The study of language origin and divergence is important for understanding the history of human populations and their cultures. The Sino-Tibetan language family is the second largest in the world after Indo-European, and there is a long-running debate about its phylogeny and the time depth of its original divergence1. Here we perform a Bayesian phylogenetic analysis to examine two competing hypotheses of the origin of the Sino-Tibetan language family: the ‘northern-origin hypothesis’ and the ‘southwestern-origin hypothesis’. The northern-origin hypothesis states that the initial expansion of Sino-Tibetan languages occurred approximately 4,000–6,000 years before present (bp; taken as ad 1950) in the Yellow River basin of northern China2,3,4, and that this expansion is associated with the development of the Yangshao and/or Majiayao Neolithic cultures. The southwestern-origin hypothesis states that an early expansion of Sino-Tibetan languages occurred before 9,000 years bp from a region in southwest Sichuan province in China5 or in northeast India6, where a high diversity of Tibeto-Burman languages exists today. Consistent with the northern-origin hypothesis, our Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of 109 languages with 949 lexical root-meanings produced an estimated time depth for the divergence of Sino-Tibetan languages of approximately 4,200–7,800 years bp, with an average value of approximately 5,900 years bp. In addition, the phylogeny supported a dichotomy between Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman languages. Our results are compatible with the archaeological records, and with the farming and language dispersal hypothesis7 of agricultural expansion in China. Our findings provide a linguistic foothold for further interdisciplinary studies of prehistoric human activity in East Asia.
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The data supporting the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information. Any other relevant data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.
The codes supporting the findings of this study are available in the Supplementary Information.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
This study is supported by projects at the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31521003, 31501010 and 31401060), the Postdoctoral Science Foundation of China (2015M570316 and 2015T80394), the Special Program for Key Basic Research of the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China (2015FY111700), the Science and Technology Commission of Shanghai Municipality (16JC1400500 and 2017SHZDZX01) and the National Social Science Fund of China (13&ZD132 and 18ZDA296).
Nature thanks Joshua B. Plotkin and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.