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The position of Chinese, in particular, is in dispute.
A first group of proposals recognizes a two-branch structure: One branch leads to Chinese, and the other leads to a node labeled “Tibeto-Karen” or “Tibeto-Burman,” out of which all other languages proceed (13, 14).
Apart from the second group, which relies on lexicostatistic methodology, the tree topologies in these proposals are based on an investigator’s perception of relative proximities between branches, with no quantification of uncertainty.
A search for linguistic innovations uniting several branches of the family is ongoing; the limited results so far are consistent with the first group of hypotheses (9, 17). Here we combine classical historical linguistics with cutting-edge computational methods and domestication studies.
The more recent part of the tree is thus well resolved.
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. and suggest a link to the late Cishan and the early Yangshao cultures.
The Sino-Tibetan family comprises about 500 languages (1) spoken across a wide geographic range, from the west coast of the Pacific Ocean, across China, and extending to countries beyond the Himalayas, such as Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan (map, , section 2).
Speakers of these languages have played a major role in human prehistory, giving rise to several of the world’s great cultures in China, Tibet, Burma, and Nepal.