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Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand use the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations.

The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related.

So suggests new research that tracked changes in two genes thought to help regulate brain growth, changes that appeared well after the rise of modern humans 200,000 years ago.

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The work was funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A family tree of Indo-European languages suggests they began to spread and split about 9,000 years ago.

The finding hints that farmers in what is now Turkey drove the language boom - and not later Siberian horsemen, as some linguists reckon.

Aside from not knowing what the gene variants actually do, no one knows how precise the model Lahn used to date them is, Collins added.

Lahn's own calculations acknowledge that the microcephalin variant could have arisen anywhere from 14,000 to 60,000 years ago, and that the uncertainty about the ASPM variant ranged from 500 to 14,000 years ago.

"We, including scientists, have considered ourselves as sort of the pinnacle of evolution," noted lead researcher Bruce Lahn, a University of Chicago geneticist whose studies appear in Friday's edition of the journal Science.

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