Language and genes of the Greater Himalayan region

This project ended in March 2007. Results are currently being written up for publication.

In terms of its diversity of peoples and languages, the greater Himalayan region is the most complex area of Eurasia. This remarkable landscape includes the highest land barrier on the face of the planet, and linguistic evidence shows that this has shaped and channelled population movements in the past.

There are hundreds of different languages spoken along the length of the Himalayas. Most people speak languages belonging either to the Tibeto-Burman or Indo-European families, but there are also Austroasiatic, Dravidian, Daic and Altaic language communities settled in the mountain tracts, foothills and periphery of the Himalayas, and two language isolates, Burushaski and Kusunda.

By studying the molecular population genetics of modern Himalayan populations an insight into the prehistory of this region can be gained, independent of linguistics or archaeology. DNA samples from over 2000 individuals were collected from target populations in Nepal and Bhutan. These DNAs were studied at three institutes: Leiden University (Netherlands), University of Leicester (UK) and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute (UK). In Leicester, we focused on the Y chromosome, analysing multiple rapidly-evolving microsatellites, and also some slowly-evolving binary markers. Mitochondrial diversity and further Y binary markers were typed at the Sanger, and in Leiden autosomal markers (microsatellites and SNPs) were analysed. As well as the Himalayan samples, we analysed comparative samples from India and China, and compiled other data from the literature.

So far, our studies show that the Indo-European-speaking Himalayans are more closely related to I-E speakers in other regions of the world, while the Tibeto-Burman speakers in Nepal and Bhutan are closer to T-B speakers in China. These results point to a movement of genes along with the T-B and I-E speakers to the Himalayas, creating a genetic boundary that almost perfectly corresponds with the linguistic boundary. Surprisingly, Nepal and Bhutan contain much greater genetic diversity than their larger neighbouring countries, probably reflecting more subdivision and genetic drift in smaller populations. A detailed analysis of Bhutan shows that the extreme geography of the region patterns genetic diversity, with the number of walking days between populations explaining a greater proportion of diversity than map distances.

Links to collaborators:

  • Dr Peter de Knijff, University of Leiden
  • Prof George van Driem, University of Leiden
  • Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
  • Prof Guido Barbujani, University of Ferrara


  • Parkin, E.J. et al. (2006) Forensic Sci. Int., 161, 1-7. 26-locus Y-STR typing in a Bhutanese population sample.
  • Parkin, E.J. et al. (2006) Forensic Sci. Int., 166, 176181. Diversity of 26-locus Y-STR haplotypes in a Nepalese population sample: isolation and drift in the Himalayas.
  • Kraayenbrink et al.(2006) OMLL Volume, in press. Language and Genes of the Greater Himalayan Region. You can download this paper, containing general information about our study and samples, here.


    This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the European Science Foundation EUROCORES programme: 'The Origin of Man, Language and Languages'.

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    Last updated: 16th November, 2007
    Mark Jobling
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