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About the Indo-European family of languages, a common hypothesis is that it originated in central Asia, somewhere north of the Caspian and/or Black Seas.

Do we have any idea where the Sino-Tibetan family of languages originated, or at least of the Chinese branch of this family?

I believe most of the oldest Chinese prehistoric remains are scattered along or around the valley of the Yellow River. Is that also where it is hypothesised that the oldest forms of the language originated, and/or the oldest place where its Sino-Tibetan ancestral speakers dwelled?

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  • No, the definition of Sino-Tibetan is controversial even.
    – sfy
    May 18, 2018 at 8:44
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    The entire family is from the Tibetan plateau, where groups either stayed in Tibet (Tibetan/Bhutanese), migrated slightly north-east (Qiangic languages, e.g. Tangut), migrated south (Burmese), or took a longish journey east (Chinese). Some migrated southwest, and as a result there are still some scattered varieties of Sino-Tibetan in India. You'll probably get a better answer at Linguistics StackExchange.
    – dROOOze
    May 18, 2018 at 20:41
  • @droooze: Thanks, this could be an interesting answer!
    – Cerberus
    May 22, 2018 at 2:56

2 Answers 2

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A hypothesis is that:

  1. The common ancestor of all Sino-Tibetan languages is associated with the Cishan Culture 磁山文化 (c. 6500 – c. 5000 BC) on the eastern foothills of the Taihang Mountains (Sagart et al., 2019).

  2. The proto-Sino-Tibetan language began to diverge due to the expansion of the Early and Middle Yangshao Culture 仰韶文化 (c. 5000 – c. 3000 BC) along the middle reaches of the Yellow River, and eventually split into at least two branches around 6,000 (Zhang et al., 2019) or 8,000 (Sagart et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2020) years ago. The Yangshao Culture is considered a descendant of the Cishan Culture (and a few other cultures, e.g., Peiligang, Laoguantan).

  3. The Tibeto-Burman branch (including modern-day Tibetan, Qiang, Lolo-Burmese, Karen, etc.) is associated with the Majiayao Culture 马家窑文化 (c. 3300 – c. 2000 BC) in the upper Yellow River region (Sagart et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2019). The Majiayao Culture is considered as the result of a westward migration of the Yangshao Culture population.

  4. The Sinitic branch (including modern-day Chinese, Bai, Caijia, etc.) is disputably associated with the post-Yangshao culture(s) in the middle Yellow River valley areas, sometimes lumped under the umbrella term "Longshan Culture 龙山文化" (the term in a narrow sense refers exclusively to the Shandong Longshan Culture). Archaeological sites involved are Miaodigou II 庙底沟二期 (c. 3000 – c. 2600 BC), Wangwan III 王湾三期 (c. 2400 – c. 1900 BC), Keshengzhuang 客省庄 (c. 2600 – c. 2000 BC), Taosi 陶寺(c. 2300 BC – c. 1900 BC), Xinzhai 新砦期 (c. 1900 – c. 1700 BC), Xiaqiyuan 下七垣 (c. 1800 – c. 1600 BC), and so on. These cultures as well as the Sinitic languages their people spoke embody distinctive non-Sino-Tibetan features from the proto-Austro-Tai (?) speaking (Sagart, 2008) Dawenkou Culture 大汶口文化 (Wen et al., 2016). The Shang Dynasty (c. 1600 – c. 1045 BC) would then assimilate different Sinitic dialects into the highly homogenous Old Chinese (in its earliest form).

To sum up, the pre-Shang Sino-Tibetan languages went through the following paths of evolution:

Cishan 磁山 (proto-ST) --> Yangshao 仰韶 (proto-S+proto-TB) --> Majiayao 马家窑 (proto-TB)

Cishan 磁山 (proto-ST) --> Yangshao 仰韶 (proto-S+proto-TB) --> "Longshan 龙山" (proto-S)

Beixin 北辛 (proto-AT?) --> Dawenkou 大汶口 (proto-AT?) --> "Longshan 龙山" (proto-S)

Note that Austro-Tai as a language family is still under debate.

