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That the genetic changes have anything to do with brain size or intelligence "is totally unproven and potentially dangerous territory to get into with such sketchy data," stressed Dr.

Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

That does not mean one population is smarter than another, Lahn and other scientists stressed, noting that numerous other genes are key to brain development.

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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.

Years later, a ruler declares one of those copies the definitive manuscript, and a rush is on to make many copies of that version — so whatever changes from the original are in this presumed important copy become widely disseminated.

Scientists attempt to date genetic changes by tracing back to such spread, using a statistical model that assumes genes have a certain mutation rate over time.

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.

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.

Words are better understood than grammar as a guide to language history; the same sentence structure can arise independently in different tongues.

The resulting tree matches many existing ideas about language development.

"The genetic evolution of humans in the very recent past might in some ways be linked to the cultural evolution," he said.

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