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The Genetics and Birth of Homer’s Iliad

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Researchers managed to estimate the date on which Homer’s Iliad was produced.

iliad, homer, greece, date, linguisticsThe Iliad, Homer’s epic poem telling the tale of Achilles and the war of Troy, is widely considered to be one of the greatest and well-known pieces of ancient literature. Despite its status, however, the date of its production is still uncertain.

A new study, published in the journal BioEssays, used phylogenetic methods to derive an estimate of said date.

Languages, after all, evolve. Words change and get replaced, or in other words (no pun intended), mutations arise. So study methods used in evolutionary biology might prove useful in the investigation of linguistic queries.

When looking at language through evolutionary glasses, the basic units of investigation are known as ‘cognates’. These are words that share a common ancestor, like homologous genes in biology. For example night (English), nuit (French), Nacht (German), nacht (Dutch), natt (Swedish and Norwegian), and similar words in several other languages, all mean ‘night’ and are derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *nóktwts.

But, words can also be replaced by other, non-cognate words, a process known as lexical replacement. An example is the (partial) replacement of the English word ‘hound’ by the newer ‘dog’. Of course, ‘hound’ is still used, but no more in the general sense, a task which ‘dog’ has taken over. The analogy with mutation is obvious.

With the help of a statistical model, estimates of the rate of lexical replacement for a list of common vocabulary items, known as the Swadesh list, could be derived for Indo-European languages. These estimates led to the finding that most words on the list have a half-life of 2 000 – 3 000 years (meaning that they have a 50% chance of being replaced at this moment). The rate of replacement, however, differs noticeably among all words in the list, half-lives ranging from 500 to over 10 000 years. The variation in replacement rate for the items on the Swadesh list makes them very suitable for estimating divergence times (the moment when two languages ‘split’). Words that evolve rapidly will differ even between closely related languages, while words that evolve slowly will be shared
even between distantly related ones.

Next, the researchers used the Hittite, Homeric Greek and modern Greek words on the Swadesh list. Based on the replacement rates, they were able to construct a phylogenetic tree. This tree, and the Swadesh list words used in Homer’s Iliad, allowed them to estimate the date on which the masterpiece was produced. Date of birth of the Iliad? 707 BCE. After including some additional information from historical accounts in the model: 762 BCE. Both of these agree well with the commonly accepted origin in the 8th century BCE.

Want to date an ancient text? Might as well look at evolutionary methods…


Altschuler, E., Calude, A., Meade, A., & Pagel, M. (2013). Linguistic evidence supports date for Homeric epics BioEssays DOI: 10.1002/bies.201200165

Image: Wikimedia Commons

iliad date, homers iliad, history about greece

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