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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.

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.

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.

That the defining feature of humans — our large brains — continued to evolve as recently as 5,800 years ago, and may be doing so today, promises to surprise the average person, if not biologists.

"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.

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.

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.

For ASPM, the variation arose about 5,800 years ago, roughly correlating with the development of written language, spread of agriculture and development of cities, he said.

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.