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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.

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.

"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.

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.

Last modified 12-Jun-2017 04:10