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If those genes don't work, babies are born with severely small brains, called microcephaly.
Scientists attempt to date genetic changes by tracing back to such spread, using a statistical model that assumes genes have a certain mutation rate over time.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."No matter how we [changed] the analysis or assumptions, we couldn't get a date of around 6,000 years," says Gray."This kind of study is exactly what linguistics needs," says April Mc Mahon, who studies the history of languages at the University of Sheffield, UK. So suggests new research that tracked changes in two genes thought to help regulate brain growth, changes that appeared well after the rise of modern humans 200,000 years ago.
That the defining feature of humans — our large brains — continued to evolve as recently as 5,800 years ago, and may be doing so today, promises to surprise the average person, if not biologists.
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.
Gray and Atkinson analysed 87 languages from Irish to Afghan.
Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'.
Aside from not knowing what the gene variants actually do, no one knows how precise the model Lahn used to date them is, Collins added.