Here is a map (Sagart et al., 2019) depicting the hypothesized homeland and dispersal of the Sino-Tibetan languages.

enter image description here

References

Sagart, L., Jacques, G., Lai, Y., Ryder, R. J., Thouzeau, V., Greenhill, S. J., & List, J. M. (2019). Dated language phylogenies shed light on the ancestry of Sino-Tibetan. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(21), 10317-10322.

Sagart, L. (2008). The expansion of Setaria farmers in East Asia: a linguistic and archaeological model. In Past human migrations in East Asia (pp. 165-190). Routledge.

Wen, S. Q., Tong, X. Z., & Li, H. (2016). Y-chromosome-based genetic pattern in East Asia affected by Neolithic transition. Quaternary International, 426, 50-55.

Zhang, M., Yan, S., Pan, W., & Jin, L. (2019). Phylogenetic evidence for Sino-Tibetan origin in northern China in the Late Neolithic. nature, 569(7754), 112-115.

Zhang, H., Ji, T., Pagel, M., & Mace, R. (2020). Dated phylogeny suggests early Neolithic origin of Sino-Tibetan languages. Scientific reports, 10(1), 1-8.


EDIT:

According to Sagart et al. (2019), Matisoff's Tibetan origin hypothesis mentioned by @drOOOze in the comments section is untenable because it "lack an archaeologically and demographically supported account of the family’s expansion".

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    Perfect, thank you. So the supposed origin is in the north-east, not too far from Peking. Interesting.
    – Cerberus
    Nov 20 at 19:16
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    I think it would be better to associate the origins more with the earlier capitals, Xi'an and Luoyang, rather than Peking. Peking is about where the pink dot of the number 5 is, while Xi'an is about where the dot of number 33 is (i.e. in the yellow region). Luoyang is east of Xi'an and likely also in the yellow region. Peking was a rather late capital that was historically chosen primarily by invading north and north-eastern people groups (Mongols, Manchus, Jin, etc.). Look also into Anyang, a captial of the Shang (1600 BC – 1046 BC) that may be in or close to the blue region. Nov 21 at 15:22
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    @2ndQuantized: Yes, I did not expect there to be anything all at Peking around that time: I mentioned the name purely for modern orientation. I think the capital was at Nanking also, for some time, between Xi'an etc. and Peking? Besides, it seems the civilisation spread westwards towards Xi'an and then southwards, nowhere near Nanking yet, let alone Peking.
    – Cerberus
    Nov 21 at 19:12
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    There were many capitals, I recommend looking at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_capitals_of_China Nov 21 at 23:32
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This wiki page, History of China, provides some "basic" knowledge:

The "earliest written record of Chinese" (aka oracle script) was found in bones (of ox, cow) and shells (of tortoise) in 安陽. It's about 商 dynasty (1600–1046 b.c.).

About the preceding one, 夏 dynasty (bc 2070 - 1600), there was one newest discovery, related to the myth "great flood", and 鯀 & 禹.

This megaflood occurred in 1922 ±28 b.c., in the place of 喇家, in today Qinghai.

A relevant article: Rocks tell story of China's great flood.

have fun :)

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  • Thanks for answering, some interesting information! But how about the hypothesised area of origin where the earliest Chinese was spoken? This was presumably a long time before writing was invented.
    – Cerberus
    May 18, 2018 at 16:35
  • well, the chinese page of the first link had more info: zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hk/中国历史 there's a proposal "from egypt" zh.wikipedia.org/zh-hk/中国历史#出埃及説 . my guess (without proves, evidences) would be qinghai (amdo in tibetan's view), or central asia. May 18, 2018 at 17:21
  • OK interesting!
    – Cerberus
    May 22, 2018 at 2:56

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