Linguistics, genetic links, and a long-lost ‘emperor’

The language of half the world

The native languages of half the world’s people are derived from Indo-European. The figure is even higher if you count English, second language of most bilingual people and the world’s common tongue – confusingly, known as a ‘lingua franca’, which is Italian for ‘the language of the Franks’, who were themselves Germanic. But then all of these languages evolved from Indo-European.

Unravelling the different relationships in order to devise a family tree of older and newer languages, and the many different branches, has been the goal of linguists for nearly two centuries, but the study of migration through ancient genes (aDNA) has added a new dimension, and the spotlight in the most recent research falls once again on Asia Minor, part of the Fertile Crescent where agriculture first emerged.

The migration of people from the Caucasus across Anatolia and western Asia played an integral role in the development of many of the languages we speak today. IMAGE: Boris Kuznetsov

In August 2022, a series of papers was published in the journal Science with no fewer than 201 co-authors, led by the major geneticists Ron Pinhasi, of the University of Vienna; Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich, of Harvard University; and Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg, of both. One of these linked papers (https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abm4247) reported on the results from sequencing the genetic profiles of 727 ancient individuals from the Southern Arc, the area bridging southern Europe and western Asia through Anatolia.

The resulting genetic data was used to investigate whether the movement of people, as reflected in aDNA, corresponded to the structure inferred by linguists for the origins and spread of the languages we speak today. The results are as complex as you might expect from a region that was home to diverse populations during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages, from 7,000 to 3,000 years ago, when Indo-European language speakers first appeared.

Meetings and partings

The story begins 7,000 years ago with two streams of migration from the Caucasus westwards into Anatolia and northwards into the highlands of western Asia. The authors suggest that the Proto-Indo-Anatolian language spoken by these Caucasian migrants then split into what the researchers call the linguistic ‘twin daughters’ of Anatolian and Indo-European. The Anatolian languages (for example, Hittite and Luwian) are recorded in cuneiform but extinct as spoken languages, whereas Indo-European became the ancestor of the Slavic, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Celtic, Romance, Germanic, Baltic, and Sanskrit languages.

That is because the Caucasian migrants who went north encountered Yamnaya pastoralists from the Eurasian steppe north of the Black Sea, where they interbred – resulting in what geneticists like to call ‘gene admixture’. The Yamnaya culture dominated, so the researchers continue to refer to the people of this region as Yamnaya, despite their dual Yamnaya-Caucasian ancestry.

From about 5,000 years ago, it was these people who initiated a chain of migrations linking Europe in the west to China and India in the east. They also migrated southwards, back to the Caucasus, marking a return to the place that had contributed half of their genetic ancestry, and where today Armenian people retain some elements of the Yamnaya genome, whereas it is now virtually extinct on the Eurasian steppe.

By contrast, Anatolia was hardly impacted by the Yamnaya migrations: no link to steppe ancestry was found and the Anatolian language family developed along separate lines. Modern Anatolians largely trace their descent from local hunter-gatherers and migrant Caucasians, along with later contributions from Mesopotamia and the Levant.

The Yamnaya expansion led in some instances to further ‘gene admixture’, but also to the near extinction of earlier peoples in northern Europe and their replacement by the new migrant population. Some have accused the Yamnaya of committing genocide; others have said that the Yamnaya caused deadly pandemics among populations who lacked immunity to the diseases that they spread along with their language.

In conclusion, though the Yamnaya did not ‘invent’ Proto-Indo-European – the origin of which might lie in the Caucasus – they were the vector by means of which it became the source of the diverse languages that we speak today. It is astonishing how much cultural change is now attributed to the Yamnaya – a people and a culture that most of us had never heard of a decade ago.

The lost emperor

University College London (UCL) issued a press release in November claiming that its researchers had found a long-lost Roman emperor. Who could resist such a headline? The media lapped it up. But how could anyone lose an emperor in the first place? One would have thought that surely being a Roman emperor would have been a pretty certain guarantee of historical immortality. It turns out that this emperor was self-declared, so he wasn’t really an emperor at all, though coins in imperial style were struck in his name.

To be fair to the authors, led by UCL’s Paul Pearson, the paper that they published in PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0274285) consistently put ‘emperor’ in inverted commas to make clear that they are using this title only because emperors alone had the power to issue coins. The coins in question formed part of a hoard that was allegedly found in Transylvania (now in Romania) in 1713. Four of the gold coins and one (now lost) silver coin bear the name and portrait of somebody called Sponsian.

This gold coin – currently in the Hunterian, Glasgow (catalogue number GLAHM:29596) – is one of five known examples bearing the name and portrait of an individual called Sponsian. They were originally thought to be forgeries, but new research suggests they may be authentic Roman artefacts. IMAGE: © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Certain oddities led to the Sponsian coins being dismissed by numismatists as poorly made 18th-century forgeries. The head on the coins shows an emperor wearing a spiky crown in the mid-3rd-century style known as ‘radiate’, but with a non-standard legend. The reverse design is copied from a Republican coin issue that would have been over 370 years old by the mid-3rd century.

One of the Sponsian coins ended up in the Hunterian, in Glasgow, and when Professor Pearson and his team examined the surface of the coin using spectroscopy, they found soil and oxidation products that indicated a history of prolonged burial, and that could not have been faked in the 18th century. In addition, the wear marks on the surface were just like the abrasions found on some of the other coins from the same hoard and from genuine coins of the period. It looked as if the Sponsian coin had been in general circulation and accepted as genuine at the time.

The coins could have been ancient forgeries, of course, but forged Roman coins imitate legitimate ones with real imperial portraits and legends. Inventing an emperor would have appealed to the curiosity of potential collectors and attracted a rarity premium in the 18th century, but it would simply have served to draw attention to the forgery in the Roman era.

The name ‘Sponsian’ is peculiar, and the coins are the only evidence of his existence. Only one other occurrence is known, from a 1st-century funerary inscription in Rome, which names an individual called Nicodemus Sponsian. That inscription was excavated in the 1720s, so could not have been known to a hypothetical forger.

The authors of the paper offer a hypothetical army commander in the Roman province of Dacia (modern Romania) as the mysterious Sponsian. Dacia was conquered by the Emperor Trajan (r. AD 98-117) for its gold mines and was the only substantial part of the empire beyond the Danube, where it was surrounded by hostile Sarmatians, Goths, and Carpi who waged near-constant warfare on the heavily militarised Roman presence in the mid-3rd century. ‘We suggest’, say the authors, ‘that Dacia became cut off from the imperial centre around AD 260 and effectively seceded under its own military regime’, issuing coinage under the name of a local commander-in-chief to pay the wages of the military and officials.

This hypothesis is perfectly plausible, and the only doubt is why just five Sponsian coins have been found – paying the 40,000 or so troops based in Dacia at the time would have required a substantial quantity of coin. Perhaps more will turn up in time. Meanwhile, maybe Sponsian should be welcomed into the very small pantheon of ‘good emperors’, in that he was not a usurper, but rather an upholder of imperial authority, acting to sustain the Roman garrison at a time of urgent necessity.