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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.
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.
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.
"There's just no correlation," said Duke's Wray, calling education and other environmental factors more important for intelligence than DNA anyway. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.
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.
Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'.
Those criticisms are particularly important, Collins said, because Lahn's testing did find geographic differences in populations harboring the gene variants today.
They were less common in sub-Saharan African populations, for example.
Around this time, farming techniques began to spread out of Anatolia - now Turkey - across Europe and Asia, archaeological evidence shows.
The farmers themselves may have moved, or natives may have adopted words along with agricultural technology.
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Words are better understood than grammar as a guide to language history; the same sentence structure can arise independently in different tongues.