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In fact, the variations were so common they couldn't be accidental mutations but instead were probably due to natural selection, where genetic changes that are favorable to a species quickly gain a foothold and begin to spread, the researchers report.
Lahn offers an analogy: Medieval monks would copy manuscripts and each copy would inevitably contain errors — accidental mutations.
Those criticisms are particularly important, Collins said, because Lahn's testing did find geographic differences in populations harboring the gene variants today.
They were less common in sub-Saharan African populations, for example.
The work was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A family tree of Indo-European languages suggests they began to spread and split about 9,000 years ago.
The finding hints that farmers in what is now Turkey drove the language boom - and not later Siberian horsemen, as some linguists reckon.
The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related.Spanish and Portuguese come out as sisters, for example - both are cousins to German, and Hindi is a more distant relation to all three.All other Indo-European languages split off from Hittite, the oldest recorded member of the group, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the pair calculates."The genetic evolution of humans in the very recent past might in some ways be linked to the cultural evolution," he said.Other scientists urge great caution in interpreting the research.