New Paper on Sino-Tibetan Phylogenies in PNAS

After four years of hard work, our study on the phylogeny and age of the Sino-Tibetan language family has finally appeared in PNAS. The article, which can be found here. A short video, in which I introduce our major findings can be found here. Our press release presenting some details of the study is available from this link, offered also in different translations.

To summarize our findings, here is what the abstract of the paper says:

The Sino-Tibetan language family is one of the world’s largest and most prominent families, spoken by nearly 1.4 billion people. Despite the importance of the Sino-Tibetan languages, their pre-history remains controversial, with ongoing debate about when and where they originated. To shed light on this debate we develop a database of comparative linguistic data, apply the linguistic comparative method to identify sound correspondences and establish cognates. We then use phylogenetic methods to infer the relationships among these languages and estimate the age of their origin and homeland. Our findings point to Sino-Tibetan originating with north Chinese millet farmers around 7200 B.P. and suggest a link to the late Cishan and the early Yangshao cultures.

The paper was based on a large collaborative effort, involving teams from Paris (Guillaume Jacques and Laurent Sagart from the CRLAO and Robin Ryder and Valentin Thouzeau from the Université Paris-Dauphine) and Jena (Simon J. Greenhill and Yunfan Lai). In addition, many people helped us in collecting the data, which can be freely accessed on Zenodo, or even directly inspected through the EDICTOR software.

Apart from the co-authors, I am also very thankful to the numerous contributors who shared data, and to the reviewing process, which was professional, challenging, and extremely fair.

With this study, we hope to contribute to the ongoing debate regarding the origin and spread of the Sino-Tibetan languages. Given that three teams were working in parallel on this question, with one study being published earlier in Nature two weaks ago, and one in preparation (preliminary results will be presented on a conference this week.