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"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.

"A different way to look at is it's almost impossible for evolution not to happen." Still, the findings also are controversial, because it's far from clear what effect the genetic changes had or if they arose when Lahn's "molecular clock" suggests — at roughly the same time period as some cultural achievements, including written language and the development of cities.

Lahn and colleagues examined two genes, named microcephalin and ASPM, that are connected to brain size.

For the microcephalin gene, the variation arose about 37,000 years ago, about the time period when art, music and tool-making were emerging, Lahn said.

For ASPM, the variation arose about 5,800 years ago, roughly correlating with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities, he said.

If those genes don't work, babies are born with severely small brains, called microcephaly.

Using DNA samples from ethnically diverse populations, they identified a collection of variations in each gene that occurred with unusually high frequency.

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'.

Spanish and Portuguese come out as sisters, for example - both are cousins to German, and Hindi is a more distant relation to all three.

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