just my personal opinion). But I am not sure hot the argument with Proto-Greek goes. This simply cuts the necessary estimate of the time distance of proto-IE to us in two parts: (1) distance of proto-Greek to known Greek dialects (e.g. linear B) and (2) distance of proto-Greek to proto-IE. How do you estimate (1) and (2)? – Joël May 27 '14 at 13:15
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    I think this answer and the ensuing debate would benefit, if you would refer to sources. – robert May 27 '14 at 13:24

